Today’s entry is inspired by a Stolen Pixels cartoon from The Escapist. Ever heard the old Heaven/Hell joke involving European nationalities?
Heaven is where the police are British,
the chefs Italian,
the mechanics German,
the lovers French,
and it’s all organized by the Swiss.
Hell is where the police are German,
the chefs are British,
the mechanics French,
the lovers Swiss,
and it is all organized by the Italians.
Stolen Pixels decided to make their own version of that involving video game companies.
If you’re not amused, it’s okay, you might just not be a VG nerd. Even so, you might notice one oddity amongst the subjects, which is that Bioware ended up in charge of both the Heaven and Hell of video game dialog.
That also happened to be the part of the cartoon that nearly made me spit-take soda all over my monitor, because it is so paradoxically, agonizingly true. And that’s because the modern CRPG is still, to this day, really nothing more than a matter of how well you can fool a player into thinking they’re not being railroaded.
Anyone who has played pen-and-paper RPGs has probably run across the dread concept of railroading. It’s a controversial term and there’s a lot of debate about just how much or how little should be present, since at the one end you have complete chaos, and at the other a Gamemaster mandated narrative so strict and inflexible that the players end up feeling like they might as well not be present. The term of course comes from the idea of being confined, like a train, to a particular set of tracks that you can’t escape from no matter how much you would like to.
CRPGS have made great advances since their first days, but at heart the game engine still consists of a bunch of 1s and 0s unable to think beyond what the designers programmed it with. Until and unless true AI is a reality, no computer RPG will ever come close to the flexibility of even the most rigid human GM (although once true AI is a reality you may have to deal with the AI favoring its girlfriend). To be fair, there are other technological limitations at play as well, such as the memory space available on a DVD, but still…
Say in a pen-and-paper game, you wanted to climb over a fence and check out the farmer’s field next door, and this conversation happened:
Player: “I climb the fence.”
GM: “You can’t.”
Player: “What do you mean, I can’t? How tall is it?”
GM: “Well, about four feet.”
Player: “You’re telling me I can’t climb over a four foot fence? Am I crippled? Do I have some sort of fenceophobia?”
GM: “No, just, that area isn’t important so you can’t go there.”
Player: “But there are cows! I can see them. I want to pet the cows.”
Player: “Oh really? Fine, I shoot one with my gun.”
GM: “You can’t.”
Player: “What? Now my gun doesn’t work? Did I miss?”
GM: “No, it fires, check off a bullet from your ammo. Just nothing happens.”
We’ll leave this imaginary session before it degenerates into exchanges of insults and a possible murder/suicide, especially later on when the GM informs the player that despite the mining camp’s worth of explosives he’s toting, he cannot blow open that locked wooden door. This is exactly the same sort of thing we accept when playing a CRPG. A pen-and-paper game is limited only by imagination (and perhaps, preparation). We give a pass to computer games because all the imagination involved is pre-loaded, and while we might see wonderful sights and sounds and experience a fantastic, emotionally fulfilling story, there will always be fences you cannot climb.
There is an accompanying adage to the idea of railroading, which is that if the scenery along the way is interesting enough and the destination good enough, you don’t really mind the lack of freedom. To continue the analogy, some games also give you a lot of different tracks to choose from, even if all of them eventually end up in the same spots. The pinnacles of this are the “sandbox” games that allow you to explore, do side quests, and generally muck about to your heart’s content rather than getting on with the main story. Eventually though, you’ll have to get back on the train in order to earn completion.
The so-called “dialog trees” that make up character interactions in these games are micro-railroads of their own, and it’s not really fair to single out Bioware for them. It’s just the nature of the beast. But besides the impassable fences, dialog sequences are the most glaring weakness of CRPGS, the ones where the wires show and you can get dragged right out of the experience and reminded you’re dealing with a very limited format. As the cartoon so artfully expresses, you will run into multiple occasions where your only choice is to get punched in the dick, and it’s just a cosmetic matter of how enthusiastic you are about it.
