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The Role We Don't Play

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The Role We Don't Play

Editorial - posted by Role-Player on Fri 30 March 2007, 01:28:22



The Role We Don’t Play: How Contemporary Videogame Narrative Is Destroying Role-Playing


INTRODUCTION

Over the years, story telling has gained considerable importance for the computer role-playing game audience. The genre went from simple wireframe dungeon crawling to epic stories filled with betrayals, plot twists and even budding romances. The adherence to cinematic story presentations and narrative elements that appeal to greater audiences have taken center stage, while some of the genre’s more important play mechanics have been left languishing in the past, still waiting for improvements and innovations. But are these narrative methods doing anything to improve the gameplay or the role-playing? Moreover, are these so-called cinematic approaches the best way of conveying a sense of story? Do we need to force passive storytelling techniques into a medium which has the potential for interactive storytelling?

The medium’s infancy and the belief that linear and passive entertainment - such as cinema - has anything to offer to the development of interactive entertainment may be causing more harm than good to the genre. The purpose of this feature is to take a look at storytelling in CRPGs and to express the flaws I believe exist with its current approach and of how developers are taking all the wrong examples from the Hollywood model, which I believe in turn is contributing to a dilution of role-playing in the genre. Throughout the article I will also discuss what are, in my opinion, some better ways to approach the problem.


CUTSCENE VS. GAME

Even before making the leap from Pen and Paper to an electronic medium, role-playing has been at heart a social game with collaborative storytelling driving the experience forward. One of the necessary distinctions to be made regarding the storytelling dichotomies between traditional RPGs and their computer counterparts is that collaborative storytelling is one of the driving elements of the former, but is absent in the latter. Such a system allows players, game masters and game rules to blend in seamlessly to create an end result that provides a cohesive narrative where players actually become the driving force behind a story. The absence of a proper interactive storytelling system in CRPGs may be attributed to many things, chief among them the genre's relative infancy and how it tries to follow in the footsteps of other mediums rather than creating its own path. An example of this is how developers often look at cinema as an examplary model of presenting immersive and cinematic experiences rather than narrative devices that present a story based on player choices and consequences. Another is that the existence of narrative – especially of interactive narrative - in videogames is without contextual support because the concept is handled differently in the medium.

Interactive narratives imply unique path branching, with each split accommodating player decision, ultimately becoming a rather large amount of “what if?” scenarios that are readily available to players. While human-aided interactive narrative worked in Pen and Paper, the transposition from human-aided narrative into computer-assisted narrative brings to the table the limitations of computers in generating the same kind of inventive abilities and infinite story variations that minute decisions can bring. It should be noted that some strides have been made in trying to offer the necessary tools for players to create their own methods of interactive storytelling in computer role-playing games. Titles like Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, Neverwinter Nights and Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption offered developing and storytelling tools for developers to create their own stories and create campaigns in which gamers could play through. But however advanced they may be for the genre, they still provide very primitive results to the concept itself – in part, because the original engines are very limited or heavily scripted, and aren’t flexible enough to provide the same kind of interactivity and gameworld feedback than what is possible in traditional RPGs since the person in charge of determining possible plot branching and consequences to player’s actions has to consider the engine limitations first and foremost, as some path may be feasible from a narrative perspective but not possible to create within the engine structure.

Developers have been looking outside the medium and at others like cinema as a model to present immersive, "cinematic" experiences that try to tell a story - for this, they assume a game needs to emulate a movie in order to present a sense of narrative. However, including a cinematic sequence angle is akin to shoving a round peg inside a square hole; developers believe these non-interactive cutscenes played out by virtual actors are not only great simulacrums of movies, but that they are also doing a proper job of conveying characterization and plot advancement. The problem is that these cutscenes are taken out of their original context and lose the same sequential meaning they originally have in cinema; whereas a movie is composed of such segments to narrate a story, in a videogame these scenes often fail to narrate the main character’s exploits or expose the consequences of their actions and are presented in a way that actually breaks up the pace of gameplay and the flow of the story itself.

