By Meghann O’Neill.
A case for appreciating choice and consequence through experimentation, rather than analysis.
Reviewing videogames, as a freelance hobbyist, is about conveying critique alongside consumer information and, often, providing detailed analysis or commentary on the medium’s special qualities. The interaction is with the finished product, the reviewer is the audience and the game’s success depends on how content is interpreted, regardless of the strictures of design.
This doesn’t mean, however, that constraints aren’t sometimes obvious. Repeated exposure to restricted systems, and traditions within genres, can lead to an intense curiosity; why is it so? After five years with PC Powerplay magazine, I find myself fascinated by many aspects of contemporary games design, but none moreso than the systems driving choice and consequence in roleplaying games.
Why are choices so often binary; good or evil? Or, in morally grey games, your lesser of two evils? Is the idea of one “critical path” past its best? How viable is it to provide discrete content for several narrative routes through a game, if most people will never finish the game once? How is roleplaying nurtured without, or with, a voiced protagonist? What of multiple endings or ending consolidation?
How are players given agency? Which is more important; the feeling of agency, or the reality? How can one conversation with an NPC play out differently, based on conditions met, or not, within the game? How can dialogue vary based on player choice within the conversation? Is it OK to allow players to fail quests? How much warning should be given?
Moreover, how do narrative consequences stem from gameplay; statistics, abilities, those moments when you pull out your sword, or gun, and no-one reacts, the Avariel who won’t kiss you because you’re a dwarf? Should decision making be explicit or is it OK to obscure the process? Should consequences be linked back to the original trigger, or can the story remain enigmatic?
If these many questions were raised, for me, by reviewing games, they are slowly being answered by experimenting with designing my own. After 18 months of working on tiny games, interactive fiction and mods, in spare moments, I have a greater appreciation for why many systems simply are as they are, as well as future scope for choice and consequence in RPGs.
If these questions also interest you, the last thing I want to do is give you my answers. It’s not because I want to keep them to myself, it’s because I found that the making process was so valuable. It’s an engaging way to learn and one I wouldn’t take from you. I’ll outline some of the places I’ve experimented, below, as suggestions for where to start.
This is a free tool, used to create branching, interactive fiction. Finished projects can range in scope from simple narratives to more extensive, exploratory style games. Or, there is definitely potential for innovation within the model.
Learning Curve: Gentle
- Progression through your story is laid out visually and coherently, as you make it.
- Setting and checking variables within passages is straightforward.
- You can add visuals and audio.
- More complex projects may require knowledge of HTML and CSS.
- Anna Anthropy’s tutorial is comprehensive and easy to understand.
- Or, here is a Twine tutorial made in Twine.
- Arcadia, by Jonas Kyratzes. This cleverly combines different methods for providing choice.
- Depression Quest, by Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey and Isaac Shankler. This demonstrates use of non-standard themes and visuals, as well as evocative choice structure.
- Or, here is a Big List of Twine games.
Supported by Failbetter games, who made Fallen London, Storynexus is an open experiment into new approaches to choice and consequence driven storytelling. The model combines gameplay elements like chance, stat-based progression and inventory, with broader design concepts, like the potential for monetisation of your project.
Learning Curve: Middling
- The tools are organized intuitively, for ease of use.
- The model encourages imaginative storytelling.
- You’ll find the community very supportive and welcoming. Failbetter also run regular competitions.
- The model lends itself to certain styles of design and discourages others.
- The Storychoices wiki provides lots of inspiration.
- Or, specific questions can generally be answered by the manual.
- Samsara, by Meg Jayanth. Winner of Storynexus’ last Worlds of the Season Competition, this shows innovative use of game elements.
- Doghunt, by Kadir. This features clever character creation and writing that really, really makes you feel like a dog.
- Or, here is a list of all the currently published worlds. Many are in progress.
3. The Dragon Age Toolset
This is the toolset Bioware used to make Dragon Age: Origins, albeit with a few licensed properties missing. You can use it to make everything from light custom content to standalone, or add in, campaigns for the game, as long as you own a registered copy. It’s even enlightening just to read through Bioware’s own character dialogue, taking in flags, conditions and actions as you go. Or, delve into level design, cinematics, or any other aspect that piqued your curiosity, in game.
Learning Curve: Steep
- This toolset provides great insight into the development of AAA games.
- It functions via a system of plug-ins, meaning knowledge of scripting may be a relatively minor consideration.
- Because this toolset is intended for the use of a large team of designers, solo modding can be very time consuming.
- Although the community thrived after the release of Dragon Age: Origins, there has been a recent decrease in activity.
- The Dragon Age wiki has comprehensive information for beginners and experienced modders.
- People will generally answer questions and provide instruction in BioWare’s Toolset forum.
- The Carrion Birds, by Fergus Macpherson. This module shows how to effectively use slides and placeholder artwork in place of labour intensive cutscene and cinematic work.
- Baldur’s Gate 2 Redux. As an old school Bioware game, made in their new toolset, this demonstrates custom gameplay consequences.
- Fenris, by Dahlia Lynn. The Dragon Age toolset is also an education in cinematic design. This is an excellent example of machinima created by it.
So, if you decide to experiment with amateur games development, or modifying games, it’s entirely achievable. There are tools available and communities to learn alongside. Framing questions about design, before I started, helped focus my attention, so consider reflecting on the knowledge you already possess about games, first. Next, I’m off to dabble with Inform and Driftmoon’s toolset. More answers lie within.
Meghann O’Neill, @firkraags, has been a freelance contributor to PC Powerplay magazine for 5 years. If you’re looking for her, she’ll be madly modding something or lost in an 80s RPG.