The Choices We Make

A thought occurred to me while I was working on my third playthrough of Dragon Age: Origins: how player choice can present itself differently across different games. Now I know this has been a long discussed topic, particularly when people feel that in so many games that their choices don’t matter, but I wanted to discuss how I most enjoy player decisions when they’re available.

This particular DA:O playthrough was my first time trying a new character (new origin, new look, new personality, new love interest, the whole bit), and as I progressed through the game, I realized that a lot of my significant plot point choices were very similar to my “canon” playthrough’s choices. I didn’t intend it to be that way, since I usually like to play around with new choices, but I also realized that several of the choices in DA:O have very clear indicators for what are the “right” and “wrong” choices. Not for everything (some decisions have more ambiguous consequences), but when it comes to recruiting allies for the final fight against the Archdemon, certain decisions could wind up costing you companions as well as certain allies. Alternatively, Dragon Age II and Dragon Age: Inquisition had a number of quests that relied on the player’s perception of the situation (sometimes with the intent of questioning morality) and it felt more catered to whatever personality you gave your protagonist. (Side note: personally, I don’t think DAII is as morally grey as it likes to think it is, but there were more opportunities to incorporate your decisions into defining your protagonist’s characterization.) The Dragon Age series’ choices are not perfect, but there is more room in the later games for varying personalities and characterizations than just “I’m being a horrible person just because I can.”

The point is: I feel that player choices work better when there’s an ambiguity to their result. I want to be sitting there wondering “did I make the best choice?” rather than just working down a “good” or an “evil” path. And when I make that choice, I don’t want only immediate results, I want that choice to affect me 10, 20, 30 hours later too… or even in the next game. I could not tell you how glad I was to have dodged a bullet in DA:I when I realized that making Alistair king two games ago might have just saved his life (and kept my Warden from a broken heart). I want more games to give me that sort of stress: make me feel the consequences of my actions even long after my decision has been made.

Games have the very unique ability to travel down different plot pathways, a reminder of the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, and when done well, I think it’s a very fun mechanic for the player to mess around with. It drives replayability by having the player wonder “what if I had done this instead?”, it encourages communication between players (for better or worse) on how they handled different decisions, and it has the ability to characterize the audience/player. One of the things I love knowing about my friends who have played the same game as me is how they decided to play the game. Did we make similar choices? Were different choices made based on what kind of personality they gave their character? What choices do they gravitate to naturally and what are they breaking away from to play their protagonist “in character?” I’m certain developers love hearing these sorts of responses as well. It’s a feature I love about finishing episodes in Telltale Games: polls will indicate how many made certain decisions and if you were in the majority or minority.

Telltale Games, in fact, is a company that has built an entire brand identity on the concept of branching storylines, with the mechanics and episodic set-up laying the groundwork for a lot of possibilities. I am particularly enjoying some of the new features added in the latest Batman: The Enemy Within, which include shifting attitudes towards Batman based on how you treat each of these characters in dialogue options. This expounds upon Telltales’ previous MO of “_____ will remember this” and creates the sensation of more tangible consequences and repercussions, whereas before it sometimes felt as if that statement didn’t have an explicit consequence. I understand that sometimes Telltales’ games have to override decisions for the sake of keeping a somewhat linear storyline, but one day, I would like to see them create completely separate scenarios and situations based on the decisions made by the player. It doesn’t have to be the whole game (that’s definitely a lot of work), but it would be interesting that for an episode, there could be two different versions with completely different scenarios and decisions. Then make it tie back into the story later, once the storylines have converged again: how will the protagonist react to a later situation based on what they experienced in one episode vs a protagonist who witnessed the other version?

The Dragon Age series and Telltale Games’ series are obviously not the only games that have a strong focus on player choice. Pyre is another game that focuses on decision-making, albeit a bit in a more subtle way. I mentioned in its original review post that there is no “True Ending” for Pyre, and you are forced into uncomfortable decisions in the realization that you won’t get absolutely everything “right.” Since there isn’t a right or wrong answer to the choices, players are given full responsibility for their actions in a way that adds pressure to the decision. Life is Strange starts off strong with their choices affecting characters and the player in later episodes. For example, being nice to one of the characters in the first episode will make them more receptive your cautions as opposed to suspicious in the later episodes. There are also many things to interact with that will show up in small ways later, such as under-watering or over-watering your plant. However, in the ending of the game, the ending itself is only based on a final choice, which just about ignores every decision you’ve made up until that point. It was possibly one of the most frustrating things to find that at the end of a very detailed game, none of your decisions had an effect on the ending.

Personally, I love decision-based games that give me a certain freedom to play how I want, and you can tell when the writers of these games took the time to consider the different options a player might want to take. Given that decision-based games continue to be a popular trend, I think writers should continue to examine how they go about writing these forks in the road. My personal favorite approach is the “you’ve made your bed, now lie in it” approach, making the player wonder if they’ve made the “best” choice and making them feel the effects even long after those scenes have passed. I’m curious to hear your thoughts: how do you think player choices should be handled? What games do you think use this concept well? How do you think some of these mechanics could be improved?

