It is frankly bizarre just how many articles have popped up since my last update confirming precisely what I think is the matter with open-ended western RPG’s today. The writers for Mass Effect 2 lamented writing themselves into a corner by making too many aspects of their game open-ended; Yahtzee pointed out the extreme fixation with options in Skyrim and wondered if it was all really necessary; and Dennis Scimeca, author of The Escapist’s First Person column absolutely nailed the lack of narrative and dramatic soul that plagues games that aspire to be all choices without any meaningful choice.
I believe it safe to say that everyone is now talking about this. It has officially become a A Thing. However unlikely, I can hope all this debate leads somewhere and catches the attention of somebody in a position to make a difference. Whatever the end result, it’s already far bigger a debate than I had expected to be getting into in the writing of this ever-humble blog series. With that said: Onward, my revolution! Down with the bourgeois and their false freedom! Choice or death!
Talk Isn’t Cheap
This whole series first came to me as an epiphany during my first and only playthrough of the original Dragon Age. I was roleplaying what Bioware considers an “evil” Warden (read: a morally neutral petty asshole with no class or intelligence) and had walked in on a Templar who had been hypnotized by a lust demon into believing he was living a happy life with her as husband and wife, complete with an imaginary child. The man was in no visible distress, mental or physical, but for better or worse his perception of reality was obviously different than that of everyone else in the room. While everything around him burned, festered, or was corrupted by the seemingly mindless horde of demons running the place, he was otherwise occupied in an idyllic alternate life. More than anything else, this intrigued me.
My very first instinct as a unique (and morally questionable) character was to help the lust demon out or at least have a nice insightful chat about her methods and motivations, as polite and reasonable as you please. What she was doing was really very neat compared to the dreadfully unoriginal slaughter and death every other demonic force in the setting was content to offer, and I wanted to know more. Hell, it wasn’t even all that obviously wrong – the guy still had his soul, his life, and was happier than he had ever been, plus breaking the illusion would rob him of a family and return him to a perpetual living nightmare. At the very least it wasn’t something that I considered to be my decision to make without all the information. Maybe this demon was just curious about humans or wanted to see what marriage was like. How was I to know?
My conversation options looked like this:
1. Disgusting! Foul demon!
2. Die! (Attack)
3. Unhand that poor man!
4. What new evil is this, hellspawn?
5. Release him and I’ll allow you to live. That’s more than you deserve.
6. Wynne, what in the Maker’s name is she doing to him?!
That’s six choices where five do the same thing in a different tone, and one just loops back to the start after a line or two. Following option 6 through four more trees and a harsh persuade check, the very best I could manage was to take a goddamned bribe from the demon and leave the room in a huff, but not before losing my companions’ respect and insulting her first. I left that mission utterly soured on the entire framework that holds up games like these, because it so obviously revels in providing me so many options for the sake of options, and none of them even come close to their golden ideal of letting me do what I want.
Bioware, I don’t want all of my dialogue choices do the same thing but sound different. I want to do a different thing entirely, even if it costs you four of those six dialogue options. I don’t care about all that extra “choice” if none of it matters in the long run from both a gameplay and a storytelling perspective. Your character writing’s biggest flaw is that it boils down to three tones of voices justifying their excuse to reach the same one decision rather than three real personalities reacting in different ways.
We’re roleplayers. We want options in our story-driven RPG titles because we want control over the story, not (ultimately futile) control over our own self-image of our characters. We either already have that or lack it completely. Giving us options without any narrative control is completely missing the point; giving us even more options at the cost of it is total insanity.
My criticism of characters and dialogue hamstrung by too many options extends, perhaps most visibly, to big plot events as well. So often in Bioware games you’re allowed to make what sound like decisions of world-shattering importance which may change the landscape (both literally and politically) of the entire setting from that point on… until you actually make them. At the time it seems that you have set something major in motion that will colour every action from that point onward, but shortly after whatever ensuing event immediately follows your choice, something suspicious begins to happen: the consequences of both potential choices taper off into one single continuity where neither plays a substantial role in what’s to come next, and though your actions are rarely made irrelevant, your choice most certainly is. No matter what you do it all turns out the same.
