Thursday, June 21, 2012

Game stories and a desire to go off the rails

Last night it was too hot to sleep, so I'm not exactly well rested.  Today it's too hot to think, so even without the sleep problem I'd still be likely to be non-quite-coherent.  I feel that the quality of my writing has dropped of late, today it might drop further.

Also, I am seriously out of touch with gaming, could be everything I'm talking about wanting they already have in great supply and high quality.

Anyway, I've had something on my mind.

Talking about Mirror's Edge occasionally had me mentioning AVPII because I thought that was something Mirror's Edge could learn from on the storytelling front, so I installed AVPII and it was as good as I remembered it, and I definitely think Mirror's Edge could learn some things from it, but it also reintroduced me to something that annoys me in games.  It wasn't a surprise, I knew it was coming, it annoys me anyway.

You have a tendency to arrive just too late.  One bit of ingame text says a difference of minutes would have made all the difference, frequently a difference of seconds would.

In AVP II if you should meet someone who isn't trying to kill you, and isn't terrified of you to the point of being unable to speak, there are two possibilities.  One is that you've hit a cutscene between missions.  The other is that that person is about to die.  Right in front of you, and there's nothing you can do.

It doesn't matter how fast you get to them or how hard you try to save them.  It doesn't even matter if you're in a position where you physically ought to be able to save them, they will die.

The game has its reasons for doing this, and all things considered they're not bad reasons, but doing it invites one to ponder possibilities that it will never be possible to explore.  They invite the question, "What if?" but you're never allowed to learn the answer.

People you can't quite save are one example of this, and they're not restricted to a AVPII, Resident Evil 2 had the first person you meet killed by cutscene.  You could have saved him, it wouldn't have been all that hard, but there was an extremely short cutscene, just long enough to prevent you from intervening.  That was the most explicit, but I figure there were at least three people and a helicopter you ought to have been able to save but couldn't.  Imagine the possibilities there.  Think of how completely different the game might have been then, all of the places the story might have gone.  Think of all the "What if?"s.

Or, what if in Deus Ex you joined the resistance as soon as the idea came up, you just told Paul, "Start up the engines, get this plane on the tarmac, we'll hightail it to Mexico."  And then he explained the plane was actually headed for Hong Kong.

Every mission in Deus Ex is necessitated by time pressure, The supertanker is already docked and the plague awaits deployment, the attack on X-51 is already in progress, the nuclear launch is about to commence, Page has almost completed his preparations, so on.  Arriving in Hong Kong a day ahead of schedule would have taken that time pressure off.  It might have allowed for some other missions, like say going to the White House to stop the coup, or possibly dropping by the front lines in Austin, or maybe even figuring out was was going on with that moonbase.  It might have knocked the narrative completely off the rails and allowed for the story to go in a new and different direction, which is something that, if you haven't figured out yet, I find interesting.

Similar to, though not the same as, this is the desire to play other parts of the story.  Resident Evil 3 had a part where you found a dead mercenary with a teenage girl, also dead, huddled with him for protection.  The mercenary had a diary.  It seems the girl reminded him of his sister and his soul gradually regrew as he took a brotherly interest in her.  He helped her, and her father, make it across town with him and his partner to their evac site.  The evac didn't come.  The partner wanted to ditch them, the father was an idiot, the mercenary refused to leave the girl and apparently convinced his partner to stick around.  They all died.

For comparison, the main character is Jill Valentine, a standard action hero.  The secondary character is Carlos, her male Bond-girl.*  That's not the most interesting pair.

Also if one is going to be redeemed by affection, it doesn't always have to be love interest affection or parental affection.  The idea of the mercenary redeemed by feelings of siblingish love doesn't strike me as something I've seen all that often.

So I'd like to be able to play that story, and in the playing of it make it turn out some way other than "Everybody dies."


Anyway, back to the original point, setting aside the amount of work necessary to make games that are completely different on different playthroughs because of "for want of a nail" choices, and the fact that last I heard most people don't give a second playthrough anyway, and all other practical concerns, the idea of games implies a kind of storytelling where you can say, "I wonder what would happen if I did this?" and find out.

I've seen it done on the small scale (consider The Nameless Mod where at one point you can mess up plan A, obliterate plan B, be forced to cobble together a plan C on your own when the person advising you turns away in disgust, deal with the massive unnecessary fallout you've brought on yourself, and then incapacitate your helicopter pilot before he can give you a ride to the next area, just to see what happens) but on the scale of sending the entire story spiraling off in another direction, I haven't seen a lot of it.

Consider in AVPII if you'd been able to save one or more of those people from the beginning you got to mere seconds too late.  With the information and assistance they might have been able to offer you might have avoided early casualties and not collapsed the defenses to the pods, which would have changed everything that followed.  I  don't know exactly what would have happened, but it would have been a different story and thus a different game.

It would be nice to have that kind of influence on the narrative.  Consider a Mirror's Edge where you don't split up with Kate, or for a severe "What if?" one where the Pope assassination could be averted.  The story would have to completely change to accommodate those changes which would lead to a lot replay value, and a sense that your choices mattered.


Probably not the most interesting post ever, but like I said: low on sleep; too hot to think.


*My nomination for best male Bond-girl is Daniel Craig for his performance in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, it wasn't a very big part, when you think about it, but it stuck with me.


  1. It gets sillier - I remember some points in AVPII where I somehow skipped over tripwire thresholds, and met someone completely unresponsive whom I could walk around for ages... until I went back over the tripwire, and she suddenly started screaming and dying.

    (But this sort of thing is why I am a role-player, proper RPGs none of this computer stuff - because with a human GM in the loop you really can tell any story you want to while keeping a level of uncertainty so that you're not simply writing a novel.)

  2. I have noticed something similar in RPGs, a character comes to deliver information or a plot-important item to the main characters while sustaining heavy injuries, and then dies after his job is complete. I want to make a pithy Marathon reference, but nothing's coming. This often happens when my party has heal spells. It wouldn't really change the plot much if we cast our most powerful heal spell on the guy as soon as we saw him, but that guy would get to live. I want a game with "heal first ask questions later" characters.

  3. The problem is that at some point, all of those branches have to collapse into an endgame. With something like Star Control, the timer before the destruction of the universe keeps the player on track, but in a theoretically infinite-branching kind if game, eventually the game has to be limited, if only for the purpose of driving the plot forward.

    Or, you have a very devoted development crew and make Nethack. So it can be done, just that such a game would basically have to release itself repeatedly as new variations and combinations are found and the complexity of the interactions grow.

    1. With something like the Resident Evil games set in Raccoon City, the city is going to be destroyed in the end. No amount of branching will change that, so the only questions are:
      1 Do you get out?
      2 How do you get out?
      3 How many people are with you?

      With Deus Ex some level of variation would revert to the mean very quickly, for example being able to escape the ambush in Battery Park would mean you'd have to break into the detention facility you'd otherwise have to break out of because you had to get some information from inside of there anyway. Others would lead to quick endgames (Staying with UNATCO would essentially destroy the resistance, so you'd have a few mopping up missions and then MJ12 rules the world.)

      And other things present more interesting, more involved, possibilities.

      So it can be done, just that such a game would basically have to release itself repeatedly as new variations and combinations are found and the complexity of the interactions grow.

      Yeah, that's basically what I'd want. Not that I expect anyone to do it with the kinds of games I play.

    2. Fair enough - most studios are already looking to the next thing. Maybe you would have to make it with an MMO team deliberately tasked with adjusting the game based on playthrough data. Perhaps a "debrief" of some sort automatically sent to the team after each result so the team can see where people are going and where complexity needs to be built in.