Monday, April 25, 2011

Development update

So, where do things stand right now?

First off, I started and completed the third of four major districts of the city over the course of about two-three days, the Temple District. Building the Temple District was a bit of a challenge for me, not quite in the way I was expecting, but it was also a great learning experience in creating environments that aren't just functional, but also aesthetically pleasing.

I started out with a basic concept for the Temple District: I wanted it to have vegetation along with beautiful architecture, to have light and colour and feel slightly special and different compared to everywhere else. It needed to be tall, not so much in a way that is imposing, but rather in a way that puts the player in awe. I also didn't want it to feel too busy or cluttered in the same way the Market District did.

From the start, my initial plans were to have a river or two near the entrance, a transitional area that opened into a large courtyard with trees and fancy stonework, with the Chantry at the end of it, and then a back area which would loop around and house additional buildings. The way I initially approached this was to scupt some terrain and place a few preliminary objects:



While this worked for getting the feel of the place down, it felt a little bit bland. The basic Denerim architecture just wasn't working for me here, so I decided to go with Tevinter architecture - having ancient ruins in the city contradicts the lore I established, so I added a clause in the codex claiming that the district was built recently in the Tevinter style, but isn't actually ancient as some of the ruins in Ferelden are.


Already, things are looking much better and grander. Replacing the base terrain with tiled floor really helped the feeling that the place was different and more "upscale" than the Market and Slums. Then, I added some scaffolding, benches, etc. around the area to also give the feeling that the place wasn't 100% static, that there were parts being renovated and under construction, etc., and, frankly, to just add a bit more life and colour to the place, since a bunch of empty space is boring, as majestic as it looks initially. Finding a balance between too much clutter and not enough was definitely a challenge. I also put some ivy on the main arch in the entryway in order to make it stand out a little bit and really draw the player's eye upward, which worked great in conjunction with the shape of the Chantry.

Speaking of, a problem I found myself running into was that the Chantry model I used ended up looking too small. It was actually dwarfed by the rest of the architecture, looking a bit too humble for my tastes:


In the end, I swapped it out for the larger one, which didn't fit 100% in the main layout I had created, but it's not that big a deal since the player can't get to the sides or behind it anyway.

From there, I started work on the back area of the district, since it was a bit small and kind of boring/empty without anything else, and I already had some concepts for buildings I wanted to include figured out. But how to go about it?

I knew I didn't want terrain again, so I ended up using some of the Tevinter bridge pieces to construct the floors, and then made the entire area enclosed to give the feeling of a much larger city around it, with open court areas in between to break things up. Not a lot to say here, other than that it involved placing a lot of pieces very carefully in order to avoid clipping issues.

The biggest difficulty I ran into during this was that the tactical camera would end up pulled out too far and would see through walls etc. Initially I experimented with invisible walls to block it, but these didn't work. In the end I was forced to build up the Temple District a lot more than what's actually seen in-game to avoid those camera clipping problems... this was beneficial because it added to the depth of the area, even if I silently lamented the fact that so much work would go unseen.


From there, it was adding lots of different types of lights... mostly baked lights, since I wanted to preserve the sense of sunlight streaming in through the holes in the architecture and spilling over into the courtyards. Baked lights provided the variation in colour tone and helped to accentuate the existing greens and blues found in the Tevinter models, and the reds from torches contrasted very nicely with this.

I had to do a little bit of reworking of the area in order to get around some collision and pathfinding issues, but once I had figured out how to pull off what I wanted to do, things went very quickly and smoothly. Below is a video of a run-through of a near-final version of the Temple District:



I am very pleased with how the Temple District turned out... it has a certain symmetry that really makes it feel different from the other areas, and it's got a very unique atmosphere next to the dusty markets and murky slums.

In fact, I was so happy with how it turned out that, going back to the Market District afterwards, I was struck severely by just how flat and lifeless it looked in comparison. Since I had already invested so much time and effort into the Market, I didn't want to have to overhaul it significantly. I decided the biggest change I could make was with the lighting, atmosphere, and other effects sitting on top of the level.


