The Big Quest(ion)

By John Walker on September 1st, 2009 at 11:30 am.

Um, yes.

I’ve been thinking about quests. Quests in RPGs. More specifically, what I want from a quest. As we’re wandering through the ancient lands/secret base/alien world, there’s a fairly good chance a local is going to ask us for a favour, on our way to complete a larger task. I adore this structure, this idea of having larger and smaller aims, an important journey, but time for diversions. There’s something specifically soothing about it – a to-do list of adventures. But if I could pick my consequences, what would they be?

I don’t think it’s any great controversial statement to suggest BioWare does this best. However, their model is most people’s model, whether that’s their own kin at Obsidian or elsewhere, or any others, quests tend to combine a mercenary task with an emotional weight. Kill the evil space robot of Planet F to collect the Quantum Canon component. But do it because he murdered this woman’s son. That space bastard.

With Mass Effect 2 promising darker themes, more brutal stories and fewer fluffy asides, Dragon Age implying a hardened world of grisly fighting, and Alpha Protocol replacing good/bad choices with murky/murkier, this notion appears to be getting increasingly mature. What will be interesting to see, in all forthcoming RPGs, is whether there can be a sense of scale to match.

A galaxy of opportunties!

I think scale is the hardest thing to get right in such games. Take Knights Of The Old Republic as a useful example. KotOR sets up the most remarkable sense of scale after its opening few hours. You spend time on an occupied planet, an oppressed people caught between two evil forces, performing trials. Important to those you help – sourcing medical supplies for the free clinic, for instance, has huge potential impact for good – but made meaningless in the shocking destruction of the planet that quickly follows. It creates a sense of massiveness, or enormous consequence. But it is, of course, a fudge. You had no part in that – your actions were the smaller pieces on the surface, the obliteration hard-coded into the plot. Once it’s happened, you’re rushing around another planet looking for lost Jedi, convincing families to resolve differences or slaughter each other, and helping a woman find her droid. Again, important for those involved, not of huge impact to the galaxy as a whole.

That’s not quite fair. Looking for the lost Jedi carries quite a weight. Find her, and you can kill her on the spot (out of mad malice). Or you can aid her, bring her into your group of friends, and spend the next 30 hours travelling the galaxy with her. She can make a massive impact on your experience as a constant companion. Or she can be a corpse. That’s a fairly hefty decision.

But I don’t want my choices to always be life or death. And equally, I don’t want them to always be wrong or right. Sometimes these are perfect themes, but not always. I want to fathom a means to create a sense of scale behind my actions, without their being so dramatically thudding. I want subtlety, but impact.

I think the problem is, too often, that your choice is reduced to a binary switch, and whichever way you flick it, nothing changes. Return to the island/planet/space station, and the consequences of your actions are sat there, lifeless, whether they’re a corpse or a reunited mother and son. Talk to them and they might say, “Thank you so much for your help! Without my child would have died!” Return weeks later and they might say, “Thank you so much for your help! Without my child would have died!” The moment I was finished with them, they ceased to live. Their moment of reuniting happiness becomes something of a grotesque parody. Trapped in that instance, unable to move on with their lives, I might just as well have killed them both and robbed from their cupboards.

When I say “nothing changes”, that’s not strictly true. My experience changed, my memories of the events are constructed uniquely, and even though their existences are frozen in time, they’re how I left them. I’m not dismissing the impact of this at all. What I’m wondering is: can this get bigger without breaking a game?

Will Dragon Age grant my wishes?

I’m not entirely sure. RPGs must be the world’s biggest nightmare to build. Creating a series of choices, and yet at the same time a coherent and cogent game, with meaningful direction and strong narrative… I wouldn’t like that to be my job. Clearly the simplest solution to doing it well is to have choices make aesthetic differences, and player experience differences, but not impact the overall story in any massive way. The difficult part is to do this incredibly well.

I think, perhaps, the greatest example of doing this incredibly well is Deus Ex. The story has been told many times, but it bears repeating once more. Long ago when the world was young and Kieron and I were even younger, I called him from my home in Guildford to his home in the PC Gamer offices to discuss Deus Ex. We were chatting about various moments, sharing thoughts, and then I said, “Wasn’t it awful when your brother died?” Kieron replied, “My brother didn’t die?”

Of course it turns out whether you save older Denton or not, you still travel next to Hong Kong. I went there to recover a chip from his body. Kieron went there to meet his brother. I broke the news of his death to his girlfriend. Kieron went to see his girlfriend for other reasons. We both played exactly the same game, playing through exactly the same levels, but our motivations were dramatically different. Neither of us could perceive a game in which we would go to those places for any reason other than those we had at the time, creating the sense of something unique to our decisions and experiences.

