Monday, December 12, 2011

In Which The Warlock Mulls Choice and Consequence...

With the holiday season in full swing and preparations already being made for the impending ChrismaHannuKwanzaRamadanaFest, retailers have been eager to get the newest releases of video games on the shelves, ready for all of us eager consumers to gobble up in amongst our holiday feasting. 

Probably the most notable release this season has been The Elder Scrolls V:  Skyrim, a pseudo-Nordic role-playing game that's gotten rave reviews and has already won "Game of the Year" from Spike TV's Video Game Awards.  Its fans--including a certain TripleCritting DigitalKat--are rabid and voracious, and the game has already spawned its own series of memes, particularly regarding a number of guards having taken arrows to the knee.  Further, Skyrim is produced by Bethesda, who has put out quality work in the past and is revered amongst computer and video game developers.

And yet...I find I just can't get interested in this game.  And, finally, I figured out why.

In my (massively limited) spare time, I've been fighting my way through BioWare's Dragon Age: Origins.  My parents bought me the Ultimate Edition--which contains all of the major downloadable content--last year, and I'm still only about halfway through the game.  While the plot is fairly simplistic, revolving around the acquisition of allies against a usurper-king, Dragon Age's storytelling is strong, and the choices that you make have a lasting effect on the game itself. 

Is it worth killing him, to get rid of the demon in his body?
For example, I just completed a quest in which a duke's son became possessed by a demon.  Unable to exorcise the demon myself, I was forced to choose whether to:  a) kill the child, and the demon along with it, b) exorcise the demon, using the blood of the child's mother as a focus (thereby killing the mother, but saving the son), or c) risk traveling to a nearby mage tower to recruit help.  I opted for the third option, cashing in a favor from the mages, but at the expense of their help in a later battle.   

Every choice I made during that series of interactions had drastic repercussions on the remainder of the plot.  Had I chosen to kill the child (or the mother, for that matter), the people of the town would have likely refused to aid me, which was the point of traveling there in the first place!  But, my dwarf wanted to do the "right" thing, trying to save both, even if it meant losing the chance for help later.

While Dragon Age nominally gives you freedom in choosing the order of quests or locations, the game is fundamentally linear.  You travel to one place, solve problems there, then move on to another place.  Occasionally, you'll revisit locations to complete sidequests or the like, but by and large, the story elements are neatly contained, and provide finite, completable goals with lasting consequences.

While my experience with Skyrim has been limited, such hasn't been the case.  The world around you may be graphically gorgeous, massive in scope, and as open as a 'sandbox' gets, there's simply no feeling of impact.  The choices and actions within the game are like so much screaming into the wind--there's no sense of repercussions.  You can massacre an entire town, rob every NPC blind, or fill your house with the heads of your fallen enemies...and no one seems to care.  At all.  There are simply no repercussions for your character's actions, which leads to...well, me not caring.  If my actions aren't going to have a real impact, then what's the point?

I'm finding the same issue between the original Batman: Arkham Asylum and its sequel, Arkham City.  While Arkham Asylum allowed you to revisit areas, the plot proved to be a masterpiece due to its linearity.  You always knew exactly what you needed to do next, because one objective led directly to the next.  While this might seem simplistic, the unity of theme and effect made for a game experience that was without peer.  However, in Arkham City, the plot becomes much less linear, as the designers sacrificed unity of effect for the sprawling, open-world feel of a full city.  While this makes for a much more freeform game, the game's tight focus is dropped for the sprawling feel, leading to a less unified experience.

This has been my issue, similarly, with so-called "sandbox" roleplaying experiences.  Lacking a centralized plot or storyline, I often find that the PCs have little to do aside from what are typically seen as "side missions".  The "submissives"--to use the terminology from my prior entry--find themselves in the uncomfortable position of being dominant, while the GM's role is reduced to rules-arbiter and world-builder, rather than author-director.

I'm not saying that Skyrim, Arkham City or that sandbox games are bad--they simply show a trend that I, personally, don't really care for:  the fact that many gamers are willing to sacrifice quality storytelling for a perceived freedom.


  1. Anonymous11:06 PM

    I'd also like to point out that a big hurdle with sandbox gaming is that there's rarely a sense of urgency to get a quest done. In order to give you time to explore and do as many of the sidequests as you want, there can't really be anything forcing you to do the main plot because then it would be a linear game.

    One example of this is TES: Oblivion. In my game (which I rarely find time to play and am nowhere near completion), I was told to hurry to Kvatch and find the last heir of the Septim line because only he can stop the impending supernatural invasion. But you know what? I decided to take a rain check on saving the world and instead am doing a bunch of quests for the Mages Guild. There's a burning city on the other side of the map, but that's okay, nothing's going to happen to it until I decide I want to check it out.

    Ideally I think that sandbox gaming, both in computer games and tabletop rpgs, should be a happy mix where you have the freedom to do what you want, but your future options are affected by your choices. It's not be about exploring every inch of the sandbox, but about seeing how the sand shifts in response to your playing with it. I guess that's closer to your Dragon Age perspective and maybe that's more what sandbox gaming should be.

  2. Admittedly, Dragon Age suffers from a few of the same issues. The mage tower that you visit is overwhelmed by abominations (demons who've inhabited the bodies of mages and mutated them). It doesn't matter, necessarily, WHEN you get to them--their tower is still going to be infested and the survivors just "barely" holding out, whenever you arrive.

    But, depending on how you deal with the mages--exterminating everything in the tower, actively looking for survivors, or somewhere in between--the NPCs react differently based on your choices. Playing the "honorable, grumpy dwarf", I chose to look for survivors and earned the respect (and aid) of the remaining mages. Had I chosen to eliminate them, I'd have endeared myself to the remaining mage-hunting templars.

    One of my other biases, which I neglected to talk about, was my preference for having a party. As with most BioWare games, Dragon Age takes this to heart with numerous NPC companions who can (and will!) disagree with your actions. My choice to help the mages earned me the enmity of my follower, Morrigan, who is an apostate mage (one who's not one of their circle). But, my willingness to spare human life endeared me to the bard, Leliana.

    Skyrim seems devoid of those sorts of interaction, which makes it feel more...well, empty. I like my choices to matter, and it seems like they just don't in Skyrim.