Player freedom vs. story in games

This is a rant that I have been thinking about for the last week or so. I have avoided writing it earlier because all my thoughts about the subject seemed disconnected and not really going anywhere. That would end up leading more to confusion to any reader than really giving some food for thought. I think I may have found a good way to flesh out the subject enough to achieve my goal though but we’ll see.

Let me warn right now that this is will be a very big rant, with most of it probably not making much of a sense. Hopefully it will still be an interesting read to someone out there. If not, let me know in the comments and I will strive to do better next time.

Oh, yeah. If someone found  this because they googled Deus Ex: Human Revolution, sorry to disappoint but there is only a mention of the game by the end of this long rant. Still stick around for a bit and see if there is anything in this blog that you like. 🙂

Anyway, if you spend enough time in the internet reading or talking about anything game-related you will inevitably end up stumbling on the old discussion about how old games were better for reasons X, Y, and Z while more recent games suck because they lack those. Some times those discussions are done in actual well thought articles that make you think about it. Other times they seem to be just the rant of someone with anger management issues that make absolute no sense to anyone that isn’t said person.

Personally, I am inclined to agree with the “old school games are better” to a certain extent. Partly because I have a horrible memory. Any memory longer than 5 minutes ago is just very fuzzy. Remember enough details then for a thoughtful discussion would be pretty much a miracle.

The other reason is because I don’t think old games are necessarily better just because they were old and exploring pretty much unknown territory back then. Or that new games just suck because they are new and different from what I grew up with. Games, old or new, all have their good points and bad points. Although technological age can help in some circumstances (like interface for example), it doesn’t necessarily make a game good or bad.

Yet, somehow there are times where I find that current games are just not as satisfying or as varied as the ones I played while growing up. It could be just my perception being skewed by my faulty memory. It could be me being entranced by all the good arguments about the games of old, putting them in a pedestal and worshiping them as some sort of mysterious deity. I do after all fall into such traps with a lot of things.

But recently I experienced first-hand something that might have shown that such discussions are not just the grumblings of old people who can’t accept changes nor it just being my own delusions about a glorious past.

See, there is this old game, called Shogo. It is an FPS game with giant robots. If you never heard of it, don’t worry. It was pretty unknown even back in the day. In fact I only found it by accident one day when I went to a store and saw the box. It caught my attention with the giant robot in the box. Since it was cheap and it had giant robots on it I decided to buy it. Did I mention it had giant robots on it?

Anyhoo, I bought it. I played it. I loved it. I lost the discs somewhere.

Good Old Games  has it on its catalog of games nowadays and I bought it again with the expectation to relive some good old memories. Which I have yet to do… But I digress.

One night I was bored while waiting re-downloading my games from steam after formatting my HD. Shogo was already in my HD so I decided to play it a little and kill some time. After all my memory said that it was an excellent game and my memory never betrayed me. Except for all those gazillion times it did. Plus it is a game with giant robots. Giant robots!

The first level is pretty basic, just shoot some other giant robots then get to the ship that will take you back to HQ. Back in HQ I got some orders to  report back to my boss. This is another playable level. The first where you aren’t in a robot giant and instead has to on your fleshy, less awesome, self shooting down enemies. Although on this one there isn’t any enemy for you to shoot at. I guess it is more there so you can get used to the idea you won’t be piloting a giant robot all the time as well as to get an idea of the place as it will be important later on.

By then my boredom didn’t give in one bit and I was disappointed the game didn’t age as well as I hoped for. So, out of a pure whim I decided to mess around a bit and shoot at stuff for no reason. Just some shots at the walls at first then I get out of my room and see some co-workers…. which I decided to shoot. I figured out that most likely my guns would automagically stop working if I tried that. Even if I could shoot, the NPCs would have plot armor that protects them from anything until a certain point where they will lose it to advance the plot. After all that is how all games nowadays do it, right? That can’t be some crazy thing invented at some point in gaming history to turn a game’s story into some sort of deity that can’t be defied, right?

Well…. Turns out that not only my guns were still working but the NPCs didn’t have plot armor either. They were pretty mortal. Then I heard my boss saying “Shoot the traitor!” and the whole base was suddenly trying to kill me. Ooops…

At that point I just decided to exit the game and call it a night. Still, as hilarious as it all was it made me thing of another situation, where in a complete whim I decided to mess around just to see what would happen.

This time it was on Fallout 3. In that game the tutorial part starts with your character literally borning as a baby then going through some of the most eventful points of your life as you grow up. This serves both in a way to put in-game some of the game concepts, like the characters stats for example, as well as serving to deliver parts of the game story.

The moment I remembered was during the character’s birthday party where Dad decides to give you a gun since you are now old enough to handle one responsibly. Out of a pure whim and to see what would happen I decide to try to shoot Dad. Not surprisingly, considering Oblivion, I found out that Dad is like Superman, easily able to shrug off bullets like they were nothing while at the same time scolding me, saying how that is not a nice thing to do.

