Most RPGs end up jammed into one of two broad categories:
1) Open-ended sandbox games which are usually a little thin on story and characters but make up for it with lots of freedom, choices, exploration, and moral quandaries. Oblivion and Morrowind and such.
2) Linear JRPG games like Final Fantasy, which have a fixed railroad plot but heaps of story and lots of (non-interactive) character development and dialog.
But developer BioWare always seems to be going for the best of both of these worlds. They make games with a large cast, a player-generated protagonist, a non-linear world, and lots of interactive dialog.
It’s incredibly hard – perhaps even impossible – to make a game that’s genuinely open and rich in story. But I always appreciate it when they try. I complain about their non-branching dialog trees and their odd mechanics, but the truth is that I love these games.
If you’ve played the BioWare games from the last decade, you may have noticed some really strong similarities between them. Some take place in the Star Wars universe, some in a high fantasy setting, some in a space-faring future, but the same elements, characters, themes, and plot devices appear again and again. Once you get to know these games, you can recognize what NPC archetype you’re talking to within a minute or two of meeting them.
Think about how similar your companions are from game to game:
The Remorseless Killer
The product of a warrior culture, the Remorseless Killer is just doing his job. His grim, scorched-earth, genocidal, baby-killing job. Don’t take it personally. Most of the time his awful deeds served the greater good. Or seemed to. He thinks. It’s all sort of a blur now. Still, he can’t help it so it’s best not to dwell on the past anyway.
Unlike the Remorseless Killer, the Berzerker doesn’t just go around killing people for some misguided cause. He does it for laughs! If you need someone to snap out a couple of witty one-liners while mowing down foes, the Berzerker is your man.
The innocent pilgrim is young, usually pretty, idealistic, and energetic. She’s a free spirit and and isn’t above the occasional theft. Or even frequent theft. The only time you’ll have trouble with her is if you get into killing civilians and that sort of nasty business.
You see son, back in my day [insert plot exposition here].
There’s nothing more handy in a big game with a new setting than an old-timer who can fill in the blanks for you while doing a lot of the “I’m too old for this” shtick.
Hey, we need to round out the cast but we don’t want to have to write a lot of dialog or do any more voice acting. I know: Let’s add someone who can’t talk!
I’m sorry boss. I’m just upset. No, don’t worry about me, it’s just something incredibly tragic that’s always eating at me. No, I don’t want to talk about it right now. I hope that’s okay. If it’s all the same to you, I need to get back to my brooding now.
The only thing more dangerous than her weapon is her poisoned tongue.
SHREW: You must go north now.
PLAYER: I’d rather go south.
SHREW: Why, because you’re to stupid to comprehend the idea of north?
SHREW: I see. So you’re a coward, then?
PLAYER: I just like south better.
SHREW: Fine, I will follow you on your feeble journey south, if only to laugh at your miserable failure.
PLAYER: Geeze, what’s your problem, lady?
SHREW: Oh, did I hurt your feelings? Poor baby. Your childish tears amuse me.
The Shrew is your needlessly combative or abusive female companion who heaps shame and scorn on the player or other companions. The game loves to hamstring you during these encounters so that no matter how intelligent your character supposedly is, the Shrew always gets to eviscerate you in these little verbal exchanges and you can’t really do the same in return. She usually gets the last word. You loser.
The Shrew always softens up by the end of the game and usually reveals her Big Secret that explains why she was such a jerk to you in the beginning. And then you’re supposed to feel bad for giving her such a hard time.
What’s interesting to me is that BioWare undoubtedly has a very small core group of writers who are responsible for the plot arcs and characters, and who make a habit of returning to familiar ideas again and again. I’m sure they have a larger staff they use to fill out those thousands of pages of NPC dialog and flavor text, but I’m betting the heart of these games comes from a very small group. This means that just a handful of people – perhaps only a couple – are responsible for that unique BioWare flavor of storytelling.
If you played both KOTOR (made by BioWare) and KOTOR 2 (made by Obsidian) you can see the difference that a fresh slate of writers can make. The two games are very different in tone and style. While people disagree on which one had the better writing, it’s obvious that a change in writing staff can have a powerful impact on the game as a whole.
But what would happen if the BioWare writers moved on? Would the company strive to make sure the new writers upheld the styles of the past? Would it kill the golden goose? Or would it break BioWare out of their “rut”?