The result is conflicting and thoroughly unsatisfying: an interactive experience suddenly becomes a mere movie, a passive set of situations over which there is no player agency and where the only reward for playing is a story element that may not even take into account the player's actions. The concept of “cinematic” in itself is misleading for several reasons. Perhaps the most noticeable one is that cutscenes are a simple emulation of the visual element of cinema itself, but are placed out of context and forced (rather than adapted) into a medium that carries an interactive component. While a movie is consistent in plot, character and setting advancement and exposition throughout its duration, videogames are often broken up between segments which alternate between gameplay moments and story moments. This dualism presents one of the more glaring faults with a cinematic approach – inconsistency between the events of the cutscene and the events of the game. Pre-rendered cut scenes tend to contradict the notion of telling a story as they often fail to adapt to the state of a game, or will artificially manipulate the rules or state of the game to forcefully convey a given story segment. Characters who are unable to jump during gameplay will perform a heroic somersault during a cutscene to escape certain death, or their surroundings will be shown in a pre-determined or pre-rendered state that may not take into account player manipulations of said environment.

While this seemed endemic to the japanese role-playing game design model found on consoles, role-playing games requiring of their main characters nothing but level grinding to move the story forward are becoming a rule rather than an exception in the PC arena. Characters must fight hordes of enemies for no good reason other than attaining a reasonable power level to challenge an enemy who will produce the next movie-like segment when vanquished. Also of note is how players are having less to say about how a character should behave: instead of playing a role, they are sitting back watching characters act out a previously written role – not much different from the ‘big screen’ adventures developers seem keen on reproducing. But is it a better story because we’re watching the hero do his thing instead of us playing the hero – and deciding what to do? This creates an unsettling disconnect among players, since they can’t relate to the characters they are role-playing when they are deprived of giving meaning to that role at crucial moments, nor can they be given a sense of accomplishment if the character’s actions – such as success or failure during the story’s highlights – are out of the player’s hands. In the end you are either watching a game or playing a movie, but your actions are generally of little consequence either way. Narration and interaction are not happening simultaneously, and the character’s role is determined by script writers rather than by player actions.


AGENCY VS. STORY

Traditional narrative by default is also incompatible with the concept of player agency, which lies at the heart of role-playing games and represents the player’s ability to influence and perceive said influences in the gameworld – choice and consequence. If the player character is not at the heart of the decision-making required to produce cause and effect in the gameworld, what role is the character actually playing? Dramatic turns between interactivity and an absence of it also contribute to a poor characterization. Occasionally, gamers are given control of characters which have been developed prior to any player input in a way that several of their skills or personality traits may have been determined, resulting into catastrophic contradictions. During pre-written sequences characters may be presented as great swordsmen or chivalrous paladins, but when these characters are submitted to player control they lack all these special characteristics or traits – legendary swordsmen may repeatedly fail to hit an opponent, while a righteous cavalier who is against any kind of evil can kill an innocent bystander for no reason – other than the player has control over these characters and their personalities, and which will only become autonomous when a pre-determined story segment will appear. This is common when dealing with the concept of Non-Playable Characters for which a developer creates extensive backgrounds and expert voice acting to create a believable character, but then their personality is lost during gameplay because they will submit to player control and inevitably risk performing actions contrary to their beliefs or skills. In Baldur’s Gate 2, Aerie is a frightful and unsure character who can suddenly go berserk on a Beholder because you direct her to do so; likewise, Keldorn can be commanded to slaughter beggars on the streets despite being a Paladin. While direct control over these characters is a requirement for the party-based setup of the game and its combat, one can’t deny any personality trait these characters show comes off as incidental.

