Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Choice in Gameplay

There has been a TON of talk about videogame choice and how it should be done. I have no particular reason to believe that what I have to say hasn't been said before, but even if it has been said a thousand times my repeating it can only add pressure toward applying it. That said, I want to talk about implementing choice in terms of gameplay mechanics and systems. I'm not here to talk about the artistic or writing side this time.

I like to think that videogame choices can be split up and categorized. I would probably list them primarily as plot effective choices, gameplay choices, and role-playing choices. Put simply plot effective choices alter the story and effect the ending, gameplay choices are choices you make about how you play, and role-playing choices are choices about how you roleplay your character. This is sufficient for most game system analysis.

I'm not here to talk about choice in general though, I'm here to whine about how all games aren't more like MechWarrior 4 Mercenaries or MechWarrior 2 Mercenaries when it comes to choice. Did you expect any less?

The conventional wisdom seems to be that during the gameplay you make roleplay and gameplay choices, and during conversation you make plot effective and roleplay choices. I don't knock using this as a general structure in some games, but it's way too prevalent and I don't think it's the best. In my opinion, games should be having you make plot effective choices during gameplay. This means that instead of having the option to shoot person X or person Y and having an menu pop up to pick one, you put a gun in the player's hand and let them do what they want.

You can argue that there are problems with this. What if the player shoots both, or what if they shoot neither? What if the player makes a mistake, or isn't sure how what they're doing will effect the plot? Of course I think this gives the game designer the opportunity to allow more choices and more endings, or maybe even discuss making choices without knowing the repercussions in a more "artsy" game, but there are many easy ways to eliminate these problems without impacting the normal story progression. Refuse to let the game progress until the player pops someone, and then progress immediately so as to prevent the player from shooting both of them for example. And seriously, as a game designer, your job is to come up with clever, artistic and entertaining ways to solve problems like these anyway.

Let's go to MechWarrior 2 Mercenaries for an example. Technically speaking, MechWarrior 4 Mercenaries is better about having multiple possible endings which are different based on your choices throughout the entire game, but my example isn't about that and is thus taken from the older game.

I took a contract to attack some rebel base and weed out the resistance. We scanned them at three heavy weight 'mechs. Our lance was another three heavy's, plus my assault weight 'mech. If you know anything about tactics or mechwarrior, you know that in a 3 on 3 battle, adding an extra assault weight to one side makes a HUGE difference, especially when all the others are heavy. This pretty much sealed our victory. However, on approach to the targets, my radio sounded with the voice of one of the rebel pilots. They were offering me double pay to defect. Do you think the game gave me a multiple choice question with defined moral right and wrong? NO! The game just gave me the option, and let me decide what to do. Blast your friendlies and join the rebels fighting against them, run off and leave them to the rebels, or ignore them and crush the resistance, and the game will side with your morals and progress accordingly, all without breaking gameplay or action flow.

I may seem to be sounding the horn of awesome for MechWarrior 2 Mercenaries, when it really does have lots of flaws. Remember to take this as an example, nothing more. And no, I'm not saying that no other game has ever done this. As a matter of fact, someone said Saints Row the Third may have, which would be a total plus. But ponder if you will, how these kinds of choices could affect the flow and design of a game if they were more widespread and explored. They open up tons of opportunities for both artistic and entertaining moments. I know I'd certainly like to see more games with choices I could make like this.


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