The story/game disconnect in CRPGs

Spoilers for several games, past and present, including Dragon Age II abound in this post.

Computer RPGs excel in many, many ways. They can present a unified visual, with voice acting, immediate character visuals, and fantastic locales all realized for your playing convenience. Think of how hard it would be for a game master to create the milleu of Mass Effect through his or her voice alone.  But one element of the tabletop RPG that has always been nigh impossible for CRPGs to present is the ability to make shit up on the fly. To give an example, imagine you have the same scenario in both an RPG and a tabletop dungeon crawl – a boss fight that requires the players to fall into a trap behind one of two doorways. If this trap is necessary to set up the scene, the easy thing to do is to set it up so that no matter which door the party opens, that’s the door with the trap.

The problem here is that in a CRPG, there are things like save games and replays, so the players will learn fairly quickly that the game cheated, and that either door presents you with the trap. In a pen and paper game, there’s no replay and even if the suspicious players go and check the other door, a GM can blithely lie to them and have there be no sign of a trap. Yes, in each case you were railroaded. But in case A, you can easily find out, because the game can’t cover its tracks.

CRPGs have to balance a very careful line, leveraging their assets to make you forget that in the end, the story is by necessity on rails. Even when a game presents you with options and choices that can determine the outcome, it can only present you with so many because the story has to end somewhere.  There’s only so much room on those game discs or in that file download for variation, much as if you were ultimately reading a choose your own adventure book or using a flowchart. The game’s goal, therefore, is to make you forget that. It does so with all of the bells and whistles at its command, ultimately, and by making use of as many ‘non-choice choices‘ as it can get away with.

Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 both make use of the non-choice choice to great effect. While the story of Mass Effect is absolutely on rails — you’re the first human Spectre, member of an elite organization dedicated to defending galactic civilization, and your goal is to stop a traitor named Saren from unleashing a mechanical apocalypse — how you get to that end point allows you to make many, many choices along the way that provide the illusion of change.  In essence, you can’t do anything but fight Saren and Sovereign. But at the same time, you can choose to destroy or spare an alien race from complete extinction, can choose to slaughter or spare a colony of mind controlled victims of an ancient plant intelligence, can kill or convince one of your own team to support you, can leave one of your two original squadmates to die. You can even talk Saren into killing himself, and can save or abandon the governing council of Citadel space. None of this changes the fact that ultimately, from beginning to end, none of these choices prevent you from being locked into the fight against Sovereign. You have no choice but to fight him. But how you fight him is entirely up to you.

When a CRPG pulls this off, players don’t even mind. Why would they? Mass Effect 2 is actually even more linear in its plot than the original game. You must assemble a team and take it beyond the Omega 4 relay to destroy an alien race working for Sovereign’s people, the machine intelligences known as Reapers. You can choose which missions to take, but in the end these choices are almost all non-choice choices, as you can’t really refuse any of your teammates save three (you can leave Grunt in his tube, leave Legion deactivated, and choose between Morinth and Samara, although if you choose Morinth she then pretends to be Samara) and if you refuse to do the loyalty missions or fail them, you’ll still go through the relay, you’ll just lose team members as you go on the suicide mission. In the end, even if you die, you can complete the mission which is the one place where you as a character can make a really huge, substantive choice and either blow up the alien base or salvage its technology. (Hint: if you salvage it, you’re playing right into the Reapers plan and dooming humanity. How many times does the game have to tell you that the Reapers want the races they harvest to use their technology instead of developing their own? Even Legion tells you this – “We are outside their plans.” Salvaging the Collector base is like eating poisoned sugar.) Mass Effect 2 presents you with a host of non-choice choices that feel like choices because they create variation in tone and pacing and have visible effects on the team you assemble.

To a degree, ME2 gets away with it because it’s coasting on how cool Shepard is. The game takes full advantage of its predecessor and works to expand upon his or her already legendary reputation from the first game. This is a person who has saved the entire freaking galaxy once already. The people you meet and interact with as Shepard reinforce this, reacting as you would expect if a living legend presumed dead suddenly returned. The story carries you past the fact that, looking objectively at my six ME2 playthroughs, they almost all played out the same or within a very limited tolerance of each other. I earned everyone’s loyalty, recruited everyone, and blew up the Collector base over and over again and enjoyed myself immensely even though, objectively, all of my efforts to play the game ‘differently’ didn’t amount to much difference at all. My vanguard, my 3 soldiers, my adept and my sentinel made different choices along the way, and two of them screwed up and gave The Illusive Man the station, but in the end it was all the same – recruit the team, gain their loyalty, save the day.

One of the reasons I really loved Arcanum or the original Fallout and Fallout 2, or Planescape Torment, was how they dealt with this ultimate disconnect. You can only have, at most, a couple of endings to your CRPG just because you’re doubly constrained by the format and the size of the medium used to convey your game experience. Many of the CRPGs I’ve loved have used open-ended, non-linear settings to get around the railroad sensation of linear plot demands. If you’re free to go anywhere up until you run out of places to go, it feels less like you’re being rushed to the exit. The Fable series in particular makes heavy use of all of these elements and some other bells and whistles like character aging, minigames like real estate management and fame acquisition, and even personal customization to help you overcome the fact that each game in the Fable series is absolutely and rigidly plotted out and there’s almost no possible deviation from the plan. You are going to fight Jack of Blades, man, and you might as well just accept now that he is gonna kill your mom.