It doesn’t matter if you saved Mass Effect’s Council or left them to die; they cease to do anything of any importance to the plot the instant you make either choice. It doesn’t matter if you convince Saren to see things your way or not; he opposes you violently right up until the final encounter. It doesn’t matter if you side with the Mages or butcher them alongside the Templar; they violently abduct your sibling either way. Terminate the Geth heretics or enslave them, side with the Quarian pacifists or back the warmongers, kill Maelon or spare him, obey Cerberus or don’t… you can bet the only thing these will change is some minor ambient dialogue in ME3. Hell, there’s an entire person made totally irrelevant in Morinth. She literally becomes another character for 95% of the game if you choose to recruit her. I don’t want that option if this is what I’m going to have to pay for it.
It’s starting to feel like almost every “big” decision in a Bioware RPG will change nothing at all ten minutes after you make it. If it’s even referenced later on, the event involving it will be hermetically sealed and cordoned off violently from everything else in the game. This decision can only matter behind the dotted yellow line, sir and/or madam. It sucks to see talented people write themselves into a corner and then wonder why, chasing this impossible ideal of a heavily plot-focused game that also lets players decide everything always like a game of D&D.
What makes this all the more frustrating is that some choices do matter, and they’re the best and most engaging ones by miles. I was emotionally sucker-punched by the situation that could unavoidably kill Wrex on Virmire because it was a big part of the main plot, required some real intelligence in deciding what to say, and had real consequences. It was entirely possible to find Shepard at a loss for words, unable to reconcile with the big guy and thus forced to kill him for the good of everything else that was at stake, and you really felt it. You didn’t punch him out and talk it over later if you failed the speech check. You weren’t railroaded into watching him leave the stage no matter what you said. Another wise old Krogan didn’t come lumbering onto your ship at the end of the mission. If he died, he was really gone along with all that entailed. If he lived, he continued to play a part well into the next game.
That’s what I want from my big choices: fresh, meaty offerings of actual and honest choice – not a thousand tasteless cardboard cutlets without weight or flavour.
The Codex Is A Horrible Format
While mostly unrelated to the major theme of this update series, I figure it’s worth a section to air out some grievances with the Codex systems many modern RPG’s are instituting, as it’s a trend with the similar affliction of being a good idea taken much too far at the expense of good storytelling.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m a hopeless duffer for good world building and I love having an in-game compendium of the setting’s lore at my fingertips. It’s great to be able to answer small technical questions about the universe on the fly that would otherwise slip between the cracks, but at the same time it’s almost too powerful a tool for its own good. The codex is something that has to be used responsibly and intelligently, and should never be the developer’s first choice for conveying information to the audience. Players should be constantly learning about the game universe by playing the game, not by examining shiny objects and getting ten-paragraph essays on the physics of mass effect fields shoved into their back pocket. A big info-dump of expository text should always be the very last resort.
Honestly, the worst part about the codex is the writing itself: it’s dense, it’s dry, it has no creative spark or imagination. Worse still it shatters your immersion completely by hiding what should be in-world, in-character text behind multiple menu screens and forgetting that to exist in the universe these things first had to be written by a living being. It’s a million times more interesting to read the dying words of an oxygen-starved spacer trapped aboard a derelict ship than it is to walk over his body and receive a three-page dissertation on the nature of decompression when applied to a human skull.
Let’s examine a fictional codex page I’ve written for the Thief series in the style of a Bioware-esque lore entry. Assume that you click on a protruding book in an old cathedral passage while creeping amidst the towering stone aisles in search of a good week’s rent in untended valuables, curious to know more about the old structure’s keepers.
“The Hammerites are a devout religious sect of The City which maintains regular churches of worship in most quarters dating back to the days before its foundation. In service to their god, they abide by a very strict list of tenets and virtues.
The Order of the Hammer have been known to prosecute other members of the public for violation of these rules, regardless of religious beliefs or official legality, subjecting said individuals to harsh, often fatal punishments which range from extended incarceration to maiming and open execution.
However, the Order provides more raw building material to the repair and construction of the City than all other contributors together. For this, their fanatical behaviour is often overlooked by the City’s nobility and policing agencies.”
What does information does this entry convey to you, the reader?
-The Hammerites are clearly a classical religious sect.
-The Hammerites are fanatical about enforcing rules and order.
-The Hammerites’ punishments for violating their rules are equally fanatical.
-The Hammerites like building things.
The immediate problem is that the above piece is almost deliberately dull, matter-of-fact, and devoid of any love for the act of writing. It reads like the most torpid of encyclopedia entries and dispassionately shovels paragraph after paragraph of raw information down your throat without any regard for making its subject matter interesting. There’s no context, no style or voice, no presentation, no immersion factor – it’s just a big dense wad of text that tries on purpose to sound like your high school history textbook. Now what if you were greeted by a yellowing page containing this instead, as in the actual game?
