Extra Punctuation

Extra Punctuation
There's Not Much Role-Playing in Role-Playing Games These Days

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw | 11 Apr 2017 21:05
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If you're wondering why Extra Punctuation doesn't seem to show up as often as it used to, it's because it had gone on long enough that I started to feel like I was repeating myself, and rather than feeling obliged to force out a page of rambly bollocks I should only do them when there's something about the most recently ZPed game that I really genuinely want to write about. So here we are. I want to talk about role playing. And why it seems to be such a very small part of what are termed "role-playing games" these days.

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Mass Effect Andromeda, like most of the flea-bitten, blank-eyed mules that populate the Bioware stable, features a conversation system wherein you pick what mood your character will adopt with each reply. Will you answer casually, professionally, aggressively, emotionally, or with intelligence, the latter of which always seeming to make Ryder sound like he's somewhere on the autistic spectrum? Well, don't dwell on the decision too much, because it doesn't seem to matter the slightest bit. Other characters might make a one line response to your attitude, then steer things straight back to whatever they were going to say anyway.

Not that I expect every dialogue choice to go into a unique conversation tree, but as I said in the video, if constructing our character isn't the core mechanic of Mass Effect Andromeda then it's in serious trouble because all its other potential core mechanics are absolute piddle. Constructing a character isn't just about gaining experience to buff up their combat stats; it's about constructing the personality we want for them, too. When the game lays out lines reflecting five personalities, none of which affect our build, our relationships, gameplay, or even the rest of the conversation, then Ryder might as well not have a personality at all.

All of which raises the question of what effect I want or expect my choice of personality to have on gameplay. Well, Bioware shouldn't need me to start us off, here, since up until Andromeda the Mass Effect games had a signature moral choice system in which you steered, through dialogue, down the path of either a Paragon or a Renegade. The effect of which was that it allowed you extra persuasion options that could occasionally let you bypass challenges. This did of course have the Infamous problem, in that both options were equally effective and there was no reward for half measures, so the only correct approach was to pick either side and stick to it consistently.

So what other effect could personality-based dialogue choices have on gameplay? Maybe something a little more direct, related to stats. Aggressive responses increase your potential for upgrading your Strength stat, or maybe it just flat out ups your Strength stat. Obviously only a very small amount, and you'd want to make sure that these conversations aren't repeatable, so someone couldn't game the system by spending an afternoon repeatedly shaking their fist at a nonplussed barmaid and leave the inn with muscles like a top-down view of several bald men having a heated argument in a small tent.

But the problem with this is, any attempt to directly affect gameplay through our personality choices runs into the inherent issue with converting an emotional process into a mechanical one. If I know that taking certain dialogue choices are going to have a specific gameplay benefit then suddenly I'm making those choices to reap an advantage in the gameplay challenges and not because they reflect the personality I have or want my player character to have in the name of deeper emotional engagement.

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Other people probably prioritise differently but for me, having the means to overcome gameplay challenges comes before everything else. After all, I can be invested in a story up to my balls but it doesn't matter if I'm only going to be able to see half of the bloody thing because the combat gets too hard. So I suppose what would be ideal would be the kind of lasting effect from our dialogue choices that feels consequential and yet, at the same time, remains largely separate from the core challenge gameplay.

Well if we're still talking about Bioware games specifically, there's always the romancing. That's something that needn't necessarily impact the core gameplay, but which players strive to do anyway, because they want to engage with the in-game universe emotionally and there's always the chance of getting a glimpse of blue nipple or pimply space hero buttock. Maybe you can only get it on with certain characters if your personality has been leaning more towards the intelligent than the aggressive. I've said before about harem romances that it feels like something essential is lost from a love interest's personality if they could potentially get it on with literally any player character who picks the flirty response enough times, regardless of race, appearance, gender or attitude.

But again, this is encouraging the player to stick to one set of options in pursuit of their chosen goal, rather than organically define their character's personality based on their whims. So, back to the drawing board. Let's think about this. Essentially, the game is constantly collecting information about the player character's attitude and outward personality; the question is, what are some fun things that the game could do with that information, but which the player wouldn't necessarily go out of their way for?

Alternate dialogues? I guess that's what we've already got, and it's pretty inconsequential. Maybe there could be some conversations where we aren't prompted for a choice and our character automatically voices the lines reflective of the kinds of options the player had been taking up to then. That'd give your character an opportunity to catch you off guard. Or maybe it could affect the ending. Not the events of the actual climax, but the little epilogue of what your character did after that. It would make sense, as that would be interesting if you were invested in the character, and getting invested in the character is the whole point of choosing their dialogue.

Over to you, comments. What are some fun things you could do with the results of dialogue choices that don't become something a player might mechanically strive for? What games do you think do manage something like that? Or maybe you think constant dialogue choices are stupid and games should just let you pick your personality once at the start of the game and change all subsequent dialogue accordingly. And be called Saints Row 2.

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