Not bad, but not great, right? I learned in making both the Slums and Temple that one of the best tools in a level creator's arsenal, as far as Dragon Age goes, is fog. Although its effects are subtle fog allows for some really drastic differences when used effectively... just a little bit can add loads of depth to a scene. However, depth also requires distance, and so I spent some time overhauling the backdrop for the Market District, adding more objects to work with the fog. Finally, I changed up an existing building to make it stand out a bit (it was previously kind of a hole in the wall), made some tweaks to the sky colour, reworked the sunbeams in the Market, and added a few baked lights to help suggest smoother transitions between the different districts.

Although this only took about an hour of work, the results I achieved are pretty drastic, and really speak for themselves:


Suddenly, my Market District has gone from looking like an isolated videogame level, to part of a much larger, living city.

So, that's it for now. Work begins on the interior buildings for the Temple District... there's about five or six in total, about two of those being pretty large in size, but I have a pretty clear concept for all of them. The difference in architecture also gives me an excuse to experiment with new tilesets beyond the standard Ferelden human interiors, which I think I've tested the limits of by now. Overall, it looks like things are going to be pretty productive in the near future... and, scarily enough, making progress content completion as far as level layouts are concerned.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Why BioShock 2 is better, part 1: It's all in the pacing

If I’m anything, it’s a bit of a cheapskate, so it’s no surprise that I jumped on the recent Steam sale for BioShock 2.  I’d heard a lot of fairly negative things about the game – that it was soulless, lacking in originality, didn’t have the great cast of story and characters the first game had, and so on.  While I was one of “those people” who felt that BioShock was really just a dumbed-down version of System Shock 2 made to appeal to the Drooling Masses, I still enjoyed it for what it is, despite its glaring weaknesses in its second half.  As such, I had shied away from the sequel, assuming it was a cheap knock-off of the real thing made by a less-talented development studio.

Of course, for $5 I’d have to be totally made of stone not to at least try out the follow-up to one of the better games of the last five years, so I bought it.  Over the course of the three or four days it took me to finish, though, I was left not with an impression of mediocrity and the feeling I had wasted my money.  Indeed, I ended up enjoying BioShock 2 significantly more than the original game.

Mulling over this strange revelation, I decided to take a deeper look at what made BioShock 2 significantly more enjoyable for me.  In this article, I go into detail about BioShock 2’s pacing, and articulate why it ends up being far, far more effective than its predecessor.  Although I had initially planned to put all my observations in a single article, I found that things ended up being a bit too long that way.  Instead, I’ve decided to break my thoughts up into multiple pieces for easier reading.  Without further ado, let’s… dive in?  Urg.

If there was one issue with the first BioShock, it was pacing, especially when looking at the game as a whole.  Although the game had a tremendous opening with some of the most memorable scenes in gaming history (in my opinion, etc.), by the time the third act rolled around and the climax of the story had concluded, the game completely lost steam and transitioned into boring, corridor-crawling action which dragged on for far, far too long, concluding in a lengthy fetch quest and escort mission while a moustache-twirling villain fed the same few insults to you via radio again and again.

BioShock 2’s greatest success, then, is that it completely eliminates the pacing problems that BioShock had on the macro level.  While it actually starts out rather slow, in a manner similar to the original game, it doesn’t have the same impact that the descent down into Rapture gave the first title.  As a result, it feels a little slow… not terrible, but for any experienced player of the first, learning that Electro Bolt lets you disable machines and open doors with damaged control panels is a little on the boring side.

However, while BioShock 2 starts out slow, it speeds up quickly… and keeps going, and going, and going, and never, ever lets up.  While it’s hard to talk about why this is without going into spoiler territory, suffice is to say that the plot keeps rolling, the game continues to provide compelling reminders for why you’re doing what you’re doing, and a succession of new enemies, powers, set-pieces etc. keep you going forward until the end, where the drama and tension are upped significantly by one of the best end-game sections I’ve seen in years.  It’s nothing the original BioShock didn’t aspire to, but this time it actually does it right.

