Bioware is something of an anomaly in the world of game development: a company that does good business almost entirely through story-driven singleplayer titles and makes bank on the talent of its writers more than the appeal of its graphics or game mechanics. While there are most certainly other developers such as Obsidian who follow a similar strategy and often bring interesting nuanced stories to life in their games, I believe it would be fair to say that Bioware are the biggest fish in this particular aquarium. For better or worse they are largest and most consistent producer of big roleplaying games with a heavy emphasis on plot and characters, and we are at the lowest point in a downward trend.
Precious few people are currently making big story-driven RPG’s, and thanks to the endless production value arms race I described last update, those that are have been forced to make harsh compromises in everything from length to depth to simple subject material. Good luck finding a game where you can play the role of an in-canon scoundrel rather than a hero, abstain from overt violence, not save the world/nation/known universe at the end of the story, or have actual characterization and yet not be a young, fit, handsome male with only the vaguest hint of personality.
Enough of my lamentations about the horrid genre constraints placed upon video game writing – the fact of the matter is that for various reasons, on a given day a Bioware game is your best bet of playing something in which the storytelling itself is a major factor and you are given a measure of control over how your character acts within it. More than half of the big titles which fit this description are from one company. This is unfortunate, because I have beef (salted, ground, and seasoned) with Bioware RPGs – their structure in particular.
To be fair, the brunt of my ill-prepared projectile venison has little to do with the company themselves and more the fact that they follow such a rigid guideline as one of only a handful of creators in an enormous genre that could do so much more in so many different ways… and that all of the competition follows their example. I do not hate Bioware – I’m actually very grateful that they continue to exist, but I’m becoming increasingly disillusioned with their games on a fundamental level that has nothing to do with gameplay trends or chronology. With each one I play the flaws of this same system stand out more, and in my opinion they do visible harm to their ability to tell a good story – the very core of their appeal.
In more ways than one, the problem is Choice.
More Is Less
Choices are the currency and metric of a Bioware-styled RPG: you can dress your character up in a hundred ways, choose a specific origin story, pick from thousands of voiced dialogue options, choose your party from a large roster of diverse characters, and usually play a number of character classes which all function in different ways. Almost every aspect of the game presents branching choices, and that’s both its greatest strength and most crippling weakness. In spite of – or more accurately because of – the enormous variety in choices afforded the player, actual choice is practically nonexistent. For decisions like these to mean something they have to be far-reaching rather than just numerous, yet Bioware can’t seem to balance the scales.
I understand the appeal of the formula well enough: provide as many options as you can and players can use the game to invent their own character and control them as they would in a game of D&D, but this is just as much of an illusion as your ability to influence the world in a Bioware title. Though they may be many things, video games as they currently exist are simply not an adaptive storytelling format, and will never be able to give us both total freedom and decisions that actually matter.
In a tabletop RPG you can tell your character to do practically anything within the confines of the game rules and a quick-thinking DM will tailor the events, encounters, and dialogue to fit what the party comes up with, generating “content” mostly on the fly. You can say or do whatever comes to mind and receive an appropriate response from the world because ideas and imaginary concepts take almost no time to generate, and even then the DM usually has a campaign and materials planned out ahead of time. Games can’t do this.
For a modern video game it takes hundreds of hours to put together and test a single new area, multiple recording sessions with high-priced voice actors to run a conversation tree, and all manner of programming and engineering just to create a software framework within which these things can exist. Any decisions the player can make are going to have to be built into the game and accomodated for long before they’re encountered. As soon as you have to do this, you no longer have anything resembling a game of D&D. The appeal is completely different, more in line with a choose your own adventure book where the number of choices is almost irrelevant compared to the ability to follow real branches in the plot.
Why is this a problem? It’s obvious that Bioware is hell-bent on offering the player as many choices in as many places as possible in an attempt to give the illusion of being an adaptive form of media where you have the freedom to do anything. Since before Baldur’s Gate they’ve wanted their games to be something they can never be, and are willing to offer up thousands of meaningless options instead of dozens of them that really matter. I appreciate the illusion at times, but I’m of the opinion that they take this philosophy to a harmful extreme. Good, meaningful story elements that rely on something specific happening are being crowded out and pre-empted by every aspect of the game becoming an open book that accomodates every possible permutation at once, yet is bland and unsatisfying for all of them.
In short; the more choices a game gives you, the less those choices are likely to matter. In this update and the next I’ll offer up some of the major examples.
What Is An Everyman?
Perhaps the most consistently aggravating quality of a prolonged diet of nothing but Bioware-style RPGs is the main character… or rather the lack thereof. Unquestionably cast as the main protagonist of any story they find themselves in, a player character thus has to be a central element of the plot at all times, and will inevitably find themselves thrust into a staggering array of big dramatic situations that by all rights should have some kind of lasting impact upon them. Friends can die or betray their trust; enemies can emerge in the least expected places; horrible injury or insult can be inflicted that irrevocably shifts their perception of the world; causes once believed to be just may become otherwise, or vice versa. Even if none of this is the case and the events of the main plot are far more subdued, in any story worth reading the main character should develop and follow at least one character arc.
Bioware’s main characters never do this. As an example, let’s take a look at Mass Effect 2’s Commander Shepard. From here on out the spoilers will be thick and fast, in the manner of… ballistic mollases. You have been warned.
