Irrevocable Player Choices

Fair warning: this blog post talks about choices players can make while playing a game that block off or change subsequent game choices or content. It’s impossible to talk about that without significant spoilers. If you don’t want to get spoiled on Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age: Origins and a bit of Oblivion/Morrowind, stop now!

Understatement of the week: creating an interactive story is tough. I don’t think any game has nailed it, or maybe it’s just that the medium is still so new that we haven’t developed a common language yet.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks is handing players the keys to the car, when the game’s path runs right along a cliff. Do you create a wall along the cliffside, so the player simply can’t drive off? Do you drop the wall at some point, when you think the player’s had enough practice?

What about a scenario where the player can choose not to change a tire at mile 5, and that’s going to determine whether he drives off the cliff at mile 28?

That’s what I’m talking about here: choices you make while playing a game that have a profound effect on what happens later in the game.

Elder Scrolls Style

In Elder Scrolls: Morrowind, killing an NPC required for the main story popped up this cryptic message:

With this character’s death, the thread of prophecy is severed. Restore a saved game to restore the weave of fate, or persist in the doomed world you have created.

This message was essential for Morrowind. In a huge, open world environment, it’s likely you’ll come across a character required for the similarly huge main story. Some of those characters have bad attitudes, and whether you’re playing a do-gooder or the type who kills those foolish enough to mouth off, you’ll probably end up attacking one of them. If not for the message, you’d continue playing for many hours and never realize you just created at best a changed ending, or at worst a broken script that completely blocks off the main quest.

Oblivion took a more heavy handed approach: NPCs required by the main story simply can’t be killed. You see a special cursor when you mouse over them. This includes characters joining to fight with you, like Martin.

You can take advantage of their “required” immortality by hiding when their health gets low. They fall in combat, you wait it out while in the shadows, and a minute later they rise and start fighting the enemies again. Clumsy, maybe… but less intrusive than a pop-up telling me to load a saved game.

Dragon Age Style

Dragon Age: Origins features a smaller world and fewer side quests than Morrowind or Oblivion, but its story threads are even more complex and intertwined. It’s great that there are multiple endings for my character and for her team, but sometimes the paths toward those endings are so convoluted that they feel unfair. I actually replayed the last 1/3 of the game just to get a different ending, and in the process I realized that one small (and at the time, insignificant) choice completely changed the entire outcome of all my hours of play.

Before I say anything else, BIG kudos to Bioware for making characters I care about so much that I’m willing to dig around on the Internet and replay the game just to have a better ending for them!?

I was playing with Abby, my dwarven rogue, and I invested in the romance path with Alistair. He’s an awesome character–very well written, funny, believable, and endearing.

Seriously, if you don’t want massive spoilers, stop here!

Alistair is also the bastard son of a dead king. One potential ending for the game puts him on the throne as a good king, still in a relationship with a female player character. Other potential endings have Alistair as a mediocre king, in or not in a relationship with a female player character, not king at all, or as king-for-about-30-seconds-but-now-dead.

My first play-through, Alistair ended up as a mediocre king who couldn’t be in a relationship with Abby, and who took one for the team and died at the end of the final battle. I understood the story power behind his sacrifice and completely understood the choice that caused that ending… but I felt unsatisfied with the romance ending and Alistair’s so-so performance as king-for-30-seconds. I started looking around the web to see what I may have missed.

Bioware folks, correct me if this is wrong, but it looks like one conversation choice in one dialogue is what created that ending. Alistair has a personal side-quest to reunite with his long lost half-sister. She’s a mercenary shrew and he’s shaken up afterward. There are a variety of things you can say to him at one point in the follow-up dialogue. If you don’t pick the exact right response (which is something about needing to look out for himself sometimes), Alistair becomes a mediocre king and won’t stay in the relationship with the female player character.

You have no idea when you’re in the dialogue that one choice can change the ending of the game (at least in terms of your character’s relationship with Alistair, and his performance as king). There are several choices in that conversation that seem just as kind, or strong, or wise, or guiding for your character to say. Why would one dialogue choice outweigh all of the other conversations my character had with Alistair over all those hours of play?