The pacing on the high level is the easier thing to point out, but it’s only accountable for some of the momentum that BioShock 2 has over its predecessor.  When examining levels on a micro level, it’s very clear that the designers looked at things a little bit more intelligently.  Like BioShock, the game is broken up into a series of levels connected by a transportation service – this time a decommissioned rail line.  Where it really differs is in the narrative that forms in each individual level.  There is a certain flow to events that was completely lacking in the first BioShock.

To compare: in BioShock, the process for playing through a level was as follows:
  1. Player arrives in the level and receives a radio order of where to go/what to do
  2. Player reaches goal only to find that there is an obstacle in the way of it
  3. Player must explore the remainder of the level to collect various MacGuffins, usually involving lots of backtracking
  4. Once all are collected, player must return to goal and move on
  5. At this point, usually Big Daddies/Little Sisters appear in earnest and if the player wants to find them all, it’s yet more backtracking
  6. Player reaches exit and may or may not be met with another problem that halts progress, and requires yet more backtracking
The problem with this formula was, while it allowed for players to explore the environment at their leisure, it also created a lot of retracing the same old steps through the same hallways and level hubs, a lot of exploration of pointless side-passages which held nothing but more useless loot, and generally made the player’s supposedly rushed and time-critical journey feel more like a casual stroll through Rapture.  Then, in most cases, when the player had collected the MacGuffins and completed the objective, he or she would, rather than be rewarded, instead see a plot-critical character get killed off, or his or her efforts thwarted by Andrew Ryan.  Rather than accomplishment, moving forward in BioShock seemed more dependent on various NPCs getting bored with screwing the player up, and less dependent on the player’s actual exploits.

BioShock 2, by contrast, does a much better job of not only making the player feeling like he or she has accomplished something during gameplay, but creates a real mini-narrative within every level, which goes a long way towards keeping the action flowing well.  Consider the process as modified in BioShock 2:
  1. Player arrives in the level via train and receives a radio order of where to go/what to do
  2. Player explores the level, usually with fewer enemies present and gets a feel for what it looks like/how it’s laid out
  3. Player is drawn to all corners of the level by the different goals
  4. During stage 3, the player has a chance to rescue/harvest Little Sisters, resulting in many panicked fights which require more strategy and planning than usual
  5. Once player is done harvesting, a Big Sister boss fight occur
  6. Player returns to train station once goals are complete (usually provided with a new shortcut back),  boards the train and moves to the next level
The most noticeable difference here is that BioShock 2 features significantly less backtracking: once you’ve explored one section of a level, it’s time to move on.  It’s not fun to feel led around by the nose, and BioShock did plenty of that in spite of its slightly more open level design.  As a result, BioShock 2 allows for much more economical use of its levels: while there are the occasional hidden places to explore (Siren’s Alley is the closest thing to Fort Frolic), almost every room in every level has a purpose related to the player’s goals.  The player is rarely or never interrupted by characters throwing new (and largely ineffectual) obstacles in the way, and rarely has that feeling of “where do I go next?  Why am I here?” that plagued a lot of BioShock, even its best parts.

Consider, as well, the difference between the Big Daddy and Big Sister.  While BioShock tread somewhat new ground by introducing boss characters which could be tackled at the player’s leisure (or not at all), BioShock 2 reduces the Big Daddy to a slightly more common foe, but makes the Big Sister far more dangerous and threatening.  While there’s something to be said for letting the player choose when to fight the boss, the Big Sister poses a serious challenge to the player and usually comes right after a very difficult fight, so the player may be caught off-guard, low on ammo, and in otherwise a less ideal situation.  The tension in these fights is incredible, and the Big Sister really feels like a serious foe, unlike the Big Daddy, whose weaknesses could be easily exploited in the first game.

