The Bioware RPG: Choices Without Choice – Part 1

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.

Beef #2: It is uncommonly difficult to find good art of Bioware games for this post.

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.

This will be the third time we have railroaded your dialogue tree. We are becoming exceedingly efficient at it.

    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.

I'm sorry Dave. I can't program, design, model, unwrap, texture, compile, and render that on demand.

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.

Hi there.

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.

We can rebuild him. Dumber, blander, less interesting than before...

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.

Jack: only ever crazy on the Normandy

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.

14 Responses to The Bioware RPG: Choices Without Choice – Part 1

  1. Ahh, the pseudo choices in games, firing wall of text in 3, 2, 1…

    I was actually spared the illusion shattering experience for quite a while because I don’t really like replaying games, and when I do I usually return to them because it’s been a while and I kinda forgot this stuff, or I want to try a ton of mods, and I end up following roughly the same choice pattern I did originally. It was not until the ME2 season of Spoiler Warning that I got around to replaying it picking the direct alternate to almost every choice I made in my original playthrough, I got a few fun alternate lines but I was pretty disappointed with how empty the choices felt after witnessing both options.

    On the everyman thing I’ll be brief. In a real life RPGs players also often get a blank canvas, the problem lies with reactions. It doesn’t matter if you give you Shepard/Hawke/Vault Dweller a fascinating personality, quirks and a huge wart on the nose because there is no GM to take it and work with it, you may get a reference or a small sidequest but it’s nowhere near the same as having a village call in witchhunters to deal with you because you’re a redhead and there’s been a drought and one of said witchhunters ultimately becoming a minor recurring villain (or an unlikely ally) in the campaign.

    The party… other than some technical difficulties (which, let’s be honest, could be overcome if devs wanted to do it) I think this may be related to something else I’ve been noticing in recent years. The “heaven forbid player could miss something” syndrome. Maybe it’s because making games is expensive so every skippable scene is money that may not be working, maybe because on average games are getting shorter and adding branching stuff would cut on the length of individual playthroughs… but the point is, it seems that a lot of devs have this determination that if they made something they are going to make sure it shows up in the game no matter what (DA2 endgame anyone? Human Revolution bosses?) and making things that may or may not trigger AND affect the game world runs counter to that.

    Here’s an observation though, as much bile as I pour on DA2 on a regular basis (there are no words to describe the stupidity of the endgame) there was one interesting device used at a couple of points. In some instances the player wasn’t given that much of a choice as to WHAT they do but WHY they do it. Depending on the quality of writing and story this may force the player into stupid, counter-intuitive choices they will be angry with but if written well it allows for both telling of a story and shaping of a character.

  2. Although I know Bauldur’s Gate II does *essentially* the same things (excepting that it did have arcs for your followers), it really felt a lot of the time like I was far less lead around.

    Perhaps it works better when you just use better writing to do your railroading (it’s a real word Chrome! Well, sort of); by having decent in-universe reasons why you have to do things – this smug asshole tortured you? And your childhood lady-friend-buddy!? What a dick! And now he *STOLE YOUR SOUL*? HE’S GOING TO DIE SLOWLY.

    On the other hand, I think having to pay off the Thief’s Guild was kinda annoying – there’s really no other way to get onto an island? Though I never did try taking the Vampires up on their counter-offer – didn’t seem very legit.

    The character thing is a bit more similar, in that they each have their own plotlines that you have to advance by talking to them, but they seem to have real character advancements, and the writing does a better job of making it look like they have some measure of independance. Jaheira, for example, just straight up *leaves* for a while when a problem catches up with her!

    And it had not party banter, but full *conversations*, at random points depending on who you had in your party together they will trigger full scripted conversations with character development and even advancement – if I remember right Minsc can only get over his witch dying in a party conversation.

    Uhh, Is it obvious I like BG2? :D I have more to say about where Bioware’s gone recently, in particular how everything from Dragon Age has had absolutely no attraction to and why, and how the endings of Jade Empire are the best thing ever (this may be hyperbole), but I might have to wait until tomorrow, since it’s 2AM now :/

    • I’m sure you could solve, at the very least, the everyman problem with some quality writing where it mattered, which is exactly why it’s so irritating for me. Somebody made a deliberate decision to craft a flat, boring brick of a character and then revered them as some infinitely charismatic figure that all events must revolve around… and finally they drank their own kool-aid sometime between Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2, giving us Shepard the übermensch.

