Freedom vs. Story

By Shamus Posted Monday Oct 1, 2007

Filed under: Game Design 48 comments

Rampant Coyote followed up to my earlier posts on this subject. Mr. Halbert had more thoughts on this as well. (And while I’m thinking about it: I check Technorati for incoming links. Technorati is sometimes capricious and unpredictable. As always, if you have a response post on your blog feel free to throw a link in the comments.)

I do notice that two of the big items on everyone’s list of things computer RPG’s should have are:

  1. It must give the player lots of freedom to make their own choices.
  2. It must have a great story.

But that’s not so much a pair of features as a tradeoff. Great stories must be revealed at a steady rate. They must have compelling characters. They should have twists and and an escalating sense of danger. On the other hand, freedom means giving the player the ability to impose their will on the story in unpredictable ways. Imagine LOTR if Frodo destroyed the ring at the start of book two, and the rest of the story was a tale of declining danger and excitment as they mopped up the weakened orcs and marched home. There needs to be a climax and some sort of wrap-up to any good story, but this is nearly impossible if you’ve got a world where the player can go anywhere and kill or ignore anyone.

The DMotR strip of killing Gollum is a classic example of this. Having Gollumn follow the party was needed to set the stage for the second book. It also built tension. All of that would be wrecked if the player can just kill Gollum outright. As the game developer you can make him invincible, in which case you’re taking away player freedom. “That was total BS how you could shoot that skinny little guy with like 1,000 arrows and he wouldn’t die. Stupid railroading game.” Now, in a tabletop game you have a human mind working on the story that can adapt as needed, but in a videogame all you have to work with is what you’ve programmed. The developers cannot hope to anticipate all of the crazy things players might want to do. Even if they could, writing and testing all of those possible paths would be a mammoth undertaking. What you’ll end up with is a ten-hour game that requires the budget of a two-hundred hour game.

One way around this – and this applies to both videogames and tabletop games – is to create a “great” story to begin with, and then offer the player the continual illusion of freedom within that story by giving them superficial choices. The people at Bioware are masters of this show of illusory player input. It’s not until your second or third trip through the game that you realize how little your dialog choices matter in KOTOR. The first time through, every choice seems meaningful, and NPC reactions are used to distract and redirect you if you attempt to veer away from the critical parts of the path.

The illusion is reinforced if you give the player lots of freedom to change things not germane to the plot:

You come upon a pen of slaves in the Baron’s fortress. You can free the slaves, kill the slaves, sell the slaves, or ignore the slaves. Wow! Choices all over the place! But if you free the slaves the Baron becomes angry that you caused him so much hassle, and sends his men after you. If you kill the slaves the the Baron becomes angry that you destroyed his property and sends his men after you. If you sell the slaves the the Baron becomes angry that you stole his property and sends his men after you. If you ignore the slaves then one of the slaves tells the Baron you were in his compound, he becomes angry and sends his men after you. The player gets the the freedom to determine the fate of the slaves, not not the freedom to control the plot. If done right (as in this case) then the player feels like she does have control of the plot, and can walk away with the impression that if she’d made a different choice she would have gotten a different outcome.

But no matter how you set things up, an epic story is going to be at odds with total freedom. You can have more of both, but the game will take longer, cost more, and may suffer from wonky or broken quest triggers because the whole system is just too dang complex.

Despite my whining about how RPG’s aren’t delivering what I want, I’m sure a lot of the problem is the nature of the fanbase itself. There aren’t a lot of us. (We’re vastly outnumbered by FPS fans and casual players who just want another SIMS expansion.) We’re also very picky, and our small demographic is broken into a number of sub-groups with conflicting desires. Some people want the freedom of Oblivion or Fallout. Some people want vibrant characters and rich stories, as with Final Fantasy. Some people are jerks like me who unreasonably demand both. And some people just want to mow down millions of golblins in their search for a sword that does 3% more damage. The marketing people bundle us all together as “RPG players”, but we’re not really fans of any unifying game type.

It’s like the nerds at the school dance. If you’re among them, you can see Computer Nerds, Socially Inept and Unattractive Nerds, Likeable but Overly Serious Nerds, Goody Two-Shoes Nerds, and D&D Nerds. But to anyone outside the group, we’re just a Herd of Nerds.

Making RPG’s is a tough gig. Hats off to any developer willing to endure the grueling process of developing a game so fans like me can look at their efforts and go “meh“.


From The Archives:

48 thoughts on “Freedom vs. Story

  1. Hal says:

    Hey, thanks for the link Shamus. I always appreciate it.

    The place I come down to is that, at the end of the day, I want to feel like I accomplished something. Oblivion’s sandbox often resulted in several hours of gameplay, but without any clear idea of what I’d spent the time actually doing. Level grinding leaves me feeling the same way. When it’s all said and done, I want to know that I found what the game designers had in mind for me rather than getting lost somewhere else.

  2. Snook says:

    “It's like the nerds at the school dance. If you're among them, you can see Computer Nerds, Socially Inept and Unattractive Nerds, Likeable but Overly Serious Nerds, Goody Two-Shoes Nerds, and D&D Nerds. But to anyone outside the group, we're just a Herd of Nerds.”

