Home > gameplay, rpg > Choose your own adventure

Choose your own adventure

I’m really looking forward to picking up Mass Effect 3 on the weekend (fashionably late, I know), saving earth, getting to know crew members new and old, and generally soaking up every detail of the universe.

In anticipation (and also as a procrastination technique while I’m ostensibly studying) I’ve been thinking that in amongst all the horror and shameful antics of the Jennifer Hepler backlash fiasco*, the interesting piece of news about the multiple game ‘modes’ in ME3 went largely undiscussed. Regardless of whether you intend to play either the ‘story only’ or ‘action only’ version of ME3 (I do not), its unarguably an intriguing idea from Bioware. Personally, I feel that both the gameplay and the story of the Mass Effect series are brilliant and I wouldn’t miss a minute of either, but the concept is worth investigating, and I think its something I’d be interested to see other developers experiment with.

Mass Effect 3

Femshep, seen here advancing the story.

Remember, of course, that the fact that the option is there in no way detracts from your game experience if you choose not to take it (we’ll have no fanboy vitriol about people who only want to play the story, or intellectual sneering at those who prefer action here, thank you). Thats the best part of this approach of allowing people to choose the option – there’s no ‘dumbing down’ of the core experience to make it accessible to those who don’t like complex mechanics, nor are they ditching the quality story of the universe to appeal to a wider range of action focused gamers. Bioware is offering a choice of experience, and you get to pick the one that suits you best.

Now, these are some polarising choices, I’ll grant you, but what if other developers started thinking the same way and made the overall experience of their games available in different ways? What if I could get say, the story and character building of Final Fantasy X, without thirty interminable hours of ‘random encounters’ with the same three monsters every time I walk ten feet through the world?

Alternatively, what if I could have the story experience of Heavy Rain without losing my favourite characters to these awful one-hundred-button-combination quicktime events?

Off the top of my head, I can’t really think of any games in which I’d happily sacrifice the story elements for more of the action, but thats probably because I tend to play more RPG’s than anything else these days, and is purely a personal preference – I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who’d do the reverse.

Of course, this doesn’t need to be limited to the story or action choice that Mass Effect 3 offers. My last post about Amnesia got me thinking about the possibility of value in ‘less scary’ versions of the game, easily achieved by giving the player character a small amount of power to wield. Would it still be a worthwhile experience if before you started, you could either select to play the original version, or a game mode with slightly more monsters, but also some basic, Penumbra style combat? What if you could collect scarce, flimsy weapons by exploring, and have the ability to fight back against some of the monsters? Granted, you’re making it a totally different game by doing that, but does that make it valueless?

In this case (somewhere in Sweden, Thomas Grip has felt a disturbance in the force) you’d need to really restrict the number of weapons in the game so it retained the ‘survival horror’ feel, and probably also make it risky by forcing the player to use precious lamp oil and tinderboxes to explore the darkest areas where a weapon might be found, but I think it would be an interesting experiment.

From a pure business case point of view, Frictional might opt for this version out of a desire to make the game appeal to a wider audience (and therefore rake in cash to fund more of their awesome games) without wanting to dilute what they feel is the ‘true’ experience they set out to create. Looking at it from the player’s perspective, it would allow more people to share in an amazing experience, even if they don’t like being scared out of their wits for hours at a time.

I really only raise this to debate the issue – I’m not suggesting every game could (or should) do this, or even that its a good idea in the case of Amnesia. There are however, a number of series that over time have alienated their core fanbase by shooting for wider appeal, and I think this provides a reasonable answer to the question ‘how can we convince a wider range of people to buy our series, without pissing off the current fans?’

Given that we know units sold will (almost) always win a fight against preserving the integrity of an existing IP, I think its an option worth exploring further.

Who’s with me?

*Which I won’t dignify by linking to – as a community, we should be ashamed of ourselves. Also, ‘backlash fiasco’ is yet another great name for a band.