In contrast, I absolutely understood why Alistair died on that first play through. I was told that the Grey Warden who killed the archdemon would also die. Morrigan came to me with a proposed solution, and I said no. At that point, I was consciously choosing to have one of the Wardens die, and I knew it might be me or Alistair (or the third Warden).

The difference between the two is clear. In both cases, I was making a choice during a dialogue that would radically change the game ending for my character. In one case, I understood that decision and therefore also understood the results. In the other case, I had no idea I had even made a decision and therefore I didn’t understand the results and I felt cheated.

Mass Effect 2

You can see this same dichotomy in Mass Effect 2. There are two distinct points where decisions you make affect what happens in the game: how quickly you go to the Omega 4 relay, and who you pick for various stages of the final missions.

The first choice is the one that’s unclear. Throughout Mass Effect 2, you get missions that sound urgent but you actually have as much time as you want to complete them. You can explore the galaxy, collect resources, upgrade your ship and crew, and complete side-quests to your heart’s content even if one of your crew members just got an urgent message from his dying (and believed already dead) father.

Yet you cross an invisible line when some of your ship’s crew is kidnapped. You receive a mission that seems just like all the other missions in the game. If you take your time responding to that mission–which you probably also sense kicks off the end sequence for the game–you’ll discover that some (or all) of your crew is dead. You don’t make that discovery until later in the game, though, and you can only save your crew by responding to the mission within a certain, unspecified time frame.

How would a player ever understand that choice–or that he is even making a choice–under those circumstances? How can that feel anything but unfair in a game that doesn’t ever put a visible time limit on any mission (including this one)?

You can contrast this with great decision points during the final mission sequences. You have to pick which members of your crew lead other teams, with specific goals and with specific skills required. You know it’s a life-or-death situation. You know the team member is going to be hacking security systems. If you pick a team member with low Tech skills and you fail the mission, you absolutely know what you did wrong. The ending feels fair and when you try it again, you make a better choice.

Looking Ahead

Thinking about these situations made it more clear for me why it’s hard to create interactive stories, where players really have control over how the story progresses and how it ends. There’s a constant struggle between clear communication (the “threads of prophecy” telling me to reload my saved game) that breaks immersion, and the larger sense of storytelling that is at its best when today is made up of all the small choices you made yesterday.

When you look at the design choices that worked, though, you can start to see a clear path. Morrigan’s offer in Dragon Age is a good example. I didn’t know exactly who would die if I turned her down… but I knew it would probably be either my character or Alistair. I was accepting the consequences when I said, “No.”

The choice of team members in Mass Effect 2’s end sequence is another good example. It was entirely true to the moment that I, as team leader, had to assess the situation and pick the person best suited for the work. The NPCs helped make that choice clear by outlining the work involved in the task, without ever breaking immersion.

Here’s how you could handle the two situations that felt less fair.

For Alistair’s romance and his suitability as king, have that one dialogue choice set that path but also have an accumulation of other, similar dialogue choices also set that path. There’s no reason my character bolstering his confidence in every other conversation in the game has no effect on Alistair. You can see this in how you gradually build relationships with your team members as a whole–why not extend it to really important things… like the game’s ending?

For Mass Effect 2, it’s simpler: don’t do it. If you’re going to have something irrevocable happen if the player doesn’t do X in Y seconds, you have to make that super clear. You can make it clear by creating a certain mission type that’s timed, so when you get the “rescue your crew” mission you recognize that type. You can also make it clear and maintain immersion by having one crew member sending secret emails or video logs to you, making it clear that he is getting closer and closer to being killed. Either way, you have an obligation to communicate to players that action (or inaction) in this circumstance is being timed.

This ties into whether games should be “realistic,” which I’ll tackle in my next blog update. If you’re reading this and you haven’t played Dragon Age or Mass Effect 2 yet, what are you waiting for? They’re fantastic games with terrific characters, and it’s only through developers like Bioware pushing the envelope that we start to see what works and what doesn’t.

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