By Adam Jarvis
[Editor’s note: Welcome to Adam Jarvis, one of our new Staff Writers. His debut column takes a look at the progression of choice in video games.]
In the early stages of the gaming industry, meaningful decisions affecting narrative were nonexistent. Most games, start to finish, were a straight line with little deviation. There would be the occasional choice between two paths that led to the same spot or a nail biting decision on what sequence to press some buttons, but nothing that ever affected the story you were living.
As the industry and technology has grown, so too has the scope of games. Chrono Trigger, released on the SNES in 1995, offered a myriad of different endings. This is the first game that I can remember having my choices alter the outcome of the story. It was a beautiful thing and one of the many reasons that game is held in such high regard.
More “Evolution of Choice” and Comments after the jump:
Games like Fallout followed suit, allowing choices to dictate the fate of entire cities. Programming multiple endings into a game was a way to provide replay value and extend the life of the game for a player. It also gave the player a feeling of control over the story, however minor at the time.
Further evolving, the concept of multiple endings blossomed into a game-long karma mechanic. The first game I can recall including this was Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II. Star Wars was the perfect setting for this idea. Light side vs. dark side allowed for a polarized system which led to alternate endings. Would you cut down everyone in your path, including innocents, in a quest for power and ultimately join the dark side, or would you honor your duty to the galaxy and protect it, pursuing justice and harnessing the light side? The moral implications were a strong addition to the gaming experience. Not only could a player decide the fate of the story they were living, they could also control the moral tone of their character. This mechanic grew strongly within the Star Wars genre with titles such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Star Wars: Force Unleashed, but also branched out to new IPs such as the Vampire: The Masquerade series and the Fable series. Each title brought new depths to this concept, enriching the player experience by allowing them to enjoy pivotal decisions and see the story from opposing perspectives.
While it had become common place to have moral choices and a character’s overall moral code lead to alternate endings, games soon started exploring the idea of using decisions that are less cut and dry than good vs. evil. Furthermore, they began to affect the path of a character’s story immediately, as opposed to simply culminating in an alternate ending. BioWare showed us how powerful an idea this was with the release of Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins. Not only were a player’s decisions the driving force behind immediate shifts in the story line, they also affected the character’s relationship with other characters within the world. A player’s choices extended beyond a static alignment, finding a home within the grayscale between good and evil. A diversity of very real topics found their way into the gaming realm. Politics, economics, religion, loyalty – all offered new depths to choices a player must make within a game. Do you feel magic users deserve the freedom to use their powers as they will, or do you believe they should be controlled by a governing body to avoid a potential catastrophe? Do you assist your long time companion with their dark past, or do you leave them to reap what they sowed? These types of questions created fertile grounds for story to grow based on a player’s beliefs.
Stories within games becoming more complex and diverse led to the problem of how to provide a sequel to a game with multiple endings. This problem was easily dismissed with the introduction of carrying saved files over to the subsequent game. In the aforementioned Mass Effect and Dragon Age series, BioWare allowed a player to do this, providing a foundation to the sequel based off the player’s decisions in the previous game. This was also done very well within CD Projekt’s The Witcher series. The depth of these stories grew exponentially as they stretched across multiple games within a series. An abundance of possibilities emerged, all determined by player actions throughout. Players no longer awaited sequels to learn what happened next in the story; players awaited sequels to learn what happened next in their story.
Finally, we arrive at the latest evolution of the mechanic. While previously restricted to single player gaming, meaningful decisions affecting narrative are now being implemented within multiplayer gaming. BioWare’s Star Wars: The Old Republic boasts the ability to make choices that affect story while presenting that option to other player-controlled characters in the same world. The game is not released at this time, but plenty of information has been provided by the development team at BioWare Austin. There are certainly questions that need to be answered regarding how this mechanic will play out; however, the ability to make meaningful decisions within group play and roll to see who wins the silent debate is intriguing to say the least. It could potentially open a door to strong stories within multiplayer gaming, something that has been sorely lacking.
I wear a smile on my face when I think about the future of meaningful decisions affecting narrative within video games. The growth we have seen over the years will continue as technology and creativity allows it to do so. I can only imagine what is on the horizon, but I think it is safe to say that players around the world are enjoying the progression.