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As video games progress as an entertainment medium, they are becoming increasingly complicated. While there is still room for simple mechanic-driven games, there has been a noticeable trend in the industry towards expanding the narrative and emotional scope of video games. Many studios now use phrases like evolving narrative, dynamic choices, moral consequence and realistic character interactions as key pillars of their marketing campaigns.
But these aren't just empty marketing catchphrases; many games actually follow through with these promises, offering experiences that delight on both an emotional and narrative level. However, video games are still experiences driven by interactivity, and even the most compelling narratives must function within the confines of strictly defined gameplay systems.
In this article, we'll look at some of the various systems developers have used to allow player agency to affect their narratives, from various morality systems to more simple solutions. While most of these systems go beyond the scope of small team game development, understanding the pros and cons of their designs, and the trade-offs they make between simplicity and scope, can be useful to development at any scale.
Good vs Evil: The Infamous Series
At first glance, the Infamous games look like your typical fantasy open world fare: you are given control of a super-powered character and have an entire city to play around in. Unlike many open world games, however, the Infamous series aims to differentiate itself by presenting the player with a moral choice. Every game in the series shares the same central narrative theme: if you had superpowers, would you use them for good or for evil?
This karmic decision between good and evil lies at the center of the Infamous experience, with an ever-present good-vs-evil (hero-vs-infamous) slider representing a player's karmic alignment. Throughout each playthrough, the player is constantly presented with decisions which are explicitly stated by the game as being considered either good or evil, with each resulting in a slight shift toward either hero status or infamous status, respectively.
However, this system only gives the illusion of choice; since the best and most interesting abilities can only be unlocked by becoming extremely good or extremely evil, it is in the player's best interest to pick an alignment at the beginning and stick with it until the end.
This type of purely binary system comes with one very clear advantage: each Infamous game is ostensibly two entirely separate experiences. With a modified story and set of powers, both the narrative and the gameplay are altered depending on the player's choice of morality. This encourages and almost demands multiple playthroughs, increasing the value of the game enormously. Even more importantly, this type of system allows developers to more easily create entirely distinct good and evil experiences.
Because players are committed to one path, there is less variation in possible player decisions, meaning drastically different content can be created for the two distinct play styles. Doing this would not be possible in a system with more varied player choices, due to the sheer volume of content creation required to cater to every possible scenario.
Unfortunately, this type of system also comes with a significant disadvantage: the player has virtually no impact on the story beyond their initial decision to be good or evil. Rather than presenting an evolving narrative with high player agency, this type of system is more akin to choosing which one of two separate video games to play. Though they are interesting when played side by side due their distinctiveness, each individual playthrough feels like a linear experience, devoid of any semblance of dynamic narrative or role playing. Depending on the type of game you wish to make, this may or may not be a deal breaker.
Good and Evil: The Mass Effect Series
The morality system used in the Mass Effect series is conceptually very similar to the one found in the Infamous games. Players are presented with opportunities to take both good and evil actions, and, depending on what choices they make, their character becomes slightly more good or evil.
The key difference is that these alignments, known as paragon and renegade, are measured separately on two independent scales, with the player gaining paragon points for good actions and renegade points for evil ones. This means that, unlike in the Infamous games, being good and evil are not mutually exclusive, with points towards renegade not removing points towards paragon and vice-versa.
Though a seemingly small change, this modification completely alters the core functioning of the experience. Though it is not possible to max out both the paragon and renegade bars, bonuses are tiered and mostly story-based, meaning that being purely good or evil is not necessarily better than having a more rounded moral disposition. Success in gameplay is therefore no longer tied to rigidly following a specific alignment, which truly opens up the decision making process.
With this more flexible system, players are given the freedom to make decisions based on their narrative implications, and this offers many benefits to the experience. Chief among these is the ability for the player to properly role-play and have an effect on the game's story in a way that feels organic. Because paragon and renegade points are measured independently, it becomes possible for a player to make some story-based decisions that are counter to their favored alignment, without the fear of ruining their chances for specific endings or bonuses based on morality.
Though players are still likely to primarily follow one karmic path, the game's narrative is still made more engrossing, as players can evaluate the moral and narrative implications of each choice independently of the others. This is in stark contrast to the illusion of choice they have in Infamous's system, in which the player simply goes along with their initial decision even if they disagree with the outcome it presents.
However, this system is not perfect, and comes with one major shortcoming: pulling it off requires the creation of an enormous amount of content. Since players can not be expected to follow one of two specific series of decisions, the game must be able to create convincing scenarios for a wide range of possible story states.