Also potentially risky is to lay great deeds or extraordinary abilities on the main character itself prior to any player involvement, since it robs them of contributing to the character’s past or may break the illusion of power or skill when the player fails to handle it, respectively. In the former there’s no sense of achievement that the player can sympathize with; that which defines the character or his connection to the narrative context has been decided beforehand by the developer. In the latter, character abilities may be thoroughly mishandled by the player’s own input. The Hero from Lionhead’s Fable often acts on his own during cutscenes, in ways that may not represent the player’s motivations. When under our control, the young protagonist may repeatedly assault his family members in what may be a player attempting to simulate an evil, uncaring or brutal persona – but the main character will always be weeping for his father’s death and his sister’s disappearance during a cutscene that kicks off the story and the character’s main motivation. But while the inability to properly translate player motivation into meaningful character actions may be a problem, most developers decide to sidestep looking for better ways and foster a laissez-faire attitude to the problem, in what probably is a typical misconception of what players want in the genre. They want to play the role, develop the character; not being told that their character is - in typical gaming lingo – a “badass” right from the start. When we watch a movie about Indiana Jones, we take pleasure in watching a well defined character going though an adventure; when we role-play a character similar to Indiana Jones, we want to be the character through our actions and decisions. There’s not much of a point in playing a role when said role has already been played or developed for us.

Another problem cutscenes may carry is that situations such as solving conflicts or achieving success in a task are often solved via deus ex machina instead of letting the player achieve these results himself. In a computer role-playing game, this is abhorrent to the concept of playing a role since it’s not uncommon for the shifts between narrative and game to be affected by the writer’s own motivations and not by consequences to the player’s actions. To that effect, it can be said that narrative and interactivity clash and even work against each other. As a gamer, you are trapped in a sequence of events where the idea of story invades gameplay, and where the idea of gameplay gets interrupted by situations where the developers force story segments on players. In-game cutscenes are a better solution to adapting to the state of the game but like all other cutscenes they forsake any kind of player agency and may pay no mind to player input. Thus, the concept of interactive storytelling or interactive narrative that is pushed by sources such as videogame journalists or videogame marketing carries a very specific connotation – to give a sense of empowerment to gamers, assuring them they will have an active hand in the stories that attempt to drive their gaming experiences; that they will be “inside the story”. But the term is not only misleading in face of the actual proposed model of gameplay, it’s also not particularly adequate since videogames, although having narrative elements, are quite different from narrative itself.


AGAINST NARRATIVE

The presentation of this argument is based on traditional narrative itself and the way in which it is handled in videogames. While movie narratives employ a rigid narrative succession of events, videogames preclude the use of some narrative elements and subdue them in order to implement interactivity. One of the essential facets of narratives is sequence, a hierarchical structure of distinct scenes connected by the interactivity between character(s) and story. In videogames, while the interaction between these two elements is still present the need for players to influence the outcome of the narrative, or its progression, contribute to an important difference: whereas cinema or literature are grounded on an ideal sequence of events wherein their narrative frames are based on, videogames instead operate on letting the players figure out (through experimentation) their own ideal sequence of events that will be conductive to one ideal narrative – out of several possible.

What is commonly described as videogame narrative is more of a pastiche of narrative elements than an analogue of traditional narrative found on other mediums. To illustrate this point, consider a videogame and a theoretical movie adaptation of said videogame. Any such example would be confronted with an obvious truth - a videogame contains a dynamic system of events that is not translated into a movie based on it; we can reduce or explain a game experience or session by narrating the events by the order we experienced them, but the account will not be in any way similar to the experience the games provide on an individual basis. The long journey that the PC in Arcanum must do from the IFS Zephyr to the final stages of the game are a gameplay experience that would never translate well into a movie because most of the experience is governed by the dynamic systems the game is based on – combat, character building, character dialogue that take into account character race or ability scores, and interaction with surroundings. Gameplay events such as rummaging in garbage bins looking for items to combine, gambling with sailors in the docs, asking everyone in town for rumours or managing an inventory are situations which elicit no favourable response from a movie audience. Since movies are based on a selection of specific and relevant events, the movie itself may not contain a recognizable narrative to players who experienced the game in a different way. On the other hand, the kind of narrative that a movie is based on would make up for a rather dull experience on the videogame spectrum since for it to function it requires that the central characters are set on a linear path across the previously established temporal sequence of events; an immutable chain of situations which converge onto a predetermined path based on predetermined situations.

