Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Frayed Narratives, Closed Games: Understanding My Allergy To BioWare Games

I do not enjoy many BioWare games. There I finally said it. Baldur’s Gate overwhelmed me; I gave up on Knights of the Old Republic; I could not stand Dragon Age: Origins. I did enjoy the story and style of Mass Effect a lot, but it took months of apathy towards the gameplay before it obtained the dubious title of being the only BioWare title I have ever completed. I am currently halfway through Mass Effect 2, but the disc has not been placed in my 360 for over a month now. I just do not feel the need to complete BioWare games. There is something about them that just makes the overall experience meaningless to me.
This has always bothered me as I do not think BioWare make bad games. Many would argue, and I would have trouble disagreeing, that they are among the best world-builders (in the fiction sense, not the polygon sense) in the industry. They form worlds rich with details, bureaucracies, and consequences that make other game-worlds look like flat, cardboard cut-outs. Games like Dragon Age have an unprecedented amount of recorded dialogue so that the player’s actions can affect the story, world, and characters in meaningful, persistent ways. These games integrate story and game so tightly that the two can’t be separated. These should be the games that justify my belief that games can tell good stories in ways pre-existing mediums never could. Yet I do not enjoy them.
Meanwhile, I thoroughly enjoy games such as Red Dead Redemption, Fallout 3, and Halo 3: ODST that give me some arbitrary amount of spatial freedom to move around an open world, yet force me through an ultimately linear narrative. These games let me do whatever I want, but then remove my agency entirely to progress the story in a certain way. If I would rather be told a pre-authored story than author my own, why do I invest so much time into playing and researching story-driven games instead of film or literature?
This question has pestered me for some time now. It would not be exaggerating to say I feel guilty for enjoying these games while not enjoying the BioWare titles—to the extent that I have even doubted my own belief that story has a place in game design. It was not until the following passage from Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives caused me to stop and think for whole minutes that I began to understand why: 