    Sounds like my University… Yay engineering!

    *ahem* As for delivering story vs. freedom, I thought Morrowind did a fine job of it. It paced itself well, and the villain (as you’ve said before) was actually interesting. Naturally, it wasn’t as vibrant as, say, Final Fantasy, but I find it an acceptable halfway point.

  3. Daemian_Lucifer says:

    Fallout,planescape and bg have just the right ratio of freedom vs story to make them epic,so even we that want both can be as satisfied as the rest of the RPG populace.

    Sure,there wasnt so much freedom in planescape as in fallout,but your choices had a lot of meaning.True,you ended dead any way you played,but there was a big difference between being dead and whole,and being dead and wrecked in pieces.And fallouts setting IS its story.And it is a marvelous setting indeed.

    NWN:HotU also had lot of freedom and a great story.To be honest,the base of it:Stopping a devil from hell to overtake the world isnt that original,but it develops quite nicelly.Plus,your actions do influence the world imenslly.You could rule it,you could leave it as an unknown hero,a well respected hero,you could help the drows,the flayers,the slaves,………………………….

    But,rare are the games that achieve this perfection,but Im glad that at least some exist.

  4. Sungazer says:

    This is not my first post to your blog, but I do believe my earlier one got lost in the noise.

    Surprise, surprise; I’m a gamer. But I hesitate to call any of these games (Diablo, Fable, FF, KoTOR, NWN, Quest for Glory) RPG’s. At their best, they’re akin to playing at a tabletop with an inflexible GM. I don’t deny that they have elements of role playing games, but I go to my tabletop group for role playing.

    Now, I’ve never played Fallout or Morrowind. They are on my list to play, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.

  5. This is probably why computer RPG’s have just never worked out for me. I get completely frustrated because I want nothing to do with the game’s “official” plot, and I want to go off in my own direction. I haven’t tried any of the online RPG’s, but I suspect I would have the same issue there.

    When it comes to table-top games, I work out much better as a GM than as a player. My approach is usually to come up with a very loose plot at the beginning (or sometimes I just start a campaign with no idea whatsoever what the plot will be), and generate more details and storylines as the players go through the game. This makes for longer campaigns, but some very interesting ones with really deep character involvement and development.

  6. wererogue says:

    Again, my main experience is in running a LARPG rather than tabletops, and I have a different focus.

    When writing plot for the world, I look at the state of the gameworld. I look at what has happened in recent history, and at what the players have done to influence it. I think about what the consequences could be, then I take the ones that make the story more interesting, and manifest them in game. I allow the players to deal with those events however they choose, giving them options where necessary, and repeat the process.

    When writing plot for an individual adventure (think one quest, or “linear” in some systems) I use several different methods. Sometimes I’ll write a set of linear encounters that tell a good story, then guide the players through these encounters, as you describe – making encounters lead on to each other regardless, or making them self-contained with only small effects on the rest of the game (maybe the players found some healing as a result of their choices). Very occasionally I’ll write parts for every NPC, setting up a fleshed-out world in which the players can have full freedom. But usually I go somewhere down the middle – each few encounters relate to each other and can be treated as free-form, but ultimately the adventure is scripted – the challenges the player will face and route they take is set from the beginning.

  7. Burning says:

    I like online RPGs, but yeah they won’t satisfy you if single player ones don’t. You can do a lot without following the “plot.” You can’t (in my experience at least) do anything of consequence without following the plot. You can level up. You can do whatever quests you like. If there’s PVP you can fight other players. You won’t make any lasting changes to the world, however. It is basically like doing a table top game and having the GM say “You can follow my plot or you can fight random encounters.”

    Man, rereading that, you probably don’t believe me that I like the games, but I really do. I just don’t go to them to get what I get out of table-top rp.

  8. Deoxy says:

    My “holy grail” of games, which I’ve had in my head for years but never worked on at all, as I’ve little experience MAKING games, is a single player game that simulates an entire world at the individual level (for heroes and villains) and the village/small community level (for everything else).

    Why single player? To allow pausing the game and hand-waiving the game forward as long as necessary (“downtime”).

    Each time you would start said game, you could one of the following conditions (and possibly a few more): long-term good/evil stability (no major wars in progress, relative power equivalence, etc), evil ascending (LotRish), good ascending (after the LotR trilogy), invasion (the end of a relatively stable period, when one power or the other decides to have a big fight and see what happens), etc. A random choice would also be available.

    The player would then be free to choose all the typical stuff (race being one of the more important, as it would usually determine at least your starting “side”), and start adventuring.

    You could be good or evil, and you could affect the world (buy land, build castles, etc). Money would NOT be CREATED however (well, except by mining, etc, which would work on pre-set amounts of natural resources, etc).

    Other adventuring groups (both good and evil) would be active, as well, and challenges would NOT be tailored to your level… if there’s a marauding army of orcs, and you control a small party of low level adventurers, either flee and hope some higher level guys save the day, or join up with said higher level guys or a human army (or try to rally one).

    If it’s an “evil ascendant” game and you play good, well, you get to save the world. Yay!

