The Bioware RPG: Choices Without Choice – Part 2

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

Like week-old Chinese takeout, thousands of big voice-acted dialogue menus come at a bitter cost.

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.

And may I say what fetching horns you have, madam?

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.

    Inconsequential Consequence

"Ah yes, 'freedom'. Interactivity. Your supposed ability to influence the outcome of events in this game. We have dismissed that claim."

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.

"She taught us to act exactly like her, gave us all of her lines and wardrobe, made sure we wouldn't alter any other part of the story in any way."

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.

We cannot get out. They are coming. The Tirithian Mine Goblin is a semi-intelligent biped of the Caradhras mountains and surrounding area. They are fiercely aggressive, often swarming their prey with makeshift polear-URK!

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.

Well, those we nearly 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.

    Exeunt Septem

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.

14 Responses to The Bioware RPG: Choices Without Choice – Part 2

    • There’s been some contention on this matter among fellow “Oh god what the hell am I looking at?”-ites. Even I’m not totally sure.

      My closest guess is a Chiropteran from the Production IG movie Blood: The Last Vampire. Think Ghost in The Shell if it was a horror movie set on a military base/academy during the Vietnam war, except the two series it inspired were both absolute garbage while SAC was great. Quite fitting if it is, since Blood remains the only animated… anything I can think of which understands the basics of psychological horror.

      • I can confirm that that’s almost definitely a Blood series chiropteran.

        (Personally, I didn’t like the original movie. The Blood+ version (52 ep anime; similar trappings but totally different specifics) hooked me much better, although it does falter at times.)

        • Argh, and I should have mentioned the incidental homour in putting up picks from two works that both have a Saya as one of their main characters :P
          (Although the kanji involved are unfortunately quite different. I guess they both still leave open the ‘saya’ scabbard wordplay, though.)

        • Blood+ wasn’t a bad series by any means (and it’s positively delightful compared to Blood-C), but I’ll never forgive it for starting out with a two-minute scene that so perfectly captured the mood and essence of the movie and then doing something completely different for the ensuing 51.9 episodes.
          I was worried about how the series would work, they demonstrated that they understood perfectly what the movie was all about for 95 seconds, I watched the intro credits with glee, then I got a totally different anime with none of those things in it. What a tease!

          On the other hand, the Schiff and some really cool openings. On the other, other hand; four seasons of this guy with his goddamned candies.

  1. Thank you for some truly interesting and definitely worthwhile articles. I have read both parts of the ‘choices without choice’ series, and I absolutely adore their presentation; not to mention the content itself is great food-for-thought for anyone interested in role-playing and video games.

    I intend to continue reading your other articles, as well, but first I just had to drop this comment to show my appreciation. Being in love with role-playing games since just before the turn of the millennium, when games like Baldur’s Gate, Fallout, and especially Planescape: Torment won my heart over, I have also started groaning when I look upon the state of the genre today. Obsidian (with its remnants from Black Isle Studios) still hold true to the kind of believable and convincing role-playing I love – where choice and consequence is executed well – but they are unfortunately often hired as an outsourced company to develop a sequel or similar (or even outright licensing gigs, such as the South Park game, recently). I can always tell from an Obsidian game that they have the philosophy nailed, but often suffer from poor execution which manifests itself in the form of purely technical issues (bugs and sub-par visuals, for example). Even so, the actual RPG aspect of games like Knights of the Old Republic II, Neverwinter Nights 2 (especially its expansion Mask of the Betrayer), and their original brand Alpha Protocol, is superbly written.

    Other than that, one must mention Polish CD Projekt. The Witcher and The Witcher 2 handles this incredibly well, as the story is not so much about saving the world/universe and the player taking the reins of a blank character, but about true, political and personal dilemmas and dramas, and the character you play has its own name and past and everything – I feel that this is fantastically written, especially in the second game.

    Anyway, I’ll try not to ramble on any more than I already have. I really just wanted to say thanks for the articles, and I’ll make sure to catch up on your other writings (both past and future).

