I read a couple of posts online recently that helped me put into words some thinking I’ve occasionally kicked around my brainspace in the last year or so.
Via the Burning Wheel forum, I came to a post on the web log of a fellow named James Wallis (the name rings a bell, but I’m not sure from where). Anyway, in this posting James discusses heroism and how both computer/video games and tabletop RPGs treat it. Please, go and read it, even though I’m going to tell you the gist of it, which is that computer/video games have made failure uninteresting and dull, and that the best, most meaningful way to reverse that is to give the player “actual challenge”, which Wallis basically defines as the consequences of risk to more than just the character’s life, to what the character holds dear outside of personal survival.
There are some fairly obvious things getting in the way of this, of course. The first is character investment. No matter how deep a given character might be, it must still hook its audience into its story. The player has got to give a shit about that character (and by extension what the character holds dear), or else the challenges the character faces won’t mean squat. Secondly, the game must ensure the player can direct how the character faces those choices. Thirdly, the game must ensure that the consequences of those choices present challenges that the player will still find compelling.
A computer game is restricted in how it deals with these three things. Firstly, a game plot, no matter how dynamic it may seem, is static. Even a computer game as sophisticated as the upcoming Mass Effect has been made out to be is a static item. The lead character’s story has already been written; the ways the character can change as a result of the choices it makes are already decided. If you’ve seen any gameplay videos of Mass Effect, you’ll have probably seen its vaunted “conversation tree” system, where you can choose how you respond to another character at almost any point in the conversation. The thing is, once you, the player, pick one of the three-to-four word summaries of your character’s options, the nature of the character’s response is out of your hands. Its tone of voice might be different than you imagined, it might point a gun in an adversary’s face when you thought it’d be cooler (and more in keeping with your idea of the character) to just rest your hand on your gun in its holster, and the adversary can only react in a pre-set way to that response. Effectively, you’re choosing between someone else’s judgments on your character (if I do A, the character becomes more of a good guy; if I do B, he turns into more of an asshole), and even though that big, branching network of moments of judgment might be large and complex, it’s still fixed. It's not tailored to you; it can't be. The game must sell enough copies to make a profit, and as such must reach the highest percentage of its target demographicthat it can.
Therein lies the problem that ties those computer and video games that use narratives back to their “older school” brethren, movies, TV shows, books and comics. Although they seem participatory, the player can’t really participate in a truly meaningful way with their narratives. Holy shit – I just realised. They’re “Choose Your Own Adventure” (or “Fighting Fantasy”) books – highly sophisticated ones with whopping great production values (and their text would probably be the size of the Bible instead of a small paperback), but still very much “If you turn left, go to page 15. If you turn right, go to page 127.”
There’s another issue here, one I only just grasped today. One of the great things about the current and recent crops of character-based TV shows (Heroes, The Shield, Battlestar Galactica, Desperate Housewives, etc.) is what the TV industry has started calling the “water-cooler moment”, when a bunch of people get together after watching an episode of the show and not only discuss the show, but – and here’s the important part, for the purposes of this discussion – what the actions of the lead characters meant to them (the watchers, not the characters). This is interesting because, in theory, by discussing those “oomph” moments, where you as an audience member suddenly formed an opinion about the sort of person that the character is, with someone else” who had their own “oomph” moment, their own judgment, you find out more about that other person, and ideally, about yourself (that’s right, kids, fiction can help you grow).
Now, as I mentioned earlier on, the ways the lead characters on a TV show change are even more out of the audience’s hands than those in a computer game. But here’s another problem. A few years ago, I read an editor’s article in a gaming magazine, maybe PC Power Play¸ which I thought was bollocks at the time but it suddenly making more sense to me. He was discussing the recent release of Warren Spector’s RPG/shooter hybrid opus, Deus Ex (that ought to date it), but instead of praising the branching, each-player-experiences-it-differently storyline like everyone else, he was actually lamenting the freedom-to-experience-it-your-own-way the game offered. His main argument, if I remember rightly, was that because everyone was experiencing a slightly or even drastically different game from everyone else, it was extremely unlikely that anyone would have any common ground on which to meaningfully discuss his or her play experience with anyone else. In other words, the extreme customisability of the single player experience In other words, the extreme customisability of the single player experience cut down on the number of water-cooler moments; it's an antisocial element.
