It’s just you versus the world

I’ve been thinking a great deal about what I said in the last post. I’ve been thinking that, while I still agree with what I said, there is a way to look at this problem that might both be easier and the best solution to the complex issue of trying to balance enabling the player while, simultaneously, giving them escalating challenges. Basically: no villain. Before I get to my reasons though, let me walk you through how I got there.

It started with this comment by Motoki:

“I wonder to if the idea of a villain or any antagonist at all is even necessary and that maybe non-linear gaming experiences could be freed up by not being tied down to defeating a big bad in the end.”

My gut reaction was to write the following: “You are very wrong!” However, I took some time to really think about the problem of trying to map the story framework to games and was brought right back to position I have made several times before: games aren’t stories. [See “Whose story is it anyway?” and, of course, “Games aren’t Stories” for a listing of many of the problems.]

See, if we want to talk about stories in passive mediums like books and movies, then, yes, we absolutely need an antagonist. The protagonist must be in conflict with something. Even if the conflict is only Man v. Self, it must exist. It is this primary, protagonist v. antagonist (as well as many others in longer works), conflict that makes up a story.

This will also work in video games, but we have to be careful in what layer we are talking about. From the player (top-level) perspective, they are always fighting against the game as they inch toward mastery. Every action they take builds toward — or away — from that goal. The central conflict on the top layer of looking at the experience is always Player v. Mechanics.

From the character perspective, this gets a great deal messier. If we want to consider the player as only having temporary control over the character (i.e. role-playing), then the antagonist can exist in conflict with the character while not being in conflict with the player herself. The player, via the character, might defeat the villain in the end, but the story was, in this case, always about the character. This is the case for nearly all of the games on the market right now. The player just happens to have control, nearly coincidentally, in order to ‘play’ through certain more exciting incidents in the story of the character.

To return to the quote for a moment, yes, we will need an antagonist, but only in the sense that the character is fighting towards a goal against some enemy. As the character gains in skills, knowledge or even abilities, they come closer and closer to being a match for the ultimate test of the character’s prowess: the final fight against the villain. Again, seemingly coincidental (i.e. designed this way), the player also gains a greater mastery of these same skills or abilities as the character gains them in order that she be tested by the mechanics as the player’s progress (fabula) and game story (sujet) collide in this deciding battle.

Via this method, we have the character following the classic three act structure with the fight between the protagonist and antagonist as the moment of climax followed by, depending on the game, either some cut-scene dénouement or the ability to interact with those who remain after the battle. This is a very linear structure and it works quite well for linear storytelling in passive mediums and even for stories where the player is of little importance to the story of the game.

“The other thing is, I wonder if a game really even needs to have an end at all? Of course, you want resolution to individual quest lines and good stories and dialog for the quests helps too, but does a game need an actual end? I have seen plenty of people claim to have played the Elder Scrolls games for hundreds of hours and never got to the end.” (emphasis added)

There it is, the little secret that is the root of all the trouble in trying to take this same story framework and graphing it to open-world games. You either end up, as I mentioned in the other post, with dual — dueling? — canons of what happens to the player and what happens for the character or you have players more invested in the world of the game than the actual story (sujet).

Let me make it clear here that I am not making the case that one of these interpretations is better than the other. If a player decides to invest more time, as I have, in collecting herbs and talking to NPCs than doing all the fighting, that is their — and my — right. If, on the other hand, players go from point to point in a quest to complete “the story”, they can do that too. Neither is invalid. What I more concerned about is the game (read: developers) making the case that all the time I spend in doing something was not important to the game story. If the character is defined through the actions I have her take, and then the game tells me that actually, no, something else happened, I am then not in control at all and my choices have no meaning.

If I am to be the deciding factor for all actions for this character, as most open-world would have you believe, then I must have the choice, then, of choosing what “the story” is too — and when, or if, it ends. I should not be forced to choose between exploring the world, defining (i.e. performing) my identity, or completing the game. If this is the case, as I’ve tried to make the case from writing about my playing in Oblivion in the past, then I am forced into playing a role (the hero/heroine) and I am not actually free to be as “open” as many games would have you believe.

Does a video game need a villain? No. Does a video games need an antagonist? That depends. Does you game have a story? Because, if it does, you need both a protagonist and an antagonist (as well as a point of view for the reader). And conflict. And plot. However, keep in mind that there exists two on-going stories, that which the reader creates from the text and that which the game is trying to tell. If you are the developer, you have to make the decision about which you will support and which you will limit. Interpretations are endless, expressions are limited.

