Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Good and Evil

Choice is something that more and more games seem to be granting us these days. Upon making the initial choice of whether or not to pick the game off of the shelf, and then the following choice of whether to pay for it, or knee cap the shop assistant and run off with it, some games still continue to give you decisions to make at every turn. They do this in very different ways as well, but more often than not, there usually only tend to be two extremes. Left or right, good or evil, skirt or trousers, chainsaw in the face or walk around, we are getting some freedoms in games to do whatever we want, but within preset boundaries.

In Bioshock for instance, the choices here involve liberating, and therefore helping little girls, or violently punching your hand through their chest to recover a parasitic sea slug. The more you save or slaughter depends on the outcome and ending cut scene of the game. Whilst this seems like a bit of a good or evil choice, if you ask me, if you even decide to brutalise one four year old girl with your bare hands, and let the others go free, you are still rather evil. Killing a child to see if it tickles your fancy, only to spare her siblings still gets you the good ending, rather than the grey one that the players state of mind would suit.

Lately I have been playing about on deity simulator, Black & White 2. The basis of the game is that you advance through various lands helping the Greek people flourish. You can do this by nurturing your people and making the other nations see that your race of people believe in the one true god, and so they come under your banner of impressiveness. The other method of doing this is by becoming a wrathful god of war, who will destroy all of those in his path. With a name like 'Black & White' you would have thought that best way to get through the game would be to take one extreme over the other. I set out trying to be an evil over lord, oppressing my people and making sure that they respected me through fear. I also decided that they need a ready supply of food so that they could stay alive to follow me. The creature, my physical tool on the Earth was supposed to be my doom bringer. I had to stop him from eating my followers though, as without followers worshipping me, I was not really a very effective God. I also trained him to water crops and build houses for my people because he did it a lot better than they ever did. Before I knew it, my evil disciple of hell who I envisaged would be Hitler in animal form turned out to be as soft as a bunny, and that the village children liked to hug him. In then end, the extent of my evil was that I built my followers a lot of shoddy accommodation and I flattened the occasional opposing army.

The trouble was, the best way to get anything done was not to go black or white, but stay a boring shade of grey. This meant that my harbinger of doom was as soft as a puppy to my people, but about as friendly as a hornet having it's period to anything else. In ways this was good, but it did not really identify me as being good or evil, only as neutral, occasionally dipping either side of the line.

The best choice driven games, in my opinion, are the ones that funnel you down certain routes depending on your actions. House of the Dead 2 for example, relied on how quick on the draw you were, as to whether you get in the building through the door or the window. Decisions that the player makes in that split second that can define how you play the game are fantastic. There is no neutral decision or outcome, you either do it or you don't and then play with the cards you are dealt.

I have never played the Silent Hill games extensively, but they have multiple endings, some of them crazy, and which one you get depends on how you get through the game. Most of them are plausible, and help tie the answers up, but others were clearly thrown in as a joke. This ending for Silent Hill 2 for example is my favourite because it is so obscure compared to the rest of an, already very odd game.

Giving the player more choice than 'kill the bad men or get killed by them' is still a relatively new concept to games. It is still in development, and a game that offers significant levels of differences based on all of the player's actions is yet to come about. No doubt that in time however, this will come into its own and might even become a mainstream mechanic in gaming, rather than following a single story line on one track.


sconzey said...

Actually, linear can be good sometimes. Half Life 2 was very linear, basically scripted, but because it never felt like a constriction, more like a guiding hand, there were none of those fustrating moments when you thought "I wish there was another way"

Anthony said...

A very good point. I do really love games like Half Life and Metal Gear Solid. The stories are fantastic and can be very immersive, especially in Half Lifes style of no cut scenes, but actually placing you in the middle of all the dialogue.

The games that do offer choices however, I feel are still a bit limited in what they promise at the moment, and it is an opportunity that some games developer could capitalise on soon.

sconzey said...

Eh, there was an article I read ages ago that contrasted "macro" and "micro" (non)linearity in games. The idea was that if you got a choice between more than one way to complete a mission it was micro non-linear (Deus Ex).

But if you got a choice between what path to cut across the game-universe, that that was macro non-linear (GTA IV, et. al.)

sconzey said...

Macro-linearity is good, but as far as I can tell nobody understands how to preserve the movement of the narrative in a non-linear game. I've been really interested recently in what's been loosely termed "hyperstories".

When you're telling a story in hypertext you've got half a dozen extra degrees of freedom over print-storytelling: optional backstories and biographies for characters, hidden scenes, story side-tracks that the reader can explore if they want to.

It's something you see a little of in MMORPGs: in WoW, certain quests would have a story to them, and as you completed them you advanced the narrative, all in a game world which was macro non-linear.