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  1. Liam Brokas
    March 9, 2012 at 11:12 pm

    Off Topic:
    As sad as it is, the Mass Effect series ended at 2 for me.
    I despise EA and their insistence on Origin. I despise their Day One DLC which is an overtly obvious cash grab and exploiting their customers, and their draconian DRM practices (which don’t and have never worked), and I cannot stand their price gouging.
    I won’t deny they publish great games, but I cannot abide their business practices at all. I won’t buy ME3 at all.
    On Topic:
    I am of the opinion that games are meant to be played. I’m not going to pay $80-$120 for a CGI movie with little to no input from me. That’s not a game, that’s a waste of time AND money, and for someone like me with little disposable income, I want something that is going to be worth my time and money.
    I’m not saying the option shouldn’t be available, what I am saying is that I don’t think they should be called ‘games’ nor do I think they should cost anywhere near the same as full price titles.

  2. March 9, 2012 at 11:23 pm

    Ah – I’m avoiding 2 out of 3 of those issues by playing on 360, and I’ll admit I hadn’t really considered the cost element either (mostly because I myself wouldn’t play a story only version).

    I’m with you that games are meant to be played – I’d be interested to see in a year or so what the stats are on whether the people that activated the ‘story mode’ had already played through the game (I could potentially see myself reliving the story over 80 minutes – presuming its good – at a later stage, as I’m unlikely to have the 30 hours required to re-do the whole game).

    I don’t think there’d be enough people who do go for the story only version to make it a feasible choice to keep developing (my points about FFX and Heavy Rain were not to make the story mode just as a movie, but just to give me the option of playing without those gameplay elements that, for me, ruined both games) but I do think if they have any kind of moderate success, it might encourage more people to experiment with it.

    I thought the same thing about Dark Souls – i know one of the major lures of it was its soul-crushing difficulty (which made progress more satisfying) but I had a few friends who wouldn’t touch it for that same reason. It would have been interesting to me to at least be able to share what was all around a brilliant game experience with them if they’d been able to opt-in to some kind of ‘sissy’ mode, and play through an easier version of it.

    I’m not 100% convinced that the idea sits well with me, but I think it deserves the debate.

  3. March 9, 2012 at 11:33 pm

    Also, I’m not sure how I feel about DLC in general (although I do know how I feel about day 1 dlc, and its something less than ecstatic) – I’ve not bought a lot of it in the past, and have had mixed feelings about the ones that I have.

    It does feel cash-grabby, although there are definitely games that after a few months, I’d happily throw down another $10 to expand the experience. I’m not convinced yet that it hurts the launch quality of the games – the first time I play a game that feels thin or unfinished and I get the impression they’ve just developed a full game and then removed 30% of it to sell later for more money, I’ll probably have a backlash against the whole movement.

    In the scheme of things, as long as I can happily play the game I paid for without being reminded that I should be buying DLC (the way that Dragon Age: Origins slapped you in the face with quests and then said ‘buy the DLC to continue was a disgrace), I’d prefer it to microtransactions. Not that it should be a one or the other choice, but given how lucrative a market games are now, I suspect that sadly, in a lot of cases it is.

  4. Liam Brokas
    March 10, 2012 at 12:23 am

    Yeah, DA:O was terrible with that, but that strikes me as business as usual for EA. It really gave the impression that they cut a lot of content purely to get people to pay more money for it. I wish we could go back to the days of expansion packs, rather than DLC. At least you got added content for your money, rather than content that quite frankly should have been included in the game from the start. Not to mention the argument that games nowadays are not even owned by gamers anymore, just rented from the publishers (http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2012/02/01/thought-do-we-own-our-steam-games/) and thus the publishers can do whatever they like.

