Saturday, June 18, 2011

Dragon Week 6: Pain and Pleasure

Let's look at the dialogue choice system in greater detail. The Bioware line has, as I've said before, made their mark by allowing meaningful choices to made in their game, and most of these choices come through via their dialogue system. And that's a bit of an interesting design choice in itself, as it implies that the major way we can influence events is through our speech, rather than our actions. Now, a bit of game theory: Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, in their book Rules of Play, argue that the most important thing in designing games is that the designers allow the players to make meaningful choices--choices that are both integrated (they have an effect on the game beyond its immediate moment) and discernible (the player can clearly see what effect their choice will have on the game after they choose it, and to some extent, before they can predict the effect before they choose it). How Bioware has approached meaningful play via dialogue has varied greatly over their gaming oeuvre.

Baldur's Gate 2, for example, had a very simple system. A scene occurred, and you got a selection of choices. It created the sense of meaningful play through the variety of these choices. Many were clearly NOT going to get you a desirable outcome (HINT: when a character learns her husband has just died, don't tell her to suck it up), and there was always the sense that the choices could have been different if you had chosen a different alignment at the beginning of the game. Some of it failed the integrated/discernible test, though, especially those relating to the in-game romances, when you often didn't see the outcome of your choice until hours later--or, if you inadvertently choose wrong, never.

Mass Effect took a rather different approach. It couldn't do the same "make your choice from options, and have the other characters respond" thing. Because the entire game was voice-acted, the main character would just be saying exactly what you told her/him to say over again, which is really dull if you've just read that. So, to fix that and streamline the process (thus making it more discernible and integrated as a result), they introduced the choice wheel.
The picture above shows a typical case. You, ie. Shepherd, has just had yet another alien talk at him/her, and the creature is now waiting for a response. Rather than depict the entire response, the game let's you choose your basic intent: "Can I help?" is the peaceful choice, "What's going on?" is the neutral choice, and "Only a dozen?" is the aggressive choice. Arguably, the three options are a holdover from Bioware's association with Dungeons & Dragons, where "good," "evil," and "neutral" are the three moral backgrounds your characters are allowed.

In Mass Effect, the options are labelled "Paragon" and "Renegade" rather than good and evil, but the basic thrust remains the same. Obviously, this is approach is more reductive than the previous method, as it assumes that any problem basically has three options, each with an obvious moral weight--and, since the game has tried very hard not to push a player down a path, it usually has three options with balanced results, leaving someone with the feeling that it doesn't matter. In fact, sometimes it literally doesn't matter; there's many points in Mass Effect in particular where the character you're speaking to will respond exactly the same if you're asking politely or aggressively, and even a few cases where Shepherd will act identically whether you've chosen aggressively or politely. You can't even confuse a Paragon option with a Renegade option; the paragon option is always in the top right corner, and the Renegade is always the bottom left. Essentially, you decide early on whether your character is going to be a bastard or a saint, and then blindly follow that direction to get the maximum effect.

Ah, I forgot how you obtain the maximum effect. We'll do this quickly, then. When you make significant paragon-related choices, you get paragon points. When you get enough to fill your Paragon gauge to 10%, 25%, 50% and 75%, you get bonuses to your fighting stats as well as the option to use your ability points gained during level ups to increase your Charm gauge to a new level, which gives you more Paragon conversation options while talking (a rare case where the battle and talking systems reinforce each other). And the same thing holds true for the Renegade, except s/he will have the Intimidate gauge instead of Charm. Making Paragon choices doesn't effect the Renegade gauge and vice versa, so technically, if you play enough times, you can maximize both. My point, however, is that in a single playthrough, you're more likely to make the choices that maximize your current abilities, and thus more likely to follow a single path. It then becomes less about making moral decisions, and more about making the decision most expedient to your full skill potential.

And Dragon Age II has a slightly different system altogether. But more on that tomorrow.

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