"I want to be told a story—albeit one I happen to be part of and can affect, even if in small ways. If I wanted to tell a story, I would not be playing video games."
Before I go on, it must be stressed that this can only ever be a purely subjective thing. I am not trying to argue for one form of storytelling over another. There is no single, prescriptive way to put stories and games together. I am not trying to disregard the BioWare model (that would be foolish as so many people obviously do enjoy their games) but, rather, I want to understand why the BioWare form of storytelling does not appeal to me.
If a game such as Red Dead Redemption is a closed story (one beyond my control) in an open world (one I can navigate freely), then a BioWare game such as Dragon Age is an open story in a closed world. Or, instead of ‘world’, let’s say ‘game’; that way I am not limiting my argument to sandbox games. Both Deus Ex and Metal Gear Solid, for instance, are closed stories beyond my control (my actions do affect which ending I view but each possible ending is still predetermined), but are open games in the sense that I am able to navigate and interact with the levels freely—even in ways that render the story nonsensical.
Dragon Age, on the other hand, feels like a closed game which does not give me any freedom to navigate or interact with the world. That is a contentious thing to claim that can easily be argued against, I am aware. However, each Dragon Age locale that I visit feels confined and contrived; I can talk and interact with characters to progress the story, but can only interact with the world—and by extension, play the game—in very limited ways.
Despite the rich depth of fiction supporting Ferelden, I never feel like I am visiting places, just levels. Shadow Moses Island and Deus Ex’s Liberty Island, despite the linear stories the games force me through, feel like real places. Metal Gear Solid and Deus Ex only allow me to interact with the story in limited ways, but I can interact with their worlds (and thus their games) in significant ways. Dragon Age, however, while letting me interact thoroughly with the story, rarely lets me interact with the game.
By closing off the game and opening up the story, BioWare games give me agency where I do not require it, and remove my agency from where I do require it. That is, I am able to affect the story more at the price of being able to play the game.
Narratives are essentially linear. Some are convoluted with flashbacks and various points-of-views and whatnot, but every narrative essentially starts at a beginning and progresses towards an end. Games have some fascinating contributions to make to storytelling discourse. One is allowing unique player experiences to emerge from the act of play in games such as The Sims or Far Cry 2. Another is allowing the player to partake in existing narratives by enacting a specific character role. However, I am increasingly convinced that one of these contributions is not the delinearisation of what are still essentially pre-authored narratives.
I feel that if a game has a particular story to present, it should present it. As the Bissell quote above states, I do not play games because I want to tell stories; I play games because I want to take part in a story. I want to enact a role in the game’s story, not rewrite it. The actor playing Romeo in a production of Romeo and Juliet does not get to decide whether or not he kills Tybalt, but he does get to decide how he personally, uniquely enacts the character of Romeo within the open space of the stage and the closed space of the narrative. Like the actor, the player guides a linear narrative through an open, navigable space.
Arguably, the branching dialogue trees of Mass Effect and Dragon Age are just a higher degree of this: taking part significantly in a story that is being told to me. However, for me this can never be more meaningful that those pick-a-path novels you read as a kid. I do not feel as though I am experiencing my own, personal telling of the story; rather, I merely feel like I am experiencing one of an arbitrary number of hypotheticals. Red Dead Redemption is the story of John Marsden; Deus Ex is the story of JC Denton; Metal Gear Solid is the story of Solid Snake. Dragon Age, however, is not the story of one specific character; it is the story of how a Grey Warden who may exist (but then again may not) may save Ferelden this way (but then again may save Ferelden that way). While the game’s efforts to give the player agency over the story should be applauded, the actual result was that my actions became less significant. The numerous potential paths of the narrative weakened my overall experience of the story. My actions were less meaningful because any other combination of actions could have had the same ultimate result. Ultimately, the story lacked authority.
This is perhaps why Mass Effect is the only BioWare game I have actually completed. Although the player has an impressive amount of influence over what kind of person Shepard is, Mass Effect is ultimately the story of Commander Shepard, not of the player, and it is a stronger story because of this. And, as a game relying primarily on its story, is also a stronger game.
A linear story threads through an open game like a thick rope that anchors and guides the player’s actions. BioWare’s multi-branching narratives are not multiple ropes, but one rope much frayed. The number of paths is not increased (they all still end in a similar conclusion), but the overall strength of the narrative is weakened. Branching narratives is not the way to go about allowing the player their own personal stories. Games can do this, but no pre-authored narrative can. Mass Effect, with all its dialogue trees, will never have the breadth of unique stories that have emerged from more emergent games like The Sims or Far Cry 2.
This is not to completely undermine al the incredibly things Mass Effect and other BioWare games achieve. The predicament with Wrex will go down as one of my more gripping gaming moments of recent times. BioWare does an extraordinary job of making me feel for its characters and worlds. However, I believe that is more a product of their splendid, encyclopaedic knowledge of their worlds than from any number of dialogue trees.
I have no issue with linear narratives in games, and I have no issue with open, emergent narratives in games. I also have no issue with games experimenting with linear narratives in new ways. However, I do have an issue with linear narratives trying to be emergent narratives. At best, they will be complex pick-a-path stories, nothing more.
This is why I find Mass Effect the most enjoyable of BioWare’s titles. It is a linear narrative about Commander Shepard fighting the Reapers. The player is able to participate in the narrative by making significant choices along the way, but the narrative itself remains the same. This is the story of Commander Shepard. Dragon Age, however, gave me no reason to commit to its narrative as the game itself felt uncommitted. It was not a story; it was one branch no more remarkable than a thousand other branches.
It is not the number of narrative paths that fascinate me about a story-driven game—a game based on emergent play will always have an infinite number more. Rather, it is the ability to take part in one specific, well-presented narrative path that interests me. I am a player and, by definition, my participation is in the gameplay; it is in the gameplay that my agency can do the most good. Narratives, historically, have always worked best when linear and closed off from the audience’s input; gameplay has always worked best when left open to the player’s experimentation. So perhaps, instead of merging the two together, games should keep it that way. Give the player a point A and a point B and a navigable space between the two and let them find the rope to pull them through it.

As noted throughout this article, I am not trying to be prescriptive here. I am very aware that many people do enjoy these BioWare games for exactly the reasons I do not. Perhaps I am simply approaching them with the wrong frame-of-mind. I can already see some key weaknesses in my arguments that could easily be argued against (i.e. How can I say the player has significant choices in Mass Effect if the narrative is unaffected?). I welcome challenges to the conclusions I have drawn here in the comments. Not because I think I am right, but because I want to understand why I do not enjoy these games.


Fraser said...