All of this leads to a very natural ebb and flow to BioShock 2’s levels; the each one starts off quietly so the player can become acclimated, a few enemies and challenges are added to spice things up along the way, and it all comes culminating in a difficult and thrilling boss encounter at the end.  Then, the player goes back to the same train station he or she came in on, and leaves to the next level.  There’s a real feeling of satisfaction in the end, that the player has accomplished something and made progress.  The game moves forward on a macro level, but there is a resolution within each individual level which also goes a long way towards keeping things moving.

To be fair, I don’t want to misrepresent the original BioShock as having bad pacing – it’s still generally quite good in this respect, especially given its slightly more open format.  Still, I feel  the changes made in BioShock 2 are for the better, by far.  Is it more linear in the end?  Absolutely, but for a game which bills itself as a shooter instead of an adventure/RPG, it works out a lot better that way.
In the next article, I’ll discuss some of the major improvements BioShock 2 puts forward in its level design.  Thanks for reading!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Companion characters

It seems as if an RPG just isn't really an RPG without some form of party-based play.  Come to think of it, I can't really recall a single RPG which actually does have an entirely solo campaign, or at least one which doesn't fall into the action-RPG category.  So, what am I to do about that?

Dragon Age's combat is built entirely upon party members, and its conversation system makes it a bit silly to ignore the potential of characters inserting their own opinions into affairs when appropriate.  A while back I made the decision that I needed to add companions to Thirst even if it drastically lengthened its development, and I am very happy that I did so early on, because the decision has brought a world of depth to the experience.

Companions work for Thirst because it's a project based heavily around theme.  While it's not hammered over the player's head, most quests revolve around revenge, seeking a resolution to specific and even life-defining problems, satisfying a desire, etc.  The player's goal is, in part, to bring resolution to those who seek it, to satiate their needs.  Companions allow me to tell personal stories that are heavily involved and invested with the world, with characters that the player will (hopefully) grow to care about over the course of the game.  You just can't do that when the player feels like every NPC is a lore bomb or a quest-giver.  Sometimes you just want to have characters who complement the game by their being.

Another advantage of companions is that I'm able to build the world more effectively with them.  The storyline can intertwine with their own histories and experiences, they can have existing relationships with other characters that in turn draw out new qualities in both, and have the overall benefit of being grounded in the world.  As a designer, I always have to look at the player as an unknown quantity - someone who is experiencing the world for the first time, and has an outsider's perspective.  Writing for characters who are already attached to the world is a very different, and refreshing, change, and lets me consider dimensions of those characters I would never have previously considered.

Below is a video detailing one of the quests on offer in Thirst, specifically, the personal quest of Errol, one of the potential party members the player can pick up based on his or her actions during the early game.  This video doesn't have any narration, and in order to read the text you may have to watch in HD/fullscreen.  Unfortunately, Dragon Age is not the best when it comes to dealing with text dialogue.  It goes without saying that spoilers await, and that everything seen there is still very much "in progress."



Errol is a self-interested person, and somewhat dualistic. On the one hand, he comes across as crude, morbid, and generally offensive and unlikable in most situations; this is how the player first meets him. However, Errol hides a certain passion for self-actualisation; his desire for coin, drink and bloodshed is secondary to his desire to merely be happy, to put his talents to use. Unlike other characters, he isn't a "what you see is what you get" kind of guy - the player has to dedicate time - and tolerance - to figure him out. His personal quest draws this out: we're shown the consequences of his more barbaric side, but also see him behaving in a more reasonable, civil, rational manner.

Of course, Errol, like the other companions, has a secondary purpose aside from providing more side-questing and another sword for the player to wield.  In Thirst, all companions have some sort of tie-in to the main storyline, whether it's a personal connection or a situational one.  Not only do these quests shed more light on the main story, they also have an effect on the ending of the game.  Thirst isn't an epic adventure of good vs. evil, so obviously I'm not talking about "end of the world" scale consequences, but they're significant enough to affect the ending in pretty interesting ways.

