Nov 272011

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 I determined that if used correctly, the silent protagonist method can work, but for the most part it is becoming outdated.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.

Baldur's Gate

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.

  5 Responses to “Storytelling in Games Part 2: Decisions, Decisions”

  1. Interesting articles, but I really think you need to play through The Witcher 1 & 2, and Alpha Protocol, and see how player choice is really handled.

    Honestly I feel as if the current generation of Bioware games (Mass Effect 1 & forward) have been very linear experiences where player choices don’t matter at all. Sure you can choose mostly good or mostly bad but it doesn’t affect the story at all, you are still along for the same ride with mebby one or two minor differences here and there.

    The 3 games I cited above have the game itself reacting to your choices, without even telling you. Paths become open, others become close, evidence that once meant one thing means another, everything changes, and there’s no ‘oh let me just reload this save and try again’. Some simple choice you make at the beginning come back hours upon hours later, sometimes at the end to to play out, sometimes they play out alongside you, but you see the tangible effect you have on the world, the story, the characters.

    Nothing changes in a Bioware game these days. Nothing of significance.

    • I mentioned the Witcher 2 and talked about the lack of real impact in most games. In the final paragraph, I state that one of my main issues with the current state of decisions in games is the lack of any real change resulting from decisions made. I illustrated things that Bioware games do well, but I didn’t mean to suggest that they are perfect, far from it. As it stands today, games have only achieved a fraction of what real decision making could in the future of gaming.

  2. A solid article about decisions. I’m all for options in dialog, and like you, I want them to mean something. At the very least, it should affect the PC and those traveling with. If done well, it should affect the game world.

    It would have been great in Dragon Age if some paths were closed by taking others, as the previous commenter mentioned. Not just save the elves or the werewolves, but if you travel to Brecillian forest and the mages tower, the Dwarves have destroyed themselves in internal war.

    Also, in ME2, why was there no third option for the Geth? Why only “assimilate” or “destroy”? What sort of implications are there to thousands of gamers who don’t see the third choice, “struggle to coexist and face the challenges.”

    Maybe the choices and decisions will expand in games like ME3 and DA3. We can only hope.

  3. Good article. I agree with you on many accounts. The decisions made in games are just not impactful or meaningful enough. There are many times that i don’t even bother listening to Mass Effect’s dialogue during a second playthrough because nothing really changes enough if I choose something…I just stick to doing Paragon til its maxed, then suddenly switch to be an stinkeye because theres no penalty for going Renegade choices besides opening up more dialogue options. There needs to be consequences!

    I also cannot believe you guys didn’t mention Starcraft 2. Starcraft 2 has one of the WORST stories ever made. Outside of messing up the general story from the first game, the choices you make in Starcraft 2 have absolutely no impact to them. I remember Blizzard saying things along the line of the single player having immense replay value due to the fact that you as Jim Raynor can make several choices along the line that will influence the way the crew acts towards you, and open up paths that would not be normally possible. Instead all you have is choices that matter not since you can just replay the mission from an archive and get another path choice. Heck you can even ignore distress signals for the entire game and every mission eventually opens up for you. Disregarding the fact that the NPC’s life matters very little due to your choice, and the lack of carrying on this decision in the expansion. Worst, decision making system..EVER.

  4. First off I agree with most of your thought process. But a few points.
    Voiced or silent protag. Voiced can work really well, but it’s a detriment to choice, and there for kills many an RPG, for other games it works great, but in rpg’s its a bad thing.

    You used Dragon Age Origins as an example, but things are not as cut and dry as you are making out. For Example the ashes you mentioned, whether you defile them or not, you still take a pinch you can use to save the guy. There is also the choice if you do not defile it, to inform the world or keep it a secret. (to keep it a secret you have to kill a guy, but that prevents people in the next game from being swindled). so there is a good bit more grey than you are letting on (but that’s all a matter of interpretation I guess). The whole idea behind the wardens is that they are morally ‘grey’. Anything to stop the blight. How you choose to do so is up to you. For that matter depending on how you look at it, of each group that you have to choose who to help all have compelling reasons why they believe they are right (other than people like the slavers etc., and even they are ‘just doing their jobs’). Over all I think Origins did it pretty well (ME may have been better, I don’t know, tried 2 for a bit, didn’t care for it, moved on), yes you have to beat the big bad but how you get there is pretty much up to you, and you have a good reason to do so even if you are evil, who wants to be evil in a land where you and everyone else is dead? Especially if you were not the cause of that destruction! Self Preservation will do a lot for motivation. And it gives you lots of opportunity for killing if that is your thing. A License to Kill as it were.
    The lack of an alignment meter was a real boon to this IMO, people didn’t just aromatically react to you based on what your alignment was but on how you treated them (and others while in their presence). Much more realistic. Don’t get me wrong it had its flaws too, like a few party members reacting to things you did even before you ever met them (I guess they heard about it in camp). Fallout one and two did this well too, by having a reputation at each location as well as the alignment (karma) meter. (3 and Nv didn’t do bad at it either, tho it seemed a lil borked on occasion)

    Dialogue on the other hand is a lot more grey, it’s not about alignment but saying what you think the other person wants to hear (or not). (2 ruined most of that but that’s another story). The only good thing about the dialogue wheel was the tone marker, there were one or two options in Origins that I was not able to tell that this response was being said sarcastically until it was too late. So given the option (were it up to me) I would do DA3 like 1 but with the tone icons next to the choices, instead of limiting us to just the 3 ways to say the same thing, that we got in DA2. Or the wheel where you just have more choices, pick what you want to say, then pick a tone to go with it. That makes much more sense. (but would require a lot more dialogue, especially if you are using the Voiced Protag, and why I don’t like that for rpg’s, most don’t want to either spend the money/time to do all that voice work, or don’t want to use up that much space),

    I am not a fan of BethDeathSta’s style (to close to a fps for me) but I have to agree with you, that is one thing they did really well, in the FallOut games they worked on anyway, there were a lot of options for ways of doing things, almost like the originals. (but they took out too many of those options for my tastes, like slipping an armed bomb into the child’s pocket who just tried to pick yours, or kicking a rat in the groin, now that’s evil!). =D

    DA2 on the other hand is one of the worst for decisions, almost nothing you did mattered (can count the choices that matter on one hand and a big part of it is picking your class! even gender doesn’t really matter, although I generally applaud that part of it), more of your choices from the imported game make a difference on the world than the choices you make in this game. Kill one guy’s son, he swears vengeance, is a person in power, you never hear from him again. Mages are hunted and locked up, but if you are one it gets pretty much ignored (even the line that say “Hey, I’m a mage!” (s)he actually says something completely different), even using magic (even blood magic) in front of people, templars, in the chantry, in the Gallows, doesn’t matter at all.

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