Monday, August 23, 2010

Illusions gone widdershins

One of the very first things you learn about when you take any writing course is something called the 'willing suspension of disbelief', attributed to Coleridge.  One of the first things you hear about when beginning to play or work on games is the 'illusion of choice'.  A close second, if not a scouting party to this idea, is that of immersion.

Immersion is the state in which the player is absorbed in the game.  It's characterised by specific brain patterns that put a player into a state recently termed 'flow'.  Colloquially, it's the feeling you get when you're so engrossed in a book, movie or game that you lose track of time.  That is immersion.  Janet Murray likens it to floating in water, in navigating and submerging oneself in a new kind of space, as alien to us as water is to air.  This is what developers are striving for, because immersion means the player is 'in the zone', they're having fun, they're not going to put the controller down any time soon and, hey, they just might recommend the game to their friends.

There are a lot of arguments centred around immersion.  I'm not going to get into them.  It's an interesting subject - look it up.  But what I'm concerned with is the idea that, somewhere along the way, we lost our freedom to choose.  Think about games like Mass Effect and, more recently, Dragon Age: Origins.  They're dialogue-heavy, but not necessarily customisation-heavy, in that you can do whatever you want, but the ultimate climax will always happen.  Your relationships with different characters will vary depending on the types of conversations you have any how many gifts you give them, but that's essentially it.  Okay.  Let's take a look at some older games, such as Baldur's Gate or Planescape: Torment.  The ending is still the same, but how the player arrives there makes all the difference.  What the player knows - or doesn't know - will cast the ending into a whole new light.  There are dialogue options, and party customisation, but they're window dressing to the main quest line, albeit expertly executed window dressing.  The main focus is on the narrative.

It may sound like I'm comparing apples and apples here, but, let me assure you, I'm not.  I dropped Mass
Effect
faster than a retail copy of Days of Our Lives when I realised that, no matter where I went or what I did, I'd always be "Commander Shepherd".  People who I'd never met before just plain didn't like me, but not through any fault of my own.  No thanks.  A similar thing happens in Dragon Age - simply by virtue of being a Grey Warden, people will insult you.  Awesome.  Some people will like you, too, but even though my mute DA character is vastly preferable to her smart-mouthed space-faring counterpart, people still didn't react to what I was doing.  I go into the house of a well-known monk and come out covered in blood - what?  No reaction? Really?

In comparison, Baldur's Gate had you as a child of Bhaal.  You can't change that, but everything else is pretty much up to your discretion.  Imoen is your half-sister, always, but if you want to become a master thief, she's cool with it... to a point.  Certain other characters will berate you for your lawless ways and, at least in my party, they got the chop about as quickly as Mass Effect did.  Then you could have Tiax, the evil halfling intent on taking over the world, who seriously clashed with the neutral good druid Jaheira.  Fun times.  In terms of customisation, Dragon Age is probably the closest of the recent releases, if only for the ability to swap party members, but there are nowhere near as many party members in Dragon Age as there were in either of the Baldur's Gate games.  In Baldur's Gate you had alignments, so choosing the correct thief was important, since party harmony was integral to success.  In Dragon Age, your party members might hate each other, but they won't leave the party because of it, whereas if you keep Tiax around too long, Jaheira (and hence Khalid, one of the best tanks in the game) will give you the flick, which can be seriously damaging in the middle of a quest.

The choices in games have become not so much about action, but about dialogue.  Call me crazy, but as a games writer, I don't like a lot of dialogue in a game.  Any game.  It's usually not that well acted, I can read faster than they can talk, and a lot of it is simply extraneous to my enjoyment of the game.  I seem to be alone in this feeling, since they keep making games like this, but there's a serious question floating around in the back of my mind : why is story doing the work that gameplay should be in charge of?

Think about it.  Your choices in conversations determine whether or not people like you.  You gain paragon or renegade points in Mass Effect, and you wrangle rewards or punishments from people in Dragon Age.  In the older RPGs, dialogue was important, but it was what you did that mattered most.  Kill Pharod when you had the chance?  No bronze orb for you!  Kill Noober?  Miss out on some sweet XP!  Try to reconcile with your evil half-brother?  Oh.  Oh my.  Get accused of killing those guys in the library?  Load the game and go kill them, since you'll be accused of it anyway!  Dialogue was present, but it was about the player.  Now it's about winning.

Don't believe me?  Let's take a look at some further examples.  Early RPGs were about exploration, and that included dialogue.  Oftentimes, the dialogue was simply a prelude to a quest, so choosing different options merely provided more information or a 'get out of quest free' card if you weren't interested.  Now there are multiple different options, which lead to multiple different paths, but they're easily identifiable, so I find myself playing to get the ultimate outcome, rather than looking forward to seeing where the quest takes me.  In an effort to give the player multiple options for the same quest, we've gone from the illusion of choice to the certainty of choice.  We're so sure we should be allowed to choose that we're insulted when we're not.  When's that get fun?

Nothing can compare to the moment you meet the Transcendent One in Planescape: Torment, especially if you've uncovered all of the lore.  It had to happen.  You couldn't escape it.  All paths lead to this.  There's a certain comfort in inevitability that I think we've lost in recent games.  We're so hung up on choices that we don't get to make the decisions that really matter, because they're surrounded by fluff and nonsense.  I spend most of my time in Dragon Age playing through conversations, each one of which could have some unforeseen impact on the game, but probably won't.  In comparison, one of the first side-quests in Planescape: Torment is to help a lady get home.  You don't have to, and if you do, you don't get anything for it but her gratitude.  It's about the player, not the game.  The game is a vehicle for the story, rather than the story attempting to carry the game.

I think this is an important distinction to make.  Stories in games have been doing far too much heavy lifting lately.  It's time to write smarter systems, to better integrate gameplay with story, and to write context-sensitive dialogue that has multiple meanings depending on the player's perspective.  That way, the experience is just as unique, but with relatively less effort than branching dialogue trees and entirely different quest lines.

Games are possibility space.  They contain essentially unlimited amounts of information that it's up to the player to discover.  The boundaries can be as wide as a dream.  In a game, the illusion of choice should be so absolute that it isn't until the second playthrough that you begin to see the gilded bars of your cage.  And if it's written correctly, the view will be far more captivating, anyway.

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