I think this is possibly the most realistic structure. It is of course one that’s broken with a second play through (or a sneaky use of save games, like someone with six fingers and a thumb in their choose-your-own-adventure book). It also goes some way to creating an illusion that multiple endings aren’t about pushing a particular coloured button in a scene near the end. (Which oddly enough Deus Ex was more guilty of than most.)

Mission of course represents one of the most dramatic decisions you can make.

So what is the quest that I want?

Well, I want all that currently exists. While the vaccination quest in Mass Effect that caused me to write a diatribe about morality in RPGs almost exactly a year ago was ridiculous, I want those weighty decisions put in front of me. However, I’d like to know the people involved, be troubled by an emotional connection, and have the opportunity to speak to experts on either side before making my feelings known, I still want those tough choices. And I certainly want the most obvious, “Could you deliver this parcel to the butcher?” quests, that turn out to be smuggling illegal magic spells for an underground cartel, and finish with fighting a terrible warlock. I want all that stuff to be there. But I want, when I’ve finished them, to see progress in the lives with which I was involved.

I don’t think this breaks the game. If I save the husband from the Gnarth Beast on Undersea Base 6, then I don’t want it to end when I inform his wife and she gives me her father’s anti-shark gun to thank me. Many games will have it set up so should you return you might find them both stood outside their house like garden ornaments, praising you on repeat every time you speak to them. But I want more. More I say! I want to return later and find they’ve had a fight and aren’t speaking to each other. And later still, their away on holiday. Come back just before the end and they’re she’s dying. I want their existence to continue, even though I may not be a part of it. Clearly should I have killed her husband and fed him to the Gnarth Beast, then these things wouldn’t be happening. Other things instead. Not huge changes, but progress.

Then elaborate on this. If I save the husband, perhaps he helps me in the final battle. It doesn’t change the ending of the game. It doesn’t enormously impact upon the fight. But he’s there, aiding me, a bonus. But that pirate I thwarted, returning all his stolen gold to the orphanage, he’s there making it more difficult.

It’s all about embracing the more trivial parts of the game and giving them consequence. It’s not about being unrealistic and demanding each choice I make creating another divergent path until the game looks like a fractal, coded by ten million people over a thousand years. It’s about not only creating the illusion that my path through the pre-determined narrative is unique, but flavouring that narrative with the consequences of my actions.

I find little in gaming more comforting than the quest log. For a person who never makes to-do lists, and is pitifully disorganised, having something so neat and structured is a pleasure and a security. Watching one get crossed off as I complete it, seeing entire chapters relocated to the list of completed tasks, it’s wonderful. What I want next is that list of completed tasks to be reminders of places to return, or hints of what’s yet to come.

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151 Comments »

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  1. Bobsy says:

    Hm. My problem with side-quests is when they’re poorly weighted with relevance next to the main task at hand. Bioware frequently tasks you with saving the world/galaxy/reality itself and then asks you to take time out of this most important of charges to solve relatively minor problems. I’m increasingly of the opinion to say stuff it to anything that’s not at least as important as the main quest.

    Most glaringly this happened in Psychonauts on my first playthrough. The main quest was given such importance and urgency that it didn’t even cross my mind to take my time and explore a bit first. I suddenly found myself on the Asylum island realising I was in the home straight of the game and I’d seen barely a smidgen of the content up to that point. So I packed it in, took a couple of weeks rest, then started the game from the beginning again, properly this time.

    Still. I shouldn’t have to, yeah?

  2. The Poisoned Sponge says:

    I think the main obstacle for that sort of thing is the incredible amount of writing required for it. If you were to give consequence beyond the obvious to every decision you make as a player, that increases the amount of work needed for the game tenfold, because you’re effectively making a set of outcomes for every single piece of work you’d done previously. Really, I think that’s probably why we haven’t seen it.

    On the flipside, I don’t see that as a problem we should have to encounter. The more freeform games become, the less this stuff should be scripted and written, to the extent where we get things becoming a little more random and surprising. I’m really waiting for someone to do a procedural RPG.

  3. Butler` says:

    But I want more. More I say! I want to return later and find they’ve had a fight and aren’t speaking to each other. And later still, their away on holiday. Come back just before the end and they’re she’s dying.

    I suppose it’s just developer relectunce to spend resources on what is essentially fluff — non-essential, peripheral stuff like this which may or may not enhance the player experience.

    It’s a question of how far they want to go to create a dynamic world and a sense of wider scale complexity, but of course there’s a cost associated with doing so. And one no one, as of yet, is willing to pay.

