Friday, February 10, 2017

Multiple Choice

"When we set out on this journey
There were no doubts in our minds
We set our eyes to the distance
We'd find what we would find
We spoke our fear to the captain
Asked what his son could know
We'd never've marched so far
To be food for a crow."

Sting - Something the Boy Said

I R spoilery before warned of tormented geeks were plane pillars lined with eternal blood.
No, playing a Malkavian's not rubbing off on me at all. Why do you ask?

So, about a third or halfway through V:tM - Bloodlines, the big cheese wants you to advance the main plot by tracking down a lunatic in his own asylum.
You can refuse. After all you have options (see? one-two-three of them) and one of them is to tell Princey-poo he's not the boss of you! Unfortunately Prince LaCroix's a Ventrue so if you insist on resisting and desisting he just mind-assists you into persisting. You still have three options.
I love that gimmick.

But enough about computer games for today. Let's talk webcomics.
Weregeek ran a quaint strip last week in which a D&D player eats some red berries.

Oh, wait, we're still talking about computer games, because I remember where I've seen that scenario recently. One of the last quests in Pillars of Eternity has you chase down the cause of murderous fits among some miners. Your trail ultimately leads you to the culprit, a gigantic mushroom of the kind you've fought all through the game, the kind that can spew psychotropic spores at your party members and turn them berserk. Its room is filled with spores. Dialogue ensues. I'm rather proud of the fact that when faced with the inhuman mind-altering monstrosity spewing a haze of spores, my first and only reaction was to breathe in deep.
Kana's meek attempt at talking sense into big bad lupine me is just hilarious.
Eating the red berries in this case results in you starting the inevitable boss fight confused and attacking your teammates randomly. Now, of course long-time RPG-ers have been trained to play the hero, to play nice, to try to mediate because when that dialogue option's available the rewards are artificially inflated in its favor so we can pretend to be morally upright. See my ruling in the case of Damocles v. Narcissus. The scenario presented in Weregeek, where the blatantly crazy/stupid option advances the plot, gains you new allies and gets you phat lewt to boot, has been overused to the point where players actively choose the supposedly risky or self-sacrificing option not for altruism or the adventuring spirit but because they cynically expect to profit more from it as per RPG boilerplate.

Of course, in my case with the radiant spore, I just wanted to see what happened. I even doubled down and asked it to tell me where it comes from because I honestly thought the game's writers would've included some quaint backstory about some mysteeeerious hidden boreal jungle valley ruled by an interlinked mycelial hive-mind... before I get my comeupins. I didn't doubt stopping to smell this particular rose would have some kind of negative repercussions. I was just willing to pay the piper when it came to that. Sometimes, curiousity really does yield a high feline mortality rate, and that's oh-kay!

Take Planescape:Torment for instance. You're repeatedly warned not to antagonize the queen bitch of the center of the multiverse by either mocking or praying to her. Try to just avoid the bad-ass giant floating broad with knives sticking out of her skull. Still, at one point you acquire a crude voodoo effigy of the Lady of Pain, and can proceed to poke the bear. Repeatedly.
Now a first offense results in Her Paininess showing up and locking you in the Player's Maze. A second offense means death - actually one of the very few ways your immmortal self can truly die in Torment. Visiting the player's maze is not necessary to complete the game, but hey, it's another zone to explore, right?

RPGs are supposed to be about player choice. Even if time/budget constraints restrict games from becoming truly endless "choose your own adventure" stories with every possible action covered, the goal should still be to offer players a chance to make their choice. Some of us happen to like red berries.

First of all, stop filling games with trite "kumbaya" scenarios. The myconid dialogue's much more plausible in Pillars of Eternity than Weregeek's reiteration. No, there's no reason to think an utterly alien creature just needs a hug to realize it wants to be your friend. If anything, a highly cohesive culture will be even more xenophobic. Like hates unlike.

Second, self-destruction's an art form. Allow the player to stand on principle, knowing it to be a losing proposition. See how many paladins give their money to orphans when it just means losing money, doesn't get them a reputation boost with Neverwinter or a fat exp bonus. See how many will still talk smack to the bigwigs when it means losing a mission bonus. Make it ambiguous, alternating good and bad outcomes (player's maze vs. death) for similar decisions in similar situations. Keep players guessing. Daring deeds are nothing without risk.

Finally, at least allow a pro forma display of personal choice. Even if genuflecting before the big vamp in charge is necessary to advance the plot, let me do so under protest. And, if you're forcing a particular gameplay choice or outcome on me, at least have the decency to admit that all your dialogue options lead to "yes sir."

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