Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Hidden Choice

I must preface this post by saying it contains Mass Effect 2 spoilers! If you have not finished Mass Effect 2, please tune out right now!

I read an interesting post today of someone complaining about the possibility that your crew can die in Mass Effect 2. Specifically, it talks about the attack that occurs after the Reaper IFF mission, where your crew members get abducted. Unless you immediately rush to the Collector Base, then your crew gets turned into synthetic reaper paste. The player concerned was not happy that they had no warning that this would occur.

My initial response was to reply that the player is warned repeatedly that they need to prepare for the IFF mission. This prompted many players to do everything they could before undertaking the IFF mission, allowing them to save all the crew. However, it can also be argued that urgency is pressed upon the player for many different sidequests that have no repercussions should the player not immediately undertake them. Not pursuing the collectors is the only situation in which mission choice has a tangible in-game effect.

The complaint raises an interesting RPG design point, in that the player is making a choice, but they do not necessarily realise that they are making a choice. In many cases, the player is asked to deal with something as quickly as possible, but this is the only one in which that actually matters. Should the player suspect that something might be amiss? Certainly a lot of dialogue reflects the potential need to build up a team before doing the IFF, and also rescuing the crew immediately after they are kidnapped.

Arguably the reason some players consider it an issue is because it was unexpected, and players assumed they could carry out jobs in whatever order they want without penalty. However, this isn't necessarily the case in sandbox games with time like Oblivion or Fallout 3, and even Baldur's Gate 2 had some in-game time/date dependent occurrences.

Yet the screenshot above indicates the clear difference between Mass Effect 2 and those games. Time was obviously and clearly worked into all three of those games. You have a clock and a calendar and the appearance of areas changed from day to night, giving you the clear indication that time was actively passing and you were in a timely game environment. In Mass Effect (and Dragon Age), there is no dynamic lighting - even if you stay in an area for an entire real-time day, it will remain exactly the same.

Should a player be expected to realise that there is a time dependent quest in a game that does not indicate the passing of time in any significant manner? Arguably not, despite the multiple verbal warnings they receive. Time is never impressed upon the player as something that matters, and has little effect on the game as a whole.

Alternatively, we could accept this as a new "standard" RPG mechanism, and players can now expect more effects to come as a result of which quests or exploration they pursue at points within a game. Obviously this presents a massive overhead on developers. Now designers not only have to cater for the "active" choices that players makes (whether to kill an NPC, or pick a good/bad dialogue choice), but also "passive" choices like whether they pursued a particular quest line "in time". So I don't expect that it will occur on a large scale - perhaps a few key instances at most.

A "macro" level time limit imposed by quest choice presents an interesting dilemma for players. Even used sparingly, if the player "suffers" as a result of delaying a quest, no matter how small that effect, it now places a seed of doubt and urgency into their mind. Players are typically complacent when it comes to most quests, simply because they know as a function of accessibility and choice, quests can typically be left as long as the player likes to complete. If this isn't the case, the player could miss out on content, which tends to upset players, so game companies (typically) don't do it.

Yet even a few quests which present consequences if not performed in a timely manner will impress a sense of urgency upon the player. They will potentially feel torn about which quest to pursue next, rather than trying to pick which quest will give them the most xp/best loot/romance/etc.

Of course, it's still possible to cheat this system. Gamers can find out which quests have these effects, complete them, and then explore and quest freely to their heart's content when they are able. But in a general sense, a few well implemented quests that have consequences if not completed in a timely manner could be a great boon, and significantly improve the overall realism of the fictional world of an RPG.

No comments:

Post a Comment