Friday, November 19, 2010

On the merits of save importing - is the hassle worth it?

One recurring feature which has been prevalent in the majority of BioWare games since the late 90s has been the ability to import a savegame from one game into another, in order to give players, especially the more die-hard fans, a continuous game experience where their choices in developing a character and their own story can live in into the next game.  This has become so much a staple of BioWare's games, in fact, that the number of franchises which have this feature (Baldur's Gate, Mass Effect, Dragon Age) outnumber their games that don't, and players expect it as part of the standard "BioWare experience" they assume they'll be getting when plunking down their money.  In this article, I'd like to examine the pros and cons of such save importing systems, and try to come to some sort of conclusion as to whether it's really worth the effort.

The most obvious benefits of such a system have already been stated: the player gets a consistent avatar and, hopefully, story from game to game.  This is a great feature to have when one of your core tenets is to offer the player choice in how the story unfolds or how his or her character might develop; the level of reactivity in such a system does a great job in helping the player form an emotional bond both to the character they make and their own version of the story, as well as the game itself.  For players like myself especially, I know that it can be rewarding to build up a consistent character both within a single game and between different games; I have a stock "me" character which I use in almost every RPG, and only change it up for the sake of repeat playthroughs.

Additionally, save importing allows designers to flesh out ideas which may have been hinted at in an original game but could not be fully fleshed out due to budgetary constraints, lack of time, and so forth.  More optimistically, this also means that, if a developer knows a sequel is a guarantee, they can focus resources on creating a lasting, consistent story arc where players will be able to see the consequences of their actions well beyond the scope of a single game.  For a writer who may not be able to reconcile all of his or her ideas in the same relative time frame or other context, it can be liberating to play with where events occur, i.e. if a player decision leads to a large battle, the drama in such a scene might overshadow existing story events, so it would make more sense to postpone it for when the game needs said drama.

 The Witcher 2 takes "branching story" to a whole other level.

There are some pretty obvious downsides to all of this, of course, the most obvious being that this requires a lot of work for designers and writers.  Game choice and consequence typically branches off like a tree: one event leads to another, and then that event leads to another still, and so forth.  This can look pretty benign at first until one actually tries to graph this out as a flow chart or similar and the number of conditions, special clauses, potential plot inconsistencies, and sheer number of different story paths and nodes become apparent.  The Witcher 2's story tree was recently revealed and suffice is to say, it's kind of a doozy.  Trying to reconcile such a branching plot, including all the little decisions the player may or may not have made with the plot and world of a new game is a daunting task.  It's easy to just go by the player's ending alone, but the player may not feel like his or her smaller decisions had a lasting impact.

Of course, on the writing side of things this can get pretty complicated.  Writers simply cannot think in terms of one game anymore, otherwise the significance of importing a save file is lost.  The entire purpose of such an act is to allow the player to experience a multi-faceted, branching narrative with emotionally compelling choice and consequence, and not thinking about how certain events can carry over runs the risk of trivialising the majority of the game's story.  Not all decisions need to have a huge impact on the game, of course, but if the truly significant player choices are distilled down into only a few possible outcomes, with dozens of other minor decisions being totally superficial, it suggests the story is unfocused.  BioWare ran into this problem recently with Mass Effect 2, in which they ultimately paid lip service to the player's past exploits without them actually having a substantial impact on the game world or story.  Commander Shepard helped his or her share of people in Mass Effect; is there really anything to be gained in having each and every one of them come back and say "by the way, thanks for the help in the last game"?

 BioWare's recent Witch Hunt DLC shipped with an embarrassing bug: 
the add-on did not recognise the player's Dragon Age ending.  Whoops!

There are also a whole lot of technical considerations to make, in addition to the design and writing ones.  Save files need to be kept consistent, or at least interpretable between games, and redundant code may be necessary if major changes to a game's file system or storage are made.  This also poses the issue of having to locate those save files, since especially on open platforms like the PC, not all save files may be easy to find or read.  Worse still, this opens up the possibility of a whole slew of extra bugs and scripting issues that need to be tested.  Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening ran into just such a problem, where if the player had a certain DLC add-on, the abilities gained in that DLC didn't work properly.  These sorts of issues go beyond the technical in their impact - if the player has been led to believe his or her decisions matter, only to find a bug gets in the way and prevents his or her decisions from being recognised, it significantly damages the player's relationship to the game.