At this point you are probably thinking it is an unfairly comparison. After all Shogo is an old game, it probably works like that due to some sort of technological limitation and that the only thing I would be accomplishing with it would be to end my game prematurely as there would be no way to continue with the game. While Fallout 3, being a more recent game, does not have such technological limitations and thus can give Dad a plot armor so he lives as long as he is necessary to move the game’s plot.

To  that I will argue that it is not a case of technological limitation. Shogo could have easily made the other soldiers in the HQ to have a gazillion hit points, thus making them pretty much immortal, just for that level. Or, again just for that level, disable my ability to shoot completely. It would accomplish the purpose of both moving the story along as getting myself familiar with the layout of the place when it will be used later on as a combat stage.

The difference is that Shogo doesn’t take my freedom away or break my game immersion at any point. It trusts me enough to not do something stupid that would end the game abruptly. While Fallout 3 doesn’t care about sacrificing immersion as long as it is to tell the game’s story.

After reading that you are probably, and understandably, scratching your head and asking “Uh… So you want the freedom to shoot at anything and end the game prematurely?”.

No, no, no. Absolutely not. That is not the point. My point is that what Shogo made me realize is yes, the old “grumpy” people who say that older games are better may have a point. That one of the things that seem to be being sacrificed are player freedom to do whatever he feels right as well as a trust that the player will do whatever is required to move the game’s story along. That games nowadays are a more linear and heavy-handed on how  they handle plot than it is actually necessary.

I will admit though that Shogo makes a poor case for it given the very thin plot it does have and how the game is pretty much linear too. Even then it still gave me more freedom to do whatever I saw fit given the game’s rules than Fallout 3 did.

If you are still reading this you might still be thinking that it is a question of technological limitation, that I am probably asking for infinite freedom or even what the big deal is.

Well, I am not asking for infinite freedom, nor it is really a question of technological limitation. But we’ll get to that one in a bit. First what the big deal is.

One of the things I do like in games, specially story-driven games, is to see how my character actions and decisions affect the world. Did I really have to help the old crime lord to get rid of his new competition in exchange for info on the game’s main villain? Wouldn’t it be just better to get rid of the new competition and then kill the old crime lord too once I got the information I got? What if I am playing a douche bag that likes the new competition and decides to pretend to comply with the crime lord only to backstab him once I get the information I need?

In other words it is experimenting all of  these what ifs that I like in games. The way games are nowadays I often feel like in the end I only have one option on how to deal with a situation with my only allowed decision being  a different dialogue choice that amounts to nothing. All so that the developers can tell their story.

Using the example above, let’s imagine it happens in ye olde fantasy genre. Let’s say the main villain is an evil wizard that for some reason or another my character is the only one who can defeat him. At a certain point in the game I get to a city where I find out the villain has a hidden base of operations. That base is led by one of the evil wizard’s lieutenants, a guy I had a run-in before that ended badly for me and that I am looking forward to settle the score. I also find out that one of the old crime lords may know the location of said base and he might be willing to give me the information out if I offer to do some work for him.

In an ideal game there would be a series of different options on how to tackle this situation with different consequences that could be shown in the game endings. Here are some options that I can think off the top of my head:

A) After doing some small quests for the crime lord to prove that I won’t backstab him he then orders me to eliminate his new competition. If I do this just then he will give me the information I need. I do this and the ending I get for is that the crime lord without any competition ends up living for a very long time eventually being backstabbed by one of his own men. The city itself doesn’t get much worse during that period of time.

B) I somehow manage to convince the old crime lord that the threat of the wizard is bad enough that if he doesn’t help me out the new competition will be the least of his problems. He gives me the information with the ending being  that the city’s situation gets worse as the war between the crime lord and the new competition gets worse. Eventually the old crime lord wins and things go back to the ways it used to be.

C) I do what the crime lord asks, get rid of the competition, get the information AND then decide to kill the old crime lord himself. After all the city will probably be better off without both of them. The ending I get is that some new gangs try to fill the power void. This lead to a series of violence for a while but in the  end none of them can get enough of a foothold. The city is able to prosper without all the decrease in criminality.

D) I decide I like the new competition better. They offer me a deal where they will pay me a lot of money to kill the old crime lord plus I get whatever I can loot whatever I want  from the crime lord’s mansion. I do this, finding out the information I need either in a note looted from the crime lord’s body or from a locked desk in his office. In the ending the new competition is even worse than the old crime lord. They terrorize the region with their crimes for decades.

E) I just pickpocket a note with the info I need from the old crime lord or lock pick a desk with said note. In that case I get the same ending as option B.

F) I ignore old crime lord completely, going out to find the main villain’s secret base by myself. This might be hard, with the only practical way to really find the place being if you know the location of it either because of a walk-through or because you played the game before. In that case the city’s fate might not even be mentioned in the ending or we get the same ending as option B.

All these options don’t require any real advanced game engine just more work in terms of content for the developer. It also doesn’t need to be limited to just that part of the game’s main quest or make each option an isolated case with its own specific ending. It can be a series of small decisions that affects other parts of the game story later on.

If done right this means a much richer gaming experience for the player as well as a better story in the end. It also adds an incentive for the player to play the game again to see how different actions could lead to a different story.