    • I’m glad you like the articles; they were at least as much fun to write (or in the case of X-Men: Dubious Class, they traded in the fun for overwhelmingly necessary catharsis). You’ve in fact made me feel quite guilty for not updating the House these past few weeks that I’ve spent digging through the rich strata of unplayed games I accrued this holiday season. I aim to remedy the situation shortly… or as shortly as writing these lengthy comments on my own site at 6:00 AM instead of cracking down on real content allows… but about Obsidian!

      It’s almost a hallmark of Obsidian games to be:
      -Developed in a short time frame with limited funding that always seems to sit on the wrong side of being just barely adequate for the expected production values of the game. This is usually at the behest of a larger client company or publisher.

      -Riddled with bizarre bugs, technical issues, confounding design oversights, and optimization that isn’t (NWN2 loading times still wake me in a cold sweat in the dead of night. 90 seconds for a closet! A CLOSET. Why was it even a separate zone?!).

      -Written ambitiously by an obviously talented staff, with a complex central theme to the narrative like what avarice can make of a man – or indeed a society – if left unchecked (Dead Money), or the nature of sin and blame and whether either can truly be transferred or inherited by others (Mask of the Betrayer). I adore the fact that Obsidian does not buy into the one-story-fits-all monomyth formula nonsense anywhere near as religiously as Bioware.

      -Populated by colourful and diverse characters who break with convention and cliche, but for many reasons may not always “work” to their true potential in the story.

      -Hampered in other areas of their storytelling by production shortcomings. Sometimes the accelerated pace of a video game leaves characters without time to properly develop and the writers didn’t account for this, or sometimes plot branches must be trimmed part-way through their conception and leave behind inconsistent characters like Dean Domino. Sometimes the sheer volume of bugs just drag the player screaming into hell and all else becomes irrelevant. Generally it seems like Obsidian has trouble reconciling their limited resources with scope of their game, and the inevitably revised scope of their game with the ambition of their original story.

      • (Haha! That closet is classic!)

        You’ve seemingly nailed down what normally defines an Obsidian game; it’s such a pity that their obvious talent for writing compelling stories and characters, is undermined by their lesser (non)talent for planning for a deadline accordingly, and to write and optimise purely technical game code. Well, or something along those lines.

        I don’t know how my experience with New Vegas, in regards to bugs and game crashes, is any worse than what I experienced in Fallout 3, Oblivion, and now Skyrim, however. It seems that the engine used, Gamebryo (the ‘new’ engine for Skyrim is anything but ‘new’ if you ask me; it runs and feels pretty much identical to how it did for Oblivion, Fallout 3, and Fallout: New Vegas, all the way down to what types of bugs and glitches you encounter), is very prone to cause a lot of problems if the QA department is not given appropriate time to hunt down and fix these problems.

        I will never turn a blind eye to the technical issues with Obsidian’s games, when asked my opinion and recommendations and what not, but I will always on a personal level look past it in favour of the often fantastic writing and characterisation they present in their games. No matter how poorly Neverwinter Nights 2 runs, I will always enjoy its story, and especially Mask of the Betrayer is probably the most compelling and jaw-droppingly awesome story/setting/character drama I’ve played since Planescape: Torment, back in the day (I still hail it as the best game ever, but that’s personal opinion more than anything).

        Like I said before, I’m going to start reading your other pieces, starting with the one on New Vegas. I’m also very interested in what you’ve written about Dragon Age II (I could go on forever about that game, especially how it completely shattered what looked to be a promising new franchise). I need to prod, however, whether or not you have had the pleasure/displeasure of playing either or both of the Witcher games; we seem to be cut from the same cloth, to some extent at least, when it comes to what we look for and what we see in modern role-playing games. The Witcher is definitely not something for everyone, but I’m always interested in reading the thoughts and opinions of a (thinking) individual, even if they may differ from my own. My own opinion says that the Witcher games tell one of the most fascinating and ‘believable’ stories of any games you see in the media today. Especially the second instalment had me very pleased with the way the political intrigue was portrayed, and how there are no clear-cut ‘good’ or ‘evil’ in any way; no matter what you choose and what other events come to pass, you always have a sense of guilt or compassion for those who came to harm because of them.

