A Little Thing on Player Freedom and Subjectivity in Games.
Inspired by teza posting me this thing on player agency and holyspigot posting me TriadCity. Both of which I'll be discussing as we go.
I'm an avid player of RPGs. Being a dedicated, compulsive, gluttonous kind of reader, I like books that are 2000 pages long, and I like any kind of entertainment that generates story. I especially like any kind of entertainment that helps me generate story, or lets me feel like I am. An RPG may be partly an engagement in team strategy and stats, sure, but unless it's entirely a combat RPG, there's usually some talking, reading, and interaction between the two activities involved. Further, in a given situation, you can say different things, or at least say the same thing in different ways and get different reactions.
The trouble, or perhaps the "trouble" with most Western RPGs is that the freedom of choice that implies is usually very limited. Take BioWare - and I'm going to pick on BioWare a lot, not because I don't think they do a good job (they do), but because they're sort of the flagship of Western RPGs right now and I've played 'em and enjoyed 'em plenty. BioWare games are essentially Aristotlean, to reference teza's link above. Most Western RPGs are. Player choice is carefully constrained. Even a big, sweeping game like Dragon Age that prides itself on player choice will not let you do too much to alter the main narrative. You can anger and kill party members, make the good or bad choices at a number of pivot points, act selfishly or righteously as a rule, be asexual, monogamous, opportunistic or just skanky, etc, etc, but the frame narrative remains the same. You have to be a Grey Warden, you have to fight the Blight, and you have to do all the main quests in more or less the same fashion. A game like Mass Effect 2 is at once more and less limited; your in-character good and bad actions are more constrained, but you can skip essentials, if with horrible effects. The quests themselves, though, usually follow the same framework and your ultimate goals do not change. This is not really a complaint. Games of this size, writing, complexity are extremely difficult to make open-ended - their replayability depends on the different reactions engendered by these choices, whether major or cosmetic. Their replayability depends on the idea that I might be playing a however subtly different game than you are.
Persuasion and Containment - Affecting NPCs versus Being Affected
One of these tools of subtle difference is non-violent skills such as persuasion. I am definitely a persuasion abuser, often because I'm easily bored by combat. A robust game will often give you options to solve a given quest, if I must stress again that these options are often cosmetic. You can persuade the boss to go or give himself up or after you've fought all his goons anyway, for example, sometimes with hilarious effects. In Neverwinter Nights 2, I had a sequence where I played thieves guild, was sent to kill a dirty stoolpigeon who'd surrounded himself with the city guard, and since I was playing a barbarian, ended up having to kill each and every city guard to get to the stoolpigeon, who I magnanimously let go. My alignment improved, ridiculously. (Sorry, Obsidian. You know I still love you best.) But here's an actually pretty robust example from Dragon Age: there's a part near the end where your rescue of a person is foiled by the arrival of your enemy's right hand gal and a guard. You can choose to a. fight or b. submit. If you, b. submit, you can choose either a. to let your party members rescue you or b. rescue yourself, both of which fan out into a. use subtlety / persuasion and b. fight your way out. Not a bad choice tree at all.
However, please note. Your goals remain the same and persuasion or repair or intelligence or whatever tool you're using other than your sword is still pointed in the same direction as your sword would be. My subjective experience of that short quest might be different than yours and possibly very funny or entertaining (as it can be), but the overall point is the same: get your cell door unlocked and leave, which would be the same ultimate point of fighting your would-be captor in the first place, i.e., stay out of her clutches.
What if you could do differently? Dragon Age lets you do some pretty awful things if you want to, but these awful things are usually shunted into the idea of fighting the Blight, and they mostly come at the end of quests, after you've done all that grindy legwork to get there. What if you could just stop being a Grey Warden? What if you could join your rival? What if you could chat with the archdemon? (And to give the game its due, I found the Awakening expansion rather more complex on this particular point, if with problems I'll cover in an actual review.)
What if you could be persuaded rather than persusive? Really persuaded? What if you could change the shape of the narrative altogether?
Sometimes, having detailed explanatory responses for bad or non-traditional actions can be a drawback, after all. When I opted to do a really bad thing in a Dragon Age preview, I had a very complex reason in mind that the game writing did not really allow me to have, a reason that bore out over a number of conversations with characters in-game. I was persuaded, and not from the front the game expected me to be persuaded (the traditional "if you do this bad thing, we will give you something," which appeals to player greed). Games like Dragon Age give you so much room to maneuver, and then no more.
This can be a strength of the purportedly less written and more open games such as Fallout 3, which will, after all, let you join the bad guys - because, and will let you go where you want, kill what you want, steal what you want, etc. But I will admit that Fallout 3 didn't have enough structure for me to feel like I was spinning a story. It is Fallout New Vegas and my old buddies Obsidian that I want to turn to as an example of narrative change.
