I started the research for my Masters today. Well, the practical side. I won't go into great detail here, but suffice to say it involves watching a whole bunch of different people play through the same section of gameplay and looking at what choices they make. So far the results have been a little... depressing.
You know how, in RPGs, there are always those exciting, but risqué lines that you hover your mouse over, laugh, then choose the serious option? It seems a lot of people do the same thing. Now, I know there's a definite Schroedinger's element to this whole research setup - after all, they're being filmed, and I'm sitting in the room with them, making notes - but the fact that everyone, so far, has chosen the predictable, safe and, most importantly, informative route is something that I wouldn't have predicted myself. Even the people I thought would be most like to Halo their way through the RPG elements (yes, Halo is a verb now) slowed down in order to make the 'right' decisions.
And, really, that's what's happening. A couple of them even made what they would not consider excuses, but sounded suspiciously like them : "I normally play the biggest jerk I can on my second playthrough." Why not the first, then? Is there some underlying idea that one cannot seriously experience the story if one is not themselves serious enough?
The most frustrating part for me, perhaps, is that I know this particular scenario quite well, and I know that by choosing the safe path, they're denying themselves some of the best dialogue. Lines that are not only highly comical but relevant, brilliantly voice acted and completely out-of-the-blue don't even show up on their radar if they fly the straight and narrow. I don't know why this is - perhaps the designers chose for the game to be this way, and it makes sense, truly. If your player is treating the game seriously, nothing is likely to upset them more than the game not taking itself seriously. Similarly, some of the silly lines lead to overblown repercussions, so although it feels like the game is trying to move with me, it sometimes feels like it's trying too hard.
Then again, when you come to an entire series of choices and 100% of your test demographic make the same choices, it becomes easy to understand why big companies don't always waste their time on the kind of branching dialogue I'd like to see. If 0% of your audience will ever see your brilliantly snide yet astoundingly astute observation on the matter at hand unless they replay the game, suddenly the drive and the production value decrease to match that assumed player percentage. It's hard to argue with statistics.
I've got a couple more days to go with this research, workload permitting, so I'm hoping for some variation in results. Please, let there be some variation! But even if there isn't, I will have learned an important lesson : the feeling of player agency may be what the player decides it is, rather than providing an ideal play experience. It's a chilling thought, and one I hope proves false. Meanwhile, it's interesting to see just how well the dialogue trees are married such that one chokepoint line takes on many meanings, depending on the line before it. I have a lot to learn, as a young Padawan. I only hope it's not too much.