        I’m cutting myself off, now. ;)

        • Typically I’m very lenient of game bugs so long as they don’t actively interrupt the flow of gameplay or stonewall the development of the plot, but I’m sure you’ll see where I was coming from with Bugout New Vegas.

          NWN2 stands out to me because it managed the unthinkable triad of looking bad, playing awkwardly, and performing exceptionally poorly as well. I can usually give up one of those three for the sake of the other two, (FFXIII had gorgeous art design and good performance, but clunky gameplay; Thief has terrible graphics but impeccable design everywhere else) but it’s rare to see anything bungle all three. That said, none of NWN2’s technical failings hurt the story in any significant way. I remember it fondly – I just also remember it for the literal hours I must have spent ranting at the glacial progress of that little blue bar across the tenth interminable loading screen in a row.

          Dead Money, though… that was a complete anomaly the likes of which I’ve never experienced elsewhere, from any game in any state of completion at any time. It holds this status despite my having written full re-codes of Starsiege Tribes in the past, and having play-tested every iteration of a game developed for the Source engine from early alpha through to a public release. Dead Money met my bug tolerance with scorn and laughed at my futile attempts to play it.

          I’ll defer to an older comment for full details on the Witcher situation, but rest assured it’s one I intend to remedy with all appropriate haste.

  2. I’m the same in that I can be ‘lenient’ on bugs as long as they don’t completely ruin the gameplay or story progression. Lenient, but not turning a blind eye. As I mentioned, a truly buggy game (even if never game-breakingly so) must suffer for it when it comes to reviews or what not; few things frustrate me as much as the fact that games like Oblivion/Fallout 3/Skyrim seemingly get away with their lack of Q&A and bug-fixing in most gaming media (my first playthrough of Skyrim, where I focused only on the main quest, I encountered two separate bugs on two separate occasions, both of which forced me work around them using the console if I even wanted to *continue* the game).

    Obsidian’s games usually carry very unique story-elements and characterisation, allowing me to enjoy myself for countless hours, playing them. The bugs are there, however, and must not be ignored. NWN2 was indeed a very special experience in this regard… Such an amazing story, with such amazing characters, but it was so incredibly difficult to get control of in terms of pure gameplay; loading times and technical performance in particular.

    Glad to hear you have The Witcher on your to do-list, at least. Looking forward to possibly reading your opinions on either one or the other (or both) of the two games, at some point in the future.

  3. …Eh, I don’t mind the “choice/morality” system in Bioware games. Honestly, I actually like choosing HOW something happens, as opposed to what.

    Although maybe that just means I’m something of a doormat when it comes to “choice” games, because I just don’t like playing the evil, Renegade type. Pretty much every quest and all of the content depends on you offering to help others, so it seems counter-intuitive to try and swim against the current like that. I guess I’ve always seen it more as fitting my version of Shepard/Hawke into the restrictions, than to try and break them.

    I notice the Fallouts, Oblivions and Bioware titles all tend to fall apart for those who choose to be the bad guy. I suppose it is shameful that these games slap you on the wrist if you aren’t their loyal worker ant all of the time, but years of playing that same role in every video game ever made I guess prepares one for that.

    OR, maybe these companies just need to stop emphasizing the “choice” to mean you can do literally anything, instead of just a few more things than most titles allow. Maybe if they were a little less obsessed with WHAT you can do, they could make the HOW and WHY a little more meaningful.

    • I actually tend to play a mostly benign character by default myself, but that’s less to do with my own inclinations and more to do with how video games write “evil” dialogue options. As you said it’s usually the case that turning down a helpless one-legged orphan just denies you a quest and its rewards entirely rather than proposing an alternative, and there’s typically no active way for you to pursue a less-than-honourable agenda in the scheme of things because you’re always cast as the Big Damn Hero in the larger scheme of things. Even if you want to sack people’s houses for fun and profit, you’re always forgiven because you have this unavoidable divine calling.

      But there’s another reason I can’t play as an evil character: it makes you out as an unmitigated asshole. This might sound ridiculous, as obviously doing evil things does not make others happy, but how can I be expected to garner enjoyment from screwing over nice people who have done me no harm just out of spite? I don’t want to roleplay a narrowminded racist Shepard when I pick Renegade options. I just want to be an amoral renegade. Is a little class too much to ask for?

