Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Commitment, Choice, and Consequences, Deus Ex, Alpha Protocol, and Mass Effect

Recently, I posted a really long, but unedited look at choice and consequences on Reddit’s “Truegaming” subreddit.  It’s hot right now, one of the highest upvoted articles in the young subreddit, so I thought I’d present it here as a second draft. Also, consider this a SPOILER WARNING, as there are some minor spoilers for these games below.  Tumblr doesn't have a simple way to hide them.

This article looks at how games look at the other side of choice.  While choice in how one plays enables greater player agency and immersion, player choice without much consequence can also be an immersion breaker.  This isn’t just about moral choice, but about the gray area with no right answer.

I was reading this playthrough diary of Deus Ex: Human Revolution (note: minor spoilers), and it had brought to mind meaningfully punishing consequences in games.  In the diary, Joe Martin - the author - refers to initially treating the game like a game, and being punished for it.

After a short recovery during the opening credits of the game, Adam Jensen is brought back to Sarif Industries early.  When he arrives, his boss urges him to a helicopter as quickly as possible.  Joe Martin decided to play around the Sarif Industries office building for awhile instead.

That’s when the bomb goes off, killing several hostages.

This didn't happen in my playthrough.  It didn't even occur to me as a possibility.  I listened to my boss and went straight to the Helipad.  I had no idea that my Adam Jensen was doing anything “right” thing here, and people would have suffered if I didn't.  What a great way to indicate this to the player early on in the game.  I’d also add that there really isn’t a “right” answer - you’re a morally gray character.  It’s an old cyberpunk trope, the corporate security agent that’s really a spy with his parent company’s best interests are his interests.  It’s in his best interest to save valuable employees, but an experimental product is the top priority to save.

This brought to mind Alpha Protocol.


Amongst the many things that the game is consistently criticized for is the lack of autosave and its outdated checkpoint system.  "Checkpoints are an old idea,” said console and PC gamers alike.  “We could save to a hard drive now.  Save now and save often."

This frustrated me initially as well.  Why?

I kept replaying the first mission from the checkpoint that left me at 5% of a health bar while entering a room full of terrorist bodyguards. My run and gun strategy just didn't work as planned.  It was loud, and not particularly covert.  Eventually, I gave up and replayed the entire mission from the beginning, more carefully this time.  That’s when I got it.

Commitment.  Alpha Protocol is designed for commitment and the checkpoints were a part of that.  If you make a decision, from dialog (Human Revolution does this as well) to what guns you take, to how much damage you've taken before entering that room - that is your decision and your consequence.  In the game, the player becomes Michael Thornton because he is more focused on his survival than replaying the same story from the autosave.  Thornton’s death means much more now, as well as his choices.

This is what is amazing about Alpha Protocol, that made it one of my top games of last year.  This was a game that was not afraid of cutting out entire branches, plot points, and characters if you decide to do some other thing instead.  It was not afraid of letting the player make mistakes.

It’s not without its problems that went against this design, a problem that Deus Ex: Human Revolution shares with it, in fact.

Mass Effect and Mature Decisions

In Mass Effect, there were only two truly consequential decisions I truly felt as a player.  I found this disappointing.

The first was easy - Ashley or Kaiden?  After all, Max Shepard and Ash were an item at the time.    Even though the character was quite wooden and uninteresting, he was a regular stop in my dialog sweep around the ship.  So when the elevator opened up and he wasn't there, I *"felt** that absence.  The game had somehow managed to make me feel for a character that didn’t connect to before, and worse, make me feel guilty for choosing selfish happiness over another’s life.

In Mass Effect 2, some decisions seemed to have far more consequence than the first.  When I arrived at the final mission, I watched Yoeman Chambers die.  In a similar mechanic to the above situation with Kaiden, this was a character that Shep would talk to on a regular basis, and the perfect choice to show what it means to lose half a crew.  Why did this happen?  In a mirror to the above Deus Ex playthrough diary, I was fucking late.  I was busy doing side missions, when the time limit came up, and I had one loyalty mission left.  This mission?  It was Legion’s, one of the final characters to join the crew.  Worse yet, the consequences of not doing this would be astronomical, and so there was no choice in the matter for Max, renegade though he was.  This is one of those decisions I hope carries over to Mass Effect 3, or Max’s sacrifice would be for nothing.  That said, it’s emotionally draining for me to continue as Max, since he can't walk the bridge without feeling loss.