It gets even harder: these various scenarios must link together into one cohesive narrative, to avoid the game feeling disjointed or its characters unrealistic. However, the developers must exercise caution, because if too little varied content is created and too many decisions link back to the same scenarios, this system can leave decisions feeling inconsequential.
Although it is difficult to pull off, this system is truly effective in creating an open narrative while still giving players the ability to clearly chose between good and evil, a thematic element that many gamers enjoy.
Approval System: Dragon Age: Origins
This system, seen in Dragon Age: Origins, is interesting to look at because of how different it is from the more common karma systems seen in most games. Rather than measure the "righteousness" or "evilness" of your character, the approval system focuses entirely on the opinions your party members hold of you. There is no good-vs-evil slider, just independent approval ratings for each character in your party. These ratings can go from -100 to +100, expressing the character's level of dislike or admiration for the player respectively.
Approval ratings are important as they come with tangible gameplay bonuses and consequences: a high approval rating can mean an increase in stats for the party member, and when an approval rating reaches -100 there is a risk of the character no longer accepting your leadership and defecting from the party entirely. Perhaps even more significantly, approval ratings also have important narrative consequences: new dialogue options and even the chance for romance can result from high approval.
This system is particularly interesting because it allows players to distance themselves from choosing to play as a good or evil character, and instead opens up decision making to be more about individual characters' personalities, creating a more human and realistic approach to player choice. When faced with difficult scenarios, the player is encouraged to act according to the values of those surrounding them rather than some isolated moral predisposition they may have. This more closely emulates real human interaction, and the emotional impact of these decisions is thus greatly increased.
In addition, this system also greatly enriches the emotional significance of romantic relationships in the game. Since romance can only be achieved with a high enough approval rating, players must often make choices they don't agree with or even sometimes disappoint their most compatible party members in order to woo their desired lover. This is incredibly interesting from a story telling standpoint, and adds even more complexity to the role playing in the game.
The approval system doesn't have very many flaws; it is an extremely effective design for a gameplay system revolving around player choice and NPC approval. However, it is a very specific system that can't really be used outside of that gameplay style. In a game without party members, or a game more focused on the individual personality of the main character, this type of system would be impossible to properly implement.
Although it may not be easily adapted into a personal project, the approval system is interesting to look at, as it provides a great example of how a rigid gameplay system can be used to create an experience with a dynamic narrative and emotional depth.
The Choice: Various
Here we have the choice, a very clever system implemented in a range of games. This system, if you can even call it that, is defined by a single decision making point that divides the rest of the game's narrative. In the case of most games employing the choice, this decision comes near or right at the end of the game, and offers the player a way to drastically alter the story's ending.
These types of decisions typically have extreme narrative significance—for example, saving or destroying the world, or killing off main characters. However, on a conceptual level, there is no reason these choices could not be more subtle.
The reason this technique is so clever lies in how incredibly lightweight it is, both from a design and implementation standpoint. Provided you place your narrative-altering decision right at the end of the game, very little additional content needs to be created to offer even a multitude of different endings. People tend to remember the end and beginning of things much better than they do the middle, and this means that even offering a single decision near the end of the experience can leave the player with a significant sense of involvement in the story.
Additionally, since so little content needs to be created, it is entirely reasonable to have these types of decisions lead to wildly different outcomes. This provides the ability to create sweeping narrative changes that can elicit strong emotional reactions in players—something that is much more difficult to do with choices that have a smaller narrative impact.
Unfortunately, this ease of implementation does come with some predictable drawbacks. Though it can trick players into leaving a game with the feeling that they affected the plot, their actual involvement in the story or on their character's development on a moment to moment basis is non-existent. This means that role playing isn't possible, and gameplay can't be affected by player choices, unlike traditional morality systems.
In fact, this technique doesn't even perform remotely the same type of function as the more complex systems we looked at earlier. However, in the right type of game, something simple like this can be hugely effective and even sometimes preferable to a more complicated solution. This is especially true for games made with a low budget and small teams, where creation of the content required to support other types of systems is often impossible.
Emotional and narrative depth are quickly becoming important facets of many different genres of video games. The systems we've looked at are only a few of the ways developers have tackled the issue of combining narrative freedom with traditionally rigid gameplay mechanics. None of these systems are perfect for every game, but understanding their core functioning and design philosophies should prove to be helpful if and when you decide to tackle this challenge in a game of your own.