    If you want a level grind, set it to “stability”, and have a nice time.


    Sorry, getting my weekly optimistic moment out of the way early this week.

  9. Davesnot says:

    “But that's not so much a pair of features as a tradeoff.”

    Hmmm.. I disagree.. if you have a good group and a creative DM the whole thing is a synergy .. a team that creates a good story.. it ain’t easy.. it requires everyone to help.. meaning if my guy should die.. I need to die well.. not like a whining geek.. unless that’s my character..

    Reading books you can tell if it’s one where the author had the path all plotted out.. or if he just had an idea and let the characters show him the way.. incidentally, Stephen King is for the latter method.. find an idea and just start going.. the characters will show your the way.

    DM’s stress over things they’ve already created.. as if the stones they’ve placed are stones.. big immovable things.. your world ain’t until it has been seen by a PC.. thus your plots aren’t plots until PCs interact..

    The whole reason DM of the Rings was so funny is because the group is NOT a good group.. there is no team.. unfortunately the players vs DM theme is all to common now.. this generation of player seem to have missed what Gygax mentioned in his first chapter of the old DMG.

    Those who’ve never had such a group don’t quite know what I’m talking about.. and those that had a group like that long for it.. and those in a group like that.. well.. they are too busy being in it to bother with such nonesense.

  10. Shamus says:

    “Hmmm.. I disagree.. if you have a good group and a creative DM the whole thing is a synergy .. a team that creates a good story.. it ain't easy.. ”

    Yes, except I’m not talking about tabletop games. I’m talking about computer games in this post. Sorry I didn’t make that explicit. The point was that while a human can adapt the plot to keep things moving, a PC game can’t.

    Unless you want to do a LOT of coding.

  11. ngthagg says:

    I think story and choice is the general difference between jRPGs and wRPGs. I’ve never been a big fan of really freedom focused RPGs . . . but that shouldn’t be surprising considering my background. I got into RPGs as an extension of my love of novels. If you dislike railroading, novels are a pretty lousy form of entertainment. When I was a kid, we owned games like The Bard’s Tale, and the Zorks I – III, but I didn’t play them until I was much older. Instead, I watched my brother play them. Even my programming experiences growing up were limited compared to other people. Rampant Coyote apparently wrote text parsers and data driven code, where my games were long stretches of text separated by choose-your-own-adventure type moments.

    Looking back at all of this, it doesn’t really surprise me that it was the Dragon Warrior games on the NES and the Final Fantasy games on the SNES that really grabbed me.

    I’m curious what other people think. Is story vs. choice a mold set at a young age?

  12. Shamus says:

    Edited post to make it more clear I’m talking about videogames up front.

  13. Shinjin says:

    @Sungazer – “Now, I've never played Fallout”

    You might consider bumping it up your list if you find fourself in the mood for a good RPG.

  14. Daemian_Lucifer says:

    Shamus Says:

    “The point was that while a human can adapt the plot to keep things moving, a PC game can't.”

    Yet.In a few years,with some advanced AI….

  15. Sungazer says:

    @ Shinjin

    No problem. I’ll start hunting about for a copy.

  16. Scott says:

    “Is story vs. choice a mold set at a young age?”
    I don’t think so, I think that ‘RPGs’ like Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior/Dragon Quest really should fall within their own category. I love these games, but they offer no flexibility in their stories at all (except for leveling up for days or finding hidden characters and side-quests).
    They are like watching an interactive movie or reading a book. So, instead of playing a role that you choose, you just play as someone else’s character who has their own values, and thought processes.

    “The developers cannot hope to anticipate all of the crazy things players might want to do.”
    Shamus, you hit the nail on the head! The more actions your character is able to do, the more opportunities he/she has to mess around in the game world. I personally have some friends that get some pretty crazy ideas in my Shadowrun games. If I had to program a game to run itself with these guys in it, not only would it take me years and a full programing team, but we would probably miss most of the things they would want to do anyway.

    The fact is, people think and act differently. When a programmer (or a writer in this case) thinks up a bunch of possible scenarios for a story, they are still limited by their own personal thought processes. So, while some will go through a game with reverence thinking “I have choices”, others will feel trapped by those choices because they just think a different way.
    Not to mention all of the tricks programmers (and writers) come up with to keep the thousands of people playing their games from screwing it up.

  17. lost chauncy says:

    “It's like the nerds at the school dance. If you're among them, you can see Computer Nerds, Socially Inept and Unattractive Nerds, Likeable but Overly Serious Nerds, Goody Two-Shoes Nerds, and D&D Nerds. But to anyone outside the group, we're just a Herd of Nerds.”

    Lol. Brilliant. Someone needs to put together one of those quizzes so we can see which category we fall into. Of course one of the outcomes needs to be, “Wait a minute. You’re not actually a Nerd at all. Perhaps you should consider trying out for the Cheer Squad, or running for Student Body president.”

