Blog—”You Have To” vs. “I Want To”

While cooking dinner, I (re)watched the Sequelitis episode on The Legend of Zelda. And, I mean, he’s right. About pretty much everything he said, including Ocarina of Time being mind-blowingly awesome at the time of its release, despite all of its now objectively clear flaws.

The reason I bring this up is because what Arin (“Egoraptor”) mentions has a lot to do with game design. What makes a game “good” and “fun,” and what’s the difference between actual difficulty and illusory difficulty? What’s the difference between illusory difficulty and hype? And most importantly, how can I work these things into Shadowrun: New Orleans, a game far more reliant on text, and separating combat and story/exploration phases of the game?

I want to note: the SR:R engine isn’t designed to be an exploration game. In fact, I feel like one of my criticisms of Dragonfall, the Director’s Cut, is that it front-loads almost all of its missions right out of the gate. You get back from taking in Blitz and you’re flooded with requests from Gunari, the sewer guys, the doctor, the anti-Humanis run. You can be Crew Level 3 or even 4 before you ever go on an “actual” Shadowrun. With all the new content in the DC, you can be at 40,000+ nuyen of your 50,000 for the Alice fund having barely touched the mission computer. And that feels weird. Maybe players like that much freedom, but I feel like the protagonist in the DC suffered a bit much from what I call “Space Jesus Syndrome”.

To explain what I mean, we have to go looking at another RPG lauded for its story, which largely separates its game largely into “combat” and “non-combat” areas.

I’m talkin’ Mass Effect 2.

Mass Effect 2 is a game built on “optional” side quests. Every single one of your crew members, even the DLC addons, has a thing that they absolutely cannot solve without the presence of the great Commander Shepard. And it makes the game feel less like you’re going on this epic space adventure and more like, “I’m Commander Shepard and I’m here to deal with your shit so we can move on with the story.”

For the record, because I know I’ve already pissed off someone reading this, I fucking loved ME2. But that doesn’t mean it was perfect, and I’m afraid Andromeda is going to fall into the same pitfall that Skyward Sword did after Ocarina of Time, and it is in my interest as a level designer and story writer to isolate the problem so I do not make it.

So what does this have to do with Dragonfall?

I’m just gonna come out and say it: I liked Dragonfall when Glory didn’t have a loyalty mission. I liked Glory’s mission, don’t get me wrong. I think it was interesting and well-designed, and I commend the writers on having variable endings for it, as well as an actual puzzle with difficulty and morality strewn about it. I hated that Glory had a mission. Maybe that feels weird, and I know a lot of people will disagree with me, but in the end of DLC Dragonfall, when everyone’s doing their “gather ’round, team, yeah!” happily-ever-after shit, Glory’s the one who’s like, “I’m out.” And everyone’s like, “Bwuh?” And if you talked to Glory and learned about her, you’re okay with this. You know she’s got shit on her plate, and so you say, “If you need me, call.” There’s an understanding. A respect. There’s also a story beyond the scope of the protagonist. The world feels bigger than them, and the story, the Dragonfall arc for the protagonist—with that crew and that problem…it’s done.

Here’s where you say, “Well, if you don’t like it, don’t do it.”

Peter Parker from the latest Civil War movie sums up my response to that pretty succinctly, but I’m going to alter some words to make it fit my point a little better:

If you’re given a choice to help someone, and you don’t, and something bad happens to them, it’s effectively your fault.

You can’t set up Glory’s mission like it is in the Director’s Cut and then expect a player to turn it down. That’s like how, in Mass Effect 2, you can’t expect players who know how to beat the suicide mission with no casualties to do anything less than that save for morbid curiosity. At that point you’re not making choices; you’re doing chores. It’s no longer about what a player wants to do, but has to do to achieve the objectively optimal ending.

I feel like it cheapens characters’ independence when all of them have a thing that they need Fearless Leader to help them out with.

Introducing variables like the ones available for Glory’s resolution also means you’ve just introduced unnecessary variables should you want to produce later content. My biggest criticism with Mass Effect 2 is that it forced the writing of Mass Effect 3 into a series of cut-and-paste dialogue read by one of two voice actors, then bragged about how there was more dialogue in their game than any other in history. And while that’s also true about Mass Effect 1 to 2 with Wrex and the Virmire Survivor, those were isolated scenes, not 90% of the fucking game.

Let’s say I wanted to put Glory in my UGC. I don’t, but hypothetically, let’s say I did. In the pre-Director’s Cut Dragonfall, you know where she’s going and what she’s after. She has a clear motivation.

Side note: You want to know what makes characters feel both real and interesting? It’s very simple: make them want something. And I use that word specifically. Characters have both wants and needs, just like real people, and while many times those things overlap, it’s wants that make people, from real humans and fictional beings, absolutely fascinating. Whether it’s a good cup of coffee, or a strawberry pastry, or a kiss from a boy, or a million dollars; sometimes it’s absurdly petty things, but those are the things friends and audiences latch on to. When Glory wanted to pursue Harrow, but couldn’t because of this big ole dragon thing happening, she was more fascinating than the Glory who needed that and had that shit taken care of for her.

Anyways, if I wanted to, I could achieve enough of an understanding to put Glory in a UGC post-Dragonfall, and if I stuck to that understanding, most if not anyone who played that UGC would say, “Yep, that’s the Glory I know and remember.” But by adding the variable outcomes of her loyalty quest, someone could write Glory and another person could play it and say, “But that’s not how Glory turned out in my Dragonfall.” You could write multiple versions of the scene, sure, but that brings us back to the problem of ME3—you just made more work for yourself. Basically double.

Now, I’m not saying characters or stories should always be written with sequels or stuff in mind, but I will say that I think a player’s imagination serves them better than any reality ever could. I admitted earlier that I liked Glory’s mission, and I’ll stick to that. But there was a wonder back before the DC, an anticipation. Again, there was this feeling that the world was bigger than the player character, and it lost some of that when Glory and Eiger got their loyalty missions.

Surely, almost any game with a narrative arc is going to have an instance of “You need to…” at some point. Probably multiple. But I do agree when Egoraptor says that the game should be forward propelled by the player saying “I want to kill bad guys. I want to be a hero (or a villain, depending on how you look at it). I want to go there. Do that.” And it’s my job to not block them. I’m going to get a bit into the puzzler’s paradox in a later post, and so I’ll leave this here for now. But think about that.

If you want to, I mean.