How RPGs provide a world of choice (and why they deserve more respect)

With Dragon Age 2 due to arrive soon on PC and consoles, Phil salutes the ever-evolving RPG, and the far-reaching effects its range of choices can provide…

There was a moment last year when I was out with a few pals enjoying a sociable pint when talk turned to gaming. One of the group (more a permanent test of one’s patience than a friend) stated that he didn’t see the point of playing games as he ‘had a life’.

Perturbed, I took ahold of his lapels and gently but firmly said to him, “That may be. But when you lie awake at night, struggling to come to terms with your own insignificance in a cold and never ending universe, do you not yearn for worlds with landscapes that will forever bear your footprints? Worlds that are shaped by your gentlest caress even while others refuse to yield to the might of your weapon? Worlds that shape themselves around the paths you choose and where your every decision has a consequence that may ultimately mean the difference between life and death? Worlds where you can choose to be a God… or a Devil? Do you not yearn for such things?”

Okay, that’s what I wished I’d said, but  my imaginary admonishment does pretty much sum up how I felt about what is, for me, one of the most exciting aspects of modern gaming, namely the evolution of choice.

It’s an aspect that is embodied in titles such as Fallout 3, Heavy Rain, Dragon Age: Origins and the Mass Effect series, all very different games, but all of which provide a multitude of possibilities in how the story progresses, not only in terms of the tactics you choose to employ, but also the moral choices you make.

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As fans of the Mass Effect series will know, if you import your saved character from the first two games into the upcoming ME:3, the story that will unfold will be heavily influenced by the decisions you took in the first two games. When implemented as superbly as that, it’s epic stuff.

I count myself lucky that I was more or less there at the beginning of gaming as a home entertainment phenomenon. But I would have left games behind long ago were it not for developments such as multiple endings, moral dilemmas, dialogue trees, sandboxes, open worlds, point and click, intelligent NPCs, levelling up, exploration, and the opportunity to talk as well as shoot – all innovations that screamed at me, “CHOOSE!” 

When used well, these things provide not just a decent escapist simulation of a world that I’d never encounter in real life, but also create increasingly immersive experiences with (at their best) deeply satisfying emotional pay offs. Oh yes, I’ll readily admit to shedding a single manly tear while watching the conclusion to BioShock, as the heart warming repercussions of my decision to save the little sisters played out before me.

When I started playing videogames 30 years ago, it was all a very different sort of experience, but one that was no less enthralling to a 10-year-old boy. By and large, the genres that ruled were the platformer and the shooter – exciting to play, certainly, but largely dependent on the mastering of technique.

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However, it was the early text-based adventure games that really captured my imagination. Two games I remember playing to death were The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and The Hobbit.  These used text and occasionally very simple graphics to depict your surroundings, and were played by typing in simple commands that would generate a text response describing the consequences of your actions. So you’d type in something like ‘Give key to Thorin’ or ‘Look at curious map’.

Choices were largely restricted to the various combinations one could generate between verbs and nouns, but it was possible to examine and use items, travel between locations and interact with NPCs. However, they were often as frustrating as they were rewarding. For example, it was possible to get stuck in a situation purely because you weren’t quite getting the correct combination of verbs, nouns, pronouns and adverbs.

As I didn’t always have the patience required to navigate my way through them, increasing levels of frustration resulted in instructions to first ‘Kick Gandalf’, then ‘Kill Gandalf’ before finally and inevitably descending into furious dictates to commit gross acts of indecency on his person.

But these games were really the first to offer me a choice in how I attempted to progress in the game. True, the narrative was largely predetermined, but the choices and decisions I made in order to progress made me feel as though I was shaping events in this imaginary world.

As basic as many computer and console games from the 1980s may now seem visually, there were some real trail-blazers amongst them that introduced many of the concepts we take for granted in action, adventure, and RPG games today. King’s Quest (1984) was the first adventure game where you directly controlled the main character as a graphical representation on screen.

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Elite (1984) was one of the first to feature open world gaming with optional side missions, although I’ll always remember it for the joystick I stamped to smithereens because I couldn’t get the hang of docking my spacecraft (and the awful, tinny version of the Blue Danube Waltz that accompanied this sequence didn’t help). Gauntlet (1985) introduced simultaneous multiplayer, and is one of the first examples of gaming where co-op is vital to success. Dragon Warrior (1986) was a template for almost every console RPG that followed, and was one of the earliest to feature a menu based combat system.

