RPG Style and the Illusion of Choice

Posted on 17/02/2012

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STOP: If you’ve been a hermit or a cave-dweller for the last four months, you might not want to read this article. I’m going to spoil some stuff about the main quest for Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Mass Effect 2, Morrowind, and maybe some other things. I don’t know. But if you want to go out and play those games before I start rampaging all over their stories, that’s fine by me. I’m patient.

Skyrim was something of a big deal, wasn’t it? A trailer was released, and the Internet collectively weed itself like it generally does. People ask each other if they’ve seen the trailer for six months afterwards and nag their closest friends about it. “Hey, have you seen that Skyrim trailer? It comes out in NINE MONTHS. I can’t contain my excitement!” People booked vacation time for this thing. Finally, the game comes out and to the utter surprise of no one, Bethesda needs to buy another trophy cabinet to hold their Game of the Year awards.

The repeated praise that Skyrim gets is unsurprising, though, because it’s genuinely good. Maybe you’ve played it and liked it! Maybe you’ve played it and became one of the vocal minorities that thinks that Skyrim is the worst thing ever. While I certainly had my fun with Skyrim’s world and story, I’m going to say something that also might not surprise anyone:

Skyrim told its story in possibly the most rubbish way possible.

Alright, I’m going to say something controversial and I’m going to say it in bold, heading text so that you know it’s important. Ready? Here goes.

WRITERS ARE AFRAID OF LETTING READERS TAKE LIBERTIES

Wow, that sounds important. I’m not by any stretch of the imagination a professional writer. I’ve never been paid to write. But I’ve made enough educated guesses to say with fair certainty that writers want their readers to experience as much of the story as possible. They don’t want you to miss anything because it’s their story and they’re telling it. With books, it’s a safe bet that you would experience as much as possible because it’s presented in a linear fashion. There’s no risk involved because the only expectation on you is to simply read (and hopefully understand) the story. You experience it secondhand from the author herself. The reader doesn’t need to take liberties with the story because they can’t take liberties with it, besides interpreting symbols and the like.

With video games, it’s a whole different experience. Suddenly, it’s not the author or authors telling the story; the expectation is on you to discover it for yourself. What this means for the writer is that large stretches of the game are seen as unimportant. Subplots become side-quests which become optional. Or, the converse happens (like in Skyrim’s case) where the main story is seen as optional compared to the side-quests.

The game developers then incentivize exposition and story by adding rewards to them. In a book, if it goes deeper into the motivations of the characters, that’s a major bonus for you simply because it’s more story. The author’s discussing a character you already (hopefully) like, or making an unlikeable character more likeable, or both, or neither! In a video game, if the quest doesn’t have a decent reward attached to the end of it, you can bet your ass that no one who plays the game would do that particular side-quest, regardless of how much juicy exposition they get from it. Players want to discover things in these worlds, but they don’t want to be roped into doing tasks if there isn’t a good reason for it.

If you’ve even heard of Skyrim, you might be familiar with the Unusual Stones: pink, floating diamond-shaped crystals that never left your inventory for any reason because they’re quest related. These stones were attached to a side-quest related to the Crown of Barenziah, a headdress worn by a prominent character in Morrowind’s Tribunal expansion pack. Having played the first six hours of Morrowind about four times, my elven ears perked at this information. After I looked up the quest online and found out what the reward for finding all 24 stones was (a perk that allowed you to find gems more often in chests), I dropped the quest right there. Sixteen stones will never leave my inventory. It just wasn’t worth the amount of time for that little of a reward.

I touched on it a little bit in the last essay, but it’s worth going deeper into it now. Skyrim is terrified of you. It’s afraid that anything you do in the game that could possibly endanger the rest of the story. What Bethesda did to rectify this issue is simple: they made everything separate. Even things that would technically have far-reaching consequences, like killing the Emperor at the end of the Dark Brotherhood questline, have no narrative significance in the grand scheme of things. You killed Alduin and saved Skyrim? Good for you! There are still dragons everywhere, though!