      In comparison, Gordon Freeman works because he’s a completely silent protagonist who never gets seriously involved in anything that would require him to show a unique personality. Nobody forces big political choices on Gordon or spends ten minutes talking to him, meaning the game can make no assumptions of his personality at all while all of his physical actions are under your control as a player. In a sense, he’s actually you, whereas most everyman characters simply have a boring-as-sin personality that the writers believe won’t contradict the image of Shepard you’ve devised in your head. They’re wrong.

      Conversely, Garret from Thief is a very defined character with loads of personality, but all of the actions you can take as him in the game naturally fit him. No matter how you play Thief, you always end up playing it like a sneaky, cynical pilferer of desk drawers. Why not do the same for Shepard and write the game to assume he’s a proper nuanced person with flaws, fears, and personality quirks?

      Every time you want your imaginary self-Shepard to do or say anything interesting… you can’t! If I’m supposed to imagine him being more interesting, imagine that other characters react differently than they do to him, then also conveniently imagine around the fact that he couldn’t ever say no to Cerberus regardless of his characterization… why am I even bothering to force my own ideas into this game? I could be writing a story or playing a game of D&D instead.

  3. (Yay, sleep!) Well, I didn’t have as much of a problem with Mass Effect 2 as Shamus and co. did. Those games made fairly clear they were designed as taking the Third Person Shooter and adding RPG elements to it, and I’m (sort of) OK with that, as I’m about to detail. Talking simply mechanically, I don’t think it’s controversial that from the purely mechanical perspective, Mass Effect 2 is actually a pretty good shooter, and Mass Effect 1 was a pretty bad RPG, so I think Bioware is getting better at creating gameplay, the only question is whether they are getting worse at story. (From the sounds of things, Mass Effect 3 might be the happy combination of good shooting *and* at worst decent RPG mechanics, say Dragon Age complexity levels).

    Now obviously story can be incredibly subjective (I believe objective discussion is possible, but I’m certainly not good enough at it), but I don’t feel that Mass Effect 2’s main plot, no matter how dumb it ended up being, can be taken as evidence that Bioware don’t care about plot any more, or that all their writers were pulled for ToR (well, what I’ve seen of that is pretty strong evidence itself against *that* :/), or anything, really. I can only speculate why the same people who gave us the Migrant fleet, Legion, and effing Mordin, thought a 50m baby robot skeleton made of biological metal was a good idea, but I can imagine that being far more impressive and less stupid in a writer’s head, along with being forced to work with Cerberus. So much of writing – especially in Sci-Fi – is in the last mile, so maybe that stuff was locked earlier than character missions and incidental dialogue (which in the worst case could be cut), or perhaps that was simply less “cool” than each writer’s pet character, so it got less attention, or that content was developed first by artists not familiar with the tone of Mass Effect, or *so* many other reasons.

    But in any case, I feel that the stupidity of Mass Effect 2’s story is only why you notice Shephard’s blandness – it’s not the cause. I’m struggling to think of a western RPG where the protagonist had much more characterization, at least explicitly (it’s unfairly easy to project your own characterization on the older RPGs where you have to imagine the expression and delivery of most of those lines, so I’m unconvinced by the claims that Planescape: Torment or even my beloved Baulder’s Gate were written better, they just *work* better). As a weird edge-case, maybe Revan counts? Dragon Age’s titular Origins gave me hope that this issue was being addressed, but hardly any advantage was taken of it past the first hour of the game. And that game had a lot of hours :( I would easily swap about 30 hours of using Frost Cone on dark spawn for just 20 more lines referencing my origin spread through the game, maybe even a short quest!

    In fact, one benefit of strictly classifying the choices available on the dialogue wheel is that you potentially can have 3 somewhat consistent characters for Shepard, something that has been a real problem if you’ve been trying to literally role-play in RPGs: though I don’t think Mass Effect really took advantage of that. Not having played Dragon Age 2, it’s wheel looked like a more explicit attempt at that. In contrast, in both Dragon Age and the Witcher I had *extreme* difficulty finding a consistent character, and I pretty much ended up with Everyman…, except Geralt is also a slut. (To be fair, this was more of a problem in Dragon Age than The Witcher, which had the amnesiac defense – but that’s hardly a good thing!)

