I think it’s a matter of public record by this point that I am really, really looking forward to BioWare’s massively multiplayer take on the Star Wars universe. It’s a beloved setting in the hands of a popular and talented developer, and almost everything we’ve seen looks pretty damn cool so far. If there’s one area where I’m not ready to drink the Kool-Aid yet, though, it’s BioWare’s stated goal of making a story-based MMOG, which is both a problem and the most ambitious part of what they’re trying to accomplish.
I’m not talking about the standard argument of “Oh, how can we feel like the hero of the story when we know that every other Level 26 Jedi Knight has done the exact same thing,” either. All it takes to get around that is good presentation and some willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the player, which isn’t as big a hurdle as it may seem. Rather, I’m talking about the pure mechanics, specifically the idea of “Flash Points.”
Flash Points, as outlined by BioWare, are moments in the story where your choice will make a difference. Do you show mercy and spare the life of someone, or do you kill them for their disobedience? Every choice opens up new paths and avenues for the story – in theory, anyway. If this sounds like old news to you, it’s because that this sort of thing has been in every BioWare game in recent memory. It’s standard, it’s tried-and-true, and it works…
…except for when you have multiple people calling the shots. This is my main hang-up with the idea, one that was driven home last weekend while playing Army of Two: The 40th Day.
While it may seem odd to compare a shallow, uber-macho third-person shooter slaughterfest to an epic sci-fi fantasy MMORPG, it’s not quite as crazy as you think. Army of Two had a minor storytelling mechanic very similar to TOR‘s Flash Points, where the protagonists Salem and Rios would be given the opportunity to make a major choice once per level. If offered a hefty bonus to eliminate the person they’d been working with up until that point, would they spare his life and let him get away, or shoot him in the back of the head for the extra money?
If you were playing through the story by yourself, then it wasn’t a problem. You made the choice, you saw the cutscene, you moved on. But if you were playing it with a friend, whoever chose first was the one whose choice was accepted. So if you voted to spare the guy but your partner beat you to it by voting “kill,” then he got a bullet between the eyes. It was a minor thing, but it could be a bit frustrating to see the story turn out differently than it would have if you’d been the only one at the controls.
Of course, in Army of Two, it was a nuisance at best. You could play through the game as many times as you like and see the different choices however you wanted. Salem and Rios were not persistent characters, and you didn’t win or lose anything by revisiting an earlier chapter of their story to see “what if?”
It might not have been a problem in Army of Two, but it will certainly be a problem in The Old Republic. Obviously, if someone is going through the story with someone else, and they approach a Flash Point, they’re going to be a bit miffed if the story doesn’t turn out how they want it to – after all, isn’t that the point of telling your story? If you don’t get to make the choices, then why not just have a story as pre-determined as any other?
BioWare has four directions to go here – and while the execution could make some of the problems less pressing, they’ve all got their shortcomings. Let’s take a hypothetical choice in which a player is given a choice to side with Mandalorian mercenaries seeking payment or the Hutt syndicates who insist that they were paid as agreed and won’t give them a single further credit.
On the one hand, you could leave the choice system exactly as it appears so far: when the choice is made, it’s made, and there’s no going back to change it. That preserves the illusion of a coherent story and keeps the persistence of your character intact, but it risks forcing a character down a story path they didn’t want to go on if someone else gets tapped to make the choice. Even a popular vote is troublesome. If three characters in a party vote to side with, say, the Mandalorians instead of joining up with the Hutt crime lords, but the fourth really wanted to side with the Hutts, what then? Three-quarters of the party may be happy, but is it worth screwing that fourth person who wanted their story to be different?
On the other hand, TOR could simply offer every player in a party their own choice, which would then be final – no takebacks. Everyone gets to choose for themselves, which preserves the coherent story and the persistence of your character, and lets you have the story you want … at the expense of gameplay. If these four friends are playing together, and three of them want to go with the Mandalorians but one wants to go with the Hutts, will they never be able to play together again without rerolling? What if there’s a boss fight involved – will all four fight on the Mandalorians’s side thanks to majority vote, but have that experience retconned for the one person who picked otherwise?
On the third hand, the system in TOR could let you go back and play through sections of the story as many times as you wanted, making whatever choice you wanted to make to see the outcome, or to fight a particular boss for phat lewts. “Hey guys, do you mind if we go with the Mandalorians this time around? I really need the Crystal Shiv Vibroblade off of Zorgaba the Hutt.” That fits in perfectly with standard MMOG gameplay; it would let everyone experience story and make it easy to do – who cares if the vote doesn’t go your way, because you can just do it again later? But being able to play parts of the story over and over again and make a different choice the entire time would thoroughly undermine any sense of cohesion in the plot, and it would make your character feel less persistent. Where is the weight in making a choice if you can go back and choose again?
If TOR wants to be serious about having a real story-based game, I think it needs to make a given Flash Point absolutely final – but it also needs to let a player choose his or own story instead of being beholden to the other members of the party. To that end, the fourth method I can imagine seems to be the best way to go here. Instead of taking cues from Army of Two or World of Warcraft, we’re going to look to Fallout 3… or perhaps Who Wants to Be a Millionaire by asking the player, “Is that your final answer?”
Throughout Fallout 3‘s prologue, you were given the option to customize your character bit by bit over the story, but at the very end were given an option to change your choices one last time before it was set in stone. TOR could do something like that. In the context of the actual game, the Flash Points are put to a popular vote, and whoever wins decides the course of the encounter. But after it’s over, every individual player is given a “is that how you wanted it to go?” box, where they could customize the choices as they would have given them, and the game will treat it as though those were the choices they’d made in the actual encounter itself from then on. There are no take-backs, once you’ve given your final answer, it is set and can’t be changed.
Still, even that scenario is imperfect. What happens if we want to play our choices out, not merely be told “this is how it happened”? Do we get to go back and replay it – but not have the choices affect our storyline? That still threatens the illusion of persistence, though not as severely as allowing us to merely re-choose. Then again, so does something like a high-level player running his low-level friend through a dungeon, which itself is a staple of MMOGs in a way.
Every possible solution I’ve looked at has its own share of problems and none of them seems like a perfect. BioWare is talented when it comes to making intricate, well-crafted single-player storylines, but it remains to be seen if the developers will be able to pick up the slack when it comes to having more than one player call the shots.
John Funk promises he’ll stop writing about SW:TOR next week. For a while, anyway.