  4. Nick says:

    I don’t think the amount of writing required is the issue, although it may be a contributing factor – It’s becoming clear to me that the costs of providing content at the required quality (which these days means expert animation and full voice over) are providing a strong disincentive for studios to indulge in too much side-questery and more ‘impactful’ questing of the type we’re wanting.

    You see it with each successive generation of Bioware games – increased production values, less actual content (compare BG1 and BG2 to Jade Empire, Mass Effect). Same with each successive Bethesda RPG (Daggerfall is more content heavy than Oblivion, which is more content heavy than Fallout 3). Those games which prioritise content over production values (Gothic series, for example) are generally seen as more niche and less successful.

    The quality burden is now simply too great to support the kind of content generation that would be required to fulfill such desires, which is a real pity in my view. The market has spoken, and it seems to largely prefer action/RPG hybrids with top notch production values to anything else.

  5. simonkaye says:

    I’m so with you on this stuff, John.

    I remember in Oblivion – saving Kvatch was an incredibly big deal. Stage one responses were fine – “hey, aren’t you the hero of kvatch?!” – but that was it. The city was never rebuilt, the people there never moved from their spots, the refugees were never rehomed. It was frozen in time.

    Real immersion has little to do with graphics – we have to feel like the world around us is responding and growing and operating independently.

    The only two games to have REALLY got this right are, as you say, Deus Ex – and Blade Runner.

  6. John Walker says:

    But Sponge, that’s exactly what I’m not suggesting. It’s not about writing 10x more game to account for all decisions. It’s about entwining decisions into the future of the game. If I kill Man X, Man X doesn’t show up in the end battle. And vice versa. It’s a small tweak based on a small decision. Lots more work, clearly, but not an improbable amount.

  7. Clovis says:

    Dang, I wanted to complain about Kvatch! There is a similar station in Mass Effect 2 that never improved.

    I want less clear cut decisions. The choices are always good, bad, or maybe neutral. How about quests that don’t have any obvious answer? And then, even if you pick the “good” option, you sometimes have an awful result.

  8. Heliocentric says:

    Yeah, this is a problem. Creating a content for 1% of the audience or less. 4 choices each for one of 3 options, then you have 81 unique outcomes.

    Do you write all 81 events out for all possible phases? When anything short of a player replaying, AND exploring will miss this content.

    A small village you return to, or i suppose a space ship. With a population you rely on. But you would need a lack of quest heads for the density of event to be meaningful. Just a small population of well written multiple event characters who grow, age persist and ultimately die?

    But then you must sacrifice scale. NWN 2 had a good answer, don’t let you go back to places there is not new content at.

  9. Rinox says:

    Good read!

    I found that The Witcher did a very good job at interweaving side- and subquests with the overarching personal, racial and political main plot(s). I don’t mean in a very radical game-changing way as in Deus Ex but in terms of creating a coherent world in which your actions on various levels start influening each other.

    The game had a very natural way of coercing you into some personal and moral choices in smaller quests that ended up influencing the main storyline in one way or another. Very well done. Of course, I played it only after the Enhanced Edition came out so it may not have been as great on release.

    Anyway, bottom line of good game design: choices are only interesting if they have real consequences. If the outcome of a choice is nil anyway, you’re better off pushing the playing along a linear path instead of offering him a frustrating illusion of choice.

  10. Lyndon says:

    I think my major problem with the old choices and consequences is how they usually tend to get decided during dialogue screens instead of through the actual play. You know you’ve done the quest and then at the end when talking to the NPC there’s two options,
    1.) Have your lollipop back kid
    or
    2.) Ha Ha you’re never getting your lollipop *Steps on lollipop*

    Let me give you an example of what I want. I’ve been playing Fallout again, in that I tried to steal from the doctor in shady sands, he didn’t like that and a fight broke out I had to fight my way out blasting peasants as I went.

    Once I’d gotten away, it occurred to me “Well I guess I won’t be going back to shady sands again…” Now that’s choices and consequences.

  11. Gap Gen says:

    I think the linear RPG has to work quite hard to produce interesting consequences. Equally, a truly non-linear game is often going to be very hard to predict, due to chaotic dynamics – for example, if you save a baby, that baby could turn out to be Robohitler, or provide the one extra body mass that causes the bus to tip off the edge of the canyon, or whatever. I think there’s a huge gap in games for things that push the boundary of modelling people beyond The Sims, which could be interesting in its own right.

