Giving players agency and choice is one of the bedrocks of game design. Dialogue trees, stripping choices away to show a lack of a character's agency, giving the player complete control over an outcome: these are just a few of the options developers have when deciding when and to what degree players have agency over the narrative of a game. RPGs will often focus on the idea of choice, allowing players to express their opinions through dialogue, and in more complex games, rewarding players with different outcomes that reflect their choices. But when a game is limited in how it can deliver specific plot beats, be it by a lack of resources or development time, are there other ways that games can allow for the player to express their emotional response to a story? We discuss choices in RPGs and more on this episode of Waypoint Radio. You can listen to the full episode and read an excerpt below.
Austin: I think again so much of this for me comes back to, we joked earlier about how about how having those dialog options don't really mean much when the end goal is whenever you take the quest anyway, right? One, the ideal is for me to fill this game with quests I'm actually just interested in, regardless of what dialogue options are or aren't available, but absent that being able to at least let me color what my experience is, it turns out, matters a lot in these games. It matters a lot to me that I can punch back at Solas in Dragon Age: Inquisition even if the big plot beats around him are going to be the same from top to bottom, right? It matters a lot that I can handle stuff differently.
Gita: I always feel like I need to have as a player some way to express my displeasure, in this moment, you know? I need to have that be registered as part of this character if that's something I'm strongly feeling. I can't have them just go along with things in a blasé ho-hum way. I think, especially [in the DA:I side quest] "Trespasser," you get so many different variations on that ending speech, which is the same speech every time. But the game really pays attention to how you treat Solas, whether or not you like or dislike him, whether or not you're picking the dialogue options that call him a racist, you know? It makes sure to pay attention to what the character believes, not just the narrative beats that it wants to shove you through.
Rob: I was just thinking, because I'm always thinking about hard boiled detective fiction, is there an element of games are just afraid to have characters just do something for the money? If you think about hard boiled detective stories, they constantly hate their clients, they're constantly jobs from rich people who they openly despise, and treat with just abject contempt. For the function of the story, the person has to take the job, but it is also clear that at no point does Marlowe sympathize with the shitbag he's working for, right? And to his face he will basically even call out what he sees as the real score here. And one of the fun things about these stories is also the rich people have no choice but to take it, where they're just like "look we need, we need someone to do this job so we're just gonna have to eat your shit–"
Austin: "And you're gonna take the fucking job." Yeah exactly that!
Rob: "–but in the meantime you're also going to take the big check." Yes! So often in games your guy just can't be like, "Look, I'm here as the envoy to kind of this failson imperialist, and that's the job. I hate it, but that's the job." Instead your character has to be sort of wide eyed about the entire thing like, "Ah, you mean you're laying siege to this town because they're raiding your villages, oh my god that's a good reason!"
Austin: "They're kidnapping your people, wow! Wow, sorry about killing 13 of your dudes, but wow." Yeah, 100%.
Gita: If only you could say the "wow" sarcastically.
Austin: Yes, if only! I think you're totally right, The Witcher III does this. This is the difference and I should have gone back to play The Witcher, except that I don't like The Witcher as much as I wish I liked The Witcher, but Geralt of Rivia has no problem being the character who's like "yeah I need the fucking money. Yeah, I'll go yell at your werewolf boyfriend for you, or whatever it is I do now." That game has no problems [being] like, "give me the gold. Yeah, give me more actually, this is kind of annoying."
Rob: It has extensive options to deny people empathy.
Austin: Yes, 100%.
Rob: People can tell sob stories to Geralt, and he can be like "yeah, I'm sure it really tore you up inside to slaughter your family, my heart bleeds for you." The story might even be more affecting than that, but Geralt always has the option of being like "you know what, piss off."
This transcript was edited for length and clarity.
Discussed: The Last of Us Part II 5:41, Iron Harvest 11:21, Chaos Galaxy 17:19, Paradise Killer 22:48, She Dreams of Elsewhere 30:43, Space Crew 31:51, Greedfall 33:17, Among Trees 1:15:52, Pokemon Presents 1:25:02, Super Smash Bros Ultimate ARMS fighter announcement 1:32:06
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