Sunday, April 22, 2012

Choice in Gaming

I touched on this briefly in a comment I made on the FPS post, but I figured I could go into more detail here.

Choice is a huge part of gaming. From playing Monopoly, to Dungeons and Dragons, to your favorite video games, you want to have a direct impact on what's going on around you. In Monopoly, it's deciding whether to build, buy, or even to sit in jail for a turn. In essence, your choice is shaping every aspect of the game within the confines of the rules. In a tabletop RPG, you can go about your missions via diplomacy, stealth, guns blazin' or any other option you can think of. But it seems when it comes to video games, you always run into a section where the choice you would make, isn't a choice presented to you.

The reason for this is obvious: if a developer tried to come up with tons of potential options for every situation, the game would require many, many disks (even on Blu-ray) and a monstrous budget to cover all the art objects, animation differences, voice acting... everything.

Well, why isn't this an issue in board games? Well, for one, they have clear-cut, concrete rules. You can't steal in Monopoly, because you'd face repercussions from your friends.

Obviously, choice isn't really an issue in a tabletop RPG, because 90% of what happens is based off choice. Don't want to shoot the monster? Go ahead and pistol whip him, or try to push him off a building edge. Want to bail and leave your team to die? Seen it happen. Want to steal from allies? Totally possible if you play your cards right.

But what about a video game? Let's say I'm having a conversation with this dude and I don't like him, and I just want to end it abruptly. Well, if the game doesn't give me the option to shoot the guy in the face, I can't. And this always seems to happen... The player sees the bad guy early in the game, but can't do anything about it, even when fully armed. If you're playing a character that doesn't care what happens to themselves, why shouldn't you be able to try to take down a bad guy, even if he has guards outside the door?

I know you've all come across this sort of situation, where you WANT to do something, but you CAN'T. Sometimes, for me at least, it can break the flow of the game. Wouldn't you just LOVE to be able to ignore the shoehorned in love story, because it doesn't feel right? Or how about being able to have more choice than being either Paragon of Justice or Giant Douchebag? I'd LOVE to see a morally grey area explored. The problem with the Morality systems (inFamous, Mass Effect) is that they only reward people who follow along one path. If you think about all the shades between "Good" and "Evil", you really are leaving about a huge chunk of options. Sometimes people only act a specific way to unlock the next power or reward in that alignment. If given the option to save the bad-guy from falling off a bridge or killing him, a la Scar from Lion King, if I'm playing a reasonable character, I'd kill him. But in doing so, I'd earn Evil points, and gain nothing if I've been relatively good up to that point.

So, why should I be penalized for not following the strict moral code? i hope that in the future, when hardware increases, we'll be allowed the option where we can be in the middle of the morality scale and not be "behind" our Evil/Good counterparts in terms of strength. Sometimes it's cathartic to do something bad, especially when we feel justified doing it after having our good efforts undermined by the douche. As often in real life, decisions are not black and white, so I wish I could hold my games to that standard... But I can't. I know of the limitations, I know of the costs, but... It doesn't stop me from desiring it. A game where the main character reacts to a situation in a way where it feel natural to the persona I have carved for them.

I feel grateful though, to tabletop RPGs for allowing these morally grey areas to exist. You may not agree, enjoy, or even like hearing about them, so if that's the case, feel free to skip these next paragraphs.

I'm going to give an example of a situation where Agency was in full force. Agency is the concept that the players are in a world where their decisions have actual consequences. In a DnD game with some friends, I was playing a thief who was paranoid of people, especially those close to him. One friend was playing a boisterous Warlord (kept the party alive), and a stoic Ranger (NEEDS MORE DPS). One day, I felt a bit slighted by the Warlord, so one night, while we had camp made up, I slipped a note to the DM, and made my roll, and ended up stealing 500 gold from him. He had no idea it was missing until the next time he tried to go shopping for gear. In retaliation (he found out that I stole from him when he saw my fancy new stuff), he decided to steal stuff back from me. He ended up taking a few gems from me. Well, to be fair, I 'loaned' them to him so he could get new gear (and pay me back with interest of course), but he said that he was going to pay me back. I snuck into his room at the mansion we were guests at, took the gems, and set fire to his gear. Naturally, the whole room went up in flames, his weapons he crafted for selling melted, and he lost a lot of non-combat gear.

Now, this whole chain of events was entirely detrimental to the group, but it was fun. It was in the character's personae to act this way. Why should my paranoid Rogue trust that he'll be paid back? Why should an honorable, seasoned Warlord take that kind of guff from a guy who's only along due to circumstance? When a character takes a persona all of their own, choice becomes much more powerful, and Agency is in full effect.

That's the kind of experience I want to have one day. I know a multiplayer experience like this is long out of reach, but a single player experience where are choices aren't confined on such a binary scale. Hell, I'd settle for a triangle shaped morality meter, one that offered a third option. Like acting out of Greed, Charity, or Violence.

1 comment:

  1. One game that you may find interesting is The Witcher series. It's a hella-deep RPG, but one of the more interesting things is that, rather than being a paragon of justice or a complete douchebag, you play an amoral character struggling to survive in an amoral world. I know it's not a three-point meter or anything, but it's seemingly the closest we can get for now.