Better yet, I can use a recent example from my current play of Fallout: New Vegas. Now, this game allows you to break down ammunition and recreate it, combining base powder, lead, and casings into new calibers and/or types of bullets. These components actually have no weight to them, so by the time I was done with my frenzy of recycling I was toting around thousands of casings and raw pellets of lead.
Now, this might be a flipside of the argument since a human GM would probably call bullshit on you lugging that much crap around the wasteland, but still, I quite literally was told by one questgiver that he’d agree to an arms exchange only if I could gather enough raw materials for him to make the necessary ammunition. Guns he had plenty of, but he needed to make ammo. Go find me some metal to melt down.
Offering him all the ammunition parts I was already carrying? Not even a dialog option. And in fact, although a bent tin can or a pile of ‘scrap metal’ was perfectly acceptable for his purposes, a metal spoon or fork was not. At this point you’d be repeatedly stabbing your human GM in the neck with said fork, asking him how metal he thinks it is now, but the computer really doesn’t give a fuck: it was programmed to accept X and Z, and if you have the bright idea that Y should work, also? Too bad.
Good modern CRPGs try to minimize these incidents, and the best of them also try to accomodate for different ‘characters’ or at least moral approaches to a problem. Sometimes this is as simple as having a ‘good’ track and an ‘evil’ track, but if you’re true masochistic Roleplaying nerds like my wife and myself, you will still continually think up a particular character to occupy the protagonist slot and try to make your choices based on what that character would do, despite your only audience being a cluster of 1′s and 0′s that doesn’t actually care how hard you tell it you want to be punched in the dick, and sometimes isn’t even programmed for the option of avoiding the dick punch entirely. The beginning of Fable III is an excellent example of this sort of disappointment: even though it gives you a couple of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ moral choices in the intro, your character still ends up bursting in on a private meeting in exactly the same way in order to insist that someone powerful not hurt innocent people, and no amount of “Hey wait, I wouldn’t have done that” stops the cutscene and the serious amount of bad things that happen to you as a consequence.
Bioware probably stands out the most because it’s the big dog as far as trying to push the envelope on NPC and world interactions, always trying to hide those tracks away and immerse you, and give you choices and consequences for those choices. With Mass Effect 2 they actually began carrying over all your major decisions from Mass Effect 1, and that kind of continuity and cascade really does go a long way towards a personalization of experience that hasn’t been there before. Early on they also started experimenting with romance options, and somehow managed to succeed in making it not a complete joke… but wow does it still need a lot of work to seem anywhere near natural. For instance, with every game they release there are usually several companions you can recruit, but only a certain portion of those companions are (quite literally) programmed for romance.
Fair criticism? No, but again, one of those aspects that has a long way to go before it approaches the flexibility of pen-and-paper and a human GM. Even if they’re not comfy with all that lovey dovey crap, you could at least bring it up as an option. In Dragon Age there’s no dialog choice for proposing to Sten, pointless (but amusing) as that might be. Mass Effect 2 at least finally acknowledged that people can get pretty, ahem, curious with this sort of thing and allowed romance options with full-on aliens such as Garrus and Tali, even if it still stuck hard-working Tali romancers with total “What’s under that faceplate?!” blueballs.
So don’t get me wrong, I love Bioware and I love the Fallout series, they tell great stories, and in a way the railroading ensures that everyone who plays has a certain set of shared experiences to cherish, and a coherent narrative to follow. But on the other hand, I wonder if it’s precisely because we can’t get the bullet-making dude to accept the entire backpack of lead, or can’t ask the cute Bio-Implants clerk for her holophone number, that those of us who still do the pen-and-paper gaming get so insane with our comparative freedom there. We adopt random monsters (as pets or, uh, “trap finders”), we seduce the Admiral’s daughter and then start writing her letters, we decide to carry dead animals on sticks and worship them as gods, we roll a bunch of big rocks down into the goblin cave rather than going in and fighting them…
Come to think of it, I remember doing shit like that long before CRPG’s became sophisticated enough to even pretend like they weren’t set on the rails, but I do believe that when players are given the opportunity to think outside the (X-)box, you better believe it’s gonna happen. So be ready for them to jump that four-foot fence, and have a great time with the consequences.