Tuesday, 16 February 2010

The Ultimate Sacrifice

There's an interesting phenomenon happening on BioWare's social forums; or at least something that I find interesting.

But before I start a few things. To begin with this post has nothing directly to do with Star Wars: The Old Republic, instead it is about Dragon Age: Origins (specifically) and Mass Effect/Mass Effect 2 (to a lesser extend). It also contains spoilers regarding the endings of those games. Though I'll try to keep from being too specific (no 'how' or 'why', just 'what'), if you don't want (some of) the possible endings spoiled then it's probably best to refrain from reading this post. So with that out of the way, let's get going.

If you've played Dragon Age: Origins then you'll know that it's a story-centric game during which you're asking to make a number of choices with varying levels of consequences. Nowhere is this more evident that in the final choice of the game where you're asked to give your own (character's) life to save the world. There are other ways to do this as well, but each has their own drawbacks (and depending on earlier choices not all of them will be available). In essence, choosing to make the "Ultimate Sacrifice" (which is also the name of the achievement you get for the choice) is the noblest choice to make.

But of course that leaves BioWare with a problem. After all, they want to continue creating more games and (downloadable) content in the franchise for you to buy and play. There are, as I see it, several ways for them to deal with this situation and how to continue on from Dragon Age: Origins.
  • The "Shadows of Undrentide" Method

    Probably the easiest way for BioWare to deal with the matter is to pretty much ignore the whole thing. Give players a new main character to play, set it in an area far (enough) away from the previous game and have a new story that doesn't reference the old one. This is, roughly, what BioWare did with their first expansion to Neverwinter Nights.

    Of course BioWare got a fair amount of critique for this decision from a number of fans (though personally I never had an issue with it). Most people wanted to continue with their character from Neverwinter Nights instead of starting a new character. This is certainly understandable; if you've got a good story then you want to see it continue.

  • The "Mass Effect 3" Method

    It is possible that, depending on the choices you make, your Shepard doesn't survive the end of Mass Effect 2. But just as you could import your savegame from Mass Effect 1 into Mass Effect 2 to see the consequences of the decisions you made in the first game, so too will you be able to import your savegame from Mass Effect 2 into Mass Effect 3. That is, unless your character dies (a story death) in the second game as BioWare have said that you can't import the savegame of a dead Shepard.

    That makes sense. After all, Mass Effect is the story of Commander Shepard; if Shepard is dead then it's the end of the story. Additionally Shepard's death in Mass Effect 2 is more the result of failure instead of a conscious choice to give up your life for the greater good; as I understand it you only get it as the worst possible outcome with all your squadmates dead as well (you can see this ending on YouTube; as you can see Shepard only dies because there isn't anyone left to save him).

  • The "Let's Ignore It" Method

    Another way to deal with the potential death is by letting the story continue, but not dealing with the 'inconvenient' death at all. In this all the choices you made in the game are preserved, except that the fact that your character died is ignored and they let you continue to play your character as if nothing happened.

    This, according to the official FAQ, is the solution BioWare seems to be taking for Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening. There is no story explanation, they pretty much just ignore the story. This makes one wonder why they would even bother including all the rest of the story, but I've got a feeling that that's just an artifact of the import method and that the purpose of this option is to have the same skills and stats as your old character.
Unfortunately none of these solutions are really satisfactory for Dragon Age: Origins (and the Awakening expansion in particular). The first isn't satisfactory because Awakening continues on where the main game left off. I would've had no issue with this personally if they had chosen to tell a completely separate story in a completely separate part of the world (i.e. not Ferelden).

The second solution isn't satisfactory either. Mass Effect might be the story of Shepard, but Dragon Age isn't, in my opinion, the story of the Warden. You can already see this from the fact that they're allowing you to play a different Warden (one from Orlais) in the expansion; one who never went through the story of the main game (instead of doing what Mass Effect 2 did and give you a Shepard who did go through the events in Mass Effect 1). A stronger reason for why it's unsatisfactory however is that where the death in Mass Effect 2 is the result of poorly made choices, the one in Dragon Age: Origins is the result of a very deliberate and valid choice. As I said, choosing to give your life is probably the noblest choice to make. That choice deserves to remain valid within the world.

And the third choice doesn't satisfy at all either. While it might be good to have the option available for those who just want to play the same character again and don't really care about story, it doesn't satisfy anyone who does care about story (which, presumably, is why the majority of people play BioWare's games to begin with). Sure, one could choose to play the new Warden, but that means that the story you experienced in the main game doesn't continue as you'll be left with the stock choices that they made. And playing your old Warden again is worse because with that the story goes out the window altogether.

Which leads us to the interesting phenomenon I started the post with. Over on BioWare's social forums people are clamoring to have their character stay dead.