    I think something like Deus Ex is very difficult to pull off from a linear design point of view, which is why most games with quests give isolated experiences. Deus Ex, equally, was highly successful in combining design and excellent writing to produce characters you cared about. For example, if JC died, you needed extra dialogue that said “I’m sorry about your brother” or whatever – rather than it just being a case of which objects populated the world.

    Also, part of it is that Bioware has a distinct style of writing games, and I’ve complained about this before. I found listening to a lot of the detail in Mass Effect to be a bit annoying – I do prefer Half-Life 2’s show-don’t-tell approach, even if it means that the universe isn’t bulked out as much in the game. For example, in Mass Effect, I found the mission where Wrex just barges in and kills a guy who’s surrendered to be more interesting and affecting than any amount of wittering of your crew. The concept of a nomad space-faring race is interesting, but that sort of thing is why I read books and short stories – it’s not why I play games.

  12. Paul Moloney says:

    I generally enjoyed Mass Effect, but the planetary side quests were spectacularly lame, more akin to arcade shooter power-up collections than attempts at story-telling. In fact, by trying to cram in lots of planets which had little or nothing to do on them, the game felt less “real” than it they’d simply concentrated on a few worlds, like KoToR. I hope that Dragon Age has a bit more to it.

  13. Rinox says:

    @ heliocentric

    Yeah, I think the only way to truly achieve such a world/game would be to build a program that can ‘think up’ stories of its own. Of course, that’s a helluvatask. Chris Crawford has his storytron, but afaik it’s still way off from the level of complexity we’ve come to expect from our modern RPG’s.

    http://www.storytron.com/

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    Stense says:

    I’ve always felt that although the side quests Bioware put in their games are generally fun, they are all too often rather black and white in their choices. Obsidian on the other hand I’d say are much more skilled at presenting real consequences to your actions in a game. There is that wonderful bit in Knights of the Old Republic 2 where a beggar asks for a few credits, depending on your response, you get to see what happens to the beggar after he’s gone away. He doesn’t necesserily benefit from that free hand out. Another is in Neverwinter Nights 2, when you get a new companion called Shandra who will go with you everywhere. Later in the game you are put on trial and she has to testify on your character, and your actions she’d witnessed up until that point does have a great impact on her testimony. Thats the type of writing that I think suits itself very well to RPGs. Unfortunately, I’m not sure many studios have the time (or perhaps the skill) required to succesfully pull it off.

  15. Clovis says:

    After giving this some thought, Bethesda may have been close to what you wanted. If they simply expanded their NPC AI you could get cool results. It is annoying that the couple you reunited are still standing in front of their house. If you had a complex NPC AI you could just “release” those characters back into the pool of non-quest NPCs that walk around and look normal. Now just add in relationships, break ups, death, children, whatever to that procedural NPC AI.

    It would be cool to occasionally visit especially memorable NPCs to see what they are up to. I don’t know if an RPG can be fully procedural, but doing this doesn’t seem too bad.

    Also, revisiting places in modern “open world” type RPGs should be rewarded. Kvatch should be rebuilt, and then there should be some new quests available. You’d never return to an old town in Final Fantasy, but it makes more sense in a modern RPG.

  16. Lilliput King says:

    I know exactly what you mean. Once a quest is completed, there is no meaningful continuation – short term consequences, sure, but in the long term, everything turns out the same.

    Baldur’s Gate had its share of lame, short-term consequence quests, but also had a couple of quests which mildly changed the course of the story, and had effects on the later stage of the game. It even had a rather snazzy penultimate end-fight where you gathered allies you may or may not have made earlier for an assault on a Vampire’s dungeon. They were all a bit of a pain in the arse and got in the way, but it was still nice to see your actions earlier on influencing who fought with you if anyone etc.

  17. Kieron Gillen says:

    I think I’m with Bobsy here actually. Side-quests are… strange.

    KG

  18. rob says:

    Bobsy: “The main quest was given such importance and urgency that it didn’t even cross my mind to take my time and explore a bit first.”

    This strikes me as good storytelling more than anything else. Things that exist outside of the main story add to the life of the game, I’d say.

    The talk of urgency is interesting though. The concept of game-time is a real problem with RPGs, I think. Thinking back to Baldur’s Gate 2 – at the start of the game proper, your sister is imprisoned. Now, you can rush like hell to rescue Imoen, if you like – but to the game, it doesn’t matter how long you take to rescue her… and you’re also now in the middle of a city, with thousands of sidequests. Most people would say, ‘hey, Imoen can wait – I want to kill some dragons and level up a bit’.

