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Opinion: Forget 'Combat Mode Engaged'

In this opinion column, writer Tom Cross looks at combat, dialogue, and other methods of engaging with game worlds -- from Madworld to Indigo Prophecy, what are the alternatives to 'run and kill?'

April 17, 2009

9 Min Read

Author: by Tom Cross

[In this opinion column, writer Tom Cross looks at combat, dialogue, and other methods of engaging with game worlds -- from Madworld to Indigo Prophecy, what are the alternatives to 'run and kill?'.] Combat is the biggest, most central game mechanic in most titles today, with platforming and environmental interaction coming in a close second. Even games for children feature extensive combat and platforming. From Pokemon to Madworld, combat is the easiest and most popular method of interacting with and affecting the gameworld. And you can see why—developers are good at this. They’ve done it a lot, and they kind of have it down. When designers attempt to give gamers another set of tools with which we can affect the game and its denizens, gameplay often suffers. There may be exemplary games that follow this route (Myst is the aging heavyweight of this genre, while games like Indigo Prophecy and Portal are examples of the newest generation), but for the most part, developers, designers, marketers, and even consumers have learned to steer mostly clear of such titles. While I think it’s admirable that a portion of the industry still strives to forward the puzzle/adventure genre, it’s exciting to witness the evolution of other, less popular alternatives to combat. In particular, I like games that let the way I’ve built my character affect the outcome of the games. This kind of approach often manifests itself as RPG or RPG-lite gameplay elements, like those seen in many action adventure games today. Sure, you can change how you win, but you can’t change what you win. There are of course, games that try to provide you with interesting choices and paths. The original Fallout games, Bioware games, Deus Ex, and others are all games that provide you with choices, both in game and in dialogue, that change the game world. A lot of gamers dislike this kind of talky, seemingly arbitrary interaction. It’s a bit like quicktime events: the fact that they aren’t a logical extension of the game’s main control/interface mechanic means that we gamers instantly feel divorced from play when forced to take part in such activities. g179.jpgIf Not Run and Kill, Then What? The solutions to this problem are not easy to discover. Many people argue that we just need to find better ways of integrating what we want (more cinematic, dynamic action sequences, in the case of action/adventure titles) into the actual baseline gameplay, as opposed to ghettoizing it in quicktime events. There is another way to make non-combat (and thus, non “primary”) gameplay elements feel like natural parts of a game as a whole. After all, what I desire in my games has nothing to do with quicktime events; I want to see my character grow and change as an individual, and I want to be able to project myself - in combat, dialogue, and other formats – upon the world in a noticeable, effective way. There have been games that turn dialogue into a character-based (and thus fluid, multifaceted) system, one that rivals combat and environmental interaction for gameplay hours and importance. Years ago, I would have pointed to the Fallout games as examples of these triple threat games, but more recently, Bioware and Obsidian have been furthering the genre. It’s important to note that I’m not championing dialogue for dialogue’s sake. I dislike games with horribly lengthy chatty sections, badly written parables concerning the evils of vaguely paternalistic governments or dubiously overbearing corporations. I do, on the other hand, enjoy conversations and stories that I can guide in the direction that interests me most. If there’s an aspect of video games that needs a reboot, it’s the stories we are forced to sit through. Good writing goes a long way to alleviating this unpleasantness, but to really immerse myself in a game, I like to think that I’m not just making the computer-controlled characters horribly aware of my ability to kill them. I’d like to also have the ability to convince them of my intelligence, moral uprightness, apathy, cruel wickedness, or other character traits. It’s true that lengthy conversations can take you out of the flow of play, but that’s only true if we remain stuck in the old paradigm by which combat, and combat-preparatory actions, are what “play” is, with everything else more or less a diversion. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. True, when you’re playing through some “intense” action game, blowing up aliens left and right, it’s jarring when the action is broken up by a brief “story” scene, followed by a climactic boss battle. Even games like The Witcher - which was heavy on story – feature the incongruous sights of vicious combat mixed with lengthy duels. But what if this distinction were broken down, and conversation, dialogue, characterization, and other “peripheral” gameplay elements meshed fluidly with combat, mutated it, or came to supplant it? What if the climactic bass battle was the story scene? fallout_01.jpgFallout Leads to the Force We already have examples of this kind of melding, sort of. Look at the original Fallout and Knights of the Old Republic 2. These games didn’t just include climactic battles of words; they also built their games around smaller, less significant conversations that still held sway in the game world. Throughout Fallout, your actions (in