Other elements of narrative, such as closure, also find themselves at odds in videogames. As a movie spectator, the closure is part of the narrative structure and independent of your actions. In a videogame, specially if we consider computer role-playing games which offer different endings for the player to explore and ultimately reach, the closure is no longer a part of the formal representation of the story but is instead a goal the player must achieve. It’s also not based on the motivations of a construct that is external to the player, but instead relies on the subjectivity of the player itself, who is asserting his role in the narrative and in fact creating his own narrative order. Instead of passively witnessing a narrated, linear representation of actions players are effectively controlling the social dynamics of character interaction and plot advancement. And this has no possible translation into a notion of videogame narrative without breaking down the very concept of narrative so it can fit the medium. This allows every game session to be different from the next, as opposed to a movie narrative who will always play the same. A narrative tells stories or experiences in a non-interactive way whereas a videogames aims to let players live out their own stories and experiences in an interactive way. In formal narrative, action and story are happening simultaneously as opposed to computer role-playing games which often separate them into two different segments, with the action taking central stage until players activate the necessary conditions to proceed – or activate the next story segment, depending on particular narrative and story design. You’re not interacting with a story, you’re interacting with often unrelated segments that occasionally further the story through authorial intrusion.

These – and other - differences are in my opinion what primarily distinguishes both cinema and videogames as storytelling methods in their use of narrative elements and why I believe that cinema, from a narrative standpoint, isn’t where developers should be looking for attempts to refine the concept of interactive narrative, story or storytelling – or any variation thereof - in videogames, CRPGs in particular. The nature of interactive entertainment is not about telling players a story but rather, letting them play the story or let them develop it on their own. As such CRPGs are not interactive narratives; at best they present a heavy emphasis on story - which is quite different.


SO WHAT?

Computer role-playing games are becoming less about the character’s role and more about the developer’s story, which is detrimental to the genre. Player choices and consequences should guide the narrative and the actions and consequences of a player character should ultimately build the story, an individual story that each player can walk away from knowing to be their story; not the one that every other gamer would have experienced. In light of these problems, what would then be a possible theory or approach for interactive narratives or rather, for the creation of simultaneous game and narrative?


PLAYER MEETS ENVIRONMENT

Narrative architecture based on entity behavior could be a viable solution, specifically the concept of procedural generated behavior. The idea here is to apply the concept of technical developments such as procedurally generated graphical applications to entity behavior instead, specifically NPC dialogues and reactions to player actions - generating a large variety of reactions which can be gathered from regular files, each created for a specific purpose such as: dialogue, awareness, reactions to specific player decisions, etc.

Pros:

• Text can be assembled on the fly by the game system, instead of being hand placed by the writer; although text such as verbs or specific reactions would require some extra time, they wouldn’t require as much development time.
• NPC reactions may be more in amount and variety since a system that determined reactions itself may better use events, such as coordinated or simultaneous character interjections, and handle multiple behaviors or reactions for the same entity.
• Aside generating content, it can easily merge previously created behaviors or reactions, or apply modifications depending on character statistics and/or player actions.


Cons:

• Procedural models are hard to manage, involving many hours of programming code before they can actually become functional and consistent; as such, they may prove unrewarding in face of more traditional methods.
• The text assembly is not guaranteed to always provide a coherent result, since it may need to draw from several files that contain lists of behavior; however, fine tuning may lessen this over time until a stable – or more reliable - system is achieved.
• Mainstream development may frown on this considering the increasing focus on production values such as voice-overs, which would exponentially increase costs; however, the current model does not always present full voice-overs which would allow the system to work in other occasions.


Looking back at the example of collaborative storytelling, this concept is also largely absent in CRPGs in part due to developers who rely on a very tight notion of interaction. Scripted sequences are basically a symptom that plagues role-playing games: they can only offer opportunities that the developer has thought of previously and managed to program. While not the only example but possibly one that everyone can relate to given its popularity, Deus Ex - like Thief 2: The Metal Age and System Shock 2 prior to it - provided a framework wherein level design and narrative chunks work together by applying a list of behaviours into NPCs and objects rather than a single set of specific interactions. Because of this design model, players were able to find their way across the levels and play through them by using wildly different strategies. They were given a gameworld with a set of rules and entities with a set of properties, learned them then acted upon them - effectively making their own story across the non-mandatory narrative chokepoints, and at times avoiding what the developers had in store for them or exploring locations of the gameworld through unexpected - but still within the logical bounds of the game system - means. While still very limited in some areas, it's nonetheless the kind of sandbox design that needs to be explored in order to create a better narrative progression: the gameworld has its rules, the characters have behaviours, and the player must learn these in order to progress and effectively create his own narrative. Bioshock, currently in development by Irrational Games at the time of this article’s writing, may make some strides into this direction.