  5. March 10, 2012 at 5:17 am

    Regarding the post, it makes sense, but my initial reaction is that for the more “experimental” games (like Amnesia and Dark Souls), if they had more “mainstream” options, I feel like people would just focus on the mainstream versions. People might have seen Amnesia as just a scary game with a really scary difficulty level, and it would not have had such an impact or been so successful. Dark Souls would just be a cool action RPG with a really hard difficulty setting. It probably would’ve made more money, but again, people would just focus on the mainstream version and I think the more experimental aspects would by large go ignored.
    And the other issue is the resources of indie developers, most them simply wouldn’t be able to essentially develop multiple games in one. It’s definitely something I could see the bigger studios doing, though. I haven’t played any of the Mass Effect games, but I’m planning on doing so at the end of this semester (my girlfriend is a huge fan), and the idea of a story-focused mode is pretty appealing to me. Thirty hours for one game is pushing it for me, (not to say that I wouldn’t want to put in that time, but I really shouldn’t) so having the option to have a more concise experience which focuses on what I care about sounds great.
    But again, it’s only something I could see working for AAA games. Although games like Medal Gear Solid 3 wouldn’t have been nearly as good if you could skip past all the stealth parts. I was terrible at that game at first, and I probably would’ve taken the option to skip parts, but that would’ve taken a lot away from the experience.

    So basically, I think from the developers viewpoint, you have to stick to your guns. If you’re an indie team trying to do something different, I think it’s important to really do something different and thrust it at your audience, and make no concessions to gain wider appeal. If you’re Bioware and you’re focused on creating a great story/world in an RPG setting, then yeah it makes sense to make options so that more people can experience that world the way they want.

    I’ve read that games like Mass Effect pretty much need day 1 dlc in order for producers to not have to lay off their entire staffs the day after release. Not sure how true that is, but I think that illustrates how much the AAA world is a business. EA obviously just wants to make money. They don’t care about making compelling and deep games, they care about producing games with a wide consumer appeal so they can make a large profit (still talking about EA, not necessarily Bioware, and I’m being cynical). So while it’s good if the intent behind day 1 dlc is to be able to keep employees, it shows that the focus is on the business side, with games as a mere product. Not that that’s necessarily such an awful thing, I’ll be going into some facet of this industry soon as someone who needs to make a living off it, so it’s nice if it’s run well. But as a gamer, I think it’s important to understand that the big companies now are more interested in your money than they are in providing a great experience. That’s why I tend to stick to indies and old school games these days, though I’ll admit that a big part of that is because of time and money constraints.

    Whew, sorry for always writing such long winded posts!

    • March 10, 2012 at 12:23 pm

      “They don’t care about making compelling and deep games, they care about producing games with a wide consumer appeal so they can make a large profit ”

      Bad games do not sell nearly as well as good games (in most cases). Even if it is from a pure business perspective, EA is very interested in delivering good games, even if it is for totally evil financial reasons, I’m sorry, but I found this particular statement to be pretty silly.

      You do make some other valid points though (in fact STEALING something I planned on saying). The main problem with something like Amnesia would be resources. I don’t think most indie games or smaller budget games can really afford to do something like this, though it is an intriguing idea.

      To OP:

      I like some of your ideas for this a lot. I think the best ones involve games with disparate elements like Mass Effect. The idea of being able to skip battles in JRPGs is an especially good one. I found FFXII’s combat to be really boring, but I was still interested in the story and world, I probably would have got through it if I could skip battles.

      The whining about ME3’s modes amuses me because options like this have existed for a long time in video games, just a bit more simple and widespread. Difficulty levels? The ability to skip cutscenes? Why aren’t people whining about the fact that I could play through Halo on easy right now just to watch the cutscenes if I really wanted to?

      • Liam Brokas
        March 10, 2012 at 4:54 pm

        Because at least in Halo, you still had to sit down and play the game. You still had to input and make your way from cutscene to cutscene, engaging in easy combat from point to point. You still push buttons and move sticks, or click the mouse. Your input is required. This is what makes a game a game. You have some sort of interactivity across all aspects of the medium, from movement, to combat, to mop-up. Skipping these isn’t possible, because otherwise you’d never move on. You have to play the game to continue. The idea of ‘Press X to skip cutscene’ is not the same as ‘Press X to skip 90% of this game’.
        Dear Esther is possibly the closest to this argument so far. It’s an interactive story that requires you to hold down the move key and every so often an audio cue is triggered. It’s not a game. Is it still a valid medium? Sure, but it has no gameplay and could easily have been told as an extended cutscene for the same effect, and probably should have been.
        I think including something like this could work, but on an unlock system, like a New Game+. You HAVE to play the game the way it was intended to be played, so you can experience the world that was created, and participate in it as the developers envisioned. Then, once the credits roll, you have the option of sitting down another day and saying ‘I really liked the story in that game, and the cutscenes were awesome, but I don’t feel like sitting down and playing it. Maybe I’ll just put ‘Cinematic Adventure’ mode on and watch for 90 minutes. The game could have a demo mode built in, where a pre-rendered run is recorded of the gameplay sections from a cinematic perspective between cutscenes, and this would serve as filler between the points. But I don’t believe it should be accessible until you’ve played the game yourself, and experienced it first hand.