If you've stuck with this post so far, thanks for reading.  I admit this is kind of a hurried and random update, but I took the video for my own use and figured I'd might as well post it, along with a breakdown of my approach regarding the companion characters.

Finally, a big thanks go to Rock, Paper, Shotgun for featuring my article over the weekend (I was sick yesterday, so I missed the rush), as well as to everyone who commented and provided their feedback.  I'm a bit flattered that my musings would inspire others to say things more insightful than I'm able to put together myself.  Another thanks goes to both Altug Isigan and James Youngman, who wrote responses on Gamasutra to the same article.  Excellent work from both of them, and definitely made me reconsider my ideas from different perspectives.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Progress report!

Now that I've got the vast majority of content in Thirst, it's time for a progress update on what new things I've accomplished since then.  Screenshots below!

In just a few days I've produced three fairly high-quality building interiors.  I find that as my confidence grows with the level editor I'm finding I'm making more progress and designing more interesting environments.  While I'm still committed to stay in the realms of plausibility (I try to ensure all building interiors reasonably reflect their exteriors, for instance), I find that snapping the grid off at times, adding more random clutter and detail objects, etc. tends to add a lot of life and a more organic feel to scenery than if everything is arranged precisely.

The first new area I created was Erraye's Odds'n'Ends, a (very) small store in the slums dedicated to selling, well, junk.  Erraye as a character is a charismatic person who I tried to tie into the lore of Dragon Age - while my mod is obviously non-canon, establishing it in the "realm" of Thedas makes a lot of sense considering the already strong lore, and it gives characters a lot more history when they stories to tell - or merely hint at, depending on who it is (or your persuasion/cunning skills).


The goal in designing the store was to create a small, cluttered, and vertical space, with boxes stacked on top of one another haphazardly and junk strewn around in an unorganised fashion.  Like all the buildings in the slums, I gave the interior a green tint to keep it feeling dingy and run-down, but the splashes of orange from the torches help to create a bit more warmth that suits the Erraye's personality.  As a person who herself is just a little bit daydreamy and disorganised, who has been through much but still has a good heart, I find her store, small as it is, reflects her well.  I do this with other characters in the mod, but I think it's quite effective in this case.

The second location I built was the Slums Bunkhouse, a sort of communal building for people to stay in relative safety.  The slums district seen in the game represents one of the "nicer" areas, with more open space and vegetation than some.  Under the protection of the Drakes gang, the people enjoy a somewhat more peaceful existence than in other parts of the slums, and the bunkhouse is a good way of communicating that security and community.


The patchwork feel of the place was a goal from the start, and in the end I settled with a barn-like construction that matched the exterior building design fairly well.  It didn't come across quite as ramshackle as I wanted it to, but it still works pretty well in my opinion.  The whole structure feels just slightly precariously balanced, with supports tilted at slightly off angles and boards nailed down over top of each other.  The subtle reds and yellows in the lighting help to emphasise the feel of safety, as do the sunbeams streaming through the cracks in the roof.

The final location is the bottom floor of the Crimson Talons Mercenary Company.  The Crimson Talons aren't your typical "bad guy" mercenaries seen in fantasy games, but rather are a professional organisation run almost like a small private military.  As such, their employees enjoy fairly high standards of living, and the Company itself presents itself in a friendly and accepting manner.  I wanted their building, sturdy and well-decorated, to reflect their professionalism.


The high ceiling in the main foyer did a good job of communicating the mercenaries' high standards, I felt, and the banners, shields, paintings etc. also help reinforce the Talons' history in serving the city of Arceris.  The stairway provides not only function in this case, but also helps divide up the room and draw the eye towards that decoration.