You're not the only person who likes story in games but not Bioware games (the other one I can think of is Harry at RKD). I think I'm a fan of Bioware, but I've only really played through Baldur's Gate 1 and Mass Effect 1, many years apart. Within the past year I've snapped up Baldur's Gate 2 and KotOR in sales, but I've found both too overwhelming to devote much time to. And you picked just the right word for it, "overwhelming"; they're not bad games, they're just too much to take in. I'll have to play a few more Bioware games (looking forward to ME2!) and hope that I don't suddenly lose the taste for them.

Looking at the broader issues, you've raised two separate-but-related interesting points: what do we fundamentally want to get out of playing a videogame?; and how can videogames best present an effective narrative?

There has been some interesting research into the former question in recent years. People like Marc LeBlanc and Chris Bateman have been busily demolishing the idea that a game can ever be said to be objectively fun for everyone equally. Some people just react to Bioware-style closed game worlds more positively, it seems. (But I still can't understand why anybody likes JRPG stories.)

On the latter point, about the form that game stories take, part of the problem must be finite resources. The more open the developer makes their hand-crafted story, the more thinly they have to spread their writers and designers to produce all the necessary content. The result is eight weak story threads instead of one or two strong ones.

The developers that succeed at opening up their game stories are invariably the ones who stop treating them as pre-scripted stories and start treating them as simulations. Far Cry 2 has scripted story elements, but what people remember are the moments when the various mechanics came together in unexpected ways. Those mechanics work almost like a scripted narrative; where a script is designed to create an experience, the mechanics of a game like Far Cry 2 are designed to generate experiences.

Even further down the same scale is a game like Civilization. Each game of Civilization has a very open story, built out of very few scripted narrative elements. You might not even call it a story, but there's certainly something like a narrative going on when my Zulu tanks roll into communist London in 1860AD.

There's more than one way to skin a cat, basically. Still, it goes back to the question of what you're looking for in the first place. Red Dead Redemption and Halo 3: ODST might offer a more consistently engaging narrative than Dragon's Age by being so tightly focused on a single story, but Dragon's Age's story would probably fare much better on a second or third play-through.

For the record, I don't relate to that Tom Bissell quote the same way you do. If I wanted to be told a story, I would not be playing video games; I'd be reading a book. I'm happiest mucking about in a strategy game, where the story is whatever I do with the various pieces the game gives me.

Fraser said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Fraser said...

Bitten by a radioactive shitty internet connection, I gained the awesome power of turning a single comment into two identical comments!

Allan Weallans said...

Coincidentally, I'm currently playing Jade Empire, and since I read this post, I've been somewhat comparing it to my experiences in Mass Effect. It sort of harks to something else Tom Bissell said about Mass Effect itself, when he argued that his Shepard was the canonical one, and all the others he saw on Youtube were impostors. There isn't a canonical Jade Empire protagonist, just as there isn't a canonical Dragon Age: Origins protagonist. There isn't a canonical Mass Effect protagonist, either, but somehow the game makes you feel like there is, and it happens to be the one you're playing (which, of course, means Tom Bissell is wrong: my Shepard is the canonical one). I didn't feel like I had any choices to make in Mass Effect, all I could do was look for the dialogue options that best matched my understanding of Shepard, rather than my decisions for Shepard. But I think that made the story that much more satisfying.

Compare it to Dragon Age: Origins. I only played it with one origin, so I don't know what the rest were like, but when my character's parents got killed in an obligatory fantasy genre kind of way, I felt like I had to decide arbitrarily how my character felt about that, rather than being led by my understanding of the character, which, ultimately, felt rather meaningless.

In Daniel Kromand's terms [PDF], I think Shepard is more a closed avatar, while Dragon Age: Origins' protagonist is more an open avatar. (It looks like Dragon Age II's protagonist will be more of a closed avatar like Shepard, so that's probably cause for optimism, even if a lot of Dragon Age fans seem to be upset over it.)

I wonder if Kromand's terms aren't coincidental, and maybe open avatars belong in open worlds, while closed avatars belong in closed worlds. There are a few obvious objections to that, which could be counterexamples, but I have a feeling they're rather special cases. In my view, the BioWare games that don't break this "rule" are Mass Effect and Neverwinter Nights (towards opposite ends of the open/closed continuum), and they're the ones that seem to work the best (though I've never played Baldur's Gate, so I don't know how that fits in with that idea). But it can't really be a rule, because, like you say, it's a subjective thing.

Brendan said...

Hi Fraser. No dramas about the double post. Pretty sure Blogger just hates me.

Thanks for the comments and, as always, for the links. You've made some really interesting observations.

Interestingly, I find I am far more likely to replay a game where the story remains largely unchanged (say, Half-Life 2) as opposed to a game where I can play a different path of the story (say, Dragon Age, or even Fallout 3). I think my problem is in this case that the second time, I feel like I am doing it 'wrong'; like my first game with male Vault Dweller was the cannonical one and this one with weird female Vault Dweller is just some goofy fanfic I am deliberately making up. This in alot of ways relates to what Allan brings up in his comment about Bissell's comments on Mass Effect.

I think, personally, I like the story being there already and then I come along and discover different bits of it each time I play. I still see things happen in Half-Life and Halo that I never noticed in on the first playthrough. I love how my interpretation of the story is constantly changing based on how I navigate the game-world and witness different events. Pretty much, how the gam is presented, not how it is told.

But then again, my brother has near-identical taste in games to me and he can (admirally) play through Mass Effect or Fallout 3 any number of times with any variation of characters. So I guess the question is less what do we want to get out of playing a videogame and more what do you want to get out of them, and what do I want to get out of them?

Brendan said...

Hi Allan, thanks for stopping by.

I'm glad you brought up Bissell's chapter on Mass Effect. I think that sums up pretty well why I was able to last thrrough Mass Effect whilenot being able to tolerate Dragon Age. I like the idea of "my understanding of Shephard" as opposed to simply "my Shephard". I think that is a pretty crucial distinction.

Thanks for the Kromand link, too. I will certainly have a look at it. The sentence that first jumped into my head that triggered this post was "I prefer closed stories in open worlds more than open stories in closed worlds" so I am interested in grounding myself with some better definitions of what exactly I mean when I say 'open' and 'closed'.

J said...

I really enjoyed reading this. I played KOTOR, ME1, and ME2 but I also love reading different points of view.

I do think your reasons for liking ME1 more than other BioWare games makes good sense.

Dito said...

This is an excellent article, and one that sums up my ambivalence towards the same games far better than I could.

Role-playing video games are supposedly an outgrowth of the old pencil-and-paper games. In those, freedom and creative problem solving were expected. The narrative was built into the campaigns we played, it wasn't, as you said, just a choose-your-own-adventure story with some dice rolling.

As a kid, we had a friend who would often take the role of dungeon master and create his own campaigns. He had a strict narrative in mind, he had designed our entire experience. Any attempts to deviate from his plan and circumvent his carefully constructed story were met with fake dice rolls, improbable monsters, and other things that we viewed as borderline cheating.

The BioWare games, compared to the Bethesda games, feel the same way. There's a story AND YOU WILL NOT DEVIATE, period. The areas are linear and closed-off, the combat sections are camouflaged corridors between points A, B, and C. There is no sense of exploration, no sense of wandering the world to see what's over the next hill.

Fallout 3, on the other hand, may not be nearly as literary and narrative-driven as Dragon Age, but I'll argue it's a better GAME. Sure, you could run from quest to quest to quest and knock out the story in a dozen or two hours. But you'd miss the other 50 hours of entertainment that comes from simply strolling around and seeing what happens.

Oblivion was even slightly better in this way, allowing you to open virtually every door in every city and town. Much of it wasn't very productive or important, but it really let you feel like you were a realistic part of the world, not a bookmark moving through a story.

Brendan said...


It's interesting that you bring up tabletop role-playing. I have recently begun tabletop role-playing for the first time in many years with my brother and his friends (We are playing Dark Heresy, set in the Warhammer 40K universe).

The narratives are indeed still built into the campaigns you play, but the freedom in a tabletop game is inherently greater, I believe, because the technology powering the tabletop game is (generally) more powerful. That is: the computer powering it all is the DM's brain. While a videogame (with current-day technology) still requires every possible outcome to be hard-wired, a good DM can improvise on the spot. I think that is why tabletop role-playing tends to feel less like a pick-a-path than, say, Dragon Age. Perhaps in another twenty years or something, technology will allow computer games to improvise like a human DM; if so, I imagine companies like BioWare would be at the forefront of making some amazing games!

As for Bethesda games. Their games rely less on the player affecting the outcome of the preauthored narrative and more on the player feeling like they exist in a real, explorable world. Personally, that is something I feel games can explore more naturally.

Though, Oblivion was destroyed by the horrible difficulty-scaling. The second I hit level 10, I was being ambushed by theives wearing glass armour. These bandits could afford entire towns. It just didn't make sense and was not fun.