    As for Freedom vs. Story, with respect to RPGs I’ve gotta go with Freedom. Don’t get me wrong, I love both. But as Shamus has rightly pointed out it’s nearly impossible for any RPG to effectively provide both (especially if pacing is a genuine prerequisite of good storytelling). So when I’m in the mood for a good story I tend to look for a good Adventure Game. When I play an RPG I’m looking for and focused more on a good backstory and setting. But more importantly, I want the freedom to attack the quest however I see fit and NPCs that are at least mildly engaging. NPCs still unfortunately have a long way to go in this regard but my hope is they’ll continue to improve as AI improves…but that’s another topic altogether.

  18. Lain says:

    I didn’t read every comment but I’m very interested in your point of view, Shamus, which shares a lot of my opinions. (sorry, I’m german, this is not my native language.)

    The RPG-Games, which fullfills my wishes – if any PC-Game can do it – are System Shock II and both DEUS EX parts. This seems to go into the positive things of the Bioshock-Game, but I know it only from your Homepage.

    In addition to the alltime favourites Badur’s Gate & Co. , I want to strongly point a finger at “Planescape Torment”.

    If you don’t know this game, you have to play it. It’s also a AD&D game same like Baldur, but the world to live in, your character and all NPC’s are absurd, real strange and sometimes quite irritating. Not to be mentiones are the main epic story or the more and more absurd sidequests.

    I wish, you can make a review with your opinion on this old jewel.

    Thaks for DOTR and keep up the good work!

  19. Jeff says:

    That whole continual illusion of freedom thing is my basic philosophy for both running and playing table-top games.

    In spite of what any of the freedom proponents may say (and at extremes, start ranting about railroading), so long as there’s an illusion of freedom everything is fine and dandy – the players don’t notice, as that’s the whole point of having an illusion of freedom. Once that breaks, it’s over – and in fact it would only break if there was actual railroading, as opposed to the broad spectrum that often gets labeled as such (the example of the slaves and the baron being one such, in a preprogrammed game, both the players and the observers notice that essentially the final outcome is the same. In a tabletop game, nobody else should know, and the illusion is maintained.) Which is why even a narrative DM using this approach has to be flexible. As a player, it’s nice to have the apparent freedom to do whatever the heck I want, but it’s also nice to know there’s some sort of overall scheme, and some hint about somewhere to go or something to do that will achieve something. Unlike real life, where we all have to find our own direction.

    One very old tip from Dragon magazine, I recall, is “If you’re not sure what to do next, take a walk.”

    I also have to second the thought that Morrowind was much superior to Oblivion. There was a ton of things to do in Morrowind, but you clearly had some vague goals and ways to get there. Just going along the main storyline will introduce the player to various side quests. Unlike Oblivion, where you could just blaze through the thing. Stupid ‘adaptive’ enemies.

  20. And tomorrow’s post is all about Story… :)

    And yeah. I’ve always considered freedom of choice and story to be contradictory. But do they have to be?

  21. Louis says:

    I’ve been following these posts about RPG’s with some interest, because I have so far failed to get any enjoyment from the genre(s). The main reason is that for me, all electronic “role playing games” fail at one of the two tenets Shamus listed- “it must give the player lots of freedom to make their own choices”. Not in the ways previously mentioned; I don’t expect a video game to be as free-form as a tabletop RPG, and I’m basically content to follow story rails. But no matter how many interesting NPC’s I can have dynamic conversations with, no matter how many “moral” choices I’m allowed to make, no matter how many solutions a single obstacle/puzzle can have, I always run up against one thing- the lack of actual control I have over my character ruins the immersive effect, and makes feel like there’s a tall gate between me and the world I’m supposed to be apart of.

    Why do “roleplaying” games force me to fight via menu commands? I recently tried out the original Knights of the Old Republic, and was appalled to find that I couldn’t participate the fights! My character sees an enemy, runs over to it, and procedes to have a shoot-out while I’m forced to passively watch, like I’m in a theater watching an action flick. The game lets me make suggestions, like throwing a grenade or using some minor feat, but ultimately, I’m not involved in the process. Same with the old school RPG’s I’ve tried- I pick an attack from a menu, then watch to see whether it’s successful or not; I have no say in the matter. Then I watch as my character is attacked; again, whether he takes damage or not is outside of my control. In either type of game, I don’t get improve my character in ways that make it feel like I’m improving- I pick statistics to drop numbers into. Because those numbers somehow determine whether my character is smart enough to get out of the way of an obvious attack.

    The odd thing is, I really enjoy turn-based strategy games like Fire Emblem for the Game Boy Advance. Even if the individual character battles are determined without my input, I feel like I have direct control over the battle as a whole- my choices and actions determine the outcome. I don’t get that sense as I watch Revan beat on someone.

  22. Joshua says:

    “And yeah. I've always considered freedom of choice and story to be contradictory. But do they have to be?”

    Well, as Shamus said, you can try to have both, but that requires more work on the programmer’s part, not only to implement the addition of a choice, but to also to consider all of the possible effects that a choice can have down the line. It can make players pretty bitter when they decide to do some cataclysmic thing and then no one seems to notice, like killing the king or something.

