The game that plays itself

8 October 2013

I remember watching Nightwrath play the default intro to Dragon Age years ago. He was systematically choosing the rudest dialogue options, yet the NPCs barely reacted. Their attitudes didn't change, the same amount of information was revealed... It made me wonder why they even bothered to call that roleplaying... or make it interactive at all for that matter.

More recently, I noticed a disturbing trend in Match-3 games, a niche I normally appreciate. Namely, if you stop and think for a few seconds, the game will "helpfully" indicate you a likely move. Apparently, the developers never realized that it just makes the game play itself...

And then I started remembering other such instances, like a certain Splinter Cell launched in... 2009, was it? and which showed you the mission parameters written in large letters on the walls. All you had to do was follow the prompts...

I've written before about games that want to be movies, but seriously? That's how far we've come? Are we so afraid of players maybