A Road Less Traveled

A Road Less Traveled

I’ve never been interested in competitive gaming. I held my own in gym class in high school when we were forced to play sports, but in the realm of video games, I’ve never liked going up against other people. For me, it may have something to do with being a writer. Investing time and energy into a character, even a character not entirely my own creation, attaches me to it. I don’t want anyone killing off my hard work (even if I’m going to pop back out of the grave moments later) and I don’t want to destroy anyone else’s hard work either.

I’ve always been drawn to games with interesting stories. The first video game I loved was Myst (that probably makes me old). Don’t get me wrong, I cut my teeth on the SNES. I played every Super Mario game until I had at least half the levels memorized, and I got frustrated over the insanely hard Star Wars games. But those were a different breed of video game. Platformers were always about skill and timing, but Myst had a storyline and it immersed me in it. Plus, it had multiple endings.

When I got hung up on Myst’s sequel, Riven, I turned to other popular story oriented games. Final Fantasy VII was big at the time (non-sprite graphics! Cutscenes!) and I sunk many hours into the game’s various sidequests. (I’m a completionist.) Sadly, though I eventually beat the final boss, I never finished the ten thousand things there were to do in the game. I got sick of it. But there were plenty of other interesting stories waiting for me in other games. I never regretted pouring a hundred hours into a game if the storyline was interesting enough.

Video games have evolved since my childhood. I’ve watched that evolution with interest. Story, immersion in the game world, and compelling characters have become mainstays in the industry. Even first-person shooter games often have a story mode. Gone are the days of repetitive, cyclical gameplay with occasional increases in difficulty. Players want something else to mark their progression through the game, something more meaningful than a higher numerical level and a new sword to equip on their party leader (though both those things are nice). People want a challenge beyond good aim, beyond problem solving and beyond good strategy.

We want choices. Difficult choices. Choices that, once made, influence the outcome of the storyline for better or for worse.

Choice is really what marks the difference between games and other forms of captive entertainment. You don’t generally get to choose the ending of the movie. Aside from Choose Your Own adventure novels, you don’t get to tell the main character what to do in a book either. Games have always been like interactive movies; you get to control the character during all the actiony bits of their story. The Metal Gear Solid series is a perfect example of this. Even the oldest game rendered cinematic sequences using in-game graphics (in all their pixelated glory). But while they are interactive stories, the endings are still largely determined before you start to play.

In older video games, most choices are arbitrary. In Final Fantasy VII, for example, you can choose to be mean or nice to certain characters to affect their responses to Cloud (the main character) later in the game. But no matter what you choose, the story ends the same way every time and the differences in scripted events are minimal. Even Myst’s multiple endings are largely arbitrary; there’s only one correct choice. The original Metal Gear Solid has two endings; one occurs if you pass an in game event and the other occurs if you fail. The only real choice there is whether or not to throw up your hands in frustration. Now that the mechanics governing games have grown more complex, it’s possible to have several branches leading from one point, then several more from another later part of the story and so on. This allows the player to leave some kind of mark on the game world, to feel like they’ve influenced the world they’ve immersed themselves in. If not for them, something in the game world would be different.

These choices should have no right or wrong answer. Games sometimes present moral questions which take you down the path of good or evil, but most people consider that the cheap way out. We want questions that challenge us to think about the two outcomes, questions with moral ambiguity, where each choice has benefits and pitfalls. We want good endings born out of hard work and sacrifice. We want bad endings that occur, not because we cackled evilly and took the dick-headed path, because we made honest mistakes with the best of intentions. We want worlds and scenarios built with onion-like layers that we slowly peel away, making decisions that take us down roads others haven’t decided to travel, so that we arrive at the end of the story feeling like it was ours and we shaped it. And sometimes, we don’t want to play again to see how the other choices work out. Sometimes we want to be forced to come to terms with our decisions and make peace that we chose the right path.

Those are the kinds of games at which I will gladly throw hundreds of hours, despite a lack of competition to keep it going. As a gamer, I hope to see more games like Dragon Age, Mass Effect, The Witcher 2 and even Bastion, games that make you consider difficult situations and shape the outcome around your decisions. Mass Effect even lets you load previous game saves into each new installment, increasing the different possible outcomes for each successive game.

One of my favorite gaming commentators, Total Biscuit, once said that gaming is about moments; moments you remember. Competitive and cooperative games offer opportunities to form memories around events which occur in the game. It’s the interaction with others, the unpredictability, that makes the moment memorable. In lieu of other people to influence events, without random chance to play a role in the creation of memory, RPGs need to offer the player a decision powerful enough to draw the dilemma to mind in the future. You know you’ve witnessed a good movie when you walk out of the theater still pondering the events and themes called to mind by the plot. You know you’ve played a good game when you wonder if you’ve made the right decision or spend an afternoon planing the next course you’d like to take through a game you’ve already played.

Ultimately, we want to experience our games, not just witness them. That’s the allure of role playing games.

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