That being said, promised consequence of game to game in Mass Effect didn’t feel like it was there.  Aside from a few portions that were designed to be dilemmas, well, there weren't many which represented these choices.  The two examples above are the only shining examples of meaningful consequence.

Where Choice Breaks Down

Alpha Protocol and Deus Ex: Human Revolution both break down in the boss fights.  In a game that emphasizes player agency and choice, the design breaks down when it brings in unavoidable fights that don’t allow for specific other playstyles to get around.

Alpha Protocol actually does have a dialog system - if your reputation with certain factions are at a certain level you may be able to talk a boss down - but not all the time.  The requirements for these incidents are so rare that it’s surprising when this happens (this happened for me on the final boss battle).  As dialog and reputation are also emphasized as weapons in your arsenal, this made perfect sense in a gameplay perspective.  However, since it’s so rare, many players didn’t experience this.  Further, some boss battles were infuriatingly hard.

Deus Ex on the other hand, allows for some some stealth mechanics and environment manipulation - but you can’t simply escape the boss battle like you can a gun battle.

It’s here where Boss Battles are treated like story points, but they really shouldn’t be.  They are, as Ben “Yahtzee” Crohshaw puts it, Final Exams.  They should be the culmination of how you played so far.  So if you’re able to sneak past a set of guards by hacking cameras and hiding around pillars, it stands to reason that you should be able to sneak around a boss by hacking turrets and turning them against it.  If you emphasize multiple playstyles in the game, you should emphasize them as tools in boss battles as well.  Just Cause 2, a sandbox game with minimal story, allows for this sort of thing in nearly every mission.


Mass Effect will explicitly tell you what a consequence might or might not be.  For the most part the moral dilemmas amount to either adopting or shooting a puppy.

Alpha Protocol locks you out of portions of the game if you chose a certain route.  Mike cannot backtrack and try to do it another way.  Once a mission is done the way its done, the story moves on.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution represents consequence without explicitly telling you that you were going to miss out on something.  It requires Adam to improvise from now, to live in the moment while planning out A and B plans, and never treat the game like a dream.

In Mass Effect 1 and 2, I found myself gaming the system despite myself, even though I prefer not to do that.  Playing with systems rather than people, the actual choices in game seemed forced and inconsequential in the larger scheme of things (particularly the romance choices).  Max felt like someone I created, but the story felt forced upon him, like he was just along for the ride, with some control here in there.

In Alpha Protocol, I was awed by how much I felt like Mike and less like me. This was about how I wanted to play, but more committing to how I have already played.  Sure, I could switch it up for Mike from time to time, but Mike was someone I played as, not someone I created.

In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, so far I feel like Adam.  Swept in a story by other powers and forced to do things that he doesn't want to do, but hey, it's a violent world and life is cheap.  I feel like I'm playing Adam Jensen the Security specialist / corporate hit-man.  Even though some are playing like Adam Jensen the serial killer or Adam Jensen the pacifistic ghost, or even Adam Jensen the commando, Adam Jensen still feels like a fully realized character partially created by both the player and the developers.


Here, Tasteful, Understated Nerdrage breaks down Choice and Consequence with some similar game choices.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Early Impressions: VtM: Bloodlines

First and foremost, Vampire: The Masquerade is a horror game, and “Bloodlines” excels at this.  “Bloodlines” barely rises above its many bugs (even after the latest fan patch) to deliver a compelling new vision of an RPG. 

