Love.

“What happened to that nice young girl you brought home last year..?”
“She was not a young girl mother, she was only two years younger than
me.”
“And you’re still my little girl. Now don’t avoid the question. She
was lovely and she had a thing for you anyone could see that.”
“… It wasn’t working. We decided to go our separate ways.”
“I see, and who’s decision was that exactly?”
“Mother… I don’t have the time to discuss my love life, put Dad on.”
“Never have the time…”
“Mother…”
“Fine…”
“… She only wants what’s best for you, we both do.”
“I know Dad…”
“And that Michelle really was a lovely girl, attractive too…”
“Dad…”
“I know, I know you don’t want to talk about it… But there’s so little you can talk about.”
“It’s the Alliance Dad, you know what it’s like.”
“It’s not easy for us sometimes, honey, especially not after what happen during the Blitz.”
“You don’t need to worry about that Dad, we made sure those bastards paid…”
“Jaina! I didn’t raise my little girl to talk like that.”
“… I’m sorry Dad. Look I’ve got to go, we’re about to… Well I’ve got to go.”
“OK, honey, now remember your mother and I love you, so you watch your back out there.”
“I love you too Dad.”
“… And give our love to Michelle.”
“Mom…”

– From the communications log of Commander Jaina Shepard, SSV Normandy, 2183 CE.

Living with your mistakes.

Structurally Mass Effect 2 is built around the concept of recruiting a team to participate in a ‘suicide mission’. Each new character recruited has their own  specific quest line, a part of their lives they feel compelled to resolve before committing fully to a task that may lead to their own demise. These loyalty quests become available after a character has been with the player’s crew for a predefined length of time and their successful completion causes that character to be considered ‘loyal’ to the player; unlocking new abilities along with a palette swap costume change.

Personally I find the former a useful addition, and the latter a little difficult to swallow, it does not help that the costumes changes lead to your party looking like the Halloween Goth Power Rangers.

Conceptually these loyalty quests offer some of the most interesting situations in the game, and in some cases their implementation pushes against the traditional boundaries of a BioWare title. Though one loyalty quest in particular seems  full of unfulfilled potential. One of the last characters it’s possible to recruit, the asari Justicar Samara, is on the trail of an Ardat-Yakshi, a serial killer who murders her victims during what is for all intents and purposes sexual intercourse. Samara’s loyalty quest involves the player agreeing to act as bait for the Ardat-Yakshi, Morinth. As thematically dubious and clichéd as the concept of a female serial killer who literally uses sex as a weapon is, the concept of the player acting as bait for a dangerous predator is one loaded with possibility.

Entering a club unarmed and alone, the player, as Commander Shepard, is tasked with attracting the interest of Morinth in the hope of being invited back to her apartment where the trap can be sprung before the Shepard herself becomes the next victim.

Unfortunately the dramatic and gameplay potential of such a sequence is quickly undermined, it doesn’t take long to realise that failure is unlikely. A player would need to go out of their way to create a situation where they could fail absolutely. I’m not actually sure failure is a possibility, it would take a concerted effort to select the wrong option and it might simply just delay success even if the player tried.

As rich with potential as the concept of serving as bait to trap a predatory serial killer is, the manner in which it is implemented and its resolution leave it feeling shallow and rushed. It could have become a much more meaningful aspect of Mass Effect 2‘s narrative if it had been possible for Morinth to spot the trap and escape. Shepard had put themselves in mortal peril to help Samara and therefore would have shown they were worthy of Samara’s loyalty, and so the quest line itself would be completed, if not resolved as Morinth would have escaped to kill again.

The lack of impact this loyalty quest has on the rest of the game is more disappointing because Mass Effect 2 already uses a variety of techniques to track changes in the state of the world. News reports, emails, and the reactions of characters help to keep the player informed of the consequences of their actions; the structure is already in place for the player to hear about other murders committed by Morinth after escaping the player’s trap. The possibility of Morinth surviving her encounter with Samara and Shepard could also be carried through into Mass Effect 3 adding to the already strong sense of investment players have in Shepard through the continuity of choices made throughout Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2.

A founding principle of the design of Mass Effect 2 seems to be the concept that the player’s choices must be the final deciding factor in any situation. Resolution of a quest is not about a player’s ability but about which choice the player makes: Paragon or Renegade. I can understand why this is desirable for the main quest, I can’t honestly condemn anything that keeps people playing when they might otherwise abandon a game unfinished. However Samara’s loyalty quest is optional, allowing the player to fail and yet continue with the main quest seems to have more dramatic potential than simply required the player to select between the standard Paragon and Renegade options once again.

