Monday, March 26, 2012

Don't force me to be a stupid jerk!

Random result from google image search for "stupid jerk"

Player choice is one of the most debated topics in video games, especially when it comes to RPGs. The war between fans of "free" WRPGs, which let you act out your personal decisions and the "linear" JRPGs, which force a fixed story upon you, is not looking to end anytime soon. But I don't really have an issue with a game's positioning along the linearity-freedom-axis, but a more deeply rooted problem with the usual execution of interactive storytelling.

I believe it doesn't really matter if there's only one option at a given time, as long as that option can be presented as a plausible act to the player. A movie where every single character is a miserable piece of shit I can still enjoy, because I'm free to pity, despise or ridicule them all, whereas in a narrative-driven video game, I'm supposed to be one of the characters. It is implied and enforced in the interactive action scenes, that I, the player, am responsible for failure or success of the mission. So every time my character does something really stupid or despicable in a non-interactive moment, it feels a little bit like the game is trying to force stupidity on me.

But it's even worse when the inevitable brainfart is wrapped in a seemingly interactive sequence, when the game seems to cry for attention: Look, I made you do this! I found, for example, Bioshock's highly critically acclaimed premature climax with Rapture's architect Andrew Ryan one of the most horrible interactive storytelling moments bare of any understanding of the medium. That kind of plot twist may work in a movie, where I have an outside look at the character, and can declare "yeah, that guy's out of his mind." But when I'm looking through the eyes of a character I'm supposed to be in control of, and I'm told that I am supposed to be conditioned (or was it genetically programmed?) to obey commands while I'm perfectly mentally stable and able to consciously decide that I'm not going to put in the commands to the fatal deed, suspension of disbelief becomes an impossibility. No player at this kind was even the slightest bit conditioned to any automatic impulse in reaction to the catchphrase.
That's not clever interactive storytelling, that's trying (and failing) to impose your sick megalomanic fantasies on your playership. You didn't make me do it by cunningly messing with my mind, you simply presented me with the two options of either pretending to be a goddamn imbecile or quit playing your game.

Admittedly, making him shut up maybe was enough motivation to bash his head with a golf swing after all...

The same vice is commited in the 2008 Prince of Persia and in Shadow of theColossus, at the very end in the former and through the entire length of the game in the latter. The worst of it all: To the attentive player it becomes crystal clear early on that the worst possible paths are chosen, yet a motivation the player can relate to is completely absent or gravely insufficient, little more than a it's love. In Shadow of the Colossus, the object of that emotion is dead from the beginning, and the player is given no reason at all to care about her the least bit. We only go out slaughtering the beautiful creatures and condemning ourselves to damnation because there would simply be no game if we didn't. In non-interactive fiction, this has long been detected as one of the most lazy kinds of storytelling devices: Villains that always postpone killing the protagonist simply because it's the protagonist and the story would end with his death, for example, have long become a domain of hacks and satirists. In Prince of Persia, we're given at least a bit of characterization to the princess (although of course it's much too short and hardly enough to even justify a crush, much less immortal love), but since the last steps the game demands of the player are a complete betrayal to the deed that was consciously done immediately before, and, even worse, drawn out in a painfully slow, almost slow-motion-feeling scene that the player is forced to enact, the result is even more cringeworthy. (Let's disregard the DLC ending for now, cause DLC endings should just be disowned and it doesn't really change much about the status quo at the end of the main game.) I don't even want to start to talk about the highly acclaimed Braid and its "plot" twist....

She's not the most likeable character ever, but at least she is a character.

The impotence of these devices can be amplified even more when perceived in the context of otherwise non-linear games, whenever the inevitable story bottlenecks arise, as the retarded original ending of Fallout 3 (fixed by DLC), which forces the player into suicide (or killing the love interest) despite much more plausible options being available and painfully obvious, or just recently the chose the color of your explosion climax to the Mass Effect trilogy (that spawned the probably most escalated fan outrage about any video game ever and might or might not get fixed by DLC in the future) demonstrate. Most games that try to achieve an illusion of "freedom" have to struggle with them. For another example, let me just quote my own review of Alpha Protocol, which stumbles over them especially badly:

Whenever there is a really stupid decision to be made that happens to be convenient to the plot, Thorton won't hesitate a second to ask for your consent. Like when he pisses subtlety away by assaulting the hideout of the crazy Russian mafia boss with a military unit in a armored attack vehicle (complete with dull turret gun sequence), or when he constantly agrees to meet the guy with the wet dreams of being a Gestapo investigator on his terms, and eventually gets Madison Saint James, the perfect blackmail bait bimbo, involved in the troubles. And of course she ends up getting abducted and used as a device for the tired old "moral dilemma" mission. In a pathetic moment of "We force the player to make hard decisions! Look how deep we are!", Marburg forces Thorton to either go rescue the chick or disarm some explosives that threaten to blow up a museum wing full of civilians (of whom you never see a single soul should you decide to go that route). That plot device not only has been beaten to death by now, the execution also makes no sense at all. When you go to rescue the woman, you have to use your inhuman super agent skills to headshot three guards that use her as a human shield within 1 second from 150 feet away, or she ends up dead anyway. When you go for the explosives, however, Marburg shows up with her and sends her towards Thorton, only to shoot her in the back for him to watch her die. That this situation would have been much easier to resolve in-engine than the rescue mission variant, with the villains less than 100 feet away and a clear line of fire to all of them, the writers didn't care.

It's not an easy job, but Mike Thorton does his best to make him look smart.

This should be a simple rule for all interactive storytelling: If you want to force players to a certain action without giving any other options, make it possible for them to accept that action as a reasonable thing to do in that situation. Deceive us, lie to us, but don't just assume we enjoy pretending to be stupid just to make your weakly-constructed interactive narrative work.

Actually, it doesn't even have to be the big cinematic epics. In Project Gotham Racing 4 you may chose to be insane and race sports cars on a motorcycle. Of course you're pretty much asking to get run over, but that's your choice. Whenever vehicles collide accidentally with no ill spirit whatsoever, though, as long as your driver isn't flung off the bike, she'll shake her fist at the other driver like an asshole, no matter who's fault it obviously was. That's not your choice. Other than in, say, Top Spin Tennis, where you got the black button (in the first game on Xbox) for a negative/aggressive pose and the white button for a positive/sportsmanship-like reaction. Microsoft should never have gotten rid of those black and white buttons...


  1. You should play The Last Story. The protagonist makes some of the most idiotic choices I've seen lately. Worst of all, the game regularly pretends you actually had a choice in the matter, only to present you with a "no, I can't do that" answer, if you choose the "wrong" answer.

  2. On the other hand, I enjoyed Catherine exactly because of how stupid the main character is, also the moral choice between hedonistic freedom vs responsible commitment was much more relatable than saving a bunch of civilians.

    Then again that game didn't really feel like an RPG I was in control, even if moral choices did affect my character's POV, it was more like choosing a route on a visual novel and sticking to it and waiting for the outcome. So in a way it was more like a choose your adventure book with only two choices.
    Moral choices in videogames always feel stupid to some extent, cue in Yahtzee's quote about no one is entirely either Mother Tereza or Satan, with no middle ground in between. At least Catherine was creative.
    Although that cocktail trivia about mixing coffee and alcohol was a terrible idea, it tasted awful and also gave me the worst hangover ever.

    As for Project Gotham I think that was just a little neat detail the developers added in that you're overthinking entirely, there's no way the computer would know whether your car crash was morally wrong or not.

  3. I liked all the games you mentioned for the same reasons you hated them. Here's the thing though: I didn't make such a personal connection to the video game.

    In a game like Skyrim, one assumes the position of main character. In that context, I'd be pretty pissed off if *any* of the things you just mentioned happened to me.

    In a game like Catherine or SotC or Braid, etc; I'm not the main character. Sure there are gameplay elements, but I don't assume a "first-person perspective" when playing the game. I'm exploring the story of an individual, I'm not *the character himself*.

    Cuz yeah, if I approached these kinds of games with that perspective I'd be pretty pissed off too. If you think the solution is, "okay games aren't allowed to be this way ever" then yes you are being a stupid jerk. :P

    Of course, I guess I am too, since I'm basically telling you "you're doing it wrong", which I'm not sure I'm comfortable saying either. I dunno what the disconnect here is, I guess. -_-

  4. But if there were no stupid decisions, how would developers be able to prove that you should totally take this story seriously?

