Choices, Story, and Where It All Goes Wrong- Part 2

This blog is a continuation of Choices, Story, and Where It All Goes Wrong- Part 1.

Alternate Choice Systems

 Mass Effect managed to avoid a lot of problems by changing two simple words.

Two simple improvements to existing choice systems would be to give the player more rewards for taking a neutral stance in moral choices or hiding the results of choices so that players feel less compelled to always choose certain options, but there are other options too. I suspect that one of the reasons that moral choice systems became so popular in the first place is that their basic mechanics offer a persistent, overarching assessment of the player’s actions of the game, judged by one of the most obvious and inherently impacting measures we can use; morality. It is perfectly possible, however, to keep the bare mechanics of the moral choice system, but base it around a concept with fewer pitfalls than morality.

This is a strategy which Mass Effect used, measuring players on “paragon” and “renegade” scores instead of “good” and “evil”, essentially using a system similar to Dungeons & Dragons’ order vs. chaos spectrum. Mass Effect was able to present questions like “Is it right to allow someone to try and kill the same people who tried to kill them?” without imposing a concrete right or wrong answer on the player. In this kind of situation not everyone is going to agree on what the “right” thing to do is, but almost everyone is going to be able to agree on which decision is lawful and which is chaotic.

In fact it’s not hard to imagine games trying to give players feedback on other perceivable aspects of their actions using these kinds of systems. Political stances, social stances, and everything right down to the way you fight in the game all seem like candidates for this kind of overhaul, there’s not even a reason why games couldn’t even track more than one of these kinds of judgements at a time. Whether games are looking to deal with morality or other issues in choice systems though, there is another mechanic which has been round for a long while which can often help.

Faction Systems

 Factions can be a very strong tool in a story-focused game.

Faction systems are something that have been around for a while, but certainly present a great alternative to simple morality systems if done right. By having a group symbolise a collection of views, instead of distilling everything down to two simple opposing viewpoints, the game allows for more complex opinions to be presented without it feeling overwhelming and often allows you to see what happens when those views are put into practise before you make a decision.

This system certainly worked well for Fallout: New Vegas which used a faction system instead of the good/bad meter that Fallout 3 used to judge all story choices in the game by. These kinds of systems needn’t revolve around entire groups of people though; Catherine used a system where two individual people represented the concepts the player was tasked with choosing between.   In the game the player has to pick one of two girlfriends as their partner, with one potential girlfriend representing adulthood and responsibility, and the other representing youth and a relaxed attitude to life.

Real Story Branches

Systems like those of Mass Effect and Fallout: New Vegas aren’t dealing with black-and-white morality though, what if the designer really is dead-set on dealing with good and bad as the fundamental concepts of their game? I think one thing that could be improved would be for the consequences of your moral choices in the game to have more of an impact. As it is you may end up with a different ending, different dialogue, perhaps some vendors will raise or lower their prices, but consequences rarely stretch too far beyond this. The story usually plays out in basically the same way, with the same character relationships and plot events. In the real-world and other stories things don’t work like that, based on whether they’re good or evil people will make different friends and enemies, have different options open to them in the world, receive different rewards and have different restrictions in tackling scenarios.

Unfortunately, the lack of vast disparity between the good and evil paths in many games is at least partly to do with the fact that creating more content for each path and balancing the good and evil sides equally, costs a large amount of money and consumes a large amount of time. This is time and money which the developers may not have or may wish to use working on more important parts of their game. Games becoming more and more desperate to show players all of their content in one run is also becoming a bigger problem.  

There are certainly shortcuts designers can take to ensure differing paths for different moral decisions, such as reusing content in different ways depending on your moral alignment, but not every player responds to this well, and overall it’s hard to really justify the idea of significantly increasing budgets and lengthening dev cycles for better moral choice systems alone. Hopefully this is just something that will improve as the industry evolves.

The Core Rules

 What about implementing good and bad at a base level?