Several years ago I played the FMV adventure game Spycraft: The Great Game, despite the obvious flaws of such a format there was at least one specific incident that stays with me. During the final few hours of the game, the player is presented with what appears to be a side quest (At the time I my understanding of game design wasn’t well formed enough for me to realise that the inherent nature of FMV games means very few non-essential elements can be included) to locate and recover a stolen nuclear warhead due to be traded to a terrorist organisation.

There are several parts to this side quest: the player is required to capture an arms dealer; obtain the information necessary to persuade him to divulge the location of the trade (Including information about the names and location of his family); and finally to attend the trade and either through force or guile recover the nuclear warhead. At each of these stages it’s possible to fail, and though you are reprimanded for your inability to recover the warhead, the main plot continues and you are told that another team will be sent in to recover the warhead. The assumption is that this mission was secondary to the main plot which involves the assassination of the President of the United States, and that failure of the player’s part is problematic but that eventually the warhead will be recovered by other means.

However this assumption is one that comes back to haunt the player at the end of the game regardless of how the player resolves the main quest; which in a similar fashion to Mass Effect 2 comes down to a binary choice. If the player has failed to recover the warhead, during the closing sequence a news report from outside the United States Capitol is interrupted when a nuclear device is detonated in Washington D.C. dramatically undercutting whatever success the player may have felt upon resolving the main assassination plot.

The consequences of failing to trap Morinth do not need to be as abrupt, but certainly it could be powerful to hear reports of further victims, and her presence as an active force in the galaxy could carry forward into a dramatic confrontation in Mass Effect 3.

There is narrative and ludic power in requiring players to live with the consequences of their actions, it seems a waste for this potential to go unfulfilled. Will Wright has said, justifiably, that video games can actually make players feel guilty, and surely fundamental to that sense of guilt is having to live with your mistakes.

Meaningful Actions.

I like Chess, I would even go as far as to say I think it is a mechanically perfect game. The strength of Chess is that there are no redundant actions, there are no actions without consequences. Achieving a checkmate is not only dependant on the final move but on every preceding move, right back to the opening. Any change in that sequence of moves by either player will result in a radically different outcome.

Every move in Chess is meaningful because every move irreversibly changes the state of the game world and which subsequent moves are possible; all actions have consequences.

Redundant actions are those that are not meaningful, those for which there are no consequences, such actions are literally a waste of time, as nothing is gained from performing them.

The concept, that every action should be meaningful and have consequences, is one that has seemingly been abandoned, or at the very least greatly diminished, in recent years. Often for the purposes of increasing accessibility or pacing, and usually in games that feature some degree of authored narrative.

Consider Far Cry 2, the mechanic of respawning hostiles at checkpoints is implemented to prevent the world from ever becoming safe and thus damaging its representation of a country in the grip of civil war, yet the mechanic causes some actions to become redundant, meaningless. The core mechanic of the first person shooter genre is that of shooting hostile characters. This usually requires a degree of skill and comes at the cost of some form of ammunition. Even ignoring the cultural connotations of the act killing a hostile character is rich with mechanical meaning. They will no longer be around to threaten the player in the future, which leads to a change in the play style of the player over time, as areas of the game world shift from hostility to safety. Additionally the expenditure of ammunition is meaningful, as the quantity of ammunition used in killing one hostile will cause changes in the manner in which subsequent hostiles can be dealt with.

Upon encountering a hostile checkpoints in Far Cry 2 both elements of meaning inherent in that core shooting mechanic become redundant.

Respawning enemies prevent a change in future behaviour as areas do not become less hostile over time. The act of killing does not change the overall state of the game world or the future play style of the player, therefore in this sense the act of killing itself is rendered largely meaningless, there are  no long term consequences. It is in fact more beneficial to avoid enemies as it is to kill them, especially as time is very rarely a factor. The decision to engage these hostile in direct combat is a redundant one. Ammunition can be recovered from the bodies of dead hostiles, so the actual expenditure of ammunition is only meaningful when more is expended that is recovered a  generally rare occurrence, made even more so because some checkpoints contain stockpiles of ammunition.

In a strictly mechanical sense the act of attacking checkpoints in Far Cry 2 is meaningless beyond the immediate short term.  It’s possible that this was an intentional inclusion designed to be representative of a country in the grip of civil war where death is largely meaningless.  I’m willing to give Ubisoft Montreal the benefit of the doubt given the various subtexts at work in Far Cry 2, however this doesn’t excuse the dozens of other games that also include redundant and meaningless game mechanics.