What really got me thinking about all of this, however, has been playing Dragon Age II. In my review, I said that it was a superlative game, and it is. It is pretty much better than its predecessor in every way. However, the problem the game has is that it presents the player with several obstacles to ignoring how linear the plotline is, and those obstacles didn’t need to be there. In a nutshell, here are a few of the really big ones for me.

Be warned: Dragon Age II spoilers ahead.

  • Your character, Hawke, is an unknown who comes to Kirkwall as a refugee fleeing the darkspawn hordes destroying Lothering. This means that unlike ME2, you aren’t coasting on how badass you already are and have to tolerate a lot of crap from mouthy NPCs. As my lovely and intelligent wife put it, “If I’d never played Dragon Age Origins, I’d think this was the best game I’d ever played” – the suspension of disbelief is much easier if you lack those preconceptions from, playing the first game.
  • The non-choice choices don’t even present you with an illusion of choice in some cases. Two big examples are the death of Hawke’s mother and Anders’ decision to murder the Grand Cleric (and everyone else in the Chantry building in Kirkwall) with an explosive of some sort. No matter what you do, if you enlist the help of a blood mage, if you don’t, if you take the murders seriously or if you’re cavalier about them, it doesn’t matter. Your mother dies horribly. Similarly, if you help Anders assemble his supposed potion and then go in and distract the Grand Cleric for him or if you refuse, he still blows the building up. To my mind, in the first case there should be some way you can get to your mother in time, or somehow alter the events, otherwise it’s just gruesome and shocking for the sake of being so. As for Anders, my character’s refusal to help him should have meant he found some other way to kill the Grand Cleric, otherwise it makes my decision useless, as he blows up the Chantry if I help, and if I don’t. Why even involve me? A change as simple as having Anders walk into the Chantry and unleash the spirit of justice, killing himself as he kills the Grand Cleric, would have at least meant that my refusal to help him meant that he had to pay a price to achieve the story’s goal.
  • The story gets greedy at the end when, no matter what side you chose to support, you end up having to kill both First Enchanter Orsino and Knight-Commander Meredith. It felt like the game didn’t want me to miss out on a cool fight so badly that it drove Orsino off the deep end just so I’d have to kill him. It felt cheap and robbed my choice of potency. Supporting the mages made me look stupid when the guy I chose to support went and proved Meredith’s point for her by turning to blood magic when we were winning anyway.
  • There’s a serious overuse of the “put him/her out of his/her misery” trope.

This is not to say that DA2 is a bad game, or even the worst offender in the ‘game on rails’ phenomenon. In fact, I likened the problem today to trying to adapt War and Peace to a choose your own adventure format. DA2’s plot has far greater depth and breadth and far more moral ambiguity than either its predecessor or its cousin games in the ME series. The willingness to explore dark themes, horrible actions, and elements of futility, sisyphean ordeal, the endless clash between what we aspire to and what we have, doubt and fear – this is a game that takes risks with its hero, and its narrative, to a far greater extreme than ME2. In ME2, Shepard is a big damn hero either way. In DA2, Hawke can be an out and out monster, a selfless hero, or a selfish opportunist. The difficult task it sets itself in balancing these rather ambitious story elements against the demands of the format is not always successful, but when it does work it’s spectacular. The payoff from the quest to avenge Bartrand’s betrayal in the Act I – II transition only to discover that the dwarf who left you to die in the deep roads has destroyed himself more thoroughly than you ever could is just one example of an absolute jewel, especially since you can choose to leave him alive at the end.

In essence, this is the razor’s edge all CRPGs balance on. Everyone who remembers playing Knights of the Old Republic when it first came out remembers the big surprise reveal of your character’s true identity and how well it works, and the game had two vastly distinct endings based on choices you made leading up to the end, but those two endings were achieved through what was ultimately the exact same gameplay. If you were Light side, you ran through the Star Core fighting all the way until you eventually reached Darth Malak and destroyed him. If you were Dark side, you did the exact same thing. It felt vastly different, but either way, your choices led you to a climactic showdown with Malak. You couldn’t join forces with him, or turn against the Jedi sooner, you were constrained by the limitations of the medium and you accepted these limitations because the game used (for the time) excellent graphics, cut scenes, voice acting, and an open ended flow to give you the illusion of choice. When DA2 does this right, it does it better than any other BioWare game to date. When it fails, it’s jarring, because the game has conditioned you with the excellence you’ve already experienced to keep expecting more of that.

Right now I really enjoy DA2 for being one of the best games I’ve played in the past year, while at the same time feeling like it could have been even better if it had balanced the illusion of choice more carefully. In many ways, I think DA2 is mechanically better than ME2, but ME2 is a better liar, and tricks me more easily into forgetting how little choice it gives me. DA2 actually gives me more options and more gameplay choices than ME2, but ME2 hides the strings better when I’m its puppet.

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  • Thanos

    Why does Sony MMO’s suck? They seem to be the death of many a great MMOs