Choice in Gameplay: A Retrospective

The development of choice in RPGs is the subject of a long post over at Gamasutra, which charts a path from the ‘80s to present day. A vast cornucopia of games are examined in the opinion piece, which takes us from the primordial soup of gaming where choice was all in our imaginations, through a golden period of gaming exemplified through Fallout and Deus Ex, to a lamented trend in choice being divorced from action and expressed only through dialogue. Here’s a snippet from the article:

Designers are now failing to make their worlds feel real, because nothing you do outside of dialog ever matters. Gameplay and story are drifting apart — we’re having Ludonarrative Dissonance in a genre where gameplay and narrative should be one and the same!

Using the example of Dragon Age II, the author makes the following point:

No matter what the story or the extensive lore says, you can literally summon meteors in front of the Templars, because in modern RPGs a player’s actions don’t matter — only the dialog choices they pick. And that’s unacceptable, it’s a clear step-back from what the genre had already accomplished. BioWare’s own Baldur’s Gate II (2001) had a law against casting spells inside the city, and if you did the Cowled Wizards would immediately teleport in and threaten you. Do it twice and they attack you: This also tied nicely with the story, as your friend Imoen was taken captive by the same Cowled Wizards, and there’s even a quest about buying a license for yourself, so you can safely cast magic in town. Again, a BioWare game, from 15 years ago! Didn’t we dream about game worlds improving, getting more complex and reactive as technology advanced? So why are we going backwards?

The article often feels slightly unstructured despite its mostly chronological nature, and I also feel there was some picking-and-choosing of game elements to support the points being made. However, it is hard to argue with some of the patterns the author identifies in the gaming industry, and it provides rich and lively material for discussion. There are some quest-related spoilers in the article, as well as end-game spoilers for Mass Effect, Dragon’s Dogma and Fallout.

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