A quick note on lighting: while it's obvious that lighting plays a huge role in the feel of a given level, Dragon Age's editor isn't so easy to work with.  Aside from the lesser-quality lightmapper software that shipped with the consumer version of the Toolset, it tends to handle lights and light properties differently than the main game does, which means that quite a lot of work is required to get interiors looking nice.  I've found that the best approach so far is to add a lot of baked-in lights with slightly varying colours (not just the same few tones over and over), which results in smoother (if not entirely realistic) shadows.  I've had a lot of trouble getting my interior levels looking good in the past using the Toolset, but I think with these new ones I've finally "nailed" it.


On top of that, Dragon Age's engine responds very nicely to contrasting colours.  While this is true of just about any game from an artistic standpoint, in Dragon Age it seems to matter a good deal more, because the core assets themselves aren't the most detailed as far as their textures and whatnot go.  Lighting really helps "fill in the blanks" artistically.  Note in the above image how the subtle use of purple/blue fog contrasts with the orange/red of the torches - there's actually about twenty different lights in that room alone, all dedicated to either the room, characters, or defining shadow colours.  It takes a lot of time and effort, and the bugs in the lightmapper still result in some patchy-looking objects, but I feel the results really speak for themselves in this case.

That bit of back-patting aside, I am pretty happy with how these have turned out so far, and plan to revisit some of my earlier interior levels to give them another pass using the ideas I've picked up since then.

Of course, I've done more than just build levels - a couple new characters have been written (including Erraye as mentioned above), and I've got another side-quest almost up and running, less related to the main story, but still a good example of how choice and consequence works in Thirst.  I'll be sure to go into details in a later update.

Monday, April 4, 2011

"Wait, that's not what happened": A discussion on games and the unreliable narrator


In the wake of the release of BioWare’s latest opus, Dragon Age II, I’ve found myself thinking a little bit about narrative techniques and structures seen in games.  Whereas the majority of games stick to a relatively traditional format of providing the player with the story in a linear, first-person perspective format, BioWare have, for better or worse, seen to break free from that mould in Dragon Age II by offering up both a frame narrative and an unreliable narrator.

Unreliable narrators aren’t anything too new to games, but their use has been fairly limited in the past, and tends to deviate from what we see in film and literature.  Most often, unreliable narrators in games take the form of a protagonist who can’t remember certain plot-critical details, such as in Fallout: New Vegas or Max Payne.  Second most common is a character that intentionally misleads the player in order to provide a “gotcha” moment later on.

It’s very rare to see a traditional unreliable narrator, one who serves as the main storyteller.  BioWare’s take on the unreliable narrator is rather unique in the world of gaming, and BioWare deserve a lot of credit for attempting to tread new ground in this fashion. 
 
The more I think about BioWare’s implementation, however, the more I see it as an unsuccessful experiment – though an experiment that was well worth trying.  In the following article, I’d like to outline why I think so many games have shied away from unreliable narrators in the past, but perhaps more importantly, why the unreliable narrator as a storytelling device is fundamentally in conflict with videogames as a medium.

Interactivity at odds with linearity

Videogames represent a form of storytelling wherein the player is able to, at least in relatively superficial fashion, dictate the course of the story: its pacing, and in some cases, order of events and ending, will change dramatically based on the decisions the player makes.  The best that game developers can do, given real-world development limitations, is try to anticipate what players will think and do, and build a game that responds to that.  Despite any limitations imposed by budget, however, one thing sets gaming apart from any other form of storytelling, and that is the ability to interact with the story in a game at the fundamental level of action (i.e. controller input steering an avatar in electronic space).  Other mediums, like hypertext, do interactivity well, but no other medium does it in a way that feels like the player is truly in control in the same way that gaming is able to.

The unreliable narrator, meanwhile, comes from an opposing world of narrative, one where the story is fixed, metred and well-paced for maximum impact.  The unreliable narrator is an attempt on the storyteller’s part to subvert the audience’s expectations, and provide different insights onto characters and the story.  This can be novel, and sometimes even genius, when employed properly.  Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is a story built around multiple unreliable narrators, for instance, and only by reading the whole story and making some logical leaps is the reader able to gain a clear picture of just what is going on over the course of the story; furthermore, seeing characters from both the inside and out allows the reader to understand them based both on others’ perceptions, and on intention.

