Wednesday 19 May 2010

Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice

A few weeks back I picked up the complete Rockstar bundle from Steam; I’d had half an eye on Episodes From Liberty City anyway, and when they bundled in everything else ever for a few more quid I could hardly say no (“Zoso succumbs to Steam bundle sale shocker!”). With Europe conquered in Napoleon: Total War, I moved on to EFLC, starting chronologically with The Lost And Damned.

I’ve previously blogged about how the Grand Theft Auto games are “free-form but structured“; though they’re “open world”, allowing you to wander around the city nabbing nice looking cars, buying peanuts and poisoning pigeons in the park, there’s also the option of a generally linear plot moving you through the game. Within that plot you play a very fixed character; talking about story and narrative on the Van Hemlock podcast I mentioned that Bioware had discussed Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2 in terms of first-person and third-person (in connection with the different romance options in the two games):

“Here’s how the games are different: Dragon Age is a first person narrative, where you’re taking on an origin and a role, and you are that character at a fundamental level. It’s fundamentally about defining your character, including those kinds of concepts. In Mass Effect it’s more a third-person narrative, where you have a pre-defined character who is who he is, or she is. But it’s not a wide-open choice matrix. It’s more choice on a tactical level with a pre-defined character. So they’re different types of narratives, and that’s intentional.”

As per that quote, the choices in Mass Effect 2 aren’t wide open, it often boils down to “Good Shepard” or “Bad Shepard” (or maybe “Ambivalent Shepard”, or in Jon’s case “Generally Good But If You Will Insist On Standing In Front Of That Plate Glass Window I’m Going To Have To Kick You Through It Because It’s Going To Look Awesome Shepard”), but they’re choices nonetheless, principally through dialogue trees. There was some fairly vigorous debate about whether Mass Effect 2 is an RPG at all, what with some elements being either “streamlined” or “dumbed down” depending on your point of view (“No inventory management? You can’t have an RPG without inventory management!”), for me the choices you can make are one of the key aspects of an RPG.

GTAIV doesn’t have dialogue trees. Sometimes you have a choice of different contacts to visit for different missions, very occasionally you can decide if someone lives or dies at the end of a mission (though I don’t think the result massively affect the overall plot either way), but the story is told through cutscenes where you watch “yourself” with no direct control. It simplifies the structure of the game greatly, essentially into a film script where the player takes over for the gunfights and car chases instead of having to plot a flowchart from Dimension Z covering all the possibilities. That’s a gross oversimplification, a film script being tricky enough, and ignoring the massive effort that goes into making Liberty City a living, breathing environment down to the jingles on the radio stations, but in purely story terms it’s fairly linear. In the original GTAIII “you” were a nameless mute, more of a cipher for the player, but subsequent instalments have named, voiced lead characters. When it works, it’s like a good film (or if not exactly a good film, at least a fun one). It’s important that you identify with, or at least care about, the lead character, though, what with it being “you” and all, and that’s where I’m struggling with The Lost And Damned. You play Johnny, Vice President of the titular Lost Motorcycle Club, and so far Johnny appears to be a charmless tossbag whose primary redeeming feature is that he’s not quite as much of a tossbag as the rest of the gang. Obviously none of the protagonists of the GTA series have been particularly nice, and if you’ve played through GTAIII, Vice City, San Andreas and GTAIV then as well as nicking cars by the container-ship load you’ll have killed more people than epidemic typhus, pulled bank and casino heists, run drugs and possibly (with the right melee weapon selection) beaten people to death with a large purple dildo. It’s not a moral thing, then, but somehow the previous games made me care for the lead characters, whereas the cutscenes in The Lost And Damned so far have mostly consisted of irritating bickering, so though the underlying gameplay is just as good, I’m not really feeling the urge to play through it. I think I might start The Ballad Of Gay Tony instead, reviews suggest it’s a bit more fun.

The difference between the primary way GTAIV and Mass Effect 2 tell stories, cutscenes vs player conversation choices, made me wonder how involving Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic will be compared to existing quest-based MMOGs. It’s quite possible to treat GTA’s cutscenes with the deference and respect typically shown to MMO quest text: someone double crossed someone, blah blah blah, whatever, hit space to skip, look at the HUD to find out what you’re supposed to be doing. By the same token it doesn’t take a great leap to imagine GTA-style cutscenes in place of a block of MMOG quest text (EQ2 already has voice for some (all?) questgivers, City of Villains actually introduced a few cutscenes, albeit in-mission rather than for the briefing); you run up to a mine foreman, he paces up and down explaining his kobold infestation problems, asks if you’ll help, your character nods (or shakes their head and performs the universal mime for “I’m sorry, but my quest log is full”). The Old Republic, with conversation choices, poses interesting issues in a MMOG context; logistically, as Melmoth pondered a while back, and in your identification with your character. I can’t think of a current MMOG where the NPCs really matter, you define yourself in terms of player interaction, whether in a roleplaying sense or just your function in a group, by accomplishments; maybe you’re a member of one in-game faction as opposed to another (Aldor or Scryer in WoW, Silver Flame or Emerald Claw in DDO) but except in very rare cases the primary deciding factor is who gives out the phattest lewts, not which most closely aligns to your beliefs. Age of Conan had a bit of a crack with the single player night time version of Tortage, but that was a fairly short linear segment with minor variations depending on your class. In The Old Republic it looks like you’ll be picking convesation options throughout, and with players as well as NPCs being voiced “you” will be saying the lines; if done with normal Bioware high quality it should make you feel like you’re more involved in the world than Random Player #572 pitching up in front of an NPC who gives the same old “kill ten kobolds” speech, but you’ll also be constrained to the lines that Bioware have written and recorded, which might not quite align with the way you see yourself.

Even if it does prove successful I’m not sure too many other studios have Bioware’s resources to write and record eighty kersquillion lines of dialogue, so I can’t foresee a rash of voice-heavy conversation-choice MMOGs, unless speech synthesis technology advances to the point that we can do away with these puny hu-mans for recording. Or maybe there’ll just be a rash of games set in The Year 2000

“Can’t we just talk to the humans? With a little understanding we could make things better. Can’t we just talk to the humans and work together now?”
“No. Because they are dead. Binary solo!

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