|Game Design||By Shamus||Feb 12, 2007||57 comments|
Some readers have noted my obsessive, even Kahn-like vendetta against Neverwinter Nights 2. During my brief moments of lucidity I have come to realize that the game has driven me quite mad, and that I am likely to go on ranting about it for some time. I’m comfortable in this madness, although out of affection for the many fine people who visit this site I do suggest you back slowly away from this post before I even get started. However, if you have appetite for a tirade, then perhaps the following will slake your inexplicable craving…
Most videogames in the RPG genre have plot-driven doors. You know, a locked door which may be made of wood and 100 years old, but which is indestructable, un-pickable, and un-openable until some plotpoint takes place. (Jay Barnson just wrote about a tangental sort of plot-door annoyance here.) Some games are better about this than others, but it’s a necessity of the medium.
Players tolerate plot-doors to different degrees, mostly depending on the strength of the writing. Some games are really eager to abuse this, and use plot-doors in lieu of strong writing. Let me bring up the most foul example of a plot-driven door. This one:
Let me tell you about this door…
The door is locked, and the lock is un-pickable. This door is the only gate between the Docks area of Neverwinter city and the Blacklake District. Blacklake is where the nobility live, as well as the knights, the generals, and the king himself. You need to reach the Blacklake District because a man lives there who might be able to answer questions you have about an artifact. But recently a man was murdered in his home in this district. The city watch believe that demons were involved, so they sealed off and quarantined the entire district. Nobody gets in or out. No messages in or out.
Now, if you were a DM and you provided this scenario to your players, they would have a multitude of legitimate objections. Where are those people getting food if nothing gets in or out? How is the king running the city – much less the kingdom – if he can’t communicate with the outside world? Since when are interior parts of a city walled off from one another with impenetrable fortifications? Since when do you quarantine an entire section of a city instead of just one house? Why quarantine at all, since Demons can most likely teleport about and would be unaffected by such measures? How is this quarantine supposed to aid in the ongoing investigation? No messages in or out? What’s the rationale for that one?
And so on.
So, to talk to the guy and ask him about our artifact, we need to open this door. Here is how:
Go to the city watch and let them know you need in. They will insist that you earn their trust by joining their ranks and working for them, after which you may gain access to the Blacklake District.
- Do a couple of odd jobs and fight some thugs.
- Run around the city and visit the various guard posts. Fight or pursuade each group as needed to weed out corruption within the watch.
- Stop an arms shipment directed at the local crime boss. Slog your way through the ghetto, killing dozens of thugs until you reach the weapons shipment.
- Now go to a warehouse (I forget why, who cares?) and hack through a few dozen more thugs and gangsters.
- Rescue an informant who has been “outed” and is now hunted by the gangs. Even though this is just a commoner, the bad guys sent twenty or thirty assasins. Carve a path through them to rescue the guy.
- Confront and kill the city crime boss.
Whew! We cleaned up the city watch and broke the back of the local crime syndicate. Did that “earn their trust” enough to let you in to Blacklake so you can have a conversation? Predictably, no. They feel no shame at all in asking you to do some more:
- An ambassador was headed for Neverwinter but never showed. Go find out what happened to him.
- Go to a camp which is under siege by orcs. Fend off the attack, then learn that the guy you’re looking for was most likely kidnapped by orcs.
- Go into the mountains, muddle your way through various orc ambushes, traps, and straight-up battles against numerous orcs until your reach their lair.
- Now battle your way deep into their lair. Down, down, until you defeat their chieftan.
- Surprise, the ambasador isn’t here: Another orc clan has him. That’s right Mario: The princess is in another castle.
- Same deal again: Locate and assault an orc lair, killing everyone within. Kill the chieftan, rescue the guy, and get him back to Neverwinter city.
That seems like an awful lot of work just to open a door so we can have a conversation with someone who might be able to help us. After single-handedly saving the city watch, defeating the crime boss, and genociding two orc tribes, the Watch Captain feels no shame whatsoever in squeezing some more work out of you:
- A spy is arriving from another city (we know this, how?) and needs to be confronted. It turns out he’s a wizard who is not keen on giving himself up. He makes for a nasty fight.
- There are assasins holding up here in town (we know this, how?) and you must go and wipe them out. This involves fighting a bunch of extraplanar guys, and a blade golum.
After this, the captain grudginly lets you into Blacklake, although with the additional insult that you must be escorted around by a chaperone. I’m not sure what they are worried you’re going to do. Once you get inside you find a bunch of bad guys snuck into Blacklake just before you, and you are obliged to fight them in order to get what you need. Hey! I thought this place was impenetrable? Then as a parting shot, a final middle finger to the beleagured player, a message that their efforts were naught more than busy-work: The next time you visit town the quarantine is lifted, and everyone is free to move in and out of Blacklake once again.
Now, from a plot perspective I can see why we would want the player to do all of that before learning about the artifact. The problem is that this quest to open the door is so senseless it’s insulting. You can’t “roleplay” this, unless your goal is to roleplay the world’s most eager doormat. I want to be clear that I have no objections whatsoever to making the player jump through hoops, as long as the rationale is sound. Barring that, the game should at least allow the player to act in a sensible way, even if the gameworld and the NPCs do not.
Let’s look at the door again, as players might view it in a tabletop game:
For crying out loud, we’re talking about circumventing walls and doors. That’s half of D&D, right there. There is an entire character class dedicated to this sort of activity.
This is the key to good writing in a game. KOTOR had many roadblocks and a couple of plot doors, but they were portrayed in a way that made sense at first glance, they didn’t insult the player’s intelligence, and the sidequests kept the player engaged along the way. Yes, the player must be on rails to some extent in a computer game, but a good writer can camoflage those rails. A bad writer draws attention to the rails and quickly makes the player resent them.
I apologize if you’re sick of me banging on about this game. It’s been said that good writing comes from bad experiences. Inasmuch as this is true: NWN2 is a writer’s goldmine.
ALSO: Jay offers some design principles for the would-be developer.