The massive amounts of choices that are presented to you in Skyrim still exist and are still legitimate despite this. However, because the effects of your choices have no bearing in the overall scope of the narrative, the choices are merely illusions. Skyrim has six complete questlines, including the main quest. None of them influence each other in any way. None of them overlap. None of them even recognize that the others have even occurred. You would think that the aforementioned assassination of the Emperor would have some impact on the events that happen in the Civil War questline, but it’s glossed over and largely ignored.

This is a trend that I’ve noticed in recent years: as games start to become more “accessible” and “mainstream,” the player’s influence in the story of the game decreases. Games that continue to be considered to be the pinnacles of story-telling in a digital medium, like Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment and similar RPGs are all over a decade old at this point.

What’s even stranger about this is that Skyrim’s predecessor, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, did this rather well for the most part. You could still conceivably do everything and see everything in a single play-through, if you had the patience. The one major diff’erence is it lacks the hand-holding that Skyrim does with its nonsense about essential NPCs. You killed Caius right at the beginning of Morrowind? Tough luck, you can find Sunder and Keening by yourself. That’ll teach you to murder people indiscriminately. What Morrowind did with its story structure was extremely brave, and Skyrim has sadly retreated from that for a more conservative story-telling system.

Skyrim wants its players to experience everything. It needs you to experience everything. Because of this, it lays all of its cards out on the table right away for the player. Everything is available from the beginning, no matter what background you are, no matter what skills you’ve chosen, no matter what backstory you’ve invented for yourself. This, of course, leads to some odd contradictions. Inevitably you become the spell-slinging, sword-wielding Archmage, hero, leader of the Companions, Thieves Guild, Dark Brotherhood, and any other guild or organization that would give you some coins and a marker in your quest book.

This is boring. Don’t do this. I love Skyrim, despite its awful narrative structure, but it’s a horrible way to structure a world. I can see it being done in an MMO, where everything has to be static simply because of the amount of players that need to experience the same content in the same areas, but in a single-player, offline RPG it’s simply unacceptable. It’s the main reason I stopped playing Skyrim in the first place; I couldn’t be arsed to troop through the unfinished questlines for some simple Steam achievements.

Skyrim isn’t the only one to fall prey to this, of course. However, because of its status as the current media darling, it seems to have gotten a free ride to Perfection-Land simply because games journalists were dazzled by its qualities. I know I was; I turned in a rather sickeningly praising review of it just a couple months ago. Its qualities shine bright, sure, but that doesn’t mean that we should ignore its faults simply because it does a lot of stuff decently.

INFINITE, SHIMMERING POSSIBILITIES

Bioware gets it. At least, they’re one of the few studios still around nowadays that truly get that the whole point of a videogame is the interactivity of it. If I wanted to read a story, I’d grab a book off this shelf next to me. I’ve got hundreds. But if I wanted to experience a story, to influence it, there are video games for that.

I didn’t play Dragon Age II because I hated the demo, so let’s talk about Mass Effect 2. Now, I hated the story of Mass Effect 2, despite having never played the first one. It just wasn’t a terribly good story (being simply a bunch of side-quests linked together under the Collectors umbrella. There were only two actual main quests in the game), so I was understandably baffled when it started collecting Best Writing awards.

But what Mass Effect 2 did insanely well was the amount of influence the player had on the story. The loyalty missions, which were completely exposition in themselves, were tailor made to be optional but necessary. They had the intrinsic reward of learning more about the characters, and the always-useful extrinsic reward of your character not biting the dust in the suicide mission. Those were the only rewards for finishing each loyalty mission; you didn’t get a new gun, or a new pair of boots. All you have is some extra background info and the promise of maybe not dying in the future.

Mass Effect 2 was not an open world by any stretch of the imagination. It doesn’t benefit (and suffer) from the sheer scope of Skyrim. But it still dared to have its players live by and deal with the consequences of their actions through different endings. Garrus got carried away by bees in my playthrough. Was that my fault? YES. Does that define my experience with the game in any way? YES. People still look at me funny when I mention that three of my squad died on the final mission.