Based on all of this, I have to say that the conclusion I'm leaning towards is that importing save files just isn't worth the amount of time and effort necessary to reconcile all the decisions the player makes.  On paper it sounds great, and marketing can certainly run with it, but given how it creates a lot of additional headaches for a development team, and how so many parts of a sequel can become bogged down in the task of living up to its predecessor, I'd much rather take a sequel without a save import feature if it meant that I got a richer story, fewer bugs and an overall more meaningful and reactive experience.  Of course, this is one of those situations where I have to admit that I do appreciate the feature, at least if it's pulled off well, but frankly, I have yet to see any examples where it has been anything but shallow, its potential unrealised.  For all that BioWare's fans appreciate the experience of importing their character between games, I'm at least one who could stand to do without.

[Image credit 1]
[Image credit 2]

Friday, November 12, 2010

Reconciling story with player choice in Mass Effect 2

One of the hardest things to do in a game is to reconcile the player's input into a game with its linear narrative.  As games have become smaller in scope due to climbing budgets and longer development times, it has become harder to account for all possible inconsistencies and gameplay/story contradictions; when dialogue needs to be voice-acted, graphics need to be shiny, and stories are paced with far more intent, coming up with ways to explain why the player can or cannot do something is much more difficult.

BioWare, one of the West's premier role-playing developers, has struggled with this problem increasingly over the last several years.  The need to deliver a quality narrative experience is oftentimes at odds with giving the player cool things to do and say, especially when both are at the core of what a BioWare game is.  In Mass Effect 2, BioWare attempted to bring together a complicated story with player choice, but in doing so, they made a number of significant mistakes which ultimately hurt the game's overarching storyline, while at the same time revealing many of the flaws in the limitations of their player choice and consequence systems.

Making good choices and consequences is the kind of thing that seems rather simple, but each one is actually a multi-stage process, each of which needs to be designed in detail in order to avoid problems and come across as convincing.  The ideal order, in my mind, looks something like this:

1) The game provides a situation to the player,
2) The game provides a number of options to the player,
3) The player is called upon to choose one of these options,
4) The outcome of the situation is influenced directly by the player's choice, and
5) The game provides clear feedback which responds directly to the player's decision.

Each of these steps isn't just a single task, either.  For instance, handling step 3 above may include figuring out what time/place to present the options, how to frame the options, what order to present the options in, deciding which, if any options have sub-queries the player can make into them, and so forth.  While it's not crucial for every decision to be examined and designed in the same detail, taking the same structured, rudimentary approach to each one will help avoid errors, especially when they may arise out of simple complacency.

When a game is successful at this process of choice and consequence, the player is satisfied with the outcome; he or she feels not just that an event has occurred, but that the decision made based on the given situation is meaningful, and, better still, that the game has passed some form of judgement on the player.  This doesn't necessarily have to be significant - it can be anything from the player choosing to act kindly or poorly to an NPC, for instance - but no matter the gravity of the situation, the game has to show the player that the decisions matter.

Generally, in games, this sort of feedback cycle isn't particularly difficult to create.  Figuring out a logical outcome to a situation that is consistent with the game's universe, style of play and the player's perception of who he or she is in the game is a task most designers can come up with fairly easily, to speak nothing of the players themselves, who are likely to have some good ideas of their own.  But a key problem enters when story gets in the way of these sorts of decisions, and all of a sudden the game needs to place that individual decision in a larger context.  This is doubly hard when you're building a role-playing game, and story is at the heart of the game - you can't just gloss over inconsistencies, or players are going to notice pretty quickly.

Working with the Illusive Man isn't something up for negotiation, a pity
when so much of Mass Effect 2 purports to revolve around player choice.

Mass Effect 2, unfortunately, doesn't do a very good job of reconciling decision-making with story; on numerous occasions, the plot gets in the way of precisely what BioWare's title is supposed to be about, which is player choice and meaningful consequence.  One of the most glaring examples of this comes up early in the game, when the player is forced to join up with Cerberus, a morally gray organisation which is viewed either as a terrorist cell or a cutting-edge science and technology firm depending on who is asked.  There are a large number of problems with this situation that the game does a terrible job of justifying:

1) The player is forced to work with an organisation of a morally ambiguous nature regardless of his or her opinion
2) Depending on backstory, the player character may have an extremely negative past history with Cerberus, which is not dealt with adequately,
3) The player is allowed to question why he or she is joining Cerberus, but the answers are not necessarily sufficient explanation,
4) The most obvious choice for an alliance, story-wise, is unavailable for reasons generally left unexplained

There are other problems I'm sure one could find, but this more or less covers the big ones.  The question at the heart of this matter is, essentially, if the story is that Shepard joins up with Cerberus, how can the player's decision-making still be relevant?  Or, to put it a little bit more fundamentally, how is the mechanic of player decision-making relevant in a game with a linear story?  There are two approaches that a designer can take to rectify the conflict: either change the story, or change the player's choices.  Each of these have their own benefits and downsides.

