In case you hadn’t noticed, RPG video games are evolving into movies. Check out the trailer for Blizzard’s Wrath of the Lich King – its better than most movie trailers. People look forward to the release day of “blockbuster” RPGs like Dragon Age video game just like they did for the release of The Lord of the Rings movies. The sci-fi game Mass Effect has epic intros, finales, and cutscenes that look like they were lifted out of Battlestar Galactica.People buzz on the internet about the big names being cast as the voice talent. The game credits scroll by and you wonder how it could possibly take that many people to make a video game. The video game scores and soundtracks are nearly Howard Shore Awesome. In fact, many game companies are releasing the game scores and soundtracks separately from the games themselves, just like Hollywood movies do.
With this evolution, RPG’s have become more immersive than ever before. While playing Mass Effect and Dragon Age, I didn’t feel like I was playing a video game. I felt like I was the lead character in a movie. Game designers are realizing there’s a difference between people who want the experience of being the main character in an epic saga, saving the galaxy from the forces of evil while knocking boots with hot crewmates in the cargo hold of an experimental military frigate… and those who just want to kill ten-thousand zombies with a chainsaw.
There is a difference between playing a game and playing a movie. Playing a game is measured in character metrics: levels, kills, headshots, unlocks, money. Playing a movie is measured in character experience: achievements, accomplishments, alliances, romantic encounters, trusts and betrayals, watching in awe as the climactic cutscene unfolds, but most of all DECISIONS.
All of these things are given to us with the new generation of RPGs, but something is still missing. A bit more evolution is needed.
There We Were – The Limits of Linear Gameplay
Remember this? Classic RPG ‘Doom’ – the granddaddy of first-person shooters.
RPGs like Doom, Quake, Half Life, F.E.A.R., Dead Space and many, many others are designed around a linear gameplay system. They lead the player through an ordered series of events from start to finish. This linear method is very efficient for game designers and programmers. It gives them control over everything including your inventory and your rate of skill/level advancement. Most importantly it gives them control over the order of events. This makes storytelling easy. The plot progresses like a book, from A to B to C to the end.
Notice the words “the plot” in that last sentence. One. Singular. This is a major limitation of linear gameplay. It can make you feel like a rat in a maze with no branches. No options. One path. One destination. Claustrophobic. Contrived. No matter what you do, the outcome will always be the same.
This might be fine for game players who just like to kill things, and they might enjoy playing the game several times, but those who want to play a story won’t have much interest in replaying the game when they already know the story and can’t do anything to change it. In the land of linear gameplay, you have no free will. Your fate is predetermined, and locked into the code of the game.
You are Here – Welcome to the Open World
Eventually game designers realized the limitations of linear gameplay. Their attempt at a solution is called Nonlinear Gameplay, more popularly known as “Open World” and a major step in the evolution of video games. Current games like Grand Theft Auto, Oblivion, Fallout 3 and Red Dead Redemption have made the Open World catchphrase famous. Gone are the narrow, one-way corridors. With open worlds, exploration is encouraged. The world is wide open for you to explore, and you are not forced down any particular path.
How Open Is That World? – The Inevitable Master Plotline
Fallout 3 (Bethesda Game Studios) promised to raise the bar with over thirty or so different endings, depending on decisions you made in the game. I’m here to tell you, the cake is a lie. Some say there are four endings. While Fallout 3 is a fantastic game, it only has one ending in four flavors of lame, each awesomely narrated by Ron Perlman. See for yourself.
Neverwinter Nights 2 (Atari/Obsidian) proclaimed Everything you do has Meaning but that meaning is pretty limited. The Good/Evil barometer doesn’t have much impact on the game story. Primarily, it helps determine the loyalty of your party members. Make the wrong decisions and they will leave or worse, defect and side with your enemy. And if you play the game as an Evil character, you’ll have the option of joining the dark lord at the end of the game. But these supposed ‘differences’ don’t really change the story you experience, only the ending cutscenes that play out.
After completing Oblivion, Neverwinter Nights 2 and Fallout 3, I’ve found that games claiming to be Open World still have a problem that keeps them from being truly ‘open’. I call this problem The Inevitable Master Plotline. You can branch off from it if you like – you can save every village from every dragon, and you can kill every living creature in the cosmos, but you can’t escape fate, destiny, and the power of the game designers. The inescapable master plot awaits. Check your journal, and there it is – The Single, Solitary, OverArching Plot. That “open” world suddenly doesn’t seem quite as open anymore. The game designers have simply modularized the path between the start and finish, and you’re free to knock off the pieces of the story in any order you choose.
Where the hell did I park my hijacked, experimental, military frigate? Traveling the open universe in Mass Effect 2.
The problem with the Inevitable Master Plotline is that it limits the ability of the player to affect the world. The story is still unchangeable. But some games are opening up the open world and letting players have an effect.
The Widened Open World
Dragon Age is the game Neverwinter Nights was trying to be. In this game, things you do DO have meaning. Your decisions have an impact on the world around you. Do you kill off or save a main character? This decision affects who becomes king. Do you stay to defend the keep, or rush off to flank invading forces? Do you help one of your classmates escape the mages’ tower? These choices will come back to affect you later in the game. They actually change the story as it unfolds. This is the kind of interaction that makes people feel like they have an effect on the virtual world around them.
Some of the decisions in the game Mass Effect I had to pause the game and walk away from the keyboard to think about my choice. Whom will you choose to represent Humans on the Alliance Council? Which will you save from destruction, the council or the citadel? Will you kill off the last of a rogue alien species? How do you handle a fanatic fanboy? Do you fall for a hot crewmate or hold out for your true love? These decisions have major effects not just on the current game, but future game expansions.
While Bioware is clearly raising the bar for RPG interactivity, it’s just a step in the evolution. The world may be open, but we still have the Inevitable Master Plotline, which means every game will end the same way. Nonlinear gameplay hasn’t really opened up the world, it just widened it, giving players multiple paths to the same ending.
Where The Hell Are We Going? – Beyond the Open World
Remember the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books? “If you climb into the alien spacecraft, turn to page 17. If you run away, turn to page 43.” I loved those books, and enjoyed going back and seeing how different choices changed the story. The same is true with RPG video games. For someone playing a story, replayability requires having the power to affect the story with your actions and create a different experience. This means Multiple Story Arcs, not just different cut scenes at the end.
For example, in Mass Effect an Evil character should have the option to become a rogue pirate, steal the Normandy, destroy the Citadel, and defeat the Alliance forces. Now THAT is a completely different game.
I can imagine game designers burning me alive for even suggesting such things. But I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to point out the path. And the path leads through interactive movies – where players must ride the One And Only Master Plotline – to a virtual reality with stories and worlds that really react to the player’s choices.
No doubt it would be damned expensive to create multiple story arcs for video games. However, with the new technology of DLC (DownLoadable Content) games can already be expanded. Currently, Dragon Age and Mass Effect have modules that let you expand on the game with side missions that offer you extra experience, achievements and items. There’s no reason game companies couldn’t release game expansions that add alternate plotlines, leading to alternate endings, just like television shows offer new episodes each week.
Having multiple possible story arcs would really open up the open world. Imagine the replayability of an open world crossed with infinite story arcs! Baby steps to Virtual Reality.