Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Giving Them What They Want

So, Mass Effect 3 then.

There are endings, and many people aren't happy with them. I haven't reached that point in the game yet so although I'm braced for disappointment I will reserve judgement until I experience them for myself. But the fan response on the Bioware Social Network has got me thinking.

Do writers for computer games - specifically CPRGs - have an obligation to deliver What The Fans Want? 

This isn't the first time I've asked myself this question, of course. On the forums for Neverwinter Nights 2, I recall one of the Obsidian guys chiming in on the matter of romances which, regardless of your opinion of them, have been present in Bioware's games for the last ten years. To the question of "Why can't I romance character X" or "Why does romance X end the way it does?" I believe the response was that the writers were not in the business of wish fulfilment. End of discussion.

At the time I remember being annoyed by that response but over time I felt more and more sympathetic towards the writers. The narrative was their responsibility and within the constraints laid down by the designers,  they still had a certain measure of creative freedom. It was their work and suddenly it was being judged against the specific requirements and desires of a hundred different people. Inevitably, it wasn't measuring up and these people felt they were due something better. But then I completed NWN2 and I stopped reading the forums (mmm, vitriol) and I gave it no more thought until people started completing Mass Effect 3 and their dissatisfaction made it as far as the gaming news sites. 

Claims that the endings were "broken" or "bugged" made me want to side with the writers because I have always enjoyed Bioware's games and I have a lot of faith in their ability to deliver a well written and enjoyable RPG.. and yet, I can't help but wonder if all those people clamouring for a different ending are entitled, in some way, to something more satisfying.

When you buy a book, there is no expectation that you will be able to influence the events or characters in the story (unless it happens to be a chose-your-own adventure book). Perhaps some aspects of the story are left to your imagination but ultimately it is the author's story, not yours, and all it requires from you is the cover price and a few hours of your time. If you don't like it, well, you don't have to read the next one. As a form of entertainment, a movie is even more passive and requires less from the viewer in order to enjoy it. Computer games offer something those other forms of entertainment do not - direct interaction with the audience. They also ask more in terms of time and money - a resource investment that may or may not be put to better use, but I think for most gamers it is worth the asking price. I can't tell you what I was reading in 1993 and I can't tell you what I was watching in 1993, but whatever I paid for Hired Guns on the Amiga was totally worth it and two friends and I had an easy 40+ hours of enjoyment out of that game. It took more, but it also delivered more based on my expectations of the genre and setting.

Even now, with Gears of War 3 and Karen Traviss on board as a writer, I have certain expectations. It is an action game with a big budget, so I'm basically watching a film where I have to mash some buttons in order to see the next bit. It will be bleak, and probably sad, but ultimately a satisfying experience where the story of Bender Dr. Drakken That Marcus Bloke and his burly friends reaches a conclusion that meets my expectations. And that's where CRPGs seem to have a problem. 

In any role-playing game, there is a reasonable expectation to have control over your character and how he or she interacts with, and affects, the world around them. The consequences of such interaction should be meaningful, and can manifest themselves in a number of different ways that are designed to immerse you in the game world and the character you are portraying. Most studios tout this interaction as a selling point of their RPGs, and the genre in general. Some studios are celebrated for their ability to deliver on this promise and properly leveraged, it can make the player invest in the game emotionally in a way that a film or book of similar quality can not accomplish. It makes you care about the game. It makes you care about the franchise. It makes the studio even more money. Who else do you think they were they making those action figures for?

But the cost of this player investment of time, money and emotion is that you are relying on the studio to respect that investment from start to finish.. from those first five minutes in the character generation screen to the moment the credits fade out and you are returned to the main menu. After all, such people are not fixating on a trivial aspect of the game. In Gears of War, the combat is the meat and bones of the game while the story is the context. In a role-playing game, experiencing and influencing the story isn't just a thing, it is the thing. How you kill the dragon, what weapon you use, the method by which you obtained that weapon and the interface through which you achieved those things.. those are cold game mechanics compared to the soul that is the story. So it is not unreasonable for someone invested in a CRPG (in the manner the studio wants you to be invested) to expect the people behind the game to consistently respect both their choices and their ability to make choices. Yet the writer's task seems at odds with the overall aim of the studio. 

His (or her) job is to weave a narrative from the myriad of options and choices the designers want to make available to the players but ultimately craft a cohesive work of their own. Yet each concession to player choice is a sacrifice in freedom and creative control that alters their original vision for the game.. something I imagine would not sit well with most writers. So when a story is approved internally - some exec has signed off on it and within the company, it is considered cannon, I can fully understand  a reluctance to let a player screw with it too much, particularly if it changes the tone or the message of what is being delivered. And yet.. after pondering this for the better part of a week, I'm definitely starting to side with the players on this. If you consider it your story, then you probably shouldn't be writing for a role-playing game because the studio you are working for is going to try and sell something you aren't going to want to deliver. It's the player's story, and you are using your literary skills to give them the ability to tell it. 

If we want to sleep with Pretty Elf number 3 and the game has set a precedent for allowing that with other characters of equal importance, you have to consider giving us that option. Some things can be left to the imagination but if you want to maintain the tone of your game, said Elf can politely decline (I guess Elves get headaches too) and just to show that you respect the player's freedom to do that, maybe later on you can run in to that same Pretty Elf and she can comment on how creepy it is that you're following her around. Be consistent with choices all the way through. Offer them and acknowledge them and have them reflected in the conclusion to the story. There's no need for a happy-happy, joy-joy ending if that's not appropriate to the overall theme but there is always room for a compromise if it means you are delivering on the promises made by the rest of the game.

So.. not in the business of wish fulfilment? Within the bounds of what is appropriate for any given scene, I would say that if you are writing for an RPG, that is exactly the business you are in.

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