This kind of change needn't be about content though, if a developer was particularly committed to the idea of moral choices they could implement them at a fairly low level in the game design. For example, being evil could be harder than being good, but provide greater rewards. Perhaps being good could help you make more allies in the game and make vendors lower their prices, but being evil meant you could “break” certain rules of the game. It must be remembered though that all the improvements I’ve mentioned in this blog still provide a gameplay incentive to pick a certain choice and so still create potentially conflicting decisions. The changes in this last paragraph might be appropriate for games light on story, wishing to present gameplay which acts as a metaphor for moral choices, but overall implementing any of these systems which give players gameplay rewards for choices in the story is going to cause serious problems that designers have to acknowledge.

Duder, It’s Over

To some extent I do enjoy these moral choice systems, designers are certainly right that I enjoy the persistent positive feedback for my actions in the game, and maybe a lot of you enjoy moral choice systems in their entirety, but I've seen a lot of people lamenting the popularity they've achieved in games and I feel the same way. Either way I don't think choice systems are going away any time soon, not as the industry delves further and further into the habit of rehashing the same mechanics over and over, but I'd like to think we could at least see a change in the way choice-based systems are implemented, and that some time in the relatively near future we could see the death of the good-evil meter. Thank you for reading.

-Gamer_152

10 Comments
11 Comments
Posted by Gamer_152

This blog is a continuation of Choices, Story, and Where It All Goes Wrong- Part 1.

Alternate Choice Systems

 Mass Effect managed to avoid a lot of problems by changing two simple words.

Two simple improvements to existing choice systems would be to give the player more rewards for taking a neutral stance in moral choices or hiding the results of choices so that players feel less compelled to always choose certain options, but there are other options too. I suspect that one of the reasons that moral choice systems became so popular in the first place is that their basic mechanics offer a persistent, overarching assessment of the player’s actions of the game, judged by one of the most obvious and inherently impacting measures we can use; morality. It is perfectly possible, however, to keep the bare mechanics of the moral choice system, but base it around a concept with fewer pitfalls than morality.

This is a strategy which Mass Effect used, measuring players on “paragon” and “renegade” scores instead of “good” and “evil”, essentially using a system similar to Dungeons & Dragons’ order vs. chaos spectrum. Mass Effect was able to present questions like “Is it right to allow someone to try and kill the same people who tried to kill them?” without imposing a concrete right or wrong answer on the player. In this kind of situation not everyone is going to agree on what the “right” thing to do is, but almost everyone is going to be able to agree on which decision is lawful and which is chaotic.

In fact it’s not hard to imagine games trying to give players feedback on other perceivable aspects of their actions using these kinds of systems. Political stances, social stances, and everything right down to the way you fight in the game all seem like candidates for this kind of overhaul, there’s not even a reason why games couldn’t even track more than one of these kinds of judgements at a time. Whether games are looking to deal with morality or other issues in choice systems though, there is another mechanic which has been round for a long while which can often help.

Faction Systems

 Factions can be a very strong tool in a story-focused game.

Faction systems are something that have been around for a while, but certainly present a great alternative to simple morality systems if done right. By having a group symbolise a collection of views, instead of distilling everything down to two simple opposing viewpoints, the game allows for more complex opinions to be presented without it feeling overwhelming and often allows you to see what happens when those views are put into practise before you make a decision.

This system certainly worked well for Fallout: New Vegas which used a faction system instead of the good/bad meter that Fallout 3 used to judge all story choices in the game by. These kinds of systems needn’t revolve around entire groups of people though; Catherine used a system where two individual people represented the concepts the player was tasked with choosing between.   In the game the player has to pick one of two girlfriends as their partner, with one potential girlfriend representing adulthood and responsibility, and the other representing youth and a relaxed attitude to life.