    Taking it on from Jim’s ‘what I want’, how about if you were urgently on the archetypal quest to save the galaxy – say Obi Wan appears to you in a vision to tell you that, yes, you, a farmhand from Space Norfolk is the only hope to save the galaxy. Your usual timeframe for this would be, well… you wouldn’t have a timeframe. When you save the galaxy, the game ends. It could take you 10 hours, it could take you 50.

    But how about if you knew you only had 2 hours until the galaxy killing bomb exploded – If you don’t find and defuse the bomb in time, tough luck. Game over.

    Now sidequests start to become more interesting…

    What if you’re on your way to defuse the bomb, and a woman throws herself at your feet to say “You look like a hero! Please help me! Darth Tyrannosauras has kidnapped my children, he’s in the building over there, and he says he’ll kill them if I don’t pay him 20000 Space Pounds!” – typical sidequest stuff. Only now, maybe you have time to do this, maybe you don’t. Maybe it’s a trap and you’ll be ambushed? Maybe your conscience can’t let you leave two kids to die? Could you really just rush past a mother like that…

    All of a sudden, the decision to do a sidequest becomes urgent and intriguing – not just ‘oh, I’ll get some more XP’.

    Obviously this wouldn’t work ALL the time, but it’s an interesting thought nonetheless.

  19. Uglycat says:

    Tsk, all you Kvatch complainers: http://www.tesnexus.com/downloads/file.php?id=15412

  20. Idiot says:

    No mention of The Witcher, Fallout or Age of Decadence in an article discussing choice and consequence?
    Glaring omissions.

  21. Paul Moloney says:

    “There is that wonderful bit in Knights of the Old Republic 2 where a beggar asks for a few credits, depending on your response, you get to see what happens to the beggar after he’s gone away”

    I’m looking forward to playing that once they finish the Restoration project, even if KoToR 1 is on my all-time list of Disappointing Games (I was unlucky enough to run into a whole bunch of bugs for side-quests meaning I couldn’t end them).

    P.

  22. Lilliput King says:

    KoToR ran impossibly slowly on my computer of the time and crashed periodically, but I recently played through it again and it ran pretty much flawlessly, and is still a great RPG.

    Pretty much black/white choices and consequences though, as is Bioware’s usual way.

  23. Bhazor says:

    Reply to Gap Gen
    “I think the linear RPG has to work quite hard to produce interesting consequences. Equally, a truly non-linear game is often going to be very hard to predict, due to chaotic dynamics”
    Give me chaos over linearity every time. The unhinged chaos you create in Boiling Point is a joy and means that there is always a consequence as the dozen factions jostle to see who hates me the most.

    Reply to Nick
    Pretty much my thoughts exactly. Its worth pointing out that both KOTOR games were one third alien gibberish and only a half dozen models and four or five talk animations. Neverwinter Nights 2 campaign was also primarily text based and all these games offer far greater depth than Mass Effect managed.

  24. Ginger Yellow says:

    I thnk some of it is down to the cost/effort of writing and implementing meaningfully different outcomes – I’m certain this is how developers and publishers justify it to themselves – but frankly I think a lot of it is down to the reification of genre. It wouldn’t be much harder to write a 20 hour RPG with meaningful, intertwined decisions than it is to write a 100 hour RPG with traditional consequences. But RPG makers (and JRPGs are even worse for this) have generally constructed a strict dichotomy between story quests and side quests, playable characters and non-playable characters. It’s these dichotomies that really prevent the types of consequences John’s calling for, along with a strong desire to tell a particular story (or, with Bioware, a certain range of stories). An RPG about developing a character through a living world, where every quest is a “story quest” and every NPC is a person with desires and goals, would require a different mindset – more like what the developers are trying to achieve in The Sims or Kudos or even Harvest Moon – but is eminently possible.

  25. faelnor says:

    For all its shortcomings and unevenness in writing, the way the main story, the secondary stories and the quests are woven in the Witcher is most satisfying. One of the best, if not the best, in RPGs since the Infinity Engine.

    No mention here is disappointingly criminal.

  26. Dinger says:

    Okay Walker, so you don’t want to rewrite every possibility, just build some continuity into the narrative to show the player matters. It’s a matter of inflection, as in the hypothetical case:
    T1: A band of brigands has been robbing and pillaging the countryside for some time, and now is approaching the player’s home town. Player has option of A. Killing the brigands B. Convincing them they’re better off sacking that elven city or C. Telling the brigands where the town’s treasury is in exchange for a cut.