      • March 10, 2012 at 7:19 pm

        “Bad games do not sell nearly as well as good games (in most cases). Even if it is from a pure business perspective, EA is very interested in delivering good games, even if it is for totally evil financial reasons, I’m sorry, but I found this particular statement to be pretty silly.”

        Heh, yeah that’s fair.. I was definitely channeling my teenage-Thoreau-reading self. But the point is that it IS a business, and companies like EA make good games because good games sell, not because they have a burning desire to make good games for you. And I’m not sure “good” is the best term. Would you call Modern Warfare 4 a truly good game? Because that’s the type of game that’s making the most money. But yeah.. I admit it was pretty pointless to bring up here.

  6. March 10, 2012 at 5:31 pm

    Look, I love video games, for the most part, I would never dream of using any sort of “cinematic adventure” mode over playing the actual game.

    But what in the world is wrong with giving people the option? If someone wants to spend so much money on a barely interactive movie, I say give them that option.

    Many gamers, or myself anyway, have longed for storytelling to evolve to and past the level of other entertainment mediums. And guess what? We are getting there, in fact as I play ME3, from a storytelling standpoint it is an amazing accomplishment and on the level of even the most epic trilogies of all time.

    As the storytelling of games evolves, more people will want to experience these stories who just might not enjoy the video games for one reason or another. What is the point of cutting them off? And from a business standpoint, what is the point of not finding a way to earn their money too?

    As long as it is all done like it is in ME3, where it does not affect me, the gamer, I say go for it. I’m not going to cut someone off from a story they could enjoy because of my own selfishness at preferring they try playing the game.

  7. March 10, 2012 at 6:15 pm

    @tylersnell – fair point regarding Amnesia and Dark Souls – I think if they launched day 1 with a less scary/less difficult option on the menus, the majority of people would have taken it. There’d still be a badge of honour in having completed what would effectively be reduced to ‘hardcore mode’, but it wouldn’t be the core experience, and the games wouldn’t have been the same for it. Or at least, the experience had by the vast majority of gamers wouldn’t be the same for it.

    Which makes me think of something else, on that topic – Fallout: New Vegas. I played through it in hardcore mode, and to be honest, wouldn’t really consider playing it any other way now. (There was actually news of a ‘true hardcore’ mod made by one of the devs that took it to another level entirely, and I really wanted to give that a go – http://au.pc.gamespy.com/pc/fallout-new-vegas/1218427p1.html). Would New Vegas have been a better game if Hardcore mode wasn’t an option, and that was just how the game was?

    Maybe so, certainly in my opinion. But again, one of the things I most enjoyed about that experience was swapping wasteland stories with my friends who were playing through at the same time, comparing builds etc. I don’t think that would have happened if it only came in the hardcore flavour, I think those particular guys would have skipped the game entirely.

    @westen – I wasn’t so much advocating skipping all the battles in FF – a big part of that for me is pitting your party against bosses in massive battles that are equal parts strategy and attrition, I just didn’t want to do the part where you get to ‘free explore’ (so awesome most games) because every 10 seconds there’d be a battle loading sequence, then the same 5 minute turn-based battle against the same 3 enemy types (for minimal reward) and then 10 seconds of exploration before the same thing happened again. That part is what I’d want to skip, although I’ll admit we’re never likely to see that kind of ‘pick and mix’ option in a game’s start menu, or likely to be able to drop game sections at that level of granularity.