Real Story Branches

Systems like those of Mass Effect and Fallout: New Vegas aren’t dealing with black-and-white morality though, what if the designer really is dead-set on dealing with good and bad as the fundamental concepts of their game? I think one thing that could be improved would be for the consequences of your moral choices in the game to have more of an impact. As it is you may end up with a different ending, different dialogue, perhaps some vendors will raise or lower their prices, but consequences rarely stretch too far beyond this. The story usually plays out in basically the same way, with the same character relationships and plot events. In the real-world and other stories things don’t work like that, based on whether they’re good or evil people will make different friends and enemies, have different options open to them in the world, receive different rewards and have different restrictions in tackling scenarios.

Unfortunately, the lack of vast disparity between the good and evil paths in many games is at least partly to do with the fact that creating more content for each path and balancing the good and evil sides equally, costs a large amount of money and consumes a large amount of time. This is time and money which the developers may not have or may wish to use working on more important parts of their game. Games becoming more and more desperate to show players all of their content in one run is also becoming a bigger problem.  

There are certainly shortcuts designers can take to ensure differing paths for different moral decisions, such as reusing content in different ways depending on your moral alignment, but not every player responds to this well, and overall it’s hard to really justify the idea of significantly increasing budgets and lengthening dev cycles for better moral choice systems alone. Hopefully this is just something that will improve as the industry evolves.

The Core Rules

 What about implementing good and bad at a base level?

This kind of change needn't be about content though, if a developer was particularly committed to the idea of moral choices they could implement them at a fairly low level in the game design. For example, being evil could be harder than being good, but provide greater rewards. Perhaps being good could help you make more allies in the game and make vendors lower their prices, but being evil meant you could “break” certain rules of the game. It must be remembered though that all the improvements I’ve mentioned in this blog still provide a gameplay incentive to pick a certain choice and so still create potentially conflicting decisions. The changes in this last paragraph might be appropriate for games light on story, wishing to present gameplay which acts as a metaphor for moral choices, but overall implementing any of these systems which give players gameplay rewards for choices in the story is going to cause serious problems that designers have to acknowledge.

Duder, It’s Over

To some extent I do enjoy these moral choice systems, designers are certainly right that I enjoy the persistent positive feedback for my actions in the game, and maybe a lot of you enjoy moral choice systems in their entirety, but I've seen a lot of people lamenting the popularity they've achieved in games and I feel the same way. Either way I don't think choice systems are going away any time soon, not as the industry delves further and further into the habit of rehashing the same mechanics over and over, but I'd like to think we could at least see a change in the way choice-based systems are implemented, and that some time in the relatively near future we could see the death of the good-evil meter. Thank you for reading.

-Gamer_152

Moderator
Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

I still feel like Mass Effect's pendulum system still only rewards those ultimate swings towards good or evil (and call them paragon or whatever you like, they're still functionally good and selfish choices). I mean, it's still essentially a three point system - good, neutral, evil. I'm left sort of puzzled by this blog. I do agree that New Vegas's faction system is an interesting (if a bit rough) system of doing things, and could definitely see it being used more frequently in the future, but I don't see Mass Effect's three point system as a good solution at all to your last blog. If anything, it's a prime example of generic choices and obvious outcomes for those choices.

Moderator
Posted by Gamer_152
@Sparky_Buzzsaw: None of the systems here are perfect and as I said all of them still invoke the original issue I have with these kinds of choices which is they cause story and gameplay to conflict. You're right, Mass Effect's system certainly has big problems; treating order/chaos alignment as a skill, making players swing to a single kind of answer for all dialogue options, and pushing players away from neutral options. I'm not trying to praise Mass Effect for anything but using order vs. chaos instead of good vs. evil, to avoid a lot of the common pitfalls of choice systems. I apologise if I was unclear and if you have any other comments or questions about what confused you here I'd enjoy hearing them.
Moderator
Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

@Gamer_152:

Nope, that actually clears it up. Sorry if that was a little owly. I've been fighting a damn headache, and it's made me testy as all get-out.

