Monday, January 21, 2008

 

Game Developers are Writers Too


I was tremendously excited to play Bioware's new game Mass Effect, which is billed as a unique science fiction universe in which the decisions you make as a player affect the overall outcome of the store. I loved previous games Bioware has released, especially Knights of the Old Republic which is probably still my very all time favorite game.



But when I finished Mass Effect, I couldn't help but feel disappointed. Yes, the dialogue tree and the editing were superb and for the very first time, I truly had that feeling of being immersed in a movie in which all the emotional payoff came to me, the player, and not some actor. With Mass Effect you can really see how the medium of the video game is developing in such a way that it has the ability to provide a new kind of entertainment--and if I were to get all brainy here, I'd say it's probably a matter of time before these games give greater and deeper mysterious experiences beyond just eliminating aliens or killing zombies.

As I said, though, I found this game disappointing. There's all this promise and then . . . nothing. I hate that. I didn't leave the game feeling intensely about the characters. I didn't feel that what I had *done* had truly had any impact. The world felt thin and hurried. So much went into how the game *functioned* and not enough in to how it felt.

I read this intriguing post over at the Magical Wasteland in which the blogger criticizes the games sudden narrative leaps and loose ends.

The player reaches one point during the main story of Mass Effect where it seems as though a major decision is about be made. It’s presented as though the choice will have far-reaching consequences on the fate of the galaxy. But after it is made, the effects of this decision are never felt; in fact, the event is never referred to again after that particular mission is over. There are discussions the player can have with certain characters that seem to be leading somewhere, but the dialogue tree suddenly runs out of options, and conversation comes to an abrupt halt. And instead of the player finally figuring who the real villain is and what it wants, the villain simply shows up about two-thirds of the way through and explains itself directly to you, for no benefit to itself and seemingly no reason.

I’ve seen my fair share of emergency story patchwork up close, and each of these moments telegraph that aura.


So, this is interesting from a writing perspective. The skills one needs to tell a good story certainly apply to a video game--and don't laugh, you elitists who think that games are the silly obsessions of emotional retards. People are deadly serious about their games and how good the stories are. I worry sometimes about where the novel is going. But stories--and the problems inherent in telling them--aren't going away, I think.

Comments:
I too was disappointed by how Mass Effect didn't reach its narrative potential (though the game as a whole is very good). The disappointment for me came when I realized the braching dialogue didn't really branch. Your choices didn't affect the game beyond your paragon or renegade scores.

The only place where the game truly does branch is at the end when you can choose to save the council or let them die (and if you have a high enough renegade score you can get an ending that's a polar opposite from the usual ending).

Truly branching storylines have been done (the Wing Commander series comes to mind), but not recently. When I was in the industry the reason given to me by producers was branching storylines present too much of a play-testing challenge.
 
I was attracted to the "Paragon/Renegade" concept. It's a more mature expression of the "Dark and Light" side that allows for complexity and real world situations where just having a personal style does affect an outcome--and not necessarily in a good or bad way. We all have a personal style of how to do things, but that doesn't necessarily make one right or wrong.

But then . . . so? This is what makes really good writing in any genre a challenge. You want it to matter what a character does or says something, but you don't them to appear cartoonish. It's tough.

Having said that, a branching storyline remains attractive to me, and I'll probably approach the next Bioware game with as much eagerness. We are playing Assassin's Creed now, for example, and while I love it and love the AI, I hate that I'm forced into one storyline. I don't get to "be" me.

We consumers are insufferably spoiled sometimes . . .
 
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