Oh, New Vegas has constraints - in many ways, it is more railed than Fallout 3. And, like Fallout 3, like most Western RPGs, whatever you do, you always end up in the same end game. The difference is that your reason for being there is always different. Some quests are more railed than others, sometimes choices are cosmetic, but there's one quest I need to highlight.
It's a quest for the New California Republic, who might be the "good guys," but are bureaucratic, slow, pushy, and have their sharp intolerances which may not align with the player's goals (and no, we aren't talking about the player playing a sociopath). It's honestly a pretty tedious quest, but long story short, you find evidence of sabotage. And through one thing or another, you find the saboteur - and he tells you calmly, politely, why he loves the NCR, but it has to lose, and why he will see that it does.
And you can let him do it. Moreso, I found him so persuasive that I switched sides entirely.
What Fallout New Vegas does very well are factions, which often have similar or paired narratives, but different points and often different outcomes. It's a game where you can change your idealology, and change the overall intent of your play. And if it's not perfect, I'd love to see more of that.
I've just covered the role of choice in storytelling in programmed graphical games, but the choice on the opposite end is writing your own story with other storytellers to bounce off of and react to. You can design your character, decide what he or she says, wants, feels, and have reactions to play against. This can be as structured as a joint novella, as light as a game of pretend in a backyard, with defined worlds or undefined, with continuity or not. It's an exploration medium (and I'm yes, going to go ahead and call it a medium) where the participatant is also a creator in a measurable sense, rather than at least half an audience.
However, many participants in free-form roleplay still like a plot. This can be collaborative, organic, written, but everyone is familiar with the concept of a gamemaster, or game staff, or someone who has the administrative and creative power to direct the narrative in the way it should go. This is where doodling can turn into story, but where the player must, to a point, give up a certain amount of freedom to participate.
This is not unlike writing a novel; they say that once that first sentence is on the page, you've lost a certain range of possibility. If you have established world rules, you lose another range of possibility, in exchange for coherency, continuity, structure, consequence. When a free-form RP enters plot stage, you lose, perhaps, a little more. There's a war going on in the world now, so if you walk over the hill to pick flowers, you might get blasted. You can still walk over the hill. Your legs still work. But maybe you ought to think of your motives, your risk level. Why do you need to go over the hill? Why do you need to pick a flower? Whim doesn't make any sense. If the world allows for magic flowers that could heal your dying love, bam, now you have a plot within a plot (if admittedly a maudlin one). A plot to react against forces people to think, consequences force people to weigh, and characters are deepened by having more than a changeable, amorphous mass to pal around in.
In other words, at least for me, roleplay, like any medium, needs some structure if it's going to persist. Too much structure and characters can only develop in written ways, too little, and there's nothing to develop. In that way, it really does resemble a novel. If our protagonist can only act as he is fated to act or, conversely, the protagonist can do whatever he wants with no consequence, engagement suffers. In that way, it can also be instructive to game developers. Freeform roleplay is subjective and player-driven, but needs structure to be a story. Shouldn't both be possible?
This is not a review of TriadCity. I ran up against a bug that permanently halted my progress as a lone adventurer, and the game is pretty deserted after ten years open, but I am sure if I was willing to stick around, I could have had my problem fixed with begging and persistence. I would encourage the interested to spend a little time tooling around - it's certainly a unique MUD with a unique philosophy. That philosophy is subjective gameplay - that different characters will not only do different things, but see different things as they progress. As a concept, this is impossibly neat. In implementation, I'm afraid I didn't really see it, save in dreams. See, what TriadCity does is every time you sleep (which you have to do irritatingly often if you're just exploring), it emits to you a programmed dream that is supposedly based on our experiences, character build, etc. A really cool idea, if somewhat unconvincing. To me, it seemed a little like the car radio in Cocteau's Orpheus, which spews nonsense that he becomes obsessive over, believing it to be inspiration. This sounds harsher than I mean it to be - the dreams are interesting and not, I think, meant to be taken seriously, but they didn't seem particularly tailored. How could they be? The only choices I could really figure to make were to run around looking at things.
In short, the game isn't designed well for lone explorers with no game master, and if it may be that room and people descriptions change depending on who you become, I didn't see it from level 1 to level 4. But how marvelously interesting. I played with the idea of a subjective mini-world that changed according to the players in it in my rather brief stint as a Firan wizard (speaking of lots of code), but to actually pull something like that off takes an incredible amount of work and imagination - I was inspired by a senior wizard doing something like that, with mine and others' writing help. I'd still like to try it one day. I'd still like to see it one day.
So here's to TriadCity's experiment with the nature of plot and freedom. Let's have more like it.