The Prince sends you on your way

Layered throughout run-of-the-mill quest lines (fetch this, kill this guy) are truly unique scenarios.  A fetch quest at a haunted house becomes a battle to free a trapped spirit, an investigation quest requires you not to kill guards despite how easy it could b

e, and tracking people are genuine dialogue based mysteries.  Yet even when there is a simple fetch and kill quest, but there's still care placed in how you do it and what you encounter.  As I invariably do in a lot of these, I want for diplomatic solutions, some of which are not possible (though sometimes it is, making it all the more displeasing). That being said, violent actions have consequences, and the game rewards you not by kill, but by quest conclusion. In other words, if my character sneak pasts a few gangbangers to do your job, you'll receive the same experience as you would if you ran in bearing fangs with guns blazing.

MMOs can learn a thing or two from this model.

My character went through a haunted house, was ambushed for predatory politics, hunted, killed a serial killer and blew up a warehouse protected by animalistic Sabbat vampires.  That was just the tutorial. 

The graphics are dated and buggy.  It won't even work in windows 7 without the fan made "True Gold" patch.  Animation is sloppy, some work seems rushed, and even on easy, combat is unforgiving due to poor controls.
TheresseDespite being rushed and limited, all of these characters feel fleshed out.  A lot of real thought went into them, even npcs that last less than a scene. The baron of Santa Monica is an excellent introduction to both vampire politics and the world if of darkness. A serial killer from a sidequest has his motivation and psychosis spelled out in the subtext of his first few lines.  The anarchs all have distinct identities and histories, and the Camarilla revel in being enigmatic and mysterious.  This game remains almost as deep and interesting as your average Pen and Paper session.

While I’m only a couple of hours in, at the moment, it’s recommended.


Cross posted with our new tumbler page.

Starcraft 2 Unleashed!

Starcraft 2 comes out today and God have mercy on our souls. The game is arguably the most ubiquitous and longest lasting since, well, chess. Competitive Starcraft has become something close to the national sport of South Korea and has endured for ten years past its release. It’s quite popular over here in the West, as well, and is poised to become even more popular with Starcraft 2’s improved graphics and state-of-the-art multiplayer experience. VGChartz’s sales projections are about two million units in the first week, so it’s likely that Starcraft will be sticking around for another ten years, at least.

I was able to sample Starcraft 2 during the open beta and I have to say I’m impressed with the thoughtful multiplayer presentation and balanced gameplay. I’m not very good at Starcraft, so it was discouraging to play the original and have an expert with a new account (most likely created to stomp noobs) come in and rush me before I could even decide what I wanted to build. Now, though, you play a series of placement matches of various difficulty and you’re assigned to a league appropriate to your skill. It was so nice to be able to have some casual fun in the bronze league while the experts in the platinum league had their serious duels of skill and talent. If you win too many games, you’ll get upgraded to the next league more appropriate for your growing ability. Best of all, it’s only one account per copy of Starcraft, so no one can create a fake account for the purpose of torturing the less skilled (a practice known, hilariously, as smurfing).

The game itself is a nice balance of old and new. There are no earth shattering changes from the original. You still have Terran, Zerg, or Protoss gathering minerals and Vespene gas to turn into death dealing units. The units are still designed with strength and weaknesses in the classic RTS rock-paper-scissors design. The design is clearer, this time around though, with each unit’s focus clearly spelled out in the tutorials and generally more streamlined for fun and exciting battles. Just as an example, they’ve combined the Terran transport unit and the medic unit to create a medivac, a flying guardian that sweeps soldiers in quickly and then sticks around to heal them during the battle. If things aren’t going well, you can pick up your remaining dudes and heal them as you make an escape. It’s a great innovation and a smart expression of the Terran’s role as masters of utility and defense. All that said, I doubt I’m going to pick up the game any time soon, a month of the Beta before it all got old for me.

I didn’t get to play the single player campaign but, after looking through the previews, it looks worthwhile. A sprawling tale told through lush cinematics, in=game moments, and, most surprisingly, between-mission point and click adventure style encounters a la Myst. Blizzard has a reputation for going the extra mile, so no doubt they’ll have some value, but without having played it I couldn’t tell you how much is hype and how much is real. Also, the story of Starcraft tends to run a little on the generic side, so I wouldn’t go running to your Gamestop without a love for balanced RTS gameplay.