5 thoughts on “It’s just you versus the world

  1. number1hitjam

    I think this is one of the strongest things working against this principle is voiced dialogue. A game could easily track different information and adjust dialogue according to the way you play, and while it might be a strain on the writer, it would be even more of a pain to record all of the different permutations. As it is, however, interacting with civilians has to be the strongest way that brings me out of my role-playing identity in the Elder Scrolls games (or really any game that allows for this kind of freedom).

    I think in addition to this point, one should not have to choose between taking multiple side-quest branches and maintaining a consistent character identity. I felt that this was a big problem in Oblivion where I was Arch-mage, leader of the theives guild and savior of the Earth and yet I was treated like a nobody by the Dark Brotherhood.

    I wonder if open world games could solve this by scaling back their story-lines and potential actions. I mean do we really have to save the world in every Elder Scrolls game? And do we really need to be the leader of every guild?

    1. Dan Cox

      They meet in darkness. They are wrapped up in shadows and, if not for the pair of shining eyes for each, the seven members of the Dark Brotherhood would be counted among everything else clothed in deep night.

      You — Arch-Mage, Leader of the Thieves Guild, Head of the Fighter’s Guild, Hero of Kvatch and foretold savior of Cyrodiil as written in The Elder Scrolls — have come to join their order because, you know, why not?

      I agree with you, number1hitjam (Jackson?), it’s the simple things like talking to civilians and, as you pointed out, being “treated like a nobody by the Dark Brotherhood” that brought me out of the role-playing experience too. I had very similar reactions and, hopefully, I’ve pointed out the high level of ridiculousness that a player taking on all side-quests in Oblivion can bring about in such situations.

      To address your concern, and mine, of having to add hundreds of thousands of lines of spoken dialogue to a game to accommodate every player, a simple question comes to my mind: do really have to?

      Why not gate the experience? That would be a simple answer to the player, via the character, of having way too many titles simultaneously. Just allow them one, or maybe two, per playthrough. A player can always play the game again — or again and again and again — to see as much of the world through different lens as possible. Just make it so they can only be the leader of one Guild at a time, per playthrough. “Do we really need to be the leader of every guild?” No, not really. We can still experience their culture without dominating every group we come across in the game.

      I agree that scaling back is a possible — if not probable — solution to this in the future. The people problem will eventually reach a threshold. You cannot maintain the appropriate number of people in bigger and bigger cities and make them all interesting at the same time — too many assets would need to be developed. Some people will, inevitably, be utterly boring — as most NPCs are in many games anyway. In fact, I would propose an interesting alternative solution to this: you just can’t talk to some people.

      While it’s common to have NPCs act, to put it rather bluntly, as just scenery or flavor text to the experience, why not, instead of having them act as visual deliminators, put the character in a situation where they cannot speak to some people? It’s frankly rather ridiculous too, following the thought that some people are more important than others, that everyone, everywhere actually wants to speak with the player.

      In real life, how often does it occur that you can take a person aside for dozens or more questions about their life, the local town and what might be interesting to see? I mean, seriously? I can understand the need: it’s a great method to deliver exposition and quest updates, but it’s still not ideal. Let’s look more at The Last Express and make the play experience an intimate and meaningful experience — make each person matter in their own way to the story.

      Personally, I’m tired of being the “[savior of] the world in every Elder Scrolls game” too. I want to visit these worlds. I like these worlds. They took great work to create and they are often made by people passionate about their work. Why can’t I just be a tourist? I would much rather drink in the beauty, explore the depths and interact with the people of these worlds than have to think about who I should be killing next, which villain I need to add to my list next.

  2. I like your above reply here, and I agree with you on most points. I just wanted to throw in in my two cents here.
    Your solution was to have certain options shut off once certain quests are completed: e.g. if you become an archmage, then the quests to become head of all other guilds become unavailable. Simple solution, and it helps to increase the player’s belief in the world. After all, how often do you see someone who’s the CEO of several companies? Many RPGs implement this very idea already.

    The only downside to the above solution is this: if the player doesn’t want to be the head of more than one guild because doing so ruins their sense of immersion, then they simply don’t join any others. Should we really resort to preventing the players? How many people can really invest in a hundred-hour game like Skyrim? And of those, how many can invest that much time again and again and again? Rather than encourage players to replay so huge a game, just allow them to do everything in the first playthrough. I’m guessing that’s the solution that Bethesda reached. Or maybe they never thought to close off some quests once others are completed.