The infinitely respawning hostiles in Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, when killing a hundred hostiles has no consequence the act of killing itself becomes meaningless; war can be won simply by continuous forward motion. Dialogue trees in Mass Effect or Fallout 3, when two different options lead to the same outcome the choice between them is meaningless. Vita Chambers in BioShock, when you are eternally reborn any actions taken to mitigate health lose are meaningless.

These mechanics were implemented because they served to increase tension, constrain options or improve pacing, in short they were included to help maintain a specific aesthetic experience; often a narrative focused one. Yet it’s worth noting that almost all the examples I’ve cited have been criticised for in some way being unrealistic. The expectation is that actions have consequences, that choices are meaningful, when this fails to occur the artificiality is made painfully obvious.

Narrative plots are built around the immutability of fate, events occur in a specific manner for dramatic purpose. If an event is included in the plot it serves a purpose, even red herrings exist serve the purpose of being a red herring; nothing is wasted, nothing is redundant.

Games are built around providing choices and feeding back the consequences of those choices. Choices are included if they have some consequence that influence the developing act of play. If choices are included that don’t have consequences they are redundant  and a waste of time on the player of both player and designer.

In order to be meaningful narratives and games depend on the portrayal of both actions and consequences.

All too often when games seek to include some form of narrative the inflexible nature of heavily plotted stories is given prominence over the flexible nature of gameplay choices. As in the examples cited this can lead to redundant choices being included simply because choices must exist in a game but the focus on the plot means those choices cannot have consequences that might move the narrative away from what has been prescribed by the original author.

That actions have consequences and thus carry meaning is something we all learn in childhood. So when presented with a choice its naturally expect there to be a consequence, otherwise why be given the choice at all?

The future of narrative games is not based around more directly authored experiences but around narratives that make use of the fundamental nature of games to present choices that have consequences, and to ensure that those consequences contain both a mechanical and a narrative component.

Despite some first steps made in this direction, Masq being a particularly interesting if limited example, there is still some way to go. Until then maybe it’s time those interested in narrative in games start to look for guidance from Chess as much as Chaucer.

A measure of morality.

Apparently I’m a nice guy. At least that’s what my trusty Pip-Boy 3000 (Model A) tells me. I’m glad it does this because I probably wouldn’t have known otherwise, what with people commenting on how nice a person I am or how much of a “goody two shoes” I’ve been. Fallout 3 is giving me a curious sense of déjà vu, I’ve had this experience before.

I was a bit more of an asshole in Mass Effect, but really the galaxy wasn’t going to save itself and the council seemed content to sit around all day talking and never take any action. I think a degree of bluntness was warranted. I was a Renegade, the game reliably informed me of that regardless of my own opinions on my actions. The game was making a judgement call on the kind of person it thought I was.

Dozens of titles have featured similar metrics for portraying good or evil, usually based on a Judeo-Christian view of morality. I appreciate the desire to allow for a range of player behaviours, and using the cultural mores of the western world makes a degree of sense given the perceived audience for such games. I become concerned when the game feels a need to tell me explicitly how good or evil it believes I have been; the issues I have with such systems are two fold.

My first problem is that the interface of the game is usually designed to represent my own knowledge of myself and my status. It describes my mental and physical state, the items I am carrying and any information I have gleamed during the course of the game. In that case shouldn’t the interface be as impartial as possible? In my life I have done things that others have not been happy with. I’ve often been caused to questioned my actions but ultimately the only guide for my morality are the reactions of others and my own conscience . I don’t have an internal meter telling me I’ve shifted 2 points towards the good side of the morality spectrum.

In their own mind I suspect most people consider themselves to be fairly decent, flawed yes, but neither paragons of virtue nor amoral villains. Even people who society as a whole would consider “evil” are likely to have their own motivations for their actions and not consider themselves in the same way others do. Everybody is the hero of their own story, we take the actions we do based on our own sense of morality influenced by our culture, upbringing and belief system.

For a game to offer choices of varying morality and then judge those choices seems counter productive. The relative morality of our choices is ultimately judged by the reactions of society, of the world around us and the people we meet; it is rarely known immediately and exactly.

My second issue is that by making player morality or karma, an interface element encourages an attitude of “playing the gauges” whereby players will make their decisions based not on a sense of role playing or what they view as right or wrong in a given situation but on which option will push them one way or the other on the great morality meter.

Games like Fallout 3 and Mass Effect already do a good job presenting a world and a cast of characters who react to your actions based on their own individual personalities do we really need dedicated interface elements telling us how the game itself (and by abstraction the developer) views our actions?

Games are about exploration and what is more powerful than exploring our own personality? This can’t be done on anything more than a surface level if the interface of the game itself is constantly making judgements about what kind of person it thinks we are.