Alpha Protocol is fictionally a game about being an intelligence operative, a spy. Separate from the aesthetic trappings culturally associated with espionage, the way in which it deals with information itself reinforces this theme of intelligence gathering and exploitation.
In-game fictional collectibles are not uncommon. From books to audio logs, these often exist to provide context, or to help with specific puzzles. An audio log in one level can detail the code to a locked door or foreshadow an ominous plot reveal in several hours’ time; they are either explicitly useful or narrative colour, occasionally both.
In Alpha Protocol one of the resources you can collect are Intelligence Dossiers. Obtained either by talking to other characters or finding them in the world, each Dossier unlocks additional information on a particular individual or organisation. This information is presented in the game as contextual narrative: descriptions of characters, their history and relationships. Where these Dossiers differ from similar collectible information in other games is in the influence they can have upon your actions. A particular character’s Dossier will rarely state explicitly how they prefer to be spoken to, though by reading between the lines you can ascertain their likely reactions to a given approach.
Organisations that you can find yourself in conflict with over the course of Alpha Protocol are differentiated by their clothing, weapons, and tactics. All of these things can be learnt from their Dossier, allowing you to identify potential enemies and friends through observation. With this knowledge you can determine their likely allegiances and goals, and the most beneficial way in which to interact with them. Even if you chose to always take the same approach to each situation knowing how particular individuals and organisations are liable to react can allow you to prepare for the consequences of your actions.
The decision to search a room or hack a computer is one that occurs at the moment-to-moment level, though because of the information you can obtain these low-level choices can have a substantial impact on your high-level plans. Choosing to explore an area and hack a computer hidden in the basement might provide you with the specific piece of intelligence you need avoid getting into a gunfight with somebody several hours later; you now know exactly what to say, or what not to say.
Intelligence Dossiers in Alpha Protocol are beneficial not simply as collectibles but for the increased options they provide. In Alpha Protocol “intelligence gathering” is more than a fictional justification for your actions, intelligence itself is one of the most useful and valuable resources you can obtain.
In order to promote my work on Groping The Map: Book 1, I have decided to release a .pdf sample of the first nine pages of the chapter on Nova Prospekt from Half-Life 2. Consider this a “vertical-slice” of the book, as you can see I have made some changes from the traditional format that the articles had when posted directly to this site. I’d greatly appreciate any and all feedback on this sample and please feel free to share this as widely as possible.
In addition to this sample of previously unseen work I have complied the three existing Groping The Map articles into .pdf files for easy distribution, they can be found here, again feel free to share as widely as possible:
Additionally I, along with a collection of other really smart writers have started RunJumpFire. I have a new weekly column there called Design By Example where I analyse one specific game mechanic or mechanism each Wednesday. Currently I have articles up on Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Super Metroid, forthcoming this month are articles on Dishonored and Alpha Protocol, the column archive can be found here.
Building off the initial framework outlined in Part 1 these additional concepts serve to provide means of structure and control. The primary appeal of this model is that it marries dramatic character development with player agency while potentially allowing for more variation than can efficiently be achieved through the use of branching narratives alone.
For a possible manner in which the described concepts could be used within an existing game consider the myriad characters in Alpha Protocol with their conflicting goals and motivations. Instead of the increasingly complicated branching structures that were used the relationships between different characters and between each of them and the player could be handled systemically. For the player the observable outcome might well be very similar to that achieved by scripting each possible interaction, but by defining those relationships systemically and by allowing players inputs into that system numerous additional options are opened up and the range of player expression is increased.
- Abandon the use of plot as the overriding motivator for progression focus instead on character motivations.
Separating player actions from a scripted plot allows players to take actions based on their desired outcome, or at the very least their least undesirable outcome, rather than the outcome decreed by the original designer. In the Alpha Protocol example a similar structure to the one that was used could be encouraged by simply giving the player the objective of disrupting the plans of Ali Shaheed. Certain characters would be motivated to help, others to hinder based on their long term goals as defined by the designers and writers.
- Rely on basic assumptions about player psychology.
Players will naturally apply human traits and motivations to characters and they will tend to continue following a path they find interesting. If your characters are strong enough players will want to see their arcs through to the end. (Unsurprisingly this sections requires more in depth analysis and study to ensure that any assumptions made are accurate and appropriate.)
- Focus on character arcs over plot arcs.
Dramatic moments are subjective what is important to one character is a non-event to another don’t try to imbue a scene with emotion if the characters the player is focusing on have nothing at stake.
- Populate the world with characters that have non-aligned goals and motivations.