    That’s one of the largest problems- people don’t just want choices, they want choices that have a real and lasting effect. Say, their character becoming a lord of the Druids and getting odd reactions in cities vs. becoming a scummy criminal that gets chased by the guards on sight vs. becoming a noble knight that is often invited to speak with nobles. Maybe even having a system where people treat you weirdly because your actions in the game are inconsistent and completely at odds with each other. “You went on a daring raid to save the king at great personal risk and then murdered his infant son later?!?” Unfortunately, a lot of games seem to involve “choices” that don’t really lead to any different result at all, NWN 2 being a good example.

    You’re a righteous and heroic sort who clamps down on thieves? – You fight for the good guys.

    You’re a sinister assassin who steals everyone blind and does errands for the thieves’ guild? – You fight for the good guys.

    Do well in the trial- Your verdict is overruled and you have to fight in ritual combat. Do poorly in the trial – Your verdict is overruled and you have to fight in ritual combat.

    Plan your keep in detail or let it rot- it all basically ends up the same anyways.


    In regards to the original argument, I tend to get somewhat bored with very open-ended games that lack a strong central story, so I would lean more towards the story aspect.

    However, that said, it seems that a lot of the “story” based rpgs lately seem to be ultra-generic. It’s harder to really get into a story when you’ve already heard this story told in various other forms before. That’s one reason why so many people got into games like Torment, KOTR and Jade Empire, because they were a little different.

  23. Ken Talton says:

    Not much to add except to join the bandwagon pointing to Fallout 1&2 as the definition of “Right Way”. Black Isle proved that the player can have considerable freedom and relevance. As available memory and processing power increase we’ll see more games like that. In a few years I imagine there will be 1st person shooters that have plots and worlds as intricate as Fallout Morrowind or Zelda.

  24. Ralff says:

    To be fair, a lot of nerds belong to several groups. Then again, any given “Jock” probably plays multiple sports.

    I think one problem is that many games that don’t give you much choice don’t even have very good stories anyway. JRPGs tend to do this a lot, being very linear and having very boring, trite stories, although some recent ones like Final Fantasy and such have been getting a lot better about this. And since games that allow a lot of choice generally don’t have incredibly awesome stories, it causes us to want great stories from all RPGs, whether they have a lot of freedom or not.

  25. ArchU says:

    I wonder if it would be possible to make an open ended game with a kind of “destiny” aspect to the plot so that it would eventually catch up with the PC anyhow? No matter what interaction the player decides to do within the world, important events will hook onto them sooner or later (maybe seeming very innocuous to begin with unless they leap straight into the thick of things).

    Basically, it would entail designing a world where all of the NPCs have their own agendas and the antogonists go looking for the PC, having to track that character down by interaction with other NPCs and looking for clues left behind by the PC. It could probably be achieved with some clever scripting but would still be incredibly complex.

  26. Davesnot says:

    You CAN change things on the fly with a PC game.. it’s called NWN1 with the DM Client.. it’s a bit of a steep learning curve.. but it’s amazing once you figure out how to use it.. it’s a whole new world (sorry.. please ignore the Aladdin song reference).. and with the DMFI (DM friendly initiative) and their tools.. well.. like I’ve said before.. if ya aren’t playing NWN1 with a DM then I probably can’t get ya to listen.. and it’s our collective loss.

    Vive la NWN1!!!

  27. Acksiom says:

    That’s a Pack, not a Herd, IYP.

  28. Greg says:

    “What you'll end up with is a ten-hour game that requires the budget of a two-hundred hour game”

    This isn’t necassarily a bad thing. There are a few games that only take a few hours to play but have about 50 endings. The intention being you play again and again having freedom of choice and finding lots of cool stories rather than once through an epic story.

    I’ve not got around to downloading and playing that white room thing yet, but from what you’ve said about it doesn’t that work on the same model?

  29. Danel says:

    I have to say that in the trade-off, I favour story over freedom – though that said, those games that give you little to no freedom frequently lack a good story as well. I think the trick is to give the /illusion/ of choice, as you say – the dialog options that Bioware is a master of, and others. For example, the goal is set, but you have multiple ways of achieving it; a non-linear list of goals to fulfil, so that you can collect the Ring of Argle-Gargle, the Amulet of Pifflespit, and the Brooch of the Wereracoons in any order, but you have to collect them all (as in the second city in Jade Empire).

  30. icekatze says:

    hi hi

    While the illusion of control is often a step in the right direction, I think there are a lot of times when story and player freedom are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Part of it is probably limitations of the medium, but if I were to compare it to more flexible forms of gameplay (like tabletop) I would have to say that video games have a tendancy to promote laziness in players. Some of the greatest works of literature are character driven, and when I make a game, I would like for the player to be able to feel as much a part of the world as I do.

    This is easy when you’re making things up as you go, you dont have to just tell a story, you can weave a story together. It is still possible to achieve this effect in videogames, but it involves predicting various motivations that people commonly have which takes practice and attention to detail.

    Sure, you can bank on there being enough people that will be motivated by what motivates you, but while designers often make games they would want to play themselves, its generally a good idea to make games that other people will want to play too. It is quite possible to make a game that when two different people play it, they both get something different out of it.

    One of the clearest examples I can think of is the great divide in strategy game playstyles. I’m not talking about macro and micro managers. I’m talking about the industrious plotters and the aggressive victors.