    Now certainly, you could make the claim that regardless of precedent, Bioware should be making interesting characters, and I would love to see them make a game where they just put you in control of one of their famous colorful characters, but at that point you’re drifting even farther away from what the old-school RPG fan is expecting. Basically, you have to be playing Mordin, not Jack. (Not that I don’t like Jack, in fact, I think she’s one of Bioware’s better characters, but not many people would like to find out halfway through the game their generic bad-ass is really a blubbery insecure girl running away from her own failures)

    Whew. Long story short, I don’t think Shepard is intrinsically worse than previous games, it’s just more obvious – probably due to the Cerberus railing in particular.

    • Comment un-boned :P. I hate it when I do that on other sites too. I should look into whatever plugin Shamus uses to allow users to edit theirs after posting them.

      Most of this post and the next one are quite subjective since the they’re based on my own weariness with the “open-ended” Western RPG formula, but I think some things like the divide between the characters and the main plot are objective flaws as well. I can’t really blame Bioware for making games the way they know how, or for everyone else following their lead instead of making a wide variety of roleplaying sub-genres, but I think it’s fair to ding them for the parts of their existing system that don’t work well.

      For instance, I really want to see what a Bioware game would be like if the company made a conscious effort to remove the artificial compartmentalization that plagues most of their titles. They could invent some repeating secondary characters that move around the universe and do things over the course of the story rather than waiting for you to come talk to them/do their quests. They could change up your mode of transportation, or throw you into more main quests as part of a plotline rather than an email politely asking you to choose to do a mission. How about offering actual travel through space or over the sea (Zelda Wind Waker-style) instead of instanced areas stoppered with loading screens? Some serious blurring of the lines is needed between “story” and “shooting/stabbing gallery” areas as well.

      As for a roleplaying game protagonist with a unique personality… how about Manny Calavera? Yeah, technically Grim Fandango is labelled an adventure game, but how different is it really from something like Alpha Protocol or DA2? You play in third person, explore to find inventory items, do “quests” to resolve a progressing storyline between segments of raw gameplay (puzzles for one, shooting dudes for the other), and traverse interlinked area hubs talking to repeating characters. The only real difference is the main character’s job and how it’s reflected in the gameplay.

      I would love to play an RPG that gives me one of the following:

      -A well-characterized main with a distinct personality, where I can choose actions within his or her established persona rather than choosing a tone for every conversation.

      -A bunch of wild, crazy dialogue options that lead to your avatar doing and saying all sorts of fun and unconventional things rather than a choice between Asshole, Doormat, and Mohamma Ghandi. I want adventure game craziness to come back, where you can trade a peddler the Ritual Sword of Eternal Awesomite for his soiled clothes to use as a disguise, or side with the well-mannered bad guys because the good guys are insufferable douchebags.

      -Cut the density down to maybe 5-15% of the choices offered in a Bioware game, but have most of them branch the story and have tangible far-reaching consequences. Also, the choices would define how your character acts and develops over time (not just right when you select an option), reaching one of two extremes by the end of the game.

      • Yes, games being better would be better :P

        The definition of what an RPG is vague and contentious, but if you let Adventure games in, then you might as well let Modern Warfare in too. In fact, given the way the multiplayer works (you literally level up!), I’d say MW is more of an RPG.

        I define RPGs as the term is used at the moment as requiring all the following “RPG elements”:
        * Control over one or more distinct, identifiable characters. This is tricky to exactly define, but you need to exclude board games – Queening is not leveling up!
        * Specifically, in combat, so not The Sims.
        * An experience system that allows the character(s) grow in ability as the game progresses. This excludes some Adventure games that have combat.
        * Specifically as directed by the player in a way that results in a different character – so picking up the BFG doesn’t count, nor does Tanya getting to Elite in Red Alert 2.
        * An emphasis on storytelling. This is to exclude Modern Warfare multiplayer, though this does also exclude (the majority of) Rougelikes, but I feel that the modern RPG is a sufficiently different beast to them to be OK with this.

        Perhaps overly strict, but I can’t think of any counter-examples at the moment, though it being 2AM again probably doesn’t help :(.