PLAYER MEETS MOVIE

It’s a harsh reality of the genre that, whether by developer influence or actual player demand, CRPGs have been trying to emulate Hollywood productions in order to present games with an increasing focus on emulating cinematic experiences. However, the result is often amateurish and embarrassing since the transposition from one medium to the other is made while disregarding the formal vocabulary of cinema and its context; something is lost in translation from cinema to videogame, and developers end up trying to implement narrative elements that run contrary to the narrative possibilities of the other medium. They look at movies and try to create videogames that behave – that play – like movies, which generally fails to build upon the strengths of the videogame medium and poorly uses the narrative structures of cinema. Some developers have tried experimenting with other approaches to the problem, trying to create situations where realtime player input is crucial and determines the flow of the story but these sequences often feel like compartmentalized and separated from the rest of the game; more in common with minigames than a situation that feels natural and fluid to the rest of the game and the gamer, if for no other reason than developers often can’t handle the complexities of the videogame medium and only propose simplistic input methods for these situations which in a certain way, present challenges and base interactivity that feel like glorified variations of classics like Space Ace or Dragon’s Lair.

Some contemporary developers focus on character interaction and interjection, presenting long segments involving character discourse and interplay, trying to promote a human and endearing side to virtual characters by focusing on their exposition as well as demanding players to interact with them. This is often distracting, time consuming and generally focusing on characters around the player instead of the player himself. It’s also considerably artificial since these expositions often occur at inconvenient moments in the narrative, and are notably self-contained and outside of the rules of the gameworld. The gameplay in Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire, for instance, suffers from this: while the transitions to and from combat and exploration are relatively clean, the dialogue segments produce a jarring change that not only sacrifices player agency but also feels out of context with the rest of the game’s presentation, as if it were almost a separate game. One of the issues with cutscenes is how they halt all player and follower movement, meaning that it is often possible to trigger a cutscene which results in combat, and have the PC’s followers too far away to give immediate support. Another issue is that often, activating a cutscene deactivates some character skills such as Stealth - which contradicts the notion that the character is indeed sneaking, and also renders character skills useless as the character is forced to go through an event without using them. While this may be an issue with the underlying code of a particular game engine and not cutscenes themselves, there haven’t been many attempts to solve this issue.

While some companies are busy creating state of the art virtual actors to perform their scripts and others keep looking at Hollywood for inspiration, an old adventure game shows exactly how to handle a sense of narrative that uses cinematic inspiration while not letting it undermine the gameplay. Developed by Eric Chahi, Out of This World – titled Another World in Europe – was innovative for its time, blending the traditional elements of action, adventure and platform game conventions with a movie-like presentation. Cutscenes were mostly there to introduce sequences over which the player could not have any control over (such as death scenes), while the interactive aspect was not compromised by breaking the fourth wall, an all too common predicament of current games which occasionally inform players what buttons to press in face of certain challenges. Every obstacle in front of the character could be solved by the character’s own (admittedly limited) abilities or by using said abilities in an appropriate manner after careful examination of entity behavior. The distinct lack of any kind of tutorial section also made it clear that it was the player’s job to discover the world and its rules. While it could be argued that a platformer with adventure and action undertones is easier to submit to such a presentation than a role-playing game, and that Out of This World’s challenges were in an entirely different league than those usually proposed in CRPGs, it nonetheless showed that such a cinematic presentation can offer a progressive narrative that is based almost exclusively on the player’s merit, with story segments being straightforward affairs that served as a finale for a previous chapter and exposition towards the next.