conversations) could change the way that the fates of entire towns played out. Megaton and its companions inf Fallout 3 may be the present-day blueprint for world-changing quest outcomes, but the series was creating moments like these years ago. It’s surprising that we haven’t moved beyond those still relatively simple ideas. It’s surprising that Fallout is still one of the most suggestive titles out there for thinking about what the future of gameplay could look like. Fallout is still one of the only games that allows you to talk the final boss into destroying himself. You could actually reach several different conversation-based endings, with the one mentioned above being a difficult, skill-based conversation option. Despite this praise, there have been games since Fallout that have included conversations of this magnitude and depth. It’s not actually that hard to do. All the designers need to do is hire good writers, implement a system that allows for character attributes to affect conversation outcomes, and you have a recipe for exciting multi-outcome conversations. Today, games like Fallout are still rare. Luckily, even if we haven’t moved much beyond the Fallout model, there’s still a tradition of design built around those ideas. Obsidian (which is, after all, made up of Fallout and Planescape alums) continues this tradition in most of its modern games, especially KotoR 2. In that game, there were the obligatory moral decisions to make, and alliances with enemies and party members to form. What stands out in an already well-written and constructed story are the sections where Obsidian channels Fallout strongly. One confrontation involves the main character and an old friend, now a possible enemy. Through verbal sparring, tests of certain attributes (force powers, powers of persuasion, etc.), and key branching points within the conversation, the player can significantly alter the tone of the narrative they experience. This part of the game is also interesting in that it is the only really important or significant encounter in that hour-long portion of the game. That area was created mostly to showcase this “boss” confrontation, that consists entirely of words. It’s a bold move, and when done right, it proves that interactive, malleable dialogue can be a very powerful gameplay device. 903mal_2.jpgAll You do is Talk While conversations like these make a case for good writing and dialogue structure, they are still seemingly unassailably static. You could, if you wanted to, leave your avatar blinking into the camera for hours, waiting to continue the conversation. There may be consequences for your actions, but unlike in game combat and platforming, there’s no time restrictions or time-based punishments. As such, you can unnaturally, peculiarly draw out conversations, thinking about each option. Luckily for us, there are designers out there who obviously want to change this dynamic. Obsidian, again, is at the forefront of this nascent movement. Not content to use a radial, simple conversation hub (as seen in Mass Effect), in Alpha Protocol they’ve added a timer for each conversation tree. Thus, if a superior asks you for your assessment of a situation, or an enemy asks for quarter, you have your usual options, but you have to come to a decision quickly. Not having seen this mechanic in action, I can’t say whether or not the conversations will play out as naturally as they did in Mass Effect, pauses and all. Conversely, this timer could make conversations unpleasant time-trial sequences, where you care more about beating the clock than picking an answer that’s interesting or in character. If this idea succeeds, it could make conversations even more organic and flowing, something that most similar games desperately need. This is by no means the only area that can be evolved in this way. Most games suffer because of their careful insistence on discreet gameplay elements. They spend so much time trying to keep certain elements distinct, they lose sight of the benefits that can be had when disparate elements are successfully, unobtrusively melded. Deep conversational options, combined with branching storylines (and thus branching gameplay) are not without their faults. Many games offer “branching” conversational paths but completely divorce these conversations from the actual gameplay. Between overly wordy, obtuse blocks of dialogue, and brief, badly written monologues, there has to be a better way. Alpha Protocol may not solve all of the problems of wordy, frequent conversations in games, but there’s a good chance it will turn a few more people onto the idea, or possibly even create a new direction for writers and designers. alpha-protocol-20090317001122548_640w.jpgMore Than Just a Talker or a Shooter Despite the tone of this piece, dialogue and conversation trees are not the only rebuttals to the violence-as-interaction problem the industry has. Obviously, environmental interaction and puzzle solving are viable alternatives. It’s interesting to look at how these different approaches to “playing,” “viewing,” and “solving” games have jockeyed for position over the years. It used to be that text-based games were the best way to interact with certain stories and narratives. Now, the idea makes most people shudder. I’m not asking for a return to text-based adventure games, I’m just asking that games that emphasize non-combat primary interaction techniques not be viewed with doubting eyes. [Tom Cross writes for Gametopius and Popmatters, and blogs about video games at shouldntbegaming.wordpress.com. You can contact him at romain47 at gmail dot com.]

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