        Now, defining Adventure games? Or Strategy? Or Action!? If only every genre was as easy to define as Platformer, FPS/TPS, or Puzzle. And don’t get me started on whatever “Family” and “Casual” are supposed to be. I’m looking at you Steam!

  4. This is a very interesting article, thanks. In fact, between the article and the various text-wall comments, there’s not really much I could add.

    One thing, though. You mentioned Alpha Protocol in an earlier comment. Would you consider Mike Thorton to be a similar bland everyman character? Because while there’s certainly your now-common dialogue-wheel tomfoolery, I did have the impression that there was some consistency throughout the story — some hints, though brief, of the real Mike Thorton behind the Smarm-Jerk-Cold trifecta.

    • Having only seen Alpha Protocol played without playing through the whole game myself (though I’m certainly going to pick it up at some point), from everything I’ve seen it looks like Mike Thorton is probably the most consistently characterized main protagonist of the lot. His actual mood seems to swing around wildly based on your responses, from psychotic jerkass to stone-faced professional, but he does keep a certain internal consistency to his actions. There’s definitely a feeling there that no matter which personality you pick, the man himself has internal traits that stay the same. Shepard on the other hand can be a dyed-in-the-wool racist for one conversation option then shift to a grand idealist who wants equal rights for everyone a minute later.

      I imagine this is Obsidian’s influence. They’re generally better than Bioware at creating characters with original motivations and arcs, and don’t stick to such a rigid formula. As a result of being so ambitious and experimental they may not always achieve what they want from a character *cough*Dean Domino*cough*, but I love how they’re willing to take such risks even if they don’t always turn out as planned.

    • I should probably mention that I’m not actually against dialogue wheels as a mechanic – what I’m advocating is fewer of them and choices that all keep to a consistent character. I want to dictate a character’s actions within who they already are to see how it changes them and alters the plot, not choose who they are at that moment and nothing more.

      I’ll go more into detail about this next post (the one I’m totally writing this very instant and may even steal what I write next for it), but what really made up my mind about this was playing a game/novel called Saya no Uta. There are exactly two choice trees total in Saya, but they are the single most powerful choices I have ever seen in any form of media. Just before these choices popped up I had a vague sense they were coming, and I remember literally reeling back thinking “Wait… will I have to decide this?!”

      It was like stepping into the shoes of a real person and having to make a single decision that would completely change their life – I had serious feelings of trepidation and uncertainty. Everything that happened to the main character from then on would be a result of what I picked. I would see where it led all the way to the end – to the main’s loss of humanity or the loss of a meaningful life, and that choice was on me.

      It occurred to me then that even just two choices were plenty to roleplay with, so long as the degree of choice behind them was so diverse, so powerful that I was feeling the same anxiety for the same reasons as the character on the other side of the screen.

      It also occurred to me that this is why I love video games.

  5. What’s your take on CDProjekt RED’s The Witcher series, where at the least I think Geralt is an interesting well thought out character, prolly thx to the novels, and where the choices you make actually do matter, ie The Witcher 2 where there’s actually 2 versions of chapter 2 depending on which path you take and where no choice is a clear cut black or white choice?

    • I’m embarrassed to admit that I have yet to play much of The Witcher, so I don’t think it’s fair I say anything about Geralt until I’ve given the game a proper run through. I actually had the games squarely in my sights for a playthrough a few months ago, but there were certain… market forces at work which forced me to put those plans on hold along with Amnesia: The Dark Descent and my LP series.

      The proverbial plate is nearly clear now, and choking and sputtering like some living receptacle of game content I lift my fork towards the final course – a monstrous heap of Skyrim with Tribes: Ascend dressing, served aside a tall glass of Batman: Arkham City. I will imbibe this. I will digest it all. I must, or I will be the one consumed.

      I’ve been recommended The Witcher as an example of quality character-driven roleplaying more times that any other RPG combined, both at Seventh House and elsewhere on the internet, so I’ll be sure to give it a go soon and put out a post or two on the subject. After Assassin’s Creed Revelations I could use a story not written by an authorial equivalent of the esteemed Dr. Jekyll. That, and apparently there are witches? I miss proper witches in my fiction. I think they were all burned or Tolkien-fetishism ran them out of the fantasy genre alongside fairy tales or something.

  6. Pingback: Knights of the Old Republic: First Impressions | Seventh House

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