Pros:

• The narrative works by letting players observe the rules of the gameworld and act accordingly; nothing is forced on the player other than learning the rules – which is necessary in all videogames.
• The lack of drawn out character interaction and exposition keeps the players focused on the gameplay; objectives and personalities are shown rather than exposed in lengthy cutscenes, which lets the player focus on the essential without getting sidetracked. Less is often more.
• Authorial intrusion is kept to a minimum. There are no tutorials, no messages indicating what buttons the player must press or similar situations. At best, there are cutscenes who advance the story or depict the consequence of player success or failure, such as death by poison.


Cons:

• As mentioned previously, there is a world of difference between the gameplay mechanics of an action adventure title and a role-playing game. The presentation of Out of This World is very bare bones compared to what is expected nowadays of CRPGs. However, the design may accommodate a functional system that focuses on interface simplicity and player intuition.
• Branching narratives require considerable feedback if they significantly branch; presenting all the consequences of the player character’s actions under such a system may prove daunting. Although, several feedback methods are a possibility.
• The system works well for a single character CRPG but requires additional interface layers for role-playing games that employ party member dynamics.


In here, “less is more” is the key aspect when going for a story presentation that adheres to cinematic conventions, and with some effort it’s possible to let players maintain a fine degree of role-playing while still keeping in mind the concept of leaving it to the player to create his own story. An example of simple yet remarkable effectiveness of storytelling in regards to character exposition, for instance, is found in one of the earlier sequences in Half-Life 2, when players meet Alyx Vance after she rescues Gordon Freeman from Combine soldiers. There is never a break in the flow of this situation and the character’s victory against several soldiers on her own, coupled with how she addresses Gordon, tells us a lot about her personality using only a single, elegant sequence instead of an overly long cutscene that removes player agency to boot. Another example is found in Deus Ex and System Shock 2, where the ability to explore the gameworld through some unconventional means allows the player to find insight into certain character’s personalities. These are either static objects which dispense information or give clues about certain characters (such as datapads or audio logs), or sequences which are triggered by player proximity and result in several characters simulating a conversation that exposes personality quirks, beliefs and even setting and/or story exposition without sacrificing control over the main character.


PLAYER MEETS STORY

One design quirk that also contributes to considerable problems is to present a story which is set in stone and does not permit outside influence – even player influence – against its key participants. In Morrowind, for instance, it was possible to kill certain characters deemed essential by the game, at which point authorial intrusion through a pop-up box basically warned us that we screwed up and we had two choices: to reload, or to persist in the possibly broken gameworld. Any sense of immersion was gone in that fatal instant: suddenly, you were made aware by the authors that someone in the gameworld was important to the story, rather than finding this through your own interactions within the game. In a way, this would be akin to a writer telling you during the course of a novel that a certain character could never die since he was important to the story, which would take away from any sense of mystery or expectation regarding the character himself and the outcome of the story. Despite the warning though, the gameworld still allowed players to continue through the main story arc by following a different path which was often suggested by several characters in the game, not only making the warning a terrible break in the story presentation but also rendering it somewhat unnecessary. While not necessarily indicative of a focus on cinematic presentation, there are some paralels to be drawn with traditional story telling, specially in the context of linear narratives - which can never account for the schisms that gameplay vs. story can cause.

In games like Baldur’s Gate 2 or Deus Ex, the story was built so that it required certain characters to exist at all costs in order to keep presenting the narrative but developers still allowed players to try and go against the special rules created for these circumstances. This presented a clear issue – developers gave players the ability to exert free will in the gameworld but did nothing to prevent these plot essential NPCs to come to harm, whether intended or accidental, with said will. Thus, attempting to kill certain characters – for reasons such as quick quest advancement or role-playing specific personas - resulted in finding out they were invincible, or used instant kill weapons which they attacked the player’s characters with if they tried to do something that the developers hadn’t intended. Accidentally attacking one of these characters could even break someone’s game. On the other hand, games like Fallout or Arcanum tried hard to provide something most other CRPGs don’t do, which was to provide a gameworld that had several ways of story advancement. Important NPCs were either replaced by others or there were alternatives to further the narrative. One example in Arcanum comes to mind – trying to find the owner of the mysterious ring eventually required players to investigate P. Schuyler and Sons in the city of Tarant. When the brothers were confronted, players who decided to fight against the brothers were not stumped. They could cast a necromantic spell to ask the soul of their dead father about the ring, could investigate the cabinet containing files about their customers, or even decide to remain silent about all the undead horrors they had seen in their basement in exchange for information.

