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.
Great article Adam! I agree on how games have progressed over the years to include story and focus on decisions that players make to impact story and relationships within the game. The future looks very bright for these games. In fact, I can for see that sci-fi shows could be produced in a similar fashion and right before a commercial viewers have a choice, and depending on how the voting goes is how the the next section starts up after the commercial etc.
The one area for me that all this is reminding me of, is table-top role-playing games. I know these are well before many gamers these days lol. The dice games back then were very close to what game designers are producing now. The way SWTOR is sounding reminds me of these games exactly. I can pick my class, I pick my race based on my class and yet be able to play the character how I want to (i.e. Advance Class specs), and most importantly my choices matter to my character, my companions and other players within grouped scenarios. The only thing I don’t need anymore is dice, or pencil and paper. 🙂
Thanks Jason! I agree with your table-top comments. People still play those you know 😉 Pen & paper RPGs will always be at the core of my heart. While it is impossible for developers to program the limitless power of our imaginations, they are starting to get pretty darn close. I still play D&D with my close friends (shout out to The Roughnecks!) because it is an experience you just can’t get through modern games.
As for the choose your own story in T.V. concept, I’m picking up what you’re putting down. Sadly, I think the almighty $$$ is going to put the kibosh on that one 🙁
*high-five* Nice article, Adam!
Personally, I don’t see TV shows having that kind of branching. However, what about web series (like The Guild)? Someone could very well make a short Choose Your Own Adventure web series that branches with each episode. Mechanically, it works perfectly with youtube videos. Here’s an example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mzhVAJOHgQo&NR=1
While that video’s two endings are essentially the same, that kind of thing could be used incredibly well for a truly branching web series.
Whether or not anyone tries that, I’m also looking forward to the future of player-driven gaming. There are so many different stories that can be told in that way. Just imagine a Boxing game with a Story Mode, where you play a teenager from poverty to training to a championship, using a Mass Effect-style dialogue wheel to make both moral, personal, and career-changing decisions along the way. Who do you take as your coach/trainer? Do you take steroids? Make enemies of your opponents, or friends with them? It would work perfectly for other non-team Sports, like Tennis. We could very well see as much variety in our interactive story AAA games as we do in our blockbuster movies.
Thanks Mark. I love your boxing game thoughts. I was expecting more from Fight Night: Champions in respect to the story. It was linear and gimmicky. They could have executed much better, and they should be constantly pushing towards what you put on the table. There is no reason for them to neglect story. That franchise is fantasic, but I feel like a lot of people who would enjoy it aren’t playing it because of the lack of a good story and the tone they have taken. The soundtrack is all rape, the latest version includes nonstop cursing for no other reason than to be offensive, the commentary is terrible … I could go on and on. That being said, it is one of my guilty pleasures. I can’t get enough of those games, but they don’t live up to their potential by any means.