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