    On EA and their motivations for game creation – the individuals making the games probably are invested very much in what they do, and in making the best possible game they can, in the circumstances that they have, but I’m sure at the publishing level, there would be layers of management responsible for distribution, deadlines, making business cases for sequels etc that don’t have that same level of investment in the quality of the finished product, as much as its marketability. That was partially what motivated my thinking on game modes being an option I’d like to see experimented with – I know a lot of games are created and put into the world as part of a specific business plan (like the yearly iterations of Madden NFL, FIFA and pretty much every other sports game franchise) as much as they are about adding something amazing to the gaming community (like, say, Minecraft).

    The resource scenario for games like Amnesia and other indie games is a good one – I can appreciate they’re not going to have spare dollars/hours to be putting into adding multiple experiences beyond what they see as the core of their game vision. I think you could make a case (notwithstanding the fact that I argued the opposite line in my original post) that indie games are less likely to need to go down this route, as they’re probably not the ones taking risks with their established IP in order to make this year’s numbers good enough to get their sweet sweet christmas bonus.

    @liam – for us, sure – that level of input is what we love about the games we play, and why we’re not on some guy’s movie blog right now having a different discussion – but where’s the line between game and not-game? Heavy Rain was pretty close to the ‘input for inputs sake’ end of the spectrum – the action there was much more ‘act out the scene so you can move to the next scene’ rather than ‘here’s a map, some objectives and some enemies – go to town’ as is the case with the best of the modern games.

    Every fight was a frustratingly long quicktime events, usually with massive and irreversible consequences for failure, but they were arguably the closest parts of the experience to a ‘game’ – it might have been a better (if out of character) experience if they were just third person action sequences with normal controls in instead, but equally, it would have been a better experience if they’d just been cutscenes. I definitely wouldn’t like to see all games reduced to this kind of ‘interactive cinema’, but I definitely think it was a worthwhile experiment.

  8. March 11, 2012 at 2:32 am

    Interesting post. I’m not the kind of person who feels alienated simply because developers try to broaden their base using a variety of difficulties. However, when developers do this, it can result in design decisions which frequently remove the game from the story, which is sad, in my opinion, because a well-designed game can not only be a lot of fun, but add to a great story.

  9. March 11, 2012 at 5:17 am

    Generally responding to most of the discussion:

    I think what it all comes down to is good game design. A lot of people seem to see story and gameplay as separate entities, but a well designed game seamlessly incorporates the two. Though I don’t think it had The Best storytelling, Bioshock is a good example of that. It’s hard to discern what is the “story” half and what it is the “game” half. They work pretty seamlessly together. And with Dear Esther, if you added in more traditional “gameplay”, or alternatively just watched it as cutscenes, the experience wouldn’t have nearly as much of an impact. In good game storytelling, the story should be an integral part of the gameplay, and vice versa, not something you can pick and choose, or something that you would even want to. @beyondmarathon, what you say about FFX’s tedious random encounters, to me that sounds more like a design flaw due to a failure to move on past traditional mechanics. I’ve always much preferred the Chrono Trigger style encounters, where the enemies are on the map and you only fight them if you touch them. That way if you don’t want to fight them, you can attempt to run past them. That makes it so much more interesting and interactive, and adds a lot of tension to the game. Instead of randomly throwing battles at you, the way encounters are, well, encountered, becomes a seamless part of the game experience. (Not trying to trash Final Fantasy, I’m just talking about that particular design element.)

    Of course (semi-)open world RPGs like Fallout and ME3 are an exception; those games are all about making choices, and choosing your experience. If you want to have an experience that focuses more on certain aspects, it makes perfect sense for these games to allow it. In ME3 story mode, I’d presume that the gameplay is still an integral aspect, but just with less of an emphasis. That is, if it’s done well.

    Also I just thought of Skyrim: I think it’s a great example of giving you these choices entirely within the game world. You don’t have to pick difficulty settings in Skyrim, because it’s up to you if you want to go fight tough battles. If you want to focus on roleplaying and story, you simply don’t go off looking for big things to fight. But of course that’s definitely an outlier, because building a world big enough for that to work in takes a really long time and a ton of resources.

  1. March 15, 2012 at 9:39 pm

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