    The aggressive victors want the game to be over as quickly as possible. For them, the goal of victory is paramount, the sooner they win the better. The motions of playing the game are there as a testament to their skills. When a Starcraft player executes a SCV rush and destroys the other player within the first minute of play it is an astounding victory. When a Master of Orion player researches the gyro destabilizer first and exploits it upon their opponents, it saves them from having to bother with any of that other troublesome stuff.

    The industrious plotters want to savor the gameplay. For the, the goal of victory is a reward for a game well played, but the journey is the emphasis. They’ll round out a perfect base design, then once secure in their fortress they will methodically build up their forces until they have the perfect tool with which to attack. When a Starcraft player sends in a troop of Siege tanks with infantry support to distract the enemy defenses to set up for a nuclear launch which will open up a window for a dropship raid, its a clever victory. When a Master of Orion player has painstakingly researched every available technology and maxed out his planetary production, the endgame can progress at a controlled pace.

    You might be thinking that strategy games have nothing to do with RPGs, but the pacing and progression of rising challenge and endgame involve a very similar design problem. Many of the successful strategy games were successful in part due to their ability to satisfy both crowds.

    Another part of the problem is the RPG’s uber-hero complex, a sort of fixation with making the player character the single most influential character in the game world, which is strange if the player doesnt actually have the ability to influence anything. It might seem somewhat counter intuitive, but in order to give the player more freedom, their character has to be less influential. Its hard to make an open ended story if everything the player does would drastically alter the world. As an alternative you could have a character who is one of many figures against perhaps a backdrop of epic conflict. The changes such a character is capable of making are simply more personal and less global.

  31. Space Ace says:


    How did Fallout *not* have vibrant characters and rich stories?

  32. Shamus says:

    Space Ace: A lot of people complained exactly this. That the game was sort of barren and uninteresting. I loved the game, but people coming at it from the Final Fantasy angle were put off by it. People want the freedom to go anywhere, and no matter where they go they want nice conversations and cutscenes advancing the plot.

    It’s not reasonable, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be nice. :)

  33. Telas says:

    It’s funny. As a current PnP RPGer, and a former CRPGer, I feel that people claim they want total freedom in a game, but then they sit around looking at each other blankly, wondering “OK, now what?”

    I look at it as strategic freedom vs. tactical freedom. Most players want a problem presented to them (Hark! Evil is afoot!), but then they want a lot of elbow room in how they solve that problem. Some CRPGs are better at this than others (the aforementioned Fallout, etc), but nothing has the flexibility of a PnP RPG.

  34. Luke says:

    As someone said before – Morrowind did have both the story and the freedom. You were free to kill any NPC at will, but if you did, you would potentially miss out on their quests. And if you killed one that was playing an important part in the main story quest you got a message about broken thread of prophecy telling you to reload the game, or keep playing without a chance to reach the endgame.

    As for freedom – you could really do anything. If you wanted to you could concentrate on side-quests first and really beef up your character before even starting the main quest. Or you could just jump into the story right away – and at any point you could take a break and do some grinding on the side.

    Yes, the NPC’s were still mostly static quest dispensers but the game is really close to perfect in my book. :)

  35. I don’t think freedom of choice and great story necessarily have to be opposites, but I think you have to be a *VERY* creative game designer to manage both.

    Let’s use a game that I enjoyed, but Shamus didn’t so much, for my example: NwN2.

    This game had basically no freedom of choice, and a couple pointless “illusory” choices that didn’t amount to much. The beginning of the game was exposition, and I’ve found that people actually don’t mind having no choice in the exposition. Still, it would have been nice if they’d allowed for more options than “Do the stupid tasks with your goody-two-shoes buddies and then defend the town”.

    Where they really could have made the game utterly fantastic comes in later, when you finally get to Neverwinter (although it would have been cool if they’d let you decide whether to try hiking there OR take the boat). You can choose to join the guards or the shadow thieves. Unfortunately, both of these choices end up with you playing out the same quests in the same order and doing all the same things with the same companions!

    How much cooler would it have been if the evil side was REALLY evil? You take over the docks, then go to Old Owl Well to *support* the orcs, *kill* the paladin follower (who should have lost his paladin status the minute he allied with you). Likewise, if you were good you should have been able to throw Bishop out on his ear. There was no reason to MAKE you keep all the NPC’s in your party, especially the ones that whined about everything you did.

    Then instead of having the whole trial fiasco/showdown with Garius and Torio you join up with him and help him out. (Maybe if you were evil you could pick up Lorne as a follower.) You defend him while he performs the ritual, then he becomes all evil and ugly. Then he does something nasty where he decides he doesn’t need you any more, so you take over his old fort and attack him, eventually killing the King of Shadows.

    Now, *that* would have been fun.

    I’ve been re-playing Gothic, and that’s one of the things I find I really enjoy about at least the first half of the game. You can complete the various tasks in some really novel ways and get some very interesting results from them, and very often there’s a “third option” whereby you can complete both of the “opposing” quests you were given (although possibly the quest-giver(s) won’t be quite as happy with the result).

    Granted, once you join one of the camps, events pretty much develop on their own from there, but in RL you only have so much control about what goes on. Sometimes you do just have to react to events.