Then there was Maniac Mansion (1987) one of the first games to introduce multiple endings, generated according to the decisions the player took during the course of the game. This feature, combined with the option to choose from seven playable characters, really pushed my buttons, and for the first time I found myself replaying an adventure game in order to get the different endings, as well as choosing different characters to see how they interacted with others.

I was so smitten with it that a few years later I bought a NES just so I could play the Nintendo version (having played the original on my beloved Commodore 64). These games offered up crossroads after crossroads, always with decisions to be made. It was probably this appeal that meant I was playing adventures and RPGs to the exclusion of almost everything else at the time.

To my eternal shame, I even befriended a bloke at college just so that I could play The Secret Of Monkey Island on his PC, and even now, 20 years later, games like Shadowgate, Goldrush, Indiana Jones And The Fate of Atlantis, Golden Axe Warrior and Ultima VI: The False Prophet can all induce misty-eyed reverie in me if whispered to me softly.

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However, many of these game were very much of a specific genre, with the cross pollination we’re familiar with today being less prevalent. At the time, the thought of games evolving into the likes of Mass Effect 2 or Oblivion: The Elder Scrolls IV, games that encompass elements from action, adventure, RPGs, puzzlers and first person shooters, may well have caused my tiny gaming brain to explode. But evolve they did, and I’ve always thought that an influence on such games that may not seem immediately apparent is the God or Strategy game.

At first glance, titles such as Populous, Dungeon Keeper 2, and Black & White seem to be very distinct entities that lack the narrative elements of something like Dragon Age: Origins. But although Ultima IV had earlier made morality a key component of being able to complete a game successfully, Populous was one of the first games I can recall playing where I had the option to play with either good or evil intent, and succeed either way. Clearly an innovation that has influenced other genres since.

And for me, the way Black And White could be played according to my mood was a revelation. I usually seek the enlightened, benevolent path in such games, but if I was pissed off, it always felt good to be able to just pick up some troublesome little upstart and hurl him into the sea. Be in the wrong place at the wrong time and behold my wrath little people. Years later, when playing Mass Effect, my otherwise benevolent Commander Jane Shepherd (yes, I played it as a girl) tended to victimise Kaidan Alenko in much the same way.

Of course, story plays a huge part in the appeal of these types of games, and without drama, without character development and without the twists and turns that are increasingly comparable to the best cinematic output, all the gameplay innovations in the world are only going to amount to a fraction of what they could be.

Story has often been the motivation that has made me turn a game back on, and the only thing that has left me shaking my head in shock and disbelief long after turning the game off. Anyone who witnessed my devastation at Aeris’ death at the hands of Sephiroth in Final Fantasy VII will testify to that. And I think that it is these developments in narrative, allied with the introduction of moral choices in video games and all of the ensuing complexities which result, that has taken them to another level.

It is arguably one of the main reasons (alongside some breathtaking technical achievements) why the best of them are just beginning to be given the respect they deserve outside of the immediate confines of the industry itself. Comparisons with literature, film and television are now made, not just in terms of the artistic attributes of the medium, but also in terms of the direct competition to these media that such games now provide.

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One of the first to achieve this was Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic. Here was a game that, more than any other before it, allowed me to shape the central character into what I wanted him to be. Any given situation required me to choose a response, one that would not only have immediate consequences and implications, but that would also affect my morality scale.

If I chose the dark path, my powers developed accordingly. It seemed so complete, so immersive and told such a captivating story, that I thought I’d play nothing finer for the better part of the next five years. I did of course, but very few games have instilled in me the affection that KOTOR does to this day, and its importance in the genesis of the Dragon Age and Mass Effect franchises is huge.

So now, here I am, over 40 hours into Dragon Age: Origins – probably not even half way through – and with the clock ticking on the countdown to the pant-wettingly exciting Dragon Age 2. I’m gripped by it, I think about it when I shouldn’t (sorry, sweetheart), I’m sat in meetings in my day job ignoring what’s being said because I’m wondering if I should have let that Desire Demon off the hook after all.

And I still have no idea how it’s going to turn out.  I’ve very recently been disconcerted by the actions of Sten, a  Qunari Warrior and member of my party, who has chosen to attack me because he doesn’t like the way I’m going about my business. Of course, I soon put him in his place, but rather than dismiss the upstart from my entourage, I’ve chosen to retain him and put his admittedly rather brutish talents into situations where I feel they’ll serve my purpose best. You might have done things differently, but there you go. It was my choice.

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Dragon Age 2 is due for release on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on 11 March.

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