    The main issue I see here is a conflict between freedom (which Skyrim encourages) and meaning (which, being able to do all quests, Skyrim discourages). The freer the player is to do as they wish, the less meaningful the game will probably be. The more meaning in the story, the more the player will have to follow the predefined path set for them. There should be some middle ground somewhere, however. More on that later.

    1. Dan Cox

      “Should we really resort to preventing the players? How many people can really invest in a hundred-hour game like Skyrim? And of those, how many can invest that much time again and again and again? Rather than encourage players to replay so huge a game, just allow them to do everything in the first playthrough. I’m guessing that’s the solution that Bethesda reached. Or maybe they never thought to close off some quests once others are completed.” (emphasis added)

      I’m pretty sure that Bethesda just decided to leave everything in, to, in the ratio of consequences to freedom, increase the freedom and decrease the consequences. They allow you to do nearly everything you could ever want in Oblivion. I’ve heard that’s different, at least in quest-lines, in Skyrum though. However, I have no first-hand experience to back that statement up.

      I want to prevent players from having different simultaneous titles, yes. The secret to why I think that is a better idea is this: you can save whenever you want. In my own time with Fallout 3, New Vegas and Oblivion, I made hundreds of save files per game. I would make a save file and then take a choice. [If you go back far enough in the blog archives, I documented my trip through nearly all possible New Vegas endings from one single save file towards the end of the game.] Later, I would load that old file and try the situation from a different choice and into a different world state.

      As long as Gamebryo and other similar engines allows players to take a snapshot of the in-game statistics and quest-lines, then, yes, I want to enforce some stricter regulations as to the verisimilitude of the world. I want some upper threshold for how many titles and leadership roles someone can take in the game. It doesn’t make sense, as you said, for “someone who’s the CEO [of one company]” to be the “[CEO] of several [other] companies.” There is the issue of… insider trading with that plan.

      I’ve actually, since this already a long comment, wondered why some indie developer hasn’t done more with the idea of save files being shards of an original worlds. That every time the player makes a save file, they split the game into parallel worlds. (I’ve used that idea in a short story before, but not in an actual game.)

      “The main issue I see here is a conflict between freedom (which Skyrim encourages) and meaning (which, being able to do all quests, Skyrim discourages). The freer the player is to do as they wish, the less meaningful the game will probably be. The more meaning in the story, the more the player will have to follow the predefined path set for them. There should be some middle ground somewhere, however. More on that later.”

      This is one, of a growing number of times, that I wished you had a blog too. I have some thoughts that are very similar to what you have expressed here but have run out of time tonight to write them all out. In brief, there seems to be a paradox at work in open-world games where the freedom they give to the player is both present and, then again, not present — you are both hero and yet utterly anonymous too.

      I would like to read what you have to say about the middle ground between absolute consequences and total freedom. Consequences to actions, both in regard to morality and legality, in a game is an interesting idea — I enjoyed that, in Oblivion, there were guards in cities for example. How should a developer look at this problem: do you allow only some crimes? For that, which crimes do you pick? How do you teach — an issue I am highly interested in by the way — the cultural values of a society to the player from within a game?

      Should players be expected to follow the laws of the (virtual) country they are visiting? [There will, I imagine, be a whole post on this single topic at some point in the future.]

  3. Ari

    I see that the technique you use of saving repeatedly so as to be able to go back and replay content a different way is something else we have in common: I’ve done that in Fallout 3 and Mass Effect 2 repeatedly, as I’ve probably done in other RPGs as well. (Not Fable 2, which actually prevents players from saving at every branching point, such that taking ‘the road less traveled by’ really does require the player to replay from the beginning. The game auto-saves after the big decisions.) However, one variable that the player doesn’t have control over is how many save states the game allows…fewer states means that the player must decide more carefully when to save.

    I’ve recently had the idea that the meaning vs. freedom argument in games is analogous to a more fundamental conflict, that of law vs. chaos. In games, even MMOs, many of the restrictions imposed upon us by our society are often lifted away. A player becomes a society of one. How does the designer deal with the issue, and what does the game let the player get away with? Every game will have its own answers, but it’s fun to ponder the questions, if only to look into where we might be able to go from here.

    I may not have a blog yet, but feel free to reach me via my gmail address, which you now have.

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