In any case, you've written another excellent blog, Gamer. Keep up the fantastic work.

Moderator
Edited by Akrid

Fallout: New Vegas is so far the pinnacle of morality systems. They made a game where you are not judged from an omnipotent perspective, but via an expertly crafted social network. It took me probably 70 hours before I could poke holes through their system.
 
They also tried really hard to make divergent paths in that game, and I think they did it as well as one could hope.

Posted by Hailinel

I still wouldn't give Mass Effect much credit for their choice of labeling their spectrum ends Paragon and Renegade. Megami Tensei refers to its morality as a less disguised Law and Chaos and features a more meaningful alignment system behind the naming conventions with a depth that exceeds Mass Effect's base Saint/Sinner black/white morality.

Posted by Gamer_152
@Sparky_Buzzsaw: Thank you very much.
 
@Akrid: I think I might agree with you. It didn't take me anywhere near that long to start seeing faults in the choice systems they used and they're by no means perfect, but their branching story and faction system were done very well and were a big step up from what most other games have been doing in terms of choice systems recently.
 
@Hailinel: I'm not too familiar with the Megami Tensei series I must admit, but after reading a little about the way they treat story choices and alignment, it does sound like they have a relatively strong system in their game. I don't quite see how their system is deeper or more meaningful than Mass Effect's though, and Mass Effect doesn't deal with black/white morality. The exact reason I referenced Mass Effect here is because it took fairly traditional moral choice mechanics and mapped them to an alignment system that had nothing to do with morals, thereby removing many of the inherent problems with most good vs. evil systems in games.
Moderator
Edited by Twisted_Scot

My problems with these system (maybe im just missing the point) is that sometimes the choices are not clear. Im not talking about things like in Fallout:NV where some choices are more neutral based than clear-cut Good / Evil I'm talking about picking an option that to you means one thing but once its selected you don't get quite what you were aiming for out of the speech / decision. Another game with these problems that I think most people relate to is L.A Noire. Love these games but feel they need to be made clearer and iron out a bit. That and I was a little disappointed in New Vegas's system where picking one group over another would start a war which is fine in some choices but picking certain groups to side with didnt seem storywise that certain other groups would mind or at least attack you. That and the "Disguises" didn't really do much for me. Sorry for wandering off point.

Posted by nintendoeats

As I mentioned in your last post, I really think that having choices impact gameplay is fine if done correctly. This means investing players in the game's events and forcing tough but exciting choices between toys and ethics. It's case by case of course, but thr idea is not inherently bad.

Anyway, solid wrap-up.

Posted by Gamer_152
@Twisted_Scot: What you're talking about is implementation whereas in these blogs I was talking about how well the basic concepts of these systems work. You're right though, when a dialogue option is unclear it sucks, but that sort of thing mainly comes about because when you have to implement a few hundred dialogue options into a game some of them are going to come up short. As for the "disguises" I assume you're referring to the faction armour in New Vegas. They didn't really add or take away anything from the game for me either, but they were a minor feature.
 
@nintendoeats: Choices impacting gameplay is not really what I take issue with, in fact choices impacting gameplay is pretty much an essential component of any game. The problem I have is when the same choice is simultaneously presented as a story choice and a gameplay choice. Thank you though, I always like seeing that people enjoyed my blogs and you've provided some of the most interesting comments here.
Moderator
Posted by Twisted_Scot
@Gamer_152: Yeah but I just ment that the ideas IMO are great but im yet to see a game really pull them off as well as I feel they should be. Also yes I was talking about the faction armors etc, I was just hopeing that there would have been or of a point / role for them as it keeps telling me im "Dressed as a member of the NCR" or whatever every 2 mins. I would have liked it if you could for example do a mission where you have to recover something from an NCR outpost and by stealing, killing or finding an NCR commander uniform in the world you could just walk in and order them to give you the item. Just a train of thought I was having at the time.