Now to give two concrete examples of what I am talking about there are two recent games I can think of that follow this trend. Fallout New Vegas and Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

The case of Fallout New Vegas is probably ironic considering it uses the same engine (with some minor modifications) as Fallout 3 and happens in the same universe. Yet I think it handles player freedom and its story way better than Fallout 3 does. Case in point, I can safely say there is only one NPC with plot armor and it is given a pretty reasonable explanation in-game, that does not contradict the game’s setting. And that is only because otherwise there is absolute no way to end the game. Plus it is hard to hate the guy since he is just hilarious.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution goes even further than what Fallout New Vegas allows making decisions that doesn’t seem a big deal at the time having ramifications later on in the story. In fact my original intention was to pull out a lot of examples on how Deus Ex: Human Revolution does it but this post is way too long as it is. If I find necessary to expound my point further I can do that in a later post later on. Meanwhile I will just recommend to anyone who reads this to go play it if possible. It is an excellent game and hopefully will make enough of an impact for more games like it to being produced in the near future.

Also, before someone calls me a hypocrite when I later on exalt a very linear game, as I am sure it will happen at some point, let me say this: I have nothing against more linear games. As long as they are honest about it and have a good story, I am completely fine about it. But if  they promise a game with big decisions, that my characters actions matter to the story then, yeah, I want to have those and not just the illusion of it as it is the feeling I have been getting with a lot of recent games.

2 thoughts on “Player freedom vs. story in games”

  1. Fallout 1 & 2 had a lot of freedom like that, and the ending sequence you would see at the end of the game would be based on what you did earlier in the game. There were even child-thieves who would steal your money and you had the choice of what to do about them, including killing them. Nowadays, game companies rarely put children in their games at all if there is any chance they could be killed, or they just make them immortal. I guess they don’t want to be sued for some weird accusation of promoting violence against children, even though it is the players choice.

    Ultima VII: The Black Gate also allowed killing any NPC in the game. If you killed off someone you needed, then oh well. You could even kill off Lord British using some sort of game trick even though they made him nearly immortal. I remember going around killing everyone in a couple of towns just to see what would happen. The last one to die was this little boy and he was running from me begging for his life. I still killed him, but felt really bad about it. Needless to say, I didn’t save the game and everything was back the way it was before. I guess I’m just more inclined to do the goody goody noble route when given a choice. 🙂

    I’m currently playing Assassins Creed 2 on the Xbox 360 and there isn’t a whole lot of choice when it comes to the main plot. However, you do have the freedom to kill a citizen or two if you want, but if you do kill too many, the game warns you that “Ezio didn’t kill citizens” and you get desynchronized and put back at your last checkpoint. I did kill a couple of citizens to complete a mission and felt bad about it, even though I kill guards left and right without any issues. It’s weird how that works!

    Nevertheless, I’m enjoying the storyline and just have been in the mood for more story-based games lately, even if I’m kind of railroaded through.

  2. *nods* I mentioned before in one our talks in EQ2 that I never played Fallout 1 and 2, just Fallout Tactics which is a completely different beast in terms of gameplay. But I do plan to rectify that one day.

    Now that you mention children, I do have to rectify about having only one character with plot armor in Fallout: New Vegas. There are some children there who are immortal and they are there for the most part just for fluffy. This is one instance that I am ok with it as I would feel bad killing them even in the remote possibility that I would have some good reason to do so.

    As for why there aren’t many children characters in games nowadays or when there are any they are immortal, I saw someone telling Domino’s explanation to why they can’t make a quest to kill Qho. It seems that if you allow children to be killed in a game then the game’s ESRB rating is raised to Adult’s Only. Which to many games is pretty much a commercial suicide as they probably wouldn’t sell enough of game copies to cover the production costs much less profit from it. So it is more a ESRB thing than a game companies thing.

    Funny that you mention Ultima. Apparently Richard Garriott, aka Lord British, philosophy of gaming design was to make sure there was at least one guaranteed solution to quests. But he would not go out of his way to disallow any other possible solutions to a quest that players could come up with while playing the game.

    The actual quote is in a more concise way and better worded than that. Unfortunately I can’t find it right now. I wish I could quote it properly. I also wish I could frame that quote and put it in the room of every game developer out there. So they could read it every day and make a more conscious decision about what kind of games they want to produce.

    Well, Assassin’s Creed is a series where I don’t see a problem with the plot being railroaded. Partly because I never saw it as a RPG, just an action game with a story to give it some context. The other part was that I never got the impression there was any real decision besides how to assassinate my next target.

    Given that it is not a game that pulls me in, wondering how my actions will affect the game world. It is more like I am playing an action game where I get rewarded with story bits between targets.Not like a game where I do feel that I am in the protagonist’s shoes and the story happens as I play along.

    I guess I can understand though about your feelings about feeling bad about killing citizens but not guards. I only played a little of Assassin’s Creed 1. At least in that one a lot of the guards are douche bags who will harass some poor citizen. So I just think of it as Altair acting as the hand of karma against such guards. Citizens however are usually pretty defenseless and aren’t doing harm to anyone.

    Anyway, hope you keep enjoying Assassin’s Creed 2 and if you find something interesting to say about the game, please do a post about it. 🙂

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