    Joking aside, I see your point Derboo. I think we can agree that video games -- particularly their stories -- are in a strange place right now. Some of them are happy where they are, and some of them are trying to change. It's not an easy transition, but at least there's some movement (the fact that a game like Catherine exists -- criticism and dissent aside -- is what I'd consider evidence). Hopefully, we'll see something more substantial in the future.

    I will say this, though: as long as stories don't try to be like Gears of War 3, I think we'll be a lot happier. Nothing irritated me more than


    Dom suddenly deciding he had to sacrifice himself by driving a truck into an enemy horde. If he and his gang needed to escape, couldn't they have all just gotten in the truck and escaped that way? Did we really need to kill off the only likable character in the series?

    (end spoiler)

    Subjectivity's always going to be at play here, but (Gears 3 aside), I still look at games optimistically. We've come a fair ways from Bad Dudes, and doubtless we'll go even farther.

  5. I always feel a little disappointed when people mention Catherine as in any way pushing the medium forward. There were Japanese visual novels long before Catherine that offered you real choices and actually - you know - altered the story based on those choices. The choices in Catherine affect nothing; the cut-scenes don't change, the story arc doesn't change, the situations Vincent finds himself in don't change. They are a lie.

    Which is fine.

    Except that critics and players hold it aloft as a shining beacon of a developer having the courage do something new, when in fact it isn't new, and it's less progressive than some older games. The visual novel genre is a deep one, with far better implemented choices that actually do stuff.

    1. 999 immediately comes to mind. :D

      Heck, I just thought Catherine was a fun arcade puzzler. I didn't realize people were pushing it as a visual novel.

  6. @Sketcz
    The only things that change in Catherine are the MC's inner monologues and the endings, not at all different from most moral choice systems these days. It's an arcade puzzler with a VN tied in with duct tape, no one ever said otherwise. They did do something new with the premise and plot, which is what I was getting at.

    You seem to have an weird stance about VNs too, the vast majority of them, the ones that will never get translated, are of the KinecticNovel kind (not the accessory), i.e. don't have any gameplay or choices at all.
    You just click and read things. I was fairly interested on them a few years ago back when Umineko was popular, and it's the main reason why I quit the genre.
    They're simply long books with pretty pictures and a soundtrack.
    In fact it seems like the more adventure-ish VNs are pretty rare these days, even the Eroges ditched the leveling/stat building system from Tokimeki Memorial and now it's just sometimes selecting a few sentences that you think would win the girl, etc.
    But I digress.

    1. And by Eroge I actually meant to say dating sim.
      Sorry about that, I really should stop using stupid japanese buzzwords.

  7. ahahahahahahahahahah

    oh man you should really play nier,that would be a riot

  8. for those who haven't played nier,i'm going to spoil what's wrong with it here in this other post... ready?


    it turns out all the monsters you have been killing have actualy been innocent humans,other monster were just misunderstood or had other reasons,my favourite one are the ambientalist wolves (didn't you know wolves are ambientalist? i did neither) best part is when the game sends you some black blob monsters and then declares that THEY ARE INNOCENT NEWBORNS... one has to wonder why the heck someone would put newborns in the middle of a battlefield,but ehy what do i know

    it's the ultimate "force me to be a stupid jerk!"


  9. I don't think I agreed with a single thing in that blog post.

  10. @The latest Anonymous: That's the great thing about opinions. But without any reasoning for yours, your post is nothing more than a waste of electricity.

    The paragraph about PGR4 was more of a joke, actually, but I would have felt kinda embarassed for my driver if I had played the game online. That kind of thing actually really bothered me while playing Gotham City Impostors: Many of the automatic random taunts were unnecessarily rude and inappropriate. It just isn't adequate to ridicule an able player you've just managed to survive with your last few hit points.

    I also thought of one well-executed example of a "forced choice": In Final Fantasy Adventure, after the Medusa fight. Sure, the game bluntly just prevents you from walking away, but the melancholic music and Amanda's words let you know in your heart that the only thing the game enables you to is the right thing to do and the only way to resolve the situation.