The first, and most obvious method of fixing the problem, is to change the plot.  While this sounds easy, it's quite a deep problem depending upon how integral to the big picture the detail in question might be.  To continue with the example, Cerberus is essential to the development of the Mass Effect 2 story, as well as the game universe as a whole - major characters, events and situations all hinge on Cerberus being an active player.  Additionally, a big theme in the game is the player "going against the grain" and arranging a team of misfit operatives to tackle a suicide mission - another organisation wouldn't be fitting, especially if it had a more absolute moral alignment (if the player disagrees with it, he/she will hate it the whole game).  So, getting rid of Cerberus is hard work and would require some pretty deep changes to the story.  The alternative would be to introduce a new gameplay segment of some sort in order to explain why the player absolutely must work with Cerberus; for instance, maybe the player's former contacts are killed, or unable to help for a significant reason.  However, this could be costly - creating new characters, environments, gameplay, assets and so forth, especially for what is largely a way to fill a plot hole, is prohibitively expensive, especially later in development.

The second, and somewhat easier way of handling the problem, is to use the gameplay/story mechanic of player choice in order to help better explain the situation and why the player is being led down a particular path.  The easiest way to handle this is by simply allowing the player to ask more questions about the situation and providing some good answers.  The player may forced to work with Cerberus, but it makes the player feel like his or her decisions are meaningful when the game responds in a logical way.  It's even better if those same concerns appear again later in the game; it reinforces the fact that the player's choices matter, and it adds a significant amount of depth to the game world and story by having the game acknowledge the player's opinion, and autonomy as a decision-maker.  While it's hard to account for everything, predicting the most obvious concerns and writing a dozen lines of dialogue to address those concerns can mean the difference between a major plot-hole and extra gameplay and narrative for the player to revel in.  For example, one of the best moments for me when playing Alpha Protocol was when a certain line of questioning early on opened up incidental-yet-fascinating details about the game's world and characters.  The major downside to this solution, of course, is that you can't always write off every single concern with a few lines of dialogue, and the player may still feel railroaded if the inconsistency is too jarring.

 The dialogue wheel is an intuitive system, but can limit the
complexity of player inquiry and depth of responses.

The Cerberus situation isn't the only one where the player is streamed into a decision despite the ability to make choices.  Near the end of the game, the player is forced to investigate a number of situations first-hand, putting his or her self and crew in life-threatening situations, even though many other options would be more logical and beneficial; frustratingly, the player often doesn't even have the ability to question why he or she can't do these things, as if the designers of the game knew the problem was there and decided that ignoring it would make it go away.  Mass Effect 2 doesn't have the luxury of being Call of Duty - it can't pull the wool over the player's eyes with intense action and set piece moments.  It needs to be rock solid.

It's likely that a lot of BioWare's problems stemmed from developing sections of the game independently of one another, making it difficult to form them together into a cohesive whole; by the time the game had to ship, I imagine nobody had the time to find the missing puzzle pieces and deal with the outstanding problems.  In their defense, the dialogue in any given part of Mass Effect 2 is brilliant; evidently BioWare were willing to trade off consistency and coherence for moving scenes, and while they could have done better, I respect the work done all the same.

Using the gameplay systems available to explain a story element to the player is an art form in itself, and it's doubly hard when those same gameplay systems appear to conflict with the narrative side of that game.  With proper forethought and sitting down to ask those integral "why?" questions, most of these sorts of issues can be avoided and dealt with in ways that don't just close up plot holes, but actually add to the game's fiction, universe, and provide the player with additional choice and consequence gameplay which truly validates the decisions made; from where I'm standing, it is one of the greatest goods a designer can do in the crafting of meaningful interactive experiences.

[Image credit 1]
[Image credit 2]