    T2: Player’s elven sidekick (James) needs help convincing his nubile elven sister to marry a dwarf lord.
    If at T1 player followed option (A), he says, “I’ve always admired your direct way of dealing with problems. Could you compel Ms. Sophie to trothe lord Winterbottom?”
    If option (B), he says, “Your famous pragmatism cost the lives of a thousand elf-folk at the fall of Pommeroy, but now I think it be of service to elfkind.
    If option (C), he says, “I can trust you to help out, for you can see the profit in it. But keep your hands off my sister.”

    Little tweaks or not, it’s still a lot to debug, and it doesn’t demonstrably sell more titles. So economically, it’ll drive up cost for no return. Maybe the only way you can have a truly interactive narrative experience is with other humans in the loop.

    That said, there’s already a huge economic problem in game design. If the game is 40+ hours, most of the content created is experienced by only a small percentage of players.

  27. Doug F says:

    “Dang, I wanted to complain about Kvatch! There is a similar station in Mass Effect 2 that never improved. ”

    Greetings, man from the future! Thank god you came back to warn us of this – hopefully it’s not too late for Bioware to fix this before the game releases next year.

  28. Jazmeister says:

    I concur. Quests happen all the time in real life, but in games, they’re inflated to this formulaic nonsense with a fanfare at either end. I still think, perhaps naively, that the mandate of an RPG is “role play” – getting immersed, becoming involved, and feeling things.

    Obviously, having someone say the same thing twice is already a fallacy (as is user-driven conversation – if I want to talk to you, I don’t run up and say “talk to me”, I say something first, and you reply. Maybe you say something to me, and I reply.)

    I can’t help but think the high level art-chain is what bloats the dev time on these games. I’m not anti-graphics, not at all, but I think people like Eskil Steenberg and Adam Saltsman have the right idea here. Computers work by building on a library of subroutines – this is obviously why we have operating systems in the first place. If you’re doing the same thing twice, you’re not using the tools in the right way. L4D cobbles the zombies together from a series of faces. In games past, they’d be entire zombie models, hand-placed by the designer. Procedural gameplay seems to be regarded as this gimmicky thing – I think it’s secretly the key to overcoming this content-heavy obstacle that’s threatening progress industry-wide.

    /tin-foil-hat

  29. Ginger Yellow says:

    “Maybe the only way you can have a truly interactive narrative experience is with other humans in the loop.”

    The funny thing is that outside of perhaps Eve, MMOs fail even more spectacularly on this front than single player RPGs. Your questing accomplishments make absolutely no difference to the world – in most cases, not even for your own version. Usually, everything is reset once you’re out of the instance or public quest. In WoW, the only time there’s any real change to the environment is when Blizzard releases a content update.

    It seems to me that grand strategy games are the best genre for this sort of narrative, and even there a lot of games fall short.

  30. abhishek says:

    In the past few years, I’ve always thought that Bioware simplifies their moral choices a bit too much. Whether it’s dialogues, or quest outcomes, there’s always an obvious ‘good’ or ‘bad’ choice to make. You are essentially ‘farming’ the outcome of your choices in the form of light side/dark side points in KOTOR, renegade/paragon points in Mass Effect. While it’s not a severe criticism of their work, after playing The Witcher in which the moral implications and consequences of your choices are not immediately obvious, I do get the feeling that Bioware’s writing standards have dipped somewhat.

  31. Clovis says:

    @Doug F :-P I wrote that too fast. I bet I’m right though! What is really funny is that I meant, “Mass Effect too”. That’s like the dumbest mispelling of “too” EVAR.

  32. Heliocentric says:

    Its dawned on me that lots of games do do what you are asking for. From dwarf fortress, the sims. But more abstractly, pirates! and civ/alpha centuri. These games offer the persistence and the growth. In pirates i can expand the domain of the british and that matters.

    A more recent example i desire a sequel for is hinterland, when the orc’s attack my village and my farmer dies he’s gone. Now if only they could pull back the pace of the game and have neural net ai express opinions on the matters.

    A proper neural net conversation engine could do wonderful things with npc’s. They would talk about things they know about, you could even tell them things.

  33. Bhazor says:

    I’ve always hoped for an rpg that takes less than 30 minutes to complete but it is meant to be played through a dozen times. Each time your choices mean you make mean you only see/hear a small portion of the story and characters will either die, refuse to speak to you or even lie right to your face. Also every dialog choice and decision would have subtle and unexpected outcomes. The closest I can think of to this is the opening to Fallout 3 and the choice on whether to take the gun or not and when to intervene.

    I would also like a kitten that sings and a pillow that tells secrets about my enemies. I would like a lot of things.

