Matt Evans on player choice in RPGs…
You’re standing at the supermarket queue. As the last of your groceries are checked through the till, the cashier asks you if you’d like a bag.
Everyone stares at you, awaiting your decision. Customers are hover in the aisles awaiting your response. The cashier continues to glare at you, patient but slightly maniacal.
Well shit, this must be important.
Linearity has become something of a negative adjective when used to refer to story-driven games. We are bombarded by adverts suggesting the latest RPGs will offer ‘meaningful player choice’ and ‘non-linearity’. Often, as in the case of many Bioware games and The Witcher series, this narrative non-linearity occurs in the form of interactive decision-making. These are role-playing games, games where immersion is incredibly important. Developers have long given players ‘choices’ as ways of expressing themselves within the game. The ability to express yourself actively within a fictional world can be incredibly enjoyable, an experience that is limited to the medium of video games.
Often, the player is presented with a binary choice. Do this or do this. Or perhaps there are three options. The number of potential choices is irrelevant but the decision is not. The game makes the point to you. This is important. In a game like Mass Effect, the UI will demonstrate, mid conversation, that you have a choice to make.
The entire game world then stops.
NPCs stare at you, creepily, as they await your universe-altering choice. Or rather, they wait for you to alt-tab out to find a guide and check what the consequences of ‘choice’ will be and which seems to appeal to you more. We’ve all done it.
How is this immersive? And, more to the point, how is this choice? Its choice in the most alien, diminutive sense of the word. It is just barely analogous to how we actually experience free-will in the real world, the phenomenon that these ‘choices’ are trying to imitate. Given how this jars with our sense of ‘choice’ in reality it is a mechanism that, by definition, hurts immersion. Major choices, along with their related narrative consequences, are often signposted to within an inch of their life. In my latest play-through of The Witcher 2, which is particularly prone to these sorts of choices, I tried to make a note of every time I was surprised by the outcome of my actions. My notebook is still empty.
Sure, sometimes in life we make major choices that are obviously riddled with dramatic consequence. But quite often we are simply acting as we are inclined to and the results are sort of emergent. I can’t point out an exact point, for example, that lead me irrevocably on the path my life is currently taking. My life emerged from a whole host of nebulous, but natural, actions. I can’t be sure which choices affected my life-story in some dramatic way and which simply altered local and short term experiences.
What roleplaying games need is randomness. Through a combination of AI and unpredictability, it’s entirely possible to immerse a player within a game world in a way that doesn’t feel so contrived. A recent example would be Creative Assembly’s Alien: Isolation. Though not a traditional role-playing game, it features a solid example of the sort of emergent interactions I’m meaning. Though the narrative is linear (Unlike a choose-your-own-adventure type CDProjekt game) the player interacts with the primary antagonist in a way that is, for the most part, random and unpredictable. Due to the use of AI, the player is never entirely sure of the consequences for their actions in relation to the Alien. As such, it feels immersive. You’re forced to make choices, in the dark as to their consequences, the importance of which won’t become clear immediately, if ever. You’re in a constant state of just sort of muddling through, hoping for the best. I found this incredibly immersive.
People may claim that the removal of choice hurts the narrative potential of a true RPG. But just look at the infamous Mass Effect 3 debacle. After endless ‘choices’ of the sort I have described, the final act of the story was determined by the player simply choosing one of three choices as the game disregarded all previous choices. The ending couldn’t have been more immersion-breaking if they’d literally programmed a character to say “Alright mate, here’s the ending. Which one would you like? Maybe give it a quick Google first!”.
After a while, the choose-your-own-adventure style of narrative just becomes utterly untenable, a satisfying finale impossible. Why? Because the player is so aware of all of these hugely signposted major choices that there is a sense of entitlement to some sort of cause-and-effect playing out. By providing these choices the developers limit their ability to tell a satisfying tale. It’s a no-win scenario, either limit these kind of binary choices (which will be perceived as lack of ‘player freedom’) or settle for a half-assed ending.
There’s nothing wrong with a single-thread narrative. My play-through of Alien: Isolation felt like a unique experience, entirely unrepeatable. My play-throughs of many RPGs have felt like I’ve simply read the same CYOA pages as thousands of other people.
Far from limiting players, randomness and emergent narrative features give developers the freedom they need to tell a satisfying and cohesive story without the fourth-wall-breaking issues of ridiculous signposted ‘choices’. Offer freedom of expression for the player within the game world, undefined and natural choice and the experience will be memorable and, most importantly, immersive.
Matt Evans – Visit my website here.