blue green or red the illusion of choice in rpgs
You are the Chosen One. The first of your kind; the last of your tribe; the only being in the kingdom, planet, or even galaxy that can stop the inevitable forces trying to ruin everything. It’s a threadbare premise, but thousands of games use it to structure their adventures, and it’s doubtful the trend will be stopping anytime soon. The popularity of the Role Playing Game (RPGs) has skyrocketed since the days of basement D&D campaigns. Whether you play as an elven mage or a space-age super soldier, the fate of everyone else rests in your hands.
But does it? Plenty of games try to stress the importance of “player’s choice,” but how far does that “choice” really go? Maybe you remember the advertisements for the first Fable game. Its slogan (“For Every Choice, a Consequence”) was a great eye-catcher back in the day, and while the 2004 game did a good job altering the environment it failed to alter the plot in any significant way. Whether you save a town from Bolverines or punch schoolchildren in the face, Fable follows the same plot points. When it comes to the actual story, the player’s choices only matter to the final cut scene.
This problem isn’t exclusive to Fable. RPGs have made great strides to shift gameplay and environment depending on the player’s choice, but developers seem to have shied away from tweaking plots. Part of that problem has to do with money, but a bigger problem is that writers aren’t generally brought into development until the game is nearing completion. Gameplay coding takes priority, while the more artistic developers work around engineers to make the project look wholesome. So if a player’s choice is going to affect the plot at all, it’ll most likely be at the end: when the decision won’t change the whole game and the producers could expect at least one more run through. Take Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (2) as an example.
But fear not Chosen One””your actions may one day change your destiny! Over the past decade, there have been a growing number of Role Playing Games that stress the player’s power to choose what happens next. TellTale games like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us take your character’s actions into account to provide obstacles and resolutions for the future. Quantic Dream’s Beyond Two Souls may go farther than any game to date, developing a non-sequential story that can splinter off into 24 separate conclusions. But for all the marvelous work on storyline, something gets lost in the actual gaming. The player is practically passive, controlling little more than the dialogue choices and the occasional quick-time event. These games can be captivating, but they’re almost designed to be watched rather than played.
So if too much focus on “player” leads to rigid plot and too much focus on “choice” leads to passive (and perhaps even boring) playthroughs, can there be a Role Playing Game that lands happily in between? Perhaps the closest contenders are The Elder Scrolls and Fallout series by Bethesda Softworks. Like many sandboxes, there are “main story” quests that feature characters and locations all over the map, but unlike most Role Playing Games there is no urgency to do them. With few exceptions, there is no place in a Fallout or Elder Scrolls game where the player can’t reach, assuming he or she can outlast (or outrun!) the enemies hanging around.
What makes these games remarkable isn’t the sheer amount of quests available, it’s that there’s almost no structure to them. The road from the opening mission to the next main story point is filled with detours, and those detours feature detours of their own, and so on and so on until you’ve spent 18 hours playing a game without reaching the second main plot mission. This gives the player almost full control over the game’s plotline, even to the point where the Chosen One can choose not to be the Chosen One!
Of course, The Elder Scrolls and Fallout games have plenty of problems (Bethesda is infamous for its glitches), but the design of their plots demonstrate a turn away from traditional storytelling””from that “plot mountain” we all learned about in primary school. Bethesda’s innovations are just one example, and hopefully, they’ll become the springboard for many others. So as gameplay and graphics become more immersive, narrative developers should also focus on redefining the standards for RPG narrative; in turning the Chosen One into the One Who Chooses.