on Jun 21, 2013
We make fun of the game here for having a situation where somebody dies just as you’re about to meet them face-to-face. I don’t know if there’s a trope for this; it would need to be specific to videogames. Of course, this is done because having two characters meet creates immense and ever-expanding design problems.
- If we don’t have anyone else alive in the world, then the game feels “empty”.
- If we have other people alive but kill them off (or trap them away from the player’s reach) then it feels contrived.
- If we let the player meet them then the player will expect them to have something to say.
- If we let them speak, then players will inevitably demand that their character be able to reply. (See the comments of my defense of silent protagonists.)
- If the protagonist speaks, players will inevitably find some kind of disconnect between how they view the game world and how their character views it. They will want the option to say different things.
- If we give them different things to say, then players will get irritated when they discover the choices don’t “do anything”. If they’re making choices, they want those choices to have consequences.
- If we give them short-term or isolated consequences (save the life of this nameless NPC you’ll never see again) then players will complain that the choices offered in the game are empty.
- If we give them meaningful, long-term choices then we run into multiplicative outcomes. If choices impact each other and branch off in meaningful ways, then we end up with rapidly escalating design costs. If all choices are binary, then the number of outcomes we have to write, script, animate, code, and test is 2n where n is the number of choices in the game. And players will complain because all outcomes are binary and don’t allow for shades of grey. (How come I can only murder this villain or let him go without harm? Why can’t I break his legs or something to make sure he doesn’t cause any more trouble?)
- And if you want offer the player multiple long-term choices with divergent outcomes and shades-of-grey decisions, then you are probably crazy. And players will still complain because it’s impossible to get all those systems working just right. Mass Effect and Alpha Protocol come to mind.
This isn’t because players are unreasonable and entitled. Well, it is, but when a player asks for the first item on this list it’s not because they plan to drag you all the way to the end. They’re not really demanding an RPG. It’s just that we get frustrated when the systems of a videogame break down, and interpersonal stuff is something videogames are really bad at.
It’s not like there are players who complain at every point in the list, either. (Well, aside from me. If anyone else wants to own up to it that’s your business.) Every player has their own little sticking point on the list. One person says “If my character is going to talk, I should be able to control what they say.” Another player will say, “I don’t mind not having dialog choices, but if the game does make me pick what to say then those choices need to matter.”
You can end up spending a ton of money without improving a game at all – you’ll just move the point of failure a couple of bullet points down the list.