If you set out to make a game that really uses choice to both immerse the player and make them come to a better understanding of themselves through those choices, there’s an underlying problem that we have barely hit our heads against.
Fallout 3 pushes on those boundaries, unrelenting in its empowerment of the player to change the storyworld. Now, it’s not like this has gone unnoticed, but it’s worth thinking about the design problem, and how to deal with it.
If you pay $60 for a game, you’re starting with a pretty decent urge to get your money’s worth. Games of this nature, for the longest time, have had traps of choice. Certain paths in the game, whether you had an idea of what the consequences would be or not, could ruin your play experience. Maybe those choices wouldn’t spoil the play experience for everyone, but they would ruin it for you by forcing you to play the game in a way you’d rather not.
Anybody that’s played games for a while has a story along these lines, a warning they remind themselves of every time they enter a world more expansive & with more agency than the last. I remember setting out in The Elder Scrolls: Arena, practically orgasmic with the back-of-the-box declaration that you could actually walk to each town in real time. I eventually made it out of that goddamn first dungeon, sorted out my business in town, and sallied forth, inventory-as-bindle in hand.
A week went by (and this was when I was 17 when a weak of play time meant much more than it does today). I hadn’t reached the next town yet. I was a little worried, but I soldiered on, exploring crypts, dungeons, and other buildings that are underground and populated with skeletons. After week 2, however, I came to the sad realization that I was never going to see another person in the game again.
There was no way I could reconcile with the commitment it would take to restart the game and try it again. I was done. It served me as a warning for any open world or open ended game, narrative or no, watch out when they tell you that you can do anything. It’s usually a bad idea (no matter how cool it sounds).
As we all know, Bethesda eventually sorted out some of those problems. In Fallout 3, I am happy to be the wanderer. However, like most wanderers, I am an observer to the stories going on in the world.
In Arefu, I got the vampires to stop attacking the families, but I left the vampires be as well. I let the Antagonist go, once she gave up her uniform. In the Underworld, when Ahzrukhal offered his slave Charon in return for killing his competitor Greta, I jumped to dismiss the option.
I refused to pass judgement on those before me, lest I be judged in turn. Who am I to leave my safe vault home, enter their world, and decide who is right and wrong? What if it were to come back to me?
There’s a tension between making the player connect strongly with characters, and giving them as much agency as possible (any frequent reader here will hopefully realize I am in no way talking any idiocy commonly spouted about conflict between games & story). This problem only presents itself once you’ve gotten past the design intricacies of actually making all the paths work, with different consequences for each. If you manage to do that and make it all tie together (most of the time), which is what Fallout 3 does better than most others before it, you’ll have painted yourself into an odd corner. Without forcing a choice, choosing nothing becomes the best way for the player to leave the world as they love it. By relying on forced choice, the player can resent the game for forcing its ruin upon them.
Most games of this genre falter at the start – you’re presented with character creation choices that will impact your entire game without any understanding of their real effects. D&D games get a free pass on this problem, because most people have acquired a general implication of how those systems work, what it means to play as a fighter or a mage, etc. Bethesda games usually give you a opportunity to change any selections once after a little bit of play, but is the player honestly yet in a position to judge the future entertainment value of being able to pick locks and sneak into places vs. talking their way past difficult situations?
During the game, obviously giving the player as much knowledge about the consequences of a choice helps avoid the problem. But it just avoids it, it doesn’t solve it. You want your world to have unforeseen consequences, because it brings the world alive and reveals character. If you kill Greta and Ahzrukhal gives you Charon, Charon will kill Ahzrukhal before he becomes your companion (oops, spoiler). You don’t want to get rid of that. You just want the player to be ok with it, and feel like a part of the world because of it.
You can manage and pace those effects, the perceived rewards or punishments. For an excellent analysis along those lines, check out Randy’s talk from MIGS/GDC 2007 on save/load compulsions. That thinking, while incredibly useful, still assumes these choices have consequences that will be predictably perceived as a reward or punishment. When it’s a change to a character in the world, you may not know if the player has any attachment to the character, or they might have some larger plans for that character in the future. That could turn a minor character change into a much larger pain.
There’s a larger overall barrier too – the simple fact that up until now, a player could rarely trust a game to do anything reasonable when it comes to this problem. It’s a bit of chicken vs. egg. If players don’t trust their games to not screw them over this way, they’ll never let the game surprise them by getting screwed over in a way that’s entertaining or meaningful.
Maybe if we work really hard, pacing those rewards and punishments as Randy suggests, we might slowly get over everyone’s impression that games are inevitably going to fuck you over when it comes to your choices. Only then will designers really be free to explore choice in settings like this, to present the player choices that will upset their preconceptions and make them learn something about themselves they weren’t expecting. (Well, we could make the damn things shorter, too.)
Maybe then we’ll come to grips with the choices that are our vault fault.
Sorry, couldn’t restraint myself on that one.