  36. Craig says:

    What I desperatly want is an rpg where there are no set good/evil choices or good/evil characters. I also want multiple paths. So much so that it should seem like 50 different games depending on which choices you make. I do not mind if it were shorter because of this because I want to have replayability up the wazoo. One of the things I loved about Zelda, Majora’s Mask, was that the game was essentially based on replayability. I want to be able to disect and explore the rpg’s world like James Joyce dissected and explored Dublin in Dubliners. That is all.

  37. Pugio Rosso says:

    I quote poster #35 and I also add that the sequel to Gothic improved on the “camp system”: depending on the guild you join (Mercenaries, King Footmen and Fire Magician) you get unique quests during the course of the entire game (instead of only for the first half), different reactions from the various NPC, and even different amounts of “backstory”!
    The ending is still the same regardless of what path you choose but almost everything in between changes depending on the choices the player makes.

  38. Christian Groff says:

    First off, I wanted to make a quick comment about your Prey article about kids being killed on-screen. I’m not anklebiting, just my two cents. I am going to re-buy the Katamari Damacy series, and guess what you do there? You roll up kids in a ball and they end up being crushed and turned into stars and planets. Now, call that Japanese kookiness, but if anyone wants to say that seeing kids die on-screen is sick and perverse, then the makers of the Katamari series should be locked up for the above reason.

    Okay, don’t ban me, just my two cents.

    On-topic, after playing quite a few RPGs, I’m more a freedom fan – check out my resume of RPGs; Pokemon, Rogue Galaxy, Persona 3, all which have more freedom than story – and am quietly waiting word of the DS game, Dragon Quest IX, where you can customize your character. Of course, any RPG without a story is like chicken without seasoning. :)

  39. Daemian_Lucifer says:

    33 Telas Says:

    “It's funny. As a current PnP RPGer, and a former CRPGer, I feel that people claim they want total freedom in a game, but then they sit around looking at each other blankly, wondering “OK, now what?””

    Doesnt apply on some groups I played with/lead.Once,the guys forgot my plot completelly and started doing some wacky things throughout the town for several sessions.I couldnt railroad them back(nor did I want to),but it was quite tough to invent side quests on the fly(luckilly I had some in store).But mostly they ignored these to and were simply having chaotic fun.

  40. You can have the best of both worlds here, but it requires that (a) “following the story” is a choice you give to the player; and (b) you design the story in a way that doesn’t require rails. (That way it can neither be “derailed” nor “railroaded”.)

    Take the Gollum example: Yes, if you specifically create a situation where the PCs see Gollum within the range of their weapons, you have created a scenario where they may choose to ignore Gandalf and kill Gollum.

    You have two choices: (1) Account for the possibility that Gollum will be killed. (2) Don’t put Gollum in melee range.

    This is a lesson I learned as a PnP designer: If you don’t want the players to do X you can either (a) illogically force them not to do X; (b) not put them into a position where they could logically do X; or (c) get rid of your supposition that you the players shouldn’t be allowed to do X.

    Option C, as you note, is more difficult to do in a CRPG. But that doesn’t mean that Option B should be ignored.

    For a CRPG example, take a look at Ultima VII: One of the major plot threads here is that you’re following the trail of two members of the Fellowship. No matter how fast you tried to follow that trail, you never caught up with them until the end of the game. Why? Because they’d already gone all those places before you ever got to Britannia. No freedom was ever taken away from you — that was merely the reality in which you found yourself.

    OTOH, if Ultima VII had included a number of scenes in which you almost catch up with them but then either a cut-scene intervenes or plot-immunity intervenes or a plot-door slams shut behind them… well, that’s an actual infringement of freedom.

    Justin Alexander

  41. John says:

    Id have to say a good modern game that hits a good balance between the two is Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl. It does have quite high specs, and still has enough small bugs that those who require their games to look and feel polished should avoid it like the plague, but it’s great. It gives you near total freedom, while adding the freedom that oblivion takes out – the freedom to fail. You can deviate from the plot as much as you like, and take as many side quests as you like, with the incentive to keep you on the rails being that if you want to wander into a high level area straight away you will be killed by the wildlife. And thats assuming that you’ve saved up for enough protective gear that the environment doesn’t kill you straight off. However I personally found that the plot was strong enough that I didn’t want to wander very much, I was far more interested in finding out what was actually going on. And then there’s the very talented AI, and the spectacular scenery. Its a game that was worth the wait, and thats not something I say very often.

  42. Lingwei says:

    “One way around this – and this applies to both videogames and tabletop games – is to create a “great” story to begin with, and then offer the player the continual illusion of freedom within that story by giving them superficial choices. The people at Bioware are masters of this show of illusory player input.”

    “In spite of what any of the freedom proponents may say (and at extremes, start ranting about railroading)”

    Hmm, but if all you are offering is the illusion of choice then your choices aren’t actually having any consequences (i.e railroading), which are one of the most important part of defining your character (and thus the RPG genre). Afterall what does it matter that you are choosing to do something one way or another if the end result is the same? How are you able to define your character if everything ends up the same regardless of what you do. And sorry but “pretending” just isn’t good enough.