“Before death came,
The liars were made to feast upon the hands of the thieves,
And the thieves were made to ingest the tongues of their liar brothers,
And we praised the Master Builder for his judgements.”
-The Hammer Book of Tenets
“Come the time of peril, did the ground gape, and did the dead rest unquiet ‘gainst us.
Our bands of iron and hammers of stone prevailed not, and some did doubt the Builder’s plan.
But the seals held strong, and the few did triumph,
And the doubters were laid into the foundations of the new sanctum.”
-Collected letters of the Smith-In-Exile
Consider for a second what those two verses taught you compared to the codex-style example. I’m willing to bet you learned the exact same things, in fewer words, and had a great deal more fun doing so. In fact, you actually learned a lot more from this version than you may have realized. The style of the writing, the use of certain words, the signatures and names, even where you found the book in the world tells you things that an encyclopedia-style codex entry never could. Just for starters:
-Hammerites have their own unique flavour of crazy, as you have just sampled.
-People in the setting actually wrote and recorded this page of the book. This is one of their records, so you must be in a record hall. Maybe the scribe’s name or seal is even somewhere on the page.
-The Hammer diety is known as The Builder. He probably builds things. With a hammer. Suddenly it all makes sense.
-The Hammerites make use of a quirky, flowery, pseudo-Shakespearean mode of speech.
-Do not screw with the Smith-In-Exile.
-Hammerite punitive measures are as creative as they are brutal and horrific. More reason not to get caught.
More importantly, you were given good incentive to actually be interested in the subject matter. Maybe you’re fond of this crazy language the Hammers use and want to read more, or maybe you don’t, but either way it’s probably going to stick in your head that Hammerites are the ones with a fondness for fine literary technique.
Finally, do we really need to know every minute detail, every facet and system of our fictional worlds to enjoy them? I often find that it’s precisely that lingering intrigue and doubt of the unknown which adds the final piece of the narrative puzzle to a good story element and elevates it into being something truly great. Humans are not omniscient creatures – we get things wrong, we romanticize and spread rumours, we assume, we misinterpret, we deliberately mislead and withhold information. As such, our fictional selves should not know everything that must be known with impeccable accuracy simply because the author does. It’s from uncertainty and the unknown that all the best conflict stems. The most frightening things are those we can’t see.
You spend the majority of Mass Effect completely in the dark about what a Reaper actually is, and only nearing the very end is part of the veil drawn back. The thrust of the entire game is to uncover what little you can about an overwhelming threat beyond your current comprehension so you can reach the point of understanding what to do, yet in the following sequel that air of confusion and fear has been carelessly tossed aside.
There’s nothing scary about the Reapers any longer – we know what they want, we know how they’re made, we know exactly what they’re capable of, and they’ve gone from being the sci-fi equivalent of Lovecraft’s ancient and nameless gods to a bunch of giant metal space-squid with lasers that just want to blow us up for the evulz. The lack of reliable information is what made them such a potent antagonist. Without it we’re left with nothing more than a generic Omnicidal Evil Alien Fleet.
I don’t expect the good people at Bioware itself to buck all these trends themselves, but someone definitely should, and if the day comes that this someone is in need of a 3D Artist… I am here and shamelessly plugging my lack of active employment for the benefit of you and your lovely children. Or pets. Or the imaginary bacon-ghosts which protect you from harmful radiation. I don’t discriminate and would love nothing more than to see some good competition in the RPG market that offers a differently-structured roleplaying experience and forces those other Canadian developers out of their comfort zone (to the benefit of everyone involved).
Bioware’s system works and can certainly make for some enjoyable games, but it’s growing tired and overused because it’s the only RPG anybody is making these days. We really do need more RPG’s that are about compelling characters you have to play as rather than empty stand-ins for ourselves, more recurring characters with their own agendas and roles in the plot, and which give us more of a role in shaping the story itself as opposed to an endless deluge of shallow ways to shape our avatars.
I suppose I’ll share one last story before I put this series (and my aching sleep-devoid eyes) to a well-deserved rest.
Not Until The Little Eldritch Abomination Sings
Following that incident with the desire demon, what really made up my mind about this notion of choice was playing a horrifying little game/novel by the name of Saya no Uta, created by Japanese company NitroPlus and penned by the mad genius Urobuchi Gen (who sourced the Cthulhu Mythos as his primary inspiration – and it certainly shows). There are exactly two choice trees total in Saya, but they are the single most powerful choices I have ever experienced 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 and 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.