Welcome to part 2 of my weekly series examining different methods of storytelling in video games. Last week I talked about one of the more prominent styles of storytelling, the silent protagonist. I determined that if used correctly, the silent protagonist method can work, but for the most part it is becoming outdated. This week, I’m going to take a look at something I mentioned briefly last week, and that is the idea of player choice. This applies to games that allow the player to select every line of the main character’s dialogue, or to games that put a large emphasis morality based decision making. Like last week, I’m going to look at some games that use these methods effectively, and some that do not, and then discuss the overall merit of player choice.
When looking at games that use the idea of player choice in one form or another, a pattern becomes clear; most of them are western role playing games. That isn’t to say that all of them are, but a large majority fall into that category. This is because western role playing games have their roots in pen and paper role playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons, and player choice is an essential element of that type of experience. Player choice is one of the core elements of playing a role, and is something that many so-called RPGs seem to be lacking. When it comes to dialogue choices and moral decision making, Bioware is the first developer that comes to mind. Since Baldur’s Gate came out back in 1998, Bioware has been known for fantastic writing and clever implementation of player choice. However, because this series is more about the current state of storytelling in games, I’m going to focus on their modern games; meaning Dragon Age: Origins and the Mass Effect series.
The Mass Effect games are the prime example of how to utilize choice in an interesting way, and they avoid many of the pitfalls present in most games that put an emphasis on moral choice. The main problem most games have when dealing with moral choice, is that they are very black and white. This usually amounts to things like, “You can either donate all your money to this orphanage, or burn it to the ground.” Now, that may be an exaggeration, but only slightly. What makes the choices in Mass Effect so great is that none of them are simple good or bad. Some examples of the choices in the Mass Effects games are, “Risk human lives to save the political leaders of other species, or let them die and focus the human forces on the enemy” or “Let a terrorist walk free to save the hostages, or apprehend him and risk the hostages’ lives.” These and many other decisions throughout both Mass Effect games really make you think, and there is no clear cut good or bad choice. What makes these choices even better is that there are pros and cons to making each choice, as opposed to some games where there aren’t really any good reasons why anyone would choose some of the evil options other than for the sake of being evil. Another outstanding feature that really sets Mass Effect apart is the ability to transfer your save files from the first game to second and from the second into the upcoming third game. This gives your game a sense of personalization when you know that when the next game comes out, you will be starting off with your own custom character and the world will reflect all your past choices.
The normal conversation options all use this same morally gray style. There are basically three types of dialogue choices; neutral, paragon, or renegade. Paragon choices favor the idea of putting innocent lives ahead of all else, and Renegade choices favor the idea of putting the mission objectives as top priority, with collateral damage being an acceptable price to pay. Though dialogue and choice in the Mass Effect games are mostly outstanding, they do suffer from one of the common negatives of morality based games. This issue is the alignment meter, and I’ve yet to see a game where this type of thing worked. Basically, every time you perform a Paragon or Renegade action, you earn points in that alignment. That wouldn’t be a problem, but the game rewards you for choosing one alignment on a consistent basis. This means that if you want to reap all the benefits of this, you must pick an alignment at the beginning of the game and stick to it, resulting in most of the choices becoming irrelevant since you already know which choice you are making. My advice to anyone that plays either of these games, ignore the alignment meter your first time, and make genuine choices.
Dragon Age Origins is an interesting one, because it is simultaneously a great example of dialogue options done right, and a not so great example of moral choice. In every conversation in Dragon Age: Origins, you will have multiple options, and unlike Mass Effect, they cover much more than just the equivalent to Paragon and Renegade. You will have many different means of engaging in conversations, and this makes dialogue quite enjoyable. You can speak to people in many different ways such as being rude, sarcastic, coy, complementary, and many others. When choose these means of interacting, characters will respond according, and you really feel like your actions are driving the conversation forward. The moral choices however, are less well done. These often amount to a simple good or bad choice, with no real gray area. Some examples are, “Preserve this holy artifact and use it’s healing power to help a sick man or simply destroy it” or “Help a group being targeted by demons or just kill them all.” Now, there are some genuinely interesting choices, but the split between black and white choices and interesting ones is not favorable.
Bioware isn’t the only developer that has recently used the notion of choice successfully, Bethesda made great strides in this area with 2008′s Fallout 3. Fallout 3 took it a step further and made choice an integral part of the gameplay. There were many quests in Fallout 3 that had several different methods of completing them. In many instances, you could avoid combat all together by simply selecting certain dialogue options to talk your way out of potentially deadly situations. Another recent game that uses choice very well is The Witcher 2. In this game, some decisions actually affect what path the game takes, meaning that different players will see vastly different things, with several hours of game time being different depending on which choices you make. This is an outstanding feature, and one more games need to implement. It can be quite frustrating when choices you make amount to nothing more than slightly different dialogue, while the core experience remains unchanged.