  11. Hold the presses! Wait...WHAT? While I can't say for the other two games, did the writer (who writes these blog posts anyway, the lack of an author tagged bothers me) either 1) Not play Bioshock and just Youtubed this? 2) Didn't ever fully beat Bioshock after this point 3) Did beat it, but never went to get at least most (some of them can be pretty hard to find, but they're usually more for flash than actual story) of the audiologs?


    The story pretty clearly explains in this big climax that Atlas, aka Fontaine, was really controlling you all along using the "Would You Kindly" control code phrase to make you do his bidding to take down Andrew Ryan. You were genetically conditioned to have fake memories, but you're actually the illegitimate son of Andrew Ryan himself, but stolen by Fontaine and raised by Dr. Suchong who genetically imprinted that code word on you. I distinctly remember an audio log of Jack as a child being forced to kill a puppy against his word when Would You Kindly was added to the command (complete with him crying before doing it).

    Sure you can argue that the player was kinda forced to do those things since that was the way to progress the game, but you can't deny it felt like the sane thing to do until Andrew Ryan used the words against you to force him to kill him. You literally don't have any control over your actions because you were being conditioned all along, it's a seriously epic twist if there ever was one in gaming! I was really taken back by it and had to ponder over how shocking it was after it happened, I personally loved it.

    This is seriously the first time I've ever heard anyone talk bad about that scene, all my friends really loved that plot twist and use the "Would you kindly" joke a lot amongst ourselves. On top of that you are given choices because the final arc of the game is breaking out of your conditioning and getting your own personal revenge on Fontaine to be free of his control. Futhermore, you have complete choice over how to deal with the Little Sisters so that's open to the player to choose and the ending perfectly reflects that.

    I could go on but basically, while I agree with the point this article is making, I do NOT see Bioshock fitting the bill. I thought that was an ingenious use of forced choice in a game if there ever was one.

  12. I am so glad that someone else also thought highly of that post-medusa fight in Final Fantasy Adventure/Mystic Quest on GB. One of my favourite scenes in any story game - and a monochrome handheld, no less!

  13. @The LD:

    I've played through the entirety of BioShock. I don't remember if it had a percentage of tapes heard, but I've heard a lot. I really appreciated the fact that you can have them running while continuing with the game, other than in the Arkham Asylum/City games.

    The thing is: I could see the plot working in a non-interactive medium (or maybe even if the killing would have been a cutscene), but simply telling me "Ha ha, you're conditioned and you have to do what I tell you," when I'm clearly not is not very clever but only very annoying. If your story is about phychological impact on the protagonist, it should actually have a similarly directed (if comparably lighter) psychological impact on the player, or else it falls flat. If the game had somehow made me WANT to kill Ryan and then highlighted the trigger phrase after the deed, then it would have had a point, but the way it was executed was just cringe-worthily (hm, that's probably not a word) coarse.

    Btw. the writer tags in blog posts come at the bottom, just before the labels.

  14. @Derboo- As I wrote on my facebook post, yeah I reloaded the page on firefox rather than my terrible cellphone and it showed up. So that was a technical failure there, no problem. Also, agreed with the annoyance of Arkham Asylum/City games that force you to stop and hear them out. I was just obsessed with collecting them to complete the story so I was quite attentive to every single tape.

    As for Bioshock- Again, I see your point, but I can't come to agree with it. I wanted to kill Andrew Ryan, after the terrible things he had done to the people in Rapture, killing Atlas' supposed family, and of course the constant pursuit to kill you, I was full on ready for an end all, be all boss battle to finish him off and save Rapture. That's when the tables turn on you and you realize you're just a pawn on a bigger chess board. So while before I felt fully prepared to kill Andrew Ryan, now I felt cheated as if I didn't want to be a part of this anymore. The whole scenario just sent chills down my spine. I'm just not seeing it as the LULZ PLOT TWISTED SUCKA you're making it out to be.

    On a side note: While I agree with Shadow of the were again somewhat tricked into thinking that would save her, BUT the introduction was fairly vague, that's undeniable. I personally took it as what lengths you'd go to bring back your lover to connect with the tale. This would be a great time for a prequel comic/manga since I can't really see an even longer opening segment for that game working over too well.

  15. This is far after the point, but I'm pretty sure that one of the Arkham games does let you listen to tapes while walking around. The weird thing is... I think it's the first, not the second. Why remove a perfectly workable feature?