Of course, the choice isn’t the only part of the narrative that Mass Effect 2 had going for it, and the weakness of its overarching plot due to being the middle child in that series did bring it down. But the involvement of the player in the story did mark it as something quite special in my mind, as that degree of choice is almost unheard of in contemporary role-playing games. Player choice is a wholly underrated concept in this industry, when making highly-linear shooters makes the big bucks and powerful classically-styled RPGs are just starting to make a comeback in the mainstream market.

HOW I’D IMPROVE THE COLLEGE OF WINTERHOLD

I don’t doubt that Skyrim has an almost absurd amount of words sunk into it. I imagine that they could fill several books. While it would be an immense amount of work, think of how much more interesting each individual questline would be if the player was given a bit more leeway throughout! I’ve sketched up some possible endings for the College of Winterhold questline, instead of it being rigidly plotted to its end. Of course, most of these endings depend on doing away with the idea of “Essential NPCs.”

  1. Ancano is killed by the player before challenging him in “Eye of Magnus.” This would only be able to be accomplished before he seals himself in with the Eye. Because of his status as Mage of the College, the player (if discovered) would be kicked from the College and a bounty would be leveraged in Winterhold. Since his plot would have never be discovered, the Eye would remain floating in the center of the College, or it would be taken by the Psijic Order.
  2. The Arch Mage is killed by the player before he is supposed to die in the normal questline. If the player isn’t discovered, Ancano makes his move right there, and the questline continues as normal. If the player is discovered you can:
    1. Start a coup by intimidating Tolfdir into making you Archmage. A battle will occur between the player and several randomly-picked mages. Once this rebellion is quelled, the player is made Archmage at the expense of the chosen high-profile mages dying, leaving the College without trainers for several random schools. Ancano activates the Eye of Magnus, and the questline continues, aside from the fact that many of the mages of the college only begrudgingly follow you. This could influence the main quest as well, as the College librarian would be less likely to give you relevant info on the Elder Scroll.
    2. Decide to take responsibility and accept a punishment. The player is permanently kicked out of the College of Winterhold, and the guards in Winterhold attack on site. This will understandably make getting the Elder Scroll harder later in the game. That’s your own fault. Ancano is elected Archmage, he takes control of the Eye of Magnus. It is destroyed in a cataclysmic explosion, and most of the College members are killed. Half of Winterhold is wiped off the map.
  3. Beat Ancano to the punch by activating the Eye of Magnus yourself. This could either spiral off into another questline involving the player having to deal with the Psijic Order, or simply give the player some buffs and debuffs (like making your magical powers supercharged, at the expense of it burning health whenever you cast spells).
  4. Don’t kill anyone (you nice guy). Ancano performs his plot like normal, and the questline proceeds unhampered.

Now, doesn’t that sound more exciting than the normal quest -> quest -> quest -> “you win, here’s some clothes” system that Skyrim usually fell back on? It doesn’t force the story through by sheer narrative gumption. It simply gives you a little bit of leeway to actually define your own story.

Game developers seem to be forgetting that video games aren’t simply a fancy soapbox to tell stories from. It’s a platform for which you, the player, can define your own stories. It’s the medium we love, the one that forces us to point excitedly at the screen and yell, “Holy shit! Did you see that? Did you see what I did?” This ability to choose, this unique feature to our video games, is what sets gaming apart from static media like movies. Our stories are constantly in flux.

I’m not sure how much exposure this essay will receive compared to the last one (and major thanks to Mr. Rossignol, I was chuffed to see my words in the Sunday Papers. Dream part one accomplished?) but I would be extremely pleased to talk with some actual games writers about this. If you are a games writer or know someone who writes video game narratives, please have yourself/them read this and drop me an email at tjinks[at]gmail[dot]com. Also, thanks for the lovely comments I received on the last essay, your delicious pageviews only serve to make me stronger (and my writing better, hopefully). 

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