Although such forms of storytelling can work excellently in both literature and film, gaming doesn’t just represent a greater challenge, it presents, possibly, an insurmountable one due to the fundamental interactivity required by the medium.  In The Sound and the Fury, the audience is on the outside looking in: there is a distance between the reader and the characters which is enforced as much by their distinctly different personalities as it is by the medium itself.  We can become involved in a book, and we can feel tremendous emotions for the characters involved, but we are rarely “drawn in” by the story in the sense that we feel it is happening to us, that we have control over our destiny.

While the tension in a novel comes from the question “what happens next?”, in a videogame, it comes from the question “will I be able to succeed?”.  When the game suddenly wrests control away from us to tell us “sorry, what you just did didn’t happen”, the player feels alienated because the fantasy of being within the game world has been perforated.  There are many ways to make the player feel like he/she has no say in the course of the game, stemming from both game mechanics and narrative elements, and resorting to unreliable narration is perhaps one of the ultimate ways of denying the player authorship over his or her own fate.

 Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me

The introduction of Dragon Age II is a prime example of this: the player starts out in control of a nigh-unstoppable character, able to kill dozens of foes with ease.  Halfway into this sequence, a character interrupts the gameplay and calls the version the player has just played “bullshit.”  Immediately after, the player is shunted into “the real thing”… and proceeds to witness the same events all over again, with minor variations.

Now, this sequence has some upsides.  It’s a great tutorial and abilitease, since it gives the player a hint at the sorts of powers they’ll be able to attain later in the game, it teaches the player the combat fundamentals in a completely non-threatening environment, and it immediately brings the player into the game by allowing them to do some serious damage to enemies right from the beginning.  Functionally, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with what BioWare did here.  It’s both novel and effective.  To their credit, BioWare really do nail it, and don’t go overboard during the remainder of the game.

And yet despite the success here, it’s very easy to look at this with a cynical eye, thinking “how would this fare in the hands of a developer with less time or resources than BioWare?”  Maybe it’s just me being jaded, but I can easily see a game where an unreliable narrator is used not so much for narrative impact, but as an excuse to draw out the same small amount of content over and over.  We’ve all played games that feel like they’re a slog, have filler, etc., and resorting to the storytelling BioWare has attempted almost invites extensive “copy and paste” design.

A deeper problem also rears its head here, however.  BioWare seem to have a knack for these sorts of “fooled me once” devices, and in fact, many of the games which we tend to praise for their excellent stories rely on the same “trick plots”.  The problem with a trick plot, however, is that as soon as it’s been done, it can rarely be done again without coming off as derivative, or worse, predictable and lazy.  Knights of the Old Republic?  Jade Empire?  Mass Effect?  Braid?  BioShock?  Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time?  As good as they are to experience the first time, their narratives all rely on gimmicks, and in my mind, a story that relies on a gimmick in order to be compelling isn’t one that necessarily deserves praise.  How many times can we use before such narrative tricks become tiresome, predictable, and even annoying?  As entertaining and effective as these stories are in the short term, we can’t rely on those gimmicks as a justification for the integrity of gaming as storytelling forever.

Conclusion

The more I see games attempting to integrate unreliable narrators into their stories, the more I see games trying to be something they aren’t.  The Prince in The Sands of Time sums it up perfectly whenever he meets his untimely end: “no, that’s not right, let me tell it again.”  When you try to put together form of storytelling that depends upon linearity, with a medium whose defining trait is interactivity, you’re going to run into problems.  The fact that the role of Varrick in Dragon Age II is more or less resigned to providing vague comments on the story shortly into the game, suggests to me that BioWare ran into this problem themselves.  When the player is given choice, or at least the illusion of it, it’s very hard to have a narrator who is able to deceive the player: at best, you’re telling the player that those choices he or she made didn’t actually matter.