      If you look at any other form of media that wants you to root for the bad guys, you’ll see that they’re written as more than just petty assholes and often do their evil deeds for understandable (but not forgivable) reasons, and frequently to people who you want to see hurt or don’t care about hurting. It’s dead easy to be saintly and benign when everyone lauds and rewards you for what you’ve done. It’s very hard to do so when you’re insulted, mislead, and mistreated by regular characters. What separates the truly good from the average person are those situations where sticking to your principles is the hard thing to do. There need to be more cases where doing something nasty to a character is the easier choice, and turning the other cheek is the difficult one. There need to be more villains you can’t help but like, and more “good” characters you can’t help but want to see fall.

      Really I just want to play a game where the role I fill is an interesting one that steps outside of the narrow requirements of a generic world-saving hero. Serving as the capable but politically inept right-hand man of a king in a fantasy setting and having to juggle idealism and pragmatism through the insane circus of wild ambition that is the medieval system of royalty would be excellent. Stepping into the shoes of an ambiguous corporate goon caught between the demands of his job and those of his conscience as Adam Jensen in Human Revolution was great as well. Hell, playing a lowly thief like Garett is far more fun for me than reprising the role of a generic wandering hero-adventurer for the umpteenth time will ever be.

  4. Your plug on TheCartDriver worked.

    The notion of “pseudo-choice” is something I repeatedly dwell on with each replay of any BioWare game, without fail. It can be fairly easy to sweep under the rug on the first playthough, when everything is fresh and new, but knowing how every dialog “tree” is really just a nasty incestual orgy of gnarled branches definitely puts a damper on things.

    I acutely recall the aforementioned Lust demon dialog though, as that was the first conversation where I reloaded and explored all the options. I remember being intrigued, as you where, with the potential it had. I was primarily “Good”, but even then, the Templar was in no real danger, had entered into this by his own accord (I think), perhaps wanted to stay that way, and he was alive… being free could mean his death, before which I’m sure he would accomplish nothing.

    So I had thought to simply show him what I viewed as mercy and let him remain that way, and possibly glean a new perspective on some demons and their motivations. The game replied, in every dialog option: “NOPE! Demons are bad! Pursuit of knowledge and understanding are fool’s errands. There is nothing of actual interest here, it just seems that way at first.”.

    That was also the last time I ever save-scrubbed to explore other options, because doing so absolutely kills any motivation I have to replay when they are so bland and similar to their ostensibly opposite counterparts. Well, that’s not true… I was all about Morrigan’s romance options, and because the “correct” choice in those was not always obvious, or even logical.

    I had not fully realized until reading this how absolutely boring Shepard is as a character. I thought back on my favorite ME series moments, and all of them primarily involve what other characters are doing around and in response to Shepard, and never what Shepard says or does. I’m more attached to my Warden from DA1 than to Shepard (or Hawke from DA2, but that goes without saying), and he has essentially no personality and no voice, but at least he was so blank I could project onto him.

    Unfortunately, as you said, the illusion of meaningful choice is a problem BioWare created for themselves with this philosophy, and they can’t remedy it to any satisfying degree until technology reaches god-tier levels, or their budget does. Less choices with more impact is the best bet, but then they lose review and box blurbs about “thousands of variables!” and all that.

    Anyway, very enjoyable read, and I’d love to read the rest of your take on The Witcher, and especially its sequel, if you ever update again =P

    • Well so it did! Glad to hear you enjoyed the article. More will be coming soon.

      I fully intend to do at least one update on The Witcher 2 while I give it a second playthrough (totally still saving all of the trolls ever), though I’m also tempted to write about Assassin’s Creed 3 and its amorous relationship with terribly-realized side goals and narrative dissonance of every kind. If ever there was a game that felt as if it was constructed in five hermetically sealed chambers without any contact to one another or the outside world, AC3 is it.

      In any case, I’ll strive for an update. I plugged the plug; I sift the wordmass until sufficient babble is produced for your perusal.

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