Let us examine that desire for a moment; what is it exactly that people want? It is clear that people want to continue the story, continue in the world that they created through their choices. People want the choices they made to remain valid; what happens to Alistair, what the status is of the main areas you visit, etc. These things are important. Just not importing isn't satisfactory because it's likely that who rules the country isn't who it was when you played (and we know that this will come up in the expansion).

But having some excuse to 'resurrect' your character (and there are various options that BioWare could go with even if they've said that they want death to have meaning in their world and thus are unlikely to do resurrections) isn't satisfactory either because that invalidates the sacrifice that your character made. And it feels cheap to boot. How is it an 'Ultimate Sacrifice' if it isn't permanent?

So what people really want to do is import the decisions of their dead Warden, but play the game with a new character (namely the Orlesian Warden). Ideally people even want that the game makes some references to the noble sacrifice your old Warden made ("that other Warden who sacrificed his/her life to safe us was the greatest hero of our time" or such).
  • The "The World Goes On" Method

    The character remains dead and players get to play a new character (with a separate background story), but the decisions that the character made before their dead are still in effect in the world and still noticeable. This is perhaps the most realistic method, story-wise.
But that, to me, is fascinating because I think that it might be one of the only times that players are actively asking for their character to remain dead. Usually players try their utmost to keep their character alive. In fact, that is the whole point of most gameplay where dying means that you lost the game. As such it is evident of BioWare's ability to tell emotionally engaging stories that they've turned this on its head with people actively hoping that their character remains dead.

I just hope that BioWare cares as much about story as they say they do.

It must be noted here that all people have to go on really is that faq I linked to earlier, which certainly seems to imply that the only way to import a dead Warden is to pretend this Warden never died to begin with. The faq is particularly light on details regarding the new Warden you've got the option to play and it is quite possible that they'll take another possible approach; one that isn't quite the previous one, but could be good enough to serve:
  • The "Knights of the Old Republic 2" Method

    When you played Obisidan's sequel to BioWare's Knights of the Old Republic you couldn't import your savegame, and yet they managed to continue the story from the first one (for the most part). They did this by just asking the player what decisions they made in the first game. This could be done subtly as in KotOR2 by asking as part of the normal dialog, or it could be done blatantly by just bringing up a list at the start with "what choices did you make in the first game?".

    Either way it worked in KotOR2 because the first game didn't have that many impactful choices to begin with (Revan's gender was one and being darkside or lightside was another, but I don't really recall any other big choices) and because KotOR2 only referenced the choices in a sideways manner (Revan was only ever mentioned in dialog). As such it might work in Awakening; ask the player about the main choices that are reflected in the expansion, but even so it might still feel like it's not really your world you created, but just some facsimile.
In the end the whole situation might just be an indication of how difficult it really is to support a myriad of possible player choices within a product. Despite BioWare's claims the main choices you made in Mass Effect got little more than cameos in Mass Effect 2 and never really impacted the main story.* I would hope though that they'll do their best to allow all the possible choices to continue (even if a lot of the lesser ones don't really have any apparent effect in the expansion).

And most of all I hope that they'll allow the story of Dragon Age to continue if your Warden made the ultimate sacrifice to save the world, because the choice is too unique to just sweep under the carpet with a "let's just forget that the whole thing happened".

As one poster on the BioWare social forums said: "For the Ultimate Sacrifice choice to be meaningful, the dead Warden's world has to persist after his death."

* For some example; whether you save the Counsel or not doesn't really matter since you get no more than a few minutes of holographic time with them during which they treat you pretty much the same regardless of your choice. Whether you saved Ashley or Kaiden doesn't really matter because one will just take the place of the other in a brief cameo where they do nothing but scold you. Whether you saved Wrex or not doesn't really matter because if you didn't you just get a different krogan in his place. Whether you saved the Rachni Queen or not doesn't matter as all you get it a brief, cryptic message from an Asari without any followthrough in the rest of the game. Etc.


BakaMatt said...

A very interesting topic that I'm glad you brought to the forefront. Forgive me for traveling off on a tangent here, but you sparked a rant in me that's just fighting to get out.

BioWare has long stressed that "choices matter" in their more recent history. However, in your discourse you present an observation that has been one I agree with and have advocated for a long time - that in the true scope of things, it isn't true - your choices don't really matter.

For all that their freeform conversations and sidequests allow, BioWare's video games are no substitute for the pencil and paper roots they stem from. Strip away the illusion and fine paint and you are left with what is ultimately a linear railroad from point A to point B. I might pick out different scenery from the passenger window than you might, but we all end up riding it out to the same destination.

It's understandable. There is one story to tell. They can craft as many unique origins as they want, they can make references to earlier choices with repercussions, but in the end they are going to present one big event. It's just not feasible to develop a game with hundreds of varying tangents and appropriate paths. There is a limit to how much gain is achieved by tailoring to the individual. At some point they need to choose a cutoff or face producing a game so overinflated that it would never see the end of development.

