In my last post I described the roundtable on conflict resolution as the most interesting session I attended at GDC. It was also the most frustrating, mainly due to the format – an open forum on a complex topic with far too many people offering suggestions or observations. Lots of interesting ideas emerged, but none were adequately explored, and time expired before we could make headway in any direction. Certainly, no one was foolish enough to think we would accomplish anything concrete, but identifying a thread or two and exploring them in more depth might have been more productive.
Nevertheless, a variety of ideas and observations emerged from a range of designers and enthusiasts. A consensus formed around the idea that narrative games are mired in a self-limiting shooter mechanic that unnecessarily restricts a player's options when it comes to dealing with conflict. Not everyone agrees with this premise (see comments on my previous two posts), but I think it's a valid and salient point, and one that speaks to my growing frustration with the juvenile ways most games attempt to engage me in their interactive stories. So what to do?
A few notes from the roundtable discussion:
- One of our jobs as developers is to make the player feel clever. Let the player determine the best way to solve a conflict problem, rather than merely accepting the single option presented.
- Expand the range of choices to include ones that don't involve violence, and make the results of those choices uniquely rewarding.
- Using language to resolve conflict is hard for games to do. Some people like branching dialogue trees; others hate them. Conversation can be much more interesting in a multiplayer scenario when players must negotiate on their own. How can games implement this dynamic? What lessons we can learn from strategy games in this regard?
- Armies very rarely win by wiping out the enemy completely. Most games only allow you to proceed after you've killed every single enemy. Why can't games incorporate a more strategic aspect to combat that enables victory without annihilation?
- One way to avoid combat is to convert the enemy to your side. This could be an interesting mechanic to incorporate into gameplay, especially if it involved strategic negotiation.
- Conversation before combat could enhance options. Intimidation, bluffing, bribing...all would make interesting options. If they fail, it's time to fight. If they succeed, you've saved lives.
- Stealth can be fun, though the novelty of this mode of play may be worn out. Need new ideas. What will MGS4 do this time?
- Fleeing is an underrated and under-utilized option. Consider how movies handle this action. Make running away a thrill-ride with big obstacles, and players will more likely choose it. Make it a test of skill.
One reason games don't often deal with conflict cleverly is because they so frequently focus on simple-minded scenarios. Wolfenstein has no gray areas. Kill Nazis. Reload. Kill Nazis. That was fun in 1992...and it's still fun today. But how much do we really have to show for the last 15 years?
I want to see a game that addresses fear and human suffering in meaningful ways. Resolving conflict without violence gets more interesting when your "enemy" is driven by hunger or political oppression. Why can't a game present me with options to investigate the causes of a conflict before insisting that I start blasting away? What if I could engage my enemy and, through actions or choices, help him resolve his situation. If I try this and fail--if fighting becomes a last but ultimately necessary option--my emotional involvement in this difficult situation is greatly enhanced, and the choice to fight has resonance. Games like Mass Effect have attempted to present enemies in this way, but only through backstory cutscenes that I passively observe.
An essential point: I'm not suggesting we abolish FPS games, neuter FPS games, render FPS games politically correct, or anything else of the sort. If there's a market for shooter games that let players blast through hordes of enemies with a threadbare story—or no story at all—I say make those games, sell those games, enjoy those games. Give people what they want.
But I want what I want too. I want an interactive experience that offers me more choice than kill or be killed. If I decide to fight, I want that game mechanic to feel intuitive, rewarding, and fun (hello Mass Effect), but if I decide to negotiate or flee, I want those experiences to feel rewarding and fun too. Regardless of what I decide, I want my choices to impact the game world in meaningful ways.
Don't tell me it can't be done. It's too late for that. Game designers have only themselves to blame for opening these doors to gamers. When titles like Fable and Fahrenheit present the framework for truly immersive interactive gameplay, we cannot be blamed as gamers for wanting them or their successors to make good on those promises. Don't tell me I should be satisfied with how good Bioshock already is when the very nature of that game's design entices me with choice, agency, and consequence...all of which turn out to be cleverly disguised illusions.
One of the take-home messages of GDC was that the industry must work to expand its market. Gordon Walton is right. A sizable audience exists for narrative games that don't involve killing at every turn. As a teacher who loves games, I talk to members of that audience every day, both among colleagues and students. We're ready. Give us what we want.