The only way around this, he said, is to play the game multiple times, making different decisions each time – and even though these games are often advertised on their replayability, how many people play such a spanning, thirty-to-sixty hours game as Deus Ex, or Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, or Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, more than once? Very few, he argued, and although he didn’t have more than anecdotal evidence, I found myself agreeing with his assessment. Hell, I’ve occasionally slapped KotOR into the Xbox CD tray, but I’ve never played for more than half an hour before I’ve gotten bored with doing all the same stuff – and “taking the other path” just doesn’t interest me, as much as I'd love to show off that drily homicidal droid HK-47 to all and sundry.
An immediate suggestion to change this would be to somehow add a co-operative multiplayer element to these games; let a group of players make a character each and enter the game world. That suggestion, though, would doubtlessly leave even the legendary gamemakers at Bioware and Bethesda shaking their heads. It’s enough trouble creating a complex and involving branching-story for a single player. How do you create several of them, not just to be played out simultaneously, but also influencing each other? How does a single game cater to teams of varying sizes? God knows, Bungie had a tough enough time crafting a compelling two-to-four-player tactical co-op experience for Halo 3. Chuck in a storyline for not just the Chief and the Arbiter, but their two voiceless Elite backups, and allow each player to have an impact on the other’s story… How the hell does a pre-designed game story tree do that?
There is an answer, of sorts. Get somebody to tailor the story on-the-fly to the players. Someone who can decide whether, and how, an NPC would react if a player makes a subtle threat instead of an overt one, or out of nowhere decides to threaten the NPC’s family. Now, this is something that no home console or PC can do, and may never be able to do. I’ve long maintained that meaningful stories about human beings can only be told through human beings, and I believe it takes another human being to determine what sort of pressure should next be brought to bear on a player character.
At the moment, computer games are still catching up to this ideal of enabling a human being to manage a plot being played through by other human beings. The first serious commercial attempts at this are, I think, Bioware’s Neverwinter Nights games, which have long been praised for the tools they provide for user-generated content. Those tools, however, haven’t been exactly easy to use; the first iteration of the Aurora engine for Neverwinter Nights required prospective DMs and builders of modules (parcels of plots and settings which usually have a linear, branching story like regular computer-RPGs) to learn how to program using a language similar to Visual Basic, and that’s just for the creation of encounters and scripted plot events. Current generations may be easier to use, but still require a large amount of very methodical pre-preparation, with no necessary guarantee that players will enjoy the content created, especially if the players are people the designer has never met. Actually going beyond the scenery, characters and monsters provided by the game requires full-on 3D design and animation software like 3DStudioMax and the skill to use it competently. Actually taking all of this and using it to create character-based plot events on the fly for a bunch of friends playing online must be another order of magnitude entirely; so much so that I’m not sure anyone’s done it successfully.
Tabletop RPGs, of course, have had someone doing this for most their entire history. That someone occupies the role most commonly known as “game master”. Whether the pressure is purely tactical, purely character-based or a mix of both, it’s the game master who reads the group of players and, to borrow from Robin Laws, decides what the most entertaining thing that he or she can do next is, what the nature of the pressure to come will be, whom it should be applied to and when to apply it. A one-paragraph description can usually enable players to imagine the sort of sets props, scenes and characters that games still can’t quite reach with multi-million dollar budgets and 1080p graphics. A game master can adjust a non-player character’s reaction to a player’s action and tailor a response specifically to that the player and the group that both are part of more responsively than the fastest console and most detailed conversation tree. And the recent couple of generations of roleplaying games that have focused on narrative (Sorcerer, Dogs in the Vineyard, Primetime Adventures) or combined narrative with tactical challenge, witht the latter serving the former (Burning Empires) have shown that a whole series of successful, thoroughly-enjoyed game sessions with meaningful and meaty risks to what player characters hold dear can be created with not much more preparation time than a day’s worth of work between world/character creation and the first episode. Helli, the designer of Dogs in the Vineyard all but admits in the text that his game is intended to enable a group to create water-cooler moments and discuss them amongst each other afterwards.
Even so, for a hobby that’s been going around thirty years, it’s taken until the very late nineties for a sizeable body of RPG product to appear which bases its core rule set around generating character-based pressure. Most of the titles mentioned above have only been published since 2003. How long it will take the computer and video game industry to successfully implement the methods of play these tabletop RPGs pioneer, if ever, is anyone’s guess. This is why I think, for the moment at least, the tabletop roleplaying game is the only venue in which James Wallis’ ideal of meaningful heroism in a game can occur.