Case in point - In the original Neverwinter Nights campaign, BioWare crafted alternate player text for characters of low intelligence. Broken, "me am sorry" sort of text. It was representative of the character's inability to speak properly (as per D&D rules). It was a nice flavourful surprise when I first encountered it, and I was shocked when I learned that all of that text was manually crafted and not generated from the existing lines. When Shadows of Undrentide released, a topic was abuzz on the community forum about how their big dumb Ox spoke as eloquently as a normal character. A BioWare developer responded explaining how it was an overhead they felt was too much of an outside case to focus on - paraphrasing, the response was "Would you have had the low IQ alternate text at the expense of a shorter campaign?"

Now that I reminisce, I believe they coined the phrase "Zots" for this conversation, a fictional measure of budget. A project has so many zots to work with, and it is just far more productive to put them to work where everyone will see them.

BakaMatt said...

(Continuing from previous comment - Text was limited)

That's the problem with the "choices matter" mantra. For them to truly matter, they should have impact, but with the impact only affecting the players who made that choice, it's difficult to justify spending zots when the rest of the players who didn't make that choice will miss out. And if you do allow it to make significant impact, it should open routes only accessible through that method. This is a cascading problem that only gets worse with the more you allow choices to truly matter.

It's an attainable goal at the tabletop because much of the world is imagined, with a game master at the helm. The referee can adjust to what his players do, can concretely shape future events on the fly. In the video game space, you don't have that luxury of adapting in realtime.

"Your choices matter" is an impossible claim that I'd thought BioWare should have rephrased a while ago. They're still spouting that mantra, they are still twisting the truth. Choices "matter" only because they influence future conversation choices, such as with companion interactions and what Paragon/Renegade actions are available. Choices that "matter" give you a different ending variation that mine. Still, choices that "matter" are not going to give a significantly different playing experience.

They've been sticking to their guns for TOR, stressing that individual player experiences will be tailored based on choices that "matter". The zots know better. I had wondered briefly if BioWare had thought of a way to accomplish it until I saw both versions of the demo with the critical choice of killing or sparing the captain. Sure, the scene plays out differently, but the players still ended up in the same flashpoint in the end. Did the choice truly "matter"? Not really.

Don't get me wrong. I love how BioWare has crafted conversations. I feel more connected when I can drive my character and speak through him and her. Conversations often feel like minigames in themselves - it's fun. I just don't buy the illusion of control. I can manipulate the side story, but my main destiny has already been written by the fine staff at BioWare.

I hope those rallying for their characters to stay dead (yet have had an impact on the world) open some eyes and get their way. They'd still have to settle for the illusion of choice mattering, but it's still a personal experience that they shouldn't have to miss out on.

Ayane said...

I think that the way to make all your choices matter is to go more in the simulation direction, moving away from a predefined story. In that you can still have a cinematic experience, but the story will be constructed a lot more from what you do (which might not make a good book or movie, but certainly makes the story much more personal).

That is definitely not the direction BioWare is taking with their games though; for that you'll likely have more luck with companies such as Bethesda (who also tend to be fairly bad at making choices matter in my experience).

Even so, I do believe that it is possible to have choices with consequences in a story-driven game. The game just needs to limit it to a few important choices. And that I think will be enough for players, particularly since they don't know exactly which of their choices will truly have big consequences.

Unfortunately while it seems that this is what BioWare is doing in their games, they do have a fair bit of trouble with the follow-through. I think that is for a large part because developers seem to be afraid to create things that not all of their players will experience (in some form or another). I'm not exactly sure why it can't be seen similar to side quests (which also not everyone will experience); some games in the past gave you either one mission or another based on what choice you made so it definitely is possible.

And it doesn't necessarily have to be missions either. For example, what I expected to happen (and which might to some small degree happen in Mass Effect 3) is that if you save the Rachni Queen then now and again you might have some Rachni appear to help you fight the enemy (and conversely there might be some Rachni who rebelled away from the queen and help your enemies instead, just to keep it fair). That way you definitely get the sense of consequences to your actions.

You can even take it outside of combat. Say you had a choice to save or doom the Salarians. If you choose to save them then they might stand around in various places in the civilized areas and some of them might be merchants selling unique items. If you doom them then there might be very few of them and most merchants might either not be there or be replaced by other species, making some items unavailable (and other items available that wouldn't have been). They might even offer some quests or such.

In the end I think that for choices to have meaning they need to have an impact that lasts longer than a few-minute cameo. Give the player some clear, longer-lasting benefit or drawback, change the available missions, make the presence of the results of your choice known throughout either through graphics or audio or recurring effects.

It requires, in short, being clever about it.

Though of course it'll never be as flexible and involved as a roleplaying session with other, live players who can respond to all of your choices and let you feel the consequences of making any of them. :)