  43. Shamus says:

    Good on you for the mod, but I should point out that your “only two days” was modding an existing game where the scripting language, models, sounds, voice acting, and enviroments were already done for you.

    And this quest doesn’t in any way impact the larger, overall quest, it isn’t part of the main storyline, and so it’s just “pretending”, which you said isn’t good enough.

    I didn’t say pretending was an ideal solution – I said it was one way to handle the problem.

  44. Jimmy says:

    I agree with much of your post. A good story takes a long time to develop, and if you give the player many choices along the way, you have to develop hundreds of good stories in parallell.

    I think it’s good that there are games of both styles – After playing Oblivion for some time, it’s refreshing to play a game like NWN and feel like you’re taking part in a story as it unfolds.

    I enjoy games that give you a meaningful “main quest”. This one might have a few “crossroads” where you can choose how to continue, but otherwise be quite linear. At the very least, it should offer you three choices on how to progress: Evil, Neutral and Good. What if I don’t want to save the world, but instead ally with the bad guys and take over the world? Or maybe I don’t really care as long as I get a good reward – Too many games only gives you one choices – Good, and makes you the hero and savior at the end of the game. Also, this should not be limited to one or two choices, you should gradually align with one of the choices as you progress through the story line.

    Other than a meaningful MQ, I enjoy simply exploring the game world. This means that plentiful and interesting side quests are also needed. Those don’t have to affect the main story in any way, it’s better if they’re mini-stories in their own. However, I think developers can use more imagination here – Too many boil down to “Fetch this item for me” or “Kill this person” etc.

  45. rayen says:

    so 2 years, no 3 years later i ask this. What about morrowind? that game had generous amounts of freedom, interesting and vibrant (main) characters and a great story. What did morrowind trade freedom for its story?

  46. Ander the Halfling Rogue says:

    I’m on the story side of the coin and here’s why:
    1. If you’re given freedom, then it makes logical sense that you can miss something. If you kill the noble, obviously he can’t give you a sidequest that earns you an interesting sub-plot and an amulet of +2 awesome. The problem is, I already killed the guy. I don’t learn that I cut off part of the story until I read about it somewhere else. I’m fine with having the option to (not) kill him, as long as the sidequest comes in some form anyway. I don’t want to have the option to do two different quests depending on my actions. I want the one, good, well-designed quest that the developers made instead of doing two. I’m not usually a re-player of big RPGs, so I won’t ever know (unless I hear about it elsewhere).
    As for concerns about actions having consequences, the dialogue and such just changes to cover that. Maybe instead of hunting down a rival noble for the first noble, I get hired to do so by someone else because I impressed him with my skill against the first guy. In one, I get to be of service to an important figure. In the other, I’m just a paid assassin. Same fights; same loot (mostly). Not as much freedom gameplay-wise, but if it’s fun, I don’t care.
    2. I trust the developer to make a good story. Shaky trust, maybe, but I give it to them. It’s their job to break/fulfill it. I do not trust myself with getting a good, wide, epic story through meandering through the world and sub-plots on my own whim. I WANT a nice, tightly-written, cohesive story. Giving developers the wheel lets them do that. Railroading is fine with me; again, I almost never replay big story-driven games anyway.
    3. I think I’d get lost with too much freedom. The game should tell you what to do, if it wants to tell a good story (the if isn’t really an option in games with a story more advanced than the average Kirby game). My desire for discovery and exploration is covered by nice plot twists and the obscure, in-no-way-plot-essential ruins/temples and the cool stuff they contain. Whether I find it or not is up to me. I enjoyed Tales of Symphonia while doing almost none of the undoubtedly-cool sidequests. Not intentionally, mind you. I just didn’t know they were there to be done or how to do them. But I enjoyed the main plot, and that’s all I needed.
    And yes, I’ve only played through the game once. I got Colette. No, I wouldn’t have picked someone else if I knew how. Shipping is not my style. The author creates and populates the world, and he gets to do what he wants in it. Go author-intended pairing, and long live Kataang!
    Boy, I lost focus at the end there. But the principle’s the same: the developer/creator should make the story; the audience experiences it.

    1. TSi says:

      You feel fine with linear games because you have no desire to actually role play your character(s). You can’t role play or even simulate it when you’re simply following a story and going from point A to B while doing what you’re asked to.

      You said you enjoyed Tales of Synphonia while not doing any side quests. That’s a shame as most of them allow for character development and adds to the background story. You can’t get a grisp of how every character links to each other without them (some are unavoidable anyway).
      My guess is that you like rushing to the end, experiencing the overall story and then throwing it away like a random cheap FPS.

      Maybe for you it is no better than watching a good movie ?

  47. TSi says:

    I just replied in the previous post “What Makes a Great RPG, Part III” about the witcher series and how well you actually get to live a slightly different story depending on the outcome of the main and side quests. You won’t miss anything important but meet/discuss/see things/people or have access to different locations/quests or ‘factions’ depending on your previous decisions. I’m not sure how they implemented it but it seems to me that it is more complex than what bioware does.

    Anyone tried it ?

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