Choice systems and immersion in games
A great many games in the last few years have had choice systems, most based on dialogue choices the player makes in certain situations. While this is certainly a step in the right direction, it’s also quite flawed.
For most people playing games is a form of escapism. I run over people in GTA because I can’t do it in real life (and you do too, don’t deny it). The problem is that when I play a game, I don’t want to be myself. I want to be Link, or Solid Snake, or Optimus Prime. Think of the NES era, or even the arcade era. You pressed “start” and then you were a fat Italian plumber fighting a dinosaur. You didn’t have to consider the morality of that. It was simply the thing to do.
Consider Grand Theft Auto, the most widely-known sandbox game. Most play the game to blow crap up, but some play the game by driving an ambulance around the city and helping hurt pedestrians.
The problem, then, is that either the game tells you who you are, or you tell it. Consider Halo. You’re the good guy, the only one who can save the entire universe, et cetera. Easy. No need to think about whether the Covenant are actually right, that this is just nature… No. That’s unimportant. You simply go and kill them. In a sense, Halo is the modern-day Space Invaders.
Mass Effect. Your actions massively (heh) influence the game. Help the Krogans, don’t help the Krogans, obey the Council, don’t obey the council… It’s all very important.
So dialogue choices do both of the above; they both ask me what to do and tell me who I am supposed to be. They ruin a feeling of immersion. In real life, you very rarely really think about what you’re saying before you say it. You interrupt people and talk over them, and say “umm” and “I dunno” and mumble and shuffle your feet. You don’t think about the branches of the conversation for five minutes or ask the same question three times.
I believe that dialogue trees are holding back the choice-based RPG. For example, most dialogue options that consider a choice are along these lines:
- “Don’t worry, villager! I’ll save you!”
- “I’ll save you, plebian, but it’ll cost you forty gold…”
- [Kill the villager, his entire family and eat his dog]
What if I want to save the villager but also eat his dog? What if I want to give the villager a little money and help him out of the proverbial gutter? I can’t do either of those things. I can be a paragon of righteousness, I can be an asshole, or I can, well, dine on some canine. You can have as many dialogue trees as you like, but (as @camiavellar said to me on twitter) people are all shades of grey.
You can’t convey the subtlety of real human conversation with dialogue boxes, no matter how good your writers are. While some games come fairly close to following exactly my train of thought (Dragon Age Origins comes to mind), it’s impossible to accommodate everyone.
Most MMORPGs (and by most I mean at least World of Warcraft) get around this kind of problem as you interact with other humans instead of computers. You’ll still talk to NPCs for quests and the like, but the majority of your interaction is done with real people. However, this doesn’t help immersion a hell of a lot, because in real life, there aren’t as many people calling you a noob.
To summarise: Choice systems, specifically ones based on dialogue between NPCs and the player, don’t quite have the desired effect and make the player remember he’s playing a game, thus ruining immersion.
You either give the player no choice, as such, or you give him free will. Most, if not all, choice-based RPGs are stuck between these two extremes. They’re sugar pills labeled miracle medicine.
Games are very confined, in this aspect. Everything still needs to be done within a budget. There are only so many writers you can employ, only so many voice actors, and only so much money.
However, consider a game like Façade. This doesn’t have dialogue choices. Instead, it’s got a live parser. You type in virtually anything, and as long as it’s somewhat relevant, the characters react almost as real humans would. The game has a few downsides; it’s easy enough to glitch the system, for a start. More importantly, it’s quite large (version 1.0 was 800MB) for a short game detailing the interactions between three people, particularly an interaction that would be completed in a fairly short amount of time in Mass Effect. Imagine if that were your party in a good-sized RPG. It would be an astronomical amount of space. (Sidenote, though, Facade’s size seems to have been mostly the audio, which was compressed and brought down to 180MB by version 1.1)
Furthermore, Facade depends on a keyboard (to input your speech, naturally), so consoles are out. And don’t even start on speech recognition.
And Facade isn’t even a game, according to Wikipedia, which begs the question: Is complexity like this in games really fun? Or are complex games like Dragon Age or Mass Effect just “interactive story” like Facade?
I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that dialogue choices need to evolve beyond what they currently are. They disrupt immersion and game rhythm, and can never be as subtle or as complex as real human conversation. However, the only alternatives I can think of (for example, action-based choice systems) would require an obscenely large number of writers, not to mention players that don’t try to mess with the system and a hundred other things. In other words, I think we’re probably stuck with this for a while.
Opinions? Counterpoints? Think I shouldn’t have compared Halo to Space Invaders? Don’t forget to comment.