Poor Commander Shepard is killed within the first five minutes of the game and remains effectively a corpse for the next two years while everyone he knows mourns his loss and moves on with their lives, until at enormous expense he’s brought back to life to oppose the Reapers by Cerberus – one of the primary foes of the first game. Let’s think about this for a second. Here we have the first person ever to come back from beyond death. What was it like? Did the experience change him in any way? How about answering some of those questions mankind has been asking since the dawn of time? If he has no insight at all, then how is he certain that he is actually the Shepard that died and not a clone or android? Maybe this magical tech-necromancy is just a lie after all, in which case how can he trust their word that he really died in the first place? Any one of these questions is enough material for a whole character arc in itself. Any one could be a compelling flaw or a driving motivation for a truly great protagonist.
What does Shepard do with his first few breaths back in the land of the living? He shoots some androids. Then he shoots some more. Then he asks what’s going on with all the emotion of a sedated tree sloth, completely satisfied with being told that he was just dead for two years. Finally, he sees what’s become of his old comrades, shrugs, and gives a halfhearted “Fine, I get it – they’re not available”. He’s been murdered, his friends have given him up for dead, his crew is disbanded, his ship is destroyed, the worst of his old enemies has just decided to bring him back to life as a half-human cyborg… and nothing changes. Shepard doesn’t even show a hint of uncertainty or emotion, as if all this was no more meaningful to him than eating breakfast.
This is the genus of The Everyman. We all know this particular drill: the reserved, unremarkable, and absolutely blank canvas of a human figure that lacks all but the most rudimentary characterization upon which the player is supposed to project themselves. Not once has this device ever worked for me, because despite popular belief I am a human being and don’t identify with a blank sheet of paper. I don’t see myself in a character with no self of their own – I see instead the gaping void.
The player character is written in this way because you’re supposedly allowed to make them into anyone you want by selecting their dialogue and customizing their appearance, meaning the plot can make no assumptions of who Shepard is at all. For instance, a character arc that involves unwanted pregnancy isn’t going to fit a male Shepard, just as the multiple available backstories prevent Shepard’s past from ever playing a major role in the story. Shepard can be anything to anyone, thus he ends up being less than nothing as a character.
Now imagine what happens when the pre-written, unchanging plotline that’s supposed to be a powerful, moving journey for its hero comes into contact with a character-devoid blob like this. How does a nonentity that could be anyone at all drive a compelling story? Can you sympathize with or adore it? Learn new things about it or uncover its history? Play its quirks and peculiarities off against other characters in that charming way a good story always can? Can you fear for its safety? You cannot. All of these things require that a character be something first in order to give any reaction worth seeing.
An amorphous blob cannot have a character arc, and by definition will always be the least interesting person in the room, even if their wardrobe would put a blind circus clown to shame and their only means of locomotion is sideways bunnyhopping. The instant the game must make an assumption of their character through dialogue or cutscenes, all of this retreats behind bland nothingness and the illusion quickly breaks. On the other hand, if the games makes as few assumptions as possible the character will never do anything compelling in the narrative.
Playing an everyman is the exact opposite of roleplaying. You simply can’t do anything characteristic, as much as you may want to or imagine that you are. “Empty husk that could be anyone” is not a role worth playing, and certainly not a character that can ever drive the plot on their own merits.
At this point I’m sick to unmitigated death of player characters that are anything but. I want to be a properly interesting person in an RPG for once, with flaws and development and real humanity. I want to take on the role of someone who has quirks, fears, and emotions rather than just a shallow husk doomed to sub-mediocrity yet held up as the central focus of the story. For this to happen, the illusion of choice has to go. I don’t want absolute control of who I play – I want a great character made by professional writers that I can make the key decisions as.
The Skeleton Crew
Of all of these quibbles of mine, I think the most bizarre has to be the nigh-impregnable wall that Bioware always builds between its cast of characters and the central plot – a trait almost completely unique to their design. These characters are ostensibly the very best part of the games they’re in, and have all the right elements of being able to drive a compelling story even without the help of leading man/lady Brick McFlatDull… and yet they seem to be specifically barred from doing so.
Play any Bioware RPG for long enough and you’ll spot the same trope: a band of colourful characters held together by the (non-existant) charisma of the protagonist, who follow him around in a caravan/stay at an inn/crew a ship as part of his personal entourage. Here’s where it gets strange. Nine out of ten will have no personal stake in your mission at large outside of being an underling. These characters are important to the plot only three times per game: the mission in which you recruit them, as part of a completely isolated side-quest centred entirely around them, and finally if you choose to romance them. It’s a shame, because in the incredibly rare event that they do get another relevant scene in the main story, it tends to be something absolutely awesome like Wrex questioning his loyalties on Virmire.
Individually most of your allies spend the rest of the game simply following you around without interacting with the world in any meaningful way as the story progresses. They have no goals of their own that conflict with yours and rarely do anything important or unique to their character, though to Bioware’s credit the unscripted companion chatter in Dragon Age 2 was a fantastic addition. I don’t ask for much either – just a smattering of events that only trigger if X happens while you have Y in the party and writing that involves every character in the main plot as more than a pair of hands with a gun. Interacting with other characters is also apparently right out, as you never see any relationship dynamics change over the course of the game (friendships, rivalries, etc.). The randomized banter, while often charming, doesn’t count.
So you have a ship/camp/entourage full of colourful people from all walks of life… who never interact? Who never develop because of the main plot or the actions of other characters? Who only change because you, the soulless empty main character, follow one short story arc exclusively about them? It’s awkward, unnatural, and hurts both the characters and the rest of the story. It makes the best parts of the game feel as if they have no will or drive of their own.
I can only assume that this is done intentionally, once again, because as a player you’re given control over which party members you take where, but even still you would imagine that allowing the main group to be present for major plot events would solve the problem and make more sense than all but two of them sitting around idle in the middle of a war. There’s also the case of the newer games having too many characters to write for and voice to properly integrate all of them into the main story, which goes all the way back to the same quantity-vs-quality argument that inspired this post.