Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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New England Gamer
November 2012

The Quandries of Choice

One of my favorite games of this generation is Red Dead Redemption. In fact, looking through the list of pieces I've written for this column, I was almost shocked to discover I had yet to write about it in any substantial way. The past ten years have had no shortage of games with moving story lines. This is, arguably, the generation of gaming where the idea of a video game telling a serious and poignant story has become less spectacular and more the norm. Red Dead Redemption, in turn, had one of the most impressive.

Taking place on the American frontier, the game followed John Marston, a former outlaw coerced into service by the American government. With his family held hostage John is forced to fight his way across the West, chasing down and killing his former cohorts. As his quest progresses the game examines the nature of redemption and progress, contrasting the ideals of the frontier with the, often bloody, realities of the march of progress.

In the end, John himself becomes a casualty. The government, having initially given John his family and life back in return for his compliance, decides that he's a liability and attacks his ranch. Up against impossible odds, John holds off the government soldiers so his family can attack, sacrificing himself as a final act of penance to give his wife and son the chance of a life in the "better" world he's being killed to make way for.

I shed a tear at the end of the story, in no small part because the game builds it up so perfectly. After you finish your work for the government, the game plays the perfect straight man, pretending that all is well and giving several more hours worth of story centered around John returning to his life. You get to see him be a normal person who loves his wife, wants to teach his son, and live in peace. He wants to be a good man.

You are, of course, free to completely forget this and go on a killing spree if you want. This is because, in addition to being an enthralling and moving story, Red Dead Redemption is also an open world game developed by Rockstar, the makers of Grand Theft Auto. And as any fan (or foe) of Rockstar's often controversial work can tell you, the core concept of their games is to give the player the option to do whatever they want. Here's a shortlist of the activities one can partake in Red Dead Redemption: murder, thievery, kidnapping, tying people to railroad tracks and waiting for the train to come. The game boasts one of the most beautiful, well painted worlds in a video game and then gives you free reign to paint it red.

It's a strategy that has worked well for them in the past. Rockstar, above all else, is famous for being the modern progenitors of the open world game. They practically invented the subgenre with Grand Theft Auto 3 and have been the perpetual masters of it ever since. If a game comes from Rockstar, people expect it to have an open world for them to play in.

It's something you can see them struggling with in their endeavors throughout this past generation. Whereas the games that made them famous, Grand Theft Auto 3 most of all, were often written with a tongue-in-cheek sensibility that kept them from ever narrating with any real sense of poignancy. With the release of Grand Theft Auto 4 in 2008 however, they opted to take a different tone with the game. There were still silly elements and jokes included, but the focus of the game was far more serious. Like Red Dead Redemption two years later, you played a world-weary protagonist trying to escape a life of violence who is inevitably drawn back into the fray by his family. With Grand Theft Auto 4 at least, Niko Bellic was morally gray enough that the game's plot was still plausible even if you chose to play him as a murderous psychopath.

In Red Dead Redemption, however, the character of John Marston is depicted as genuine and genuinely repentant. He is ashamed of his past sins and wants nothing more in the world than to keep his family from falling into the same soulless void he once climbed out of. The game's open world, in turn, often conflicts directly with John's tale of redemption because the player has the option of acting like the same sort of monster he's fought so hard to transcend. The game's extreme freedom of choice proves more of a liability to the experience of its narrative than it does a boon to the overall game.

Rockstar is far from the only developer to struggle with the consequences of including choice and freedom in video games. inFamous, one of my favorite games of this generation, played heavily with moral choices that would change the story depending on how you behaved. If you opted to behave heroically, defending the weak and what-not, the story would paint you as a good guy. If you chose to be evil on the other hand, you'd develop into a villain.

The problem was that players who went through and tried playing the game both ways (myself, for instance) often found that the developers clearly meant for your to be the hero. The protagonist, Cole, even when directed to be an all out sadist, never really changed personality wise. Save for a few added lines of dialogue here and there to clarify that he was indeed evil it was basically the same character. The developers didn't put in the work to make the morality mechanic anything more than a bullet point to dress up the game's box.

Not that I can't understand why a developer might be reluctant to put a lot of work into divergent story paths. At the end of the day, if the game is fun (which inFamous is in spades) and you have a story that you have your heart set on telling, finding the inspiration to create something radically different to satisfy those players who opted to take a different road must be a trial. This is especially true when a lot of gamers won't even bother to go through and try every alternative story that has been built for them. The problem is that when developers fail to go that extra mile, it shows.

Mass Effect 3, while not an open world game, was the third and final game in a trilogy that built entirely on player agency. Throughout the series major plot points could go markedly different routes, dependent on choices made by the player. The final game was supposed to wrap-up all these choices. It sold itself, in no small part, on how it would allow gamers to shape its final vision of the universe.

The results were infamously underwhelming. In the end all of the choices players had made, all the work they had done in the game, amounted almost to nothing. The ending was dictated by one of three choices presented to you in the last five minutes.

When faced with the nightmare scenario of having to actually deliver on a title that resolved dozens of potential branching paths, they opted for the easy way out. It was a move that led to a revolt amongst many of developer Bioware's most vocal fans and an unprecedented decline in the prestige of one of the most revered studios in the industry.

Even with the shadow of such failures looming large, there have been games that demonstrate just how well freedom and choice can be integrated into video games. The Witcher 2, released the same year as Mass Effect 3, is widely considered one of the best RPGs to come out in years, predominately, because of its devotion to meaningful choice. There are choices in the game that can completely alter how the rest of the story will turn out. Picking one path can literally lead you to a completely different place and conclusion from somebody else playing the same game.

On the smaller scale, The Walking Dead, an episodic series of games based on the popular comic franchise, has proven itself to be perhaps the greatest example of how to do choice in a linear narrative. Rather than giving choices that affect the course of the story, the game has focused on giving the player agency over how their character reacts to different circumstances. You shape your character rather than the story. The differences come not from shifting plot points but the changes in the way other cast members see and react to you and your actions.

There is hope even from the likes of Rockstar, who have struggled with dueling forces of narrative and choice. With the lessons of Grand Theft Auto 4 and Red Dead Redemption kept in mind they've begun developing their next game, Grand Theft Auto V, specifically with the intent of fashioning a story that can be poignant regardless of how the player opts to play. Pioneers as they have been through the years, I can only hope it's a goal they'll accomplish so that others might see the light and follow them down the path to freedom.

Read more by Stewart Shearer

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