The idea here is a more organic approach to narrative rather than the often stilted method of “our way or the highway” – create context, don’t force it.


Pros:

• Enabling different approaches to the same situation presents different narratives to different gamers, even though the story is generally based on the same events, while simultaneously allowing characters to advance by using their unique strengths (ie.: players need to meet the Princess: one player kills a guard, another solves a quest for him, another steals his key – all three of them managed to get inside the castle).
• The more obvious the constraints and limitations, the less credible the gameworld and story will appear to be. Key NPCs handled in such a way will seem woefully artificial in the face of other NPCs in the gameworld not bound to such rules, and their “uniqueness” will expose their importance right away.
• Presenting alternatives such as NPC replacement can go a long way in providing plausible and interesting changes to the gameworld, like changes in power structures such as guilds. An NPC replacement system makes the gameworld feel like it’s not static and that it dynamically reacts to player actions...


Cons:

• ...But it also requires additional programming and writing, which may sound too bothersome when one single NPC would get the same point across.
• The absence of direct feedback regarding player actions that may have an impact on the story cab cause problems; however, a complete absence is not being suggested. There are several means of hinting at possible consequences.
• Keeping the player on rails is a much safer, simpler and controllable method which also goes hand in hand with the current developer mantra that generally players don’t replay games, and thus additional plot branching is wasted content.


While it’s understandable that some games are built on a linear and focused storyline, perhaps even operating on a multi-linear approach – with distinct branching paths after a given plot point – there are several models that can be adapted to important points in the story without neutering role-playing capabilities and showing off just how artificial it all is in order to exist. Curiously, even a shooter like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. provides a dynamic NPC replacement scheme that most contemporary CRPGs can’t or won’t provide. But just as removing player agency in important situations will diminish the importance of role-playing, so will allowing players to do something in situations where their actions can’t be accounted for. Don’t tell players that they are doing something wrong – show it to them. Let players understand how they made a mistake instead of trying to prevent them from learning it on their own and adapting to it. Don’t tell them they screwed up or that they can’t screw up – create more than simple “win” and “lose” conditions to your story and show these instead to players.


PLAYER MEETS... CONCLUSION?

I am fully aware that this article doesn’t provide the kind of solutions that game developers would be looking for – after all, the article is made from a gamer, rather than a designer, perspective. Several facets of the problem have been left untouched and there are definitely more examples to make for both the good and bad of the issue, but the basic gist is that I believe developers are doing a disservice to the medium and to the genre by looking at Hollywood for inspiration rather than the medium itself. And I know I’m not alone on this. The current CRPG design model is ignoring crucial aspects of interactivity. I believe the essence of the problem may start with how developers approach storytelling in most CRPGs. At their core, computer role-playing games are still games, not movies; as such, developers should stick with creating a game first, a story afterwards – if any at all. The goal of videogames is not to simulate mediums like cinema or literature. They are in the unique position of overcoming the boundaries of traditional mediums and destroying the idea of us being mere spectators, of presenting narratives which are ultimately created by how we play a game.

While it’s not possible – at least currently – to adapt the limitless plot branching possibilities from Pen and Paper, we can look towards the genre’s roots mentioned earlier in the article. Instead of creating a game that has some social components and path branching as an afterthought, go for a game that disregards a main overarching story at first and build a gameworld from the start, with entities and their behaviors being the primary concern. Let story elements become secondary in face of giving the player a world he can explore and advance in, a gameworld where he can build his own narrative through a simple cause and effect system instead of taking control away from him and telling him what he can and can’t do. Sidestep the traditional branching narrative structures that only create an illusion of choice and divergence, and offer consequences to player choices, and reactions to player actions. Develop the necessary conditions to let players create, develop and assert their character’s role in an interactive narrative. We want to play games, not sit back and watch them. We want to play a role, and not have it played for us.

Are you a bad enough developer to rescue the role-player?


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