  34. Sam Crisp says:

    I remember reading in a preview of The Sims 3 that the neighbourhood you were playing in would evolve and change over time as you played as your family. I gathered that you could choose to interact with other families and that you would have some influence on them if you wanted to. For example, the people in the town would age, begin relationships, have children and die and you could leave them be or you could start relationships with them and have their children, potentially changing the future of not just their future generations but their day to day life. I don’t know if this actually happens in the game or if it is noticeable, but I really liked the idea.

    Recently, I watched some gameplay footage of Heavy Rain for the PS3, which I think looks interesting (although I have never played Fahrenheit). In the video, the player character is a father and his son is watching TV. The player tells his son to do his homework and the child says he’ll do it later. The words NOW and LATER appear above the player’s head as dialogue choices, floating around with their respective key-presses (It also looks like conversations do not take place in a break from the normal gameplay and that the player can move around as usual while listening and choosing to reply, although I could be wrong). The player chooses NOW and he tells the son to do his homework and then turns off the TV.

    In The Sims 3, you can take direct control over a child and tell them to do their homework or not, causing the possible consequences of staying up to do it, getting tired and being in a bad mood the next day; or getting enough sleep but getting in trouble at school. These choices are not major but affect that character in such a way that it could lead to any number of different things.

    In Heavy Rain – although it more linear and scripted than The Sims 3 – you still have that choice, but you are role-playing as the father and your influence is made made indirectly. I could be wrong about all this as I have not played Heavy Rain and have only briefly played The Sims 3, but I am really fascinated by the potential this sort of game design has and feel that these two games should get a mention when discussing this topic.

  35. shiggz says:

    I would say bioware makes more “movie-like” plot quests. However for my money many of the quests Bethesda are superior hands down. Im thinking specifically one:

    where you realize two guys in two different towns look the exact same. If you talk to them and here there back story you find out one was adopted… it further you find they are twins, you find their old burned out house. then after escorting one through the forest to reunite you take them both to their old burned out house with there parents corpses. Then they start rebuilding the house and replanting garden as such. Come back a few days later and stuff i rebuilt i think there was even a few follow on quests. all from noticing two guys look the exact same and then digging a little deeper. BRILLIANT!

    Yes i share your frustration that their is not more organic evolution to the quests effect on the game world. Some day today’s quests will look like yesterdays physics… ridiculous on stilts that such an empty lifeless untouchable background would be considered acceptable.

  36. kraii says:

    !!!!!!!!

    I’ve played deus ex at least 3 times, and I never realised you could save paul.

  37. shiggz says:

    My idea for a game is a Medieval game no magic. You are in small town with a castle. Middle of the game you take over the castle and start rebuilding it , hiring troops, dumping all your extra weapons and stuff from adventuring into the armory and then troops use it… NWN2 dipped its toe in the water with this concept id love to see a game just focused entirely on it alone…. with no magic… soo sick to death of magic in games and moves. Basically the life of a prince in Medieval Europe from a first/third action view. Travel to far away towns to recruit blacksmiths and town guards etc etc.

  38. ghor says:

    I think side quests would be generally be better if the main quest didn’t always have to be so epic. I’m tired of saving the world/galaxy/universe.

  39. suibhne says:

    @John: “I don’t think it’s any great controversial statement to suggest BioWare does this best.”

    Wait, really? Bioware might be the exemplar of the model you’re discussing, but they’re also one of the biggest offenders when it comes to just about every one of the flaws on offer:

    laughably trivial sidequests alongside an epic “save the entirely multiverse nownowNOW” main storyline;

    a central section that boils down to “visit X number of locations to retrieve X pieces of the thingy required to open up the last section of the game”;

    a fundamentally binary approach to morality in choices of solution – and worse, a tendency to always equate “evil” (for PC’s options) with “street-thuggish” (i.e., “Give me an extra 50p for finding your styling iron, you scurvy dog”) rather than anything like real evil;

    a total lack of independent reality in the gameworld, so quests represent the sole life in the world and that life ceases once the quest is complete; and so on.

    What Bioware does well is storytelling, and they sometimes do that very well even with mediocre narratives. Their quest design has always and only been effective when it’s been a vehicle for that storytelling, but there’s the rub – their brand of “storytelling” means that the world exists solely for the player and there’s pretty much never an illusion of independent reality, either before or after you dispose of the three bunnies in the elderly couple’s garden (and whether or not you kill them, or trap and release for awesome Light Side points).

    The Witcher is a good counterpoint because it matches narrative design and quest design. There are some fairly small sidequests in the game, but every one of them supports the central fiction of witchers in Sapkowski’s world: the game’s sidequests either relate to Geralt’s friends, or they relate to what a witcher would/should actually be doing as a freelance monster killer and general supernatural fix-it guy.