The most interesting thing, to me, is that Blizzard is breaking the game into three parts. The core Starcraft II game, Wings of Liberty, focuses on the Terran chapter of the single player campaign and allows for the full multiplayer experience. Each successive expansion features a campaign from another alien races and adds units and features to the multiplayer game. I think this (and the online store that will sell premium maps, mods, and who knows what else) is a brilliant and diabolical ploy from Blizzard that will make them so much money that they’ll move Blizzard HQ into a pyramid made of gold on Manhattan Island. The multiplayer experience is the most successful and enduring element of the game and each of the expansions will be a requirement if you want to stay abreast of the scene. Yet, due to the single player element, they’ll be able to charge more for each expansion as it is more akin to an independent game rather than a traditional expansion pack. It’s true that the original’s Brood War expansion had an single player campaign but the difference is in the extra mile they ran to provide the cinematics and the in-between mission moments. I have no doubt the Wings of Liberty campaign will end in a dramatic cliffhanger that demands you shell out an extra ten or twenty bucks more than you would have for a gussied up expansion.

My purchase will depend on seeing how the first player campaign feels. If it’s as grand and compelling as the hype, It might be worth it but I think I’d prefer to indulge in the inevitable Starcraft 2 collection at a reduced price so I can experience the story without feeling I’m paying extra for multiplayer that has already grown boring. Still, it cannot be argued, it’s a big day whenever a new Blizzard product is released.

Still unaddressed: at what point do you actually start crafting stars? Giant plot hole.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Writers Guild Awards: Video Games

Video Game writing has become legitimate (although it really always was), as evidenced by their inclusion in the Writer's Guild Awards


Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, Story by Patrice Desilets, Jeffrey Yohalem, Corey May; Lead Script Writer: Jeffrey Yohalem; Script Writers: Ethan Petty, Nicholas Grimwood, Matt Turner; Ubisoft

Fallout: New Vegas, Creative Design Lead/Lead Writer:John Gonzalez; Writers: Chris Avellone, Eric Fenstermaker, Travis Stout; Additional Writing: Tess Treadwell, George Ziets, Jason Bergman, Nick Breckon, Matt Grandstaff, Will Noble, Andrew Scharf; Bethesda Softworks

God of War III, Written by Marianne Krawczyk; Additional Writing by Stig Asmussen, Ariel Lawrence, William Weissbaum; Sony Computer Entertainment

Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands (Wii), Writer:Benjamin McCaw; Story Dialogue Editor: Marianne Krawczyk; Ubisoft

Singularity, Written by Marc Guggenheim, Lindsey Allen, Emily Silver; Additional Story and Writing: Jason Henderson, Adam Foshko, Michael Cassutt; Story and Script Consultant: Adam Foshko; Activision

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II, Executive Producer-Writer: Haden Blackman; In-Game Script: David Collins, John Stafford, Cameron Suey; Additional Writing: Tid Cooney, Ian Dominguez, Tony Rowe; LucasArts

You may have noticed some of the best writing from last year missing from the list. Why?  You kind of have to participate.

Now the general process of video game writing is very different from that of a screenplay or teleplay.  In most cases, the gameplay, level design, and story is already decided.  The writer is usually employed to add dialog and make sure everything hangs together.  The scripts are also much, much, longer.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Nintendo shows off Super Mario Brothers Design Doc

Press D-Pad to Junp and the world was changed forever.

Rock Paper Shotgun DC Universe Online review

When you get to the quests themselves… well, this brings us back to what I said at the start about MMOs. DC Universe disappoints me most because it does so well at being different, only to end up shrugging and shovelling out stuff we all know is crap, simply because it can. Seriously. In a game with so much great content, so much imagination, so many options and so many things to do… why in the name of Superman’s crimson pants are the vast majority of the open world missions, “Kill 20 of this. Use 10 of these. Oh, and collect 10 of those,” type stuff?

Yep, I had this impression of the Beta, and told them as much.