Happy gaming!

~ M

A Dilemma with DLC

The following post contains spoilers for Dragon Age: Inquisition’s Trespasser DLC and Fire Emblem: FatesHidden Truths DLC.

Let me make something clear right off of the bat: I am not here to hate on DLC, my qualm is the format in which story-vital information is being sold separately to the audience.

I’ve got two case studies for this post: Dragon Age and Fire Emblem: Fates. Oh, boy, two of my favorite game series, we’re going in.

If you’ve played some of BioWare’s biggest games, you probably already know there is a lot of outside content. Books, comic books, DLC, and animes? For the most part, these are just ways to enhance the story. It’s something I love about playing BioWare games: the world they’ve created is so rich that they have this ability to expand the story in areas that aren’t directly connected to the main games. There might be the odd Easter Egg here and there as a playful mention to those who have consumed this other media, and for a long time that’s what outside media was: story enrichment. However, recently there has been an increasing trend of putting story vital information in these outside sources.

Just take a look at the Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts quest in Dragon Age: Inquisition. The whole mission was one big reference to The Masked Empire book, and if you didn’t read it, then you were only able to get part of the full story. (My elven Inquisitor certainly would have wanted to know more about the burning of the Halamshiral elven alienage….) Dragon Age: Inquisition had a lot of these outside sources tie into main story missions within the game. So much so, in fact, that the main villain in the game first appears in a Dragon Age II DLC. (I had about 20 question marks over my head when Hawke talked about fighting Corypheus before, that was before I found out there was a DLC for DA2.) It’s a trend that’s growing increasingly popular: pay for DLC or wind up moderately confused for the overarching story.

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Fire Emblem: Fates does something similar. Now, Fates is a special case because of its three-path story. I see the three-path storyline as an experiment, but probably one Intelligent Systems shouldn’t try again unless they really want to annoy their fanbase by forcing them to buy three games again. (That being said, the total price for these three paths was $80, $80 for what can be considered three full games. Not totally a bad deal.) Here’s where my annoyance comes in. Some of the biggest plot questions revolving around the protagonist, Corrin, are answered with the Hidden Truths DLC. You find out about their father, why they can turn into a dragon, why characters from Fire Emblem: Awakening are in Fates, and why Lilith is significant to Corrin. All things, I think, should have been answered at least in the Revelation path, where you are supposed to discover truths not revealed in the other two game paths. There was no reason the Awakening trio couldn’t tell Corrin about their relationship to everything once they were in Valla. Plot time much better spent than inexplicably killing a dear ally again with the temporary betrayal of another ally, which only served as unnecessary drama. The information from Hidden Truths would have made the final battle more significant, too: Corrin discovering that Anankos was their father and having to defeat their father in the final battle. Everything would have been tied together. Instead, those significant plot features were tucked away in a DLC with basically a “Oh, yeah, btw, here are all the things that we didn’t have time to explain in three full games.”

And I’m not done with you, Dragon Age. I get the rationale behind putting Trespasser as a DLC. It gave time and space for the interim DLC to be released and some time to have pass for the Inquisition. It serves more as an extended epilogue than a final chapter for Dragon Age: Inquisition. That being said, it cannot be denied that Trespasser is vitally important to the Dragon Age story and for the events to come in Dragon Age 4. With Solas revealing his entire significance and plans for the future, we, as the Inquisitor, are left with one of those “significant decision” choices. This is indicating to us that the decision to stop or redeem Solas will be important in the future game, and it will certainly be influential when meeting Solas again. I don’t know if there was a good way to handle a DLC that significant. Do you attach it to the base game with a warning and hope people don’t accidentally play it before playing the other DLC, should they choose to buy them? Do you make it a free DLC and still release it as the last DLC? And what of the people who can’t play Trespasser because they own the previous generation of consoles, such as the PS3 or XBox360? (A situation I was in until a few months ago.)

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Charging for DLC at a reasonable price is fine, but this format does raise questions for how to handle additional, story-significant content. It’s like buying a book but then having to purchase the epilogue or additional chapters separately. Or how Marvel is handling their movies and shows nowadays: consume all the connected content or risk missing out on important details. You probably annoy your audience more by forcing them to purchase/consume additional content than if you leave it to “well, if you want to consume it, you can but it’s not necessary.” I’m not saying don’t make additional content (I know I love seeing it), but maybe there’s a way to deal with significant plot details in a way that doesn’t force consumption. There will be people who want to read/play/watch as much of the universe as possible, but there should also be consideration for the casual audience who may not want to spend the time/money on something that should have been part of the main story already.

What are your thoughts? How do you think DLC/other materials should be handled? Should there be warnings for what DLC/other materials will be needed before a game comes out? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

Happy gaming!

~ M