  40. toni says:

    the witcher had many of the features combined you are looking for, no need to cite Bioware all the time since they have done only the same game with different textures since KOTOR.

  41. shiggz says:

    I agree tired of saving world/galaxy with a 3 man team… its stupid. Save a city maybe, a town sure. We aren’t all little Napoleons; most of us would be happy just saving or helping the ones around us that we care about.

  42. suibhne says:

    @ Bhazor: “I’ve always hoped for an rpg that takes less than 30 minutes to complete but it is meant to be played through a dozen times. Each time your choices mean you make mean you only see/hear a small portion of the story and characters will either die, refuse to speak to you or even lie right to your face. Also every dialog choice and decision would have subtle and unexpected outcomes.”

    That’s somewhat similar to the approach being taken by Age of Decadence, aside from the game providing much more than 30 minutes of gameplay. It sounds like any given playthrough will “miss” much of the content, as the game will react very closely to your character build and your choices; many of the approaches to the storyline are incompatible with each other as you move through the game, particularly since it’s based so much on factions. Vince is going for a highly responsive (to player choices) game in which you might see 6-8 hours of gameplay on your first playthrough, then replay the game with a different character and set of choices and see an (almost) entirely different 6-8 hours.

    Note that I just picked that time figure out of thin air, tho. I don’t think he’s hazarded any guesses about playtime; I just wanted to provide an example.

  43. toni says:

    yeah, suibhne, I can’t agree more with your post. read it after posting mine, pretty much sums up my gripes with Bioware and I could not have put it better. There is no new “trend” in RPGs, just publishers+developers being late for the party that started decades ago.

  44. Ginger Yellow says:

    I’ve always hoped for an rpg that takes less than 30 minutes to complete but it is meant to be played through a dozen times. Each time your choices mean you make mean you only see/hear a small portion of the story and characters will either die, refuse to speak to you or even lie right to your face. Also every dialog choice and decision would have subtle and unexpected outcomes.

    Masq

  45. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    I’m with bobsy here. I mean, the whole pace, atmosphere and intensity of the gameworld is often spearheaded by the main quest line. What you do, where you go. So it only makes sense that other things (quests/things to do) would have to be supporting the main quest or be sufficiently important on their own (to the main character(s)).

    There’s obviously quite a bit of give and take, but Fallout did it well, with the starting quest having a timer. I mean you have plenty of time, but it’s basically a pointer saying “Don’t mess about (for too long) or face the consequences.” You still have freedom to do a lot of other things, but you can’t just ignore the greater goal forever. And, really, not enough other games do this.

  46. Byron_Black says:

    I like the consequence system in the witcher, choices don’t effect the overal ending but do change the game. An example is helping the knight in the 2nd act will help you get through a guarded door later, whereas if you didn’t you have to bribe the guards to get through. Each time a consequence effects the game you get a nice little cut scene telling you what you did to cause this and how it could have turned out if you didn’t.

  47. abhishek says:

    kraii : I’ve always found saving Paul is a challenging affair. When the suits burst into the New York hotel room, it’s probably the hardest fight of the game till that point. I always save up my LAMs and stick them right next to the door of the suite and that does some major damage to them, but it’s still a tough fight.

    Don’t be surprised at learning new things about the game though. In my latest playthrough, in the New York section itself, I found, for the first time, that underground lair of sorts (the ones with the rotating bridges and what not). And this was after completing the game about 6 times now!

  48. Zaphid says:

    As several people said before me, not mentioning Witcher when it comes to storytelling is criminal. That game made me enjoy sidequests even more than the main storyline, especially because almost every quest ended up with me saying: “Whoah, I didn’t expect THAT to happen.” Yet when you looked back, they made sense.

  49. GJLARP says:

    Well John, it’s time you took a trip down memory lane and re-played Fallout 1. They don’t make games anymore, like they used to.

  50. Cooper says:

    Peter Molyneaux (I think) once said that he would love to create a game based entirely in one small village. Allowing the writers to flesh out each and every single character extremely well – given there are so few of them – and allow for vast webs of connections and interactions between the few NPCs in the game.

    This is something I would like to see. However, it may be that something like the Sims is actually better at creating that sense of ongoing-ness to NPCs and interactions, after the event.

    Pathologic did something like the village example. In the background, NPCs would meet and do various things, and you might miss whole swathes of narrative because you were not at the right place at the right time. Then again, you may find massive intrigue in the tiniest of things happening in the background.
    Problem is, Pathologic’s ‘ambient’ interaction between NPCs and the ongoingness of the world was defined by a set timetable, which had no effect upon the NPCs as they stood stock still in their locations…