There is one aspect of story writing that I’ve yet to see any video game handle decently, the idea of consequence and punishment to the player. In other mediums we can see the character being punished and the outcome of this event in the narrative, however in video games this plot device goes against the game play. If the player is punished due to some random story event and it ruins the game for them, I bet the player will be very annoyed. I believe though that is possible to show punishment and have it work with game play to produce an excellent story in video games. Let’s start with a few of the worst examples I’ve seen.
A few years back Quake 4 tried to be creative by having a major plot twist which happened to be announced a week or so before the game was released. The twist was that the player became half human half alien species and spent the rest of the game like that. I was really hoping that this would bring huge changes to the game play; instead all it did was add fifty more health points to the player. What about taking away some of the player’s original weapons, or giving him something new? This was a huge missed opportunity, but it was in a FPS my next example is a lot more serious.
Everyone should know by now that I don’t like Bioware and my next examples come from two of their more recent titles Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire (Did not play Mass Effect.) In both these titles there are numerous decisions for the player to make determining their next action; however none of these show any tangible consequence. I’m so sick and tired of RPGS that the only thing that happens to you from doing something evil is +5 evil points to your stats. Now I haven’t played Fable 2 yet, which should send Corvus into a shock after I revealed I haven’t played the Ultima series so that could be an example of a game doing it right. The problem is that the story and game design are always in conflict with each other, easily proven by my next example.
Final Fantasy 7 has a now classic example of a major plot twist, spoiler warning now for a game that came out about 10 years ago, Aeris died. For the story it was sad moment that made gamers cried around the world, however in the game space it was a horribly stupid event that made me laugh while I watched it. You’re telling me that a single sword through the chest is fatal; being hit by a fireball the size of a continent isn’t? Of course there are those magical phoenix downs that work on everything except for this. The sad part is the designers made no attempt at explaining this tragic event. Then there is the fact that this moment had no effect on the game play, all you needed was another person who had healing powers and problem solved. At least Final Fantasy 6 gave each person unique abilities making their lost important to the game play. Moving on, here are my examples of possible game ideas showing both good and bad consequences to a major decision.
First bad, let’s take a standard fantasy medieval world and have the player utterly destroy a town that provides the majority of steel for the land, by doing this swords become rare and hard to find making swords more valuable then gold. Knights can no longer defend their homelands without swords or the steel for armor and now wander the land doing random jobs. Archery becomes the main profession for warriors causing the forest to be cut down faster due to increase supply. As you can see there is a huge ripple affect both benefiting the player (less need to worry about melee attacks) and hurting the player (harder to find armor, economy weaken). Now here an example of a major bad event towards the player that has good consequences.
In the same fantasy world the player is asked to sacrifice one of his arms to appease an angry deity to save a major city. By doing this the player loses the ability to dual wield, can’t use two handed weapons or wield a shield and sword and a lost to the player’s max health. However the player now has universal appeal across the land from the villagers for the brave sacrifice and will give him major discounts on anything he wants; people will also come to the player’s aid for whatever quests that needs to be done. In this case a major event has a huge effect on the game play and both punish and reward the player at the same time.
In order for both game design and story development to evolve, there needs to be major consequences for the player and they need to affect the game play as well as the plot. If you want gamers to make big decisions in your games, then those decisions need to have big effects on what happens afterwards. We need to get away from having these major “point of no return” moments at the last part of the game and work on gradual cut off points based on all the player’s actions. Because if there is anything less realistic then surviving an explosion the size of a planet, it’s spending 50 hours as an evil bastard and clicking one choice to completely redeem yourself.