Jan 24, 2011

An Argument For Linearity In RPGs.

Let me start this off by saying that I dip into western and eastern RPGs as equally as I can, I'm a huge fan of both Dragon Age and Final Fantasy, as opposite spectrum as those might seem.

Over the last ten years we've seen a rapid decline in the amount of eastern RPGs coming out in America, and on the opposite side of the coin western RPGs are finally coming to the forefront of console gaming. Games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect are making the western RPG more and more accessible with every new incarnation.

What people really seem to appreciate about these games is the vast number of choices they allow us to make. Whereas the eastern RPG sends you along a predestined path and you're more or less just along for the ride, the western RPG puts you in almost full control of the events surrounding your character.

Personally though, I feel like I'm in the small minority that's no longer impressed by the parlor trick that is "choice" in the RPG. I'll admit that I was initially blown away by Heavy Rain, Dragon Age and just about every other title in recent years that has allowed you to choose your character's path.

But once you start to closely inspect the storytelling at play in choice based games, I think you'll find that they start to lose some of their magic. Whenever a choice based game throws a choice at you, the game should, theoretically, completely realign itself to the choice you made. But usually it doesn't. Your choices rarely resonate throughout  the entire game, instead when you make a choice it's effects are made immediately apparent, and then that choice is filed away in the list of variables that will decide which game ending you'll get.

The problem is there's nothing very profound about that. It's good to see here and there in a game, but every role playing game honestly doesn't need this sort of interaction. Consider the type of writing talent it would take to fully realize every possible choice the player could make in a game and then spit out a worthwhile story. The writer/s would have to truly examine every possible choice and come up with the consequences of that choice. Not only that, but they'd theoretically have to come up with new dialog for many major scenes because no one's just going to forget these "groundbreaking choices" that you're suddenly making.

Recent games have easily gotten around this by just treating you as "good" or "bad," but rarely do NPCs call you out for your heroic deeds or fiendish feats directly.

The point I'm trying to illustrate is that F. Scott Fitzgerald did not write the Great Gatsby from the standpoint that anyone would try to change the story. J.R.R. Tolkien likely didn't consider every choice his characters COULD'VE made while penning Lord Of The Rings. While no games really exist that are respected on the level of these literary classics, some very well could one day.

I'm trying to say that we as gamers expect a little bit too much when we're put off by the lack of choices in linear storytelling. While it's a shame to see a linear plot fall flat because of lack of choice, it's an even bigger shame to see a bland plot held up by the fact that you can choose certain aspects of the adventure.

I'll just go ahead and say this bluntly. The story of Mass Effect 2, while well crafted and certainly worthy of praise, doesn't resonate with me as much as the story of Final Fantasy 7. I'm sure you could ask, "Why would you even bother saying that? It's not only biased but an incredibly ill matched comparison." It's simple, while I'm sure a lot is owed to nostalgia, and objectively the plot's not that much better, Final Fantasy 7 has one of those stories that has just stuck with me over the years. I look back and fondly remember the characters and locales and the events that transpired. Ten years from now I'm not going to be reexamining Mass Effect 2, and I think that's largely because the choices I'm allowed to make devalue the tale a little when I examine it deeper.

(Spoilers in case you haven't played a now 13 or 14 year old game.)

When Aeris dies, you're not given the choice to avoid it. You're not allowed to press right trigger and save her. You just can't. It happens. And it always will. The experience is set in stone and everyone who plays the game will experience it in the exact same fashion.

Except they won't. I'm sure you can find people who cried when Aeris died, and I'm sure you can find people at the same turn who shrugged it off and weren't affected by it at all. The point is, even though the same scripted event happens countless times as people play the game, they still perceive it differently because their brains work differently.

When I play Dragon Age I'm imagining myself in the game. I'm choosing for the most part to do what I would do if I were actually in the game, or at least what I'd ideally do. I take the choices that suit me as a person. I'm playing myself, not a character.

This is great on paper. This is the true pinnacle of video game storytelling. It's YOU in the game.

But that concept fails me after a point. I'm playing video games as a method of escapism. I'm not playing video games to simulate what I would do in a given situation, I'm playing them to do things I wouldn't ever do in real life. I'm playing them to live out characters that do not exist in the harsh reality of the real world.

I don't know about you, but I'm fucking boring. if I wasn't, I wouldn't be sitting around playing video games all day.

So I can't say I really want to experience the game as I WOULD experience it, I want to be put into the shoes of a real character. Not a faceless, voiceless drone that I define. I want to be put in the shoes of a Cloud Strife, a Master Chief, a Marcus Fenix, a Dante.

I want things to happen that are completely out of my control. I want the plot to throw me around like a roller coaster. I want things to go terribly wrong and absolutely right no matter what I do. I want interesting things to happen and I don't want to expect them. When a game lines me up for a decision, I'm already predicting and assessing how the game will react to the choice I make, and since most choice based games work through logical storytelling, usually what you expect to happen happens.

I don't want that. That's the worst possible scenario I can imagine for a video game. We're slowly entering an age where we deny ourselves any real surprise by choosing the choices we want and the playthrough we want and the story we want. That's not profound.

It's hard to expect the best of both worlds. It's hard to give some choices and take others away but video games are reaching the point where developers and storytellers need to do that.

Give me the choice to have Thane join my party, but do not give me any say in whether he dies or not. Once you give me the choice to save or not save a character my emotional attachment to them is put into question. I'll obviously save all the ones I like and either sacrifice the ones I don't or save them too just to appeal to my "good guy" sensibilities. I'm never going to have to experience any loss when I can save everyone.

Even in the original Mass Effect when you can choose between Ashley and that other guy no one cares about, I'm obviously going to choose Ashley because she's a girl and that other guy is OBNOXIOUS. The game should punish me for thinking like this by killing Ashley anyway. The game should make me experience the loss of the character I actually like. Sure, she comes back and is pretty cheesed at me for not letting her sacrifice herself, but she's still alive. She's not gone forever the way that Aeris is gone forever.

That's all I'm asking western developers. Don't give me too many choices, and definitely don't allow me to play it safe. Force me to deal with consequences that are beyond my control every once in a while. Don't allow me to weasel my way out of a "bad" ending by meeting a checklist of predefined goals. The multiple endings of a video game decry the initial sense that the end is going to be worth seeing. If you have to show me seven possible ways the game could end then you obviously don't have a definite idea of how it really SHOULD end.

Don't give the player what they think they want in the moment. Right as Aeris is dying everyone wants her to live, but imagine how bland the story would become if she was allowed to live. You'd never have to deal with her loss in the game, she'd still be around.

People wouldn't be remembering the death of a virtual character almost fifteen years after the game came out and there wouldn't be fake guides on the internet explaining how to "resurrect her."

Don't give me the story I want. Give me the story better than the one I want. That's all I'm asking.


  1. Hmmmmmmmm... interesting argument! I dunno though, I'm a pretty big fan of choice based games

  2. or they do it like ff7, you don't even know who you are, but you MUST KILL SEPHIROTH!