Two characters with directly aligned long term goals does not make for dramatically interesting conflict. Allowing the player to take sides, or not, based upon their actions immediately requires one or more of the characters to adjust their plans thereby creating conflict.
- Allow events to unfold without player involvement.
If two characters are motivated to kill each other and the player or other characters do not act to stop them let them kill each other. The player doesn’t need to witness such events but they should, like all other characters, be affected by the consequences.
- Treat the player as another character.
Don’t create special case interactions between the player and other characters.
- Determine player choices based on the actions they take not through explicit decision points.
Defining players based on their actions allows characters to make judgements based on what they do and therefore react to them as they would any other character. Where the player goes, when, with whom and what they do there should all be used to determine other characters reactions to them.
- Define player verbs by the characters, props and setting.
Don’t allow the player to use a weapon or directly attack other characters if it is inappropriate to the setting. A political thriller calls for a range of characters and props that a fantasy adventure does not, player verbs should be defined accordingly.
- Use characters, and setting to determine genre and theme.
If the cast of characters, settings and props are those befitting a noir story then the choices available to the player can be organically restricted to those that are thematically appropriate for such a story. Genre conventions in this sense are not necessary a flaw and in fact they can help players understand the range of options available to them.
- Make it clear that motivations assigned to actions are character specific.
If players want to act a certain way to gain the support of a specific character let them. They are not gaming the system, they are manipulating particular characters.
- Implement a wide variety of vectors by which to inform players of events and character motivation.
News reports, emails, diaries, gossip, all these methods and more can be used to impart information to the player regarding events in the world and the motivations of particular characters.
- Track interactions of players with the various means of obtaining information to create a model of player awareness of world events.
By tracking the vectors through which players obtain information, assumptions can be made regarding what events the player may or may be aware of at any given time.
Structure and Dramatic control:
The following are methods of controlling the structure and flow of the player’s experience and preventing potential combinatorial explosion. In general these rely on filtering possible character actions based on certain criteria. This criteria can either be defined at creation, or set up to change based on specific events.
- Use dramatic filters to modify or influence possible character choices.
The use of specific constraints on character behaviour can be used to promote certain aesthetic experiences. A theme of tragic romance can be promoted by limiting character actions to those motivated primarily by emotional considerations over practical ones. (Requires codification of dramatic and thematic concepts, needs further examine in a later post.) This should not be necessary except in very specific circumstances because the characters and setting will have been designed initially to be ones appropriate to the theme.
- Use player knowledge and player awareness to filter character choices.
Limit the ability of a character to take actions with wide ranging consequences if the player only has limited awareness of that character. This can be overridden by a dramatic filter for example if the player seems likely to meet this character in the future, allowing their influence to be felt before their make their presence known might be more appropriate.
- As time progresses limit the influence of characters the player has had little or no interaction with.
Focus the story down to those characters the player had shown themselves to be more interested in. This will help to prevent events from occuring unexpectedly.
- If necessary create a “Fate” character to allow actions to occur beyond the control of all other characters.
If designers desire certain events to occur such events can be instigated by a general purpose “Fate” character, who effectively serves as a designer proxy. Ideally such a character would never be needed but the possibility exists to allow this framework to work in support of a more scripted story.
Stories can be created that revolve around character emotions and desires rather than objects. What follows is an incomplete list of potential story beats possible with the techniques described. All these moments would occurred dynamically based on player actions and characters’ reaction to, and interpretation of, those actions. In all these instances player actions could lead to a variation upon or a complete reversal of events. Consider the possibilities offered by such events occurring dynamically in a game like Alpha Protocol or Deus Ex.
- A character might lie to the player to get them to perform a specific task so they can avoid being implicated.
Because the transmission of information is modeled it might fit a character’s motivations for a certain action to be performed but not attributed to them. The variables that govern a desire for a certain outcome and a desire to maintain positive relationships with certain other characters might both be high.
- A player could act as a puppet master exploiting the desires of multiple characters to bring about a specific occurrence.
With an understanding of the way in which knowledge of events propagates, players could manipulate the flow of information to convince characters to take actions on their behalf. This is in essence a reversal of the previous example.
- While working for a particular character the player is betrayed because their previous actions, which had been unknown, come to light.
Information about actions occurs through interaction between characters so it is not instantaneously. It would be possible therefore, for a player to take an action detrimental to a charcter’s desires and then start working with that character, only for them to then discover the player’s earlier actions.
- Characters with competing motivations and long term goals join forces because the actions of the player have disrupted both their plans.
Certain actions on the part of the player could make them a more immediate problem for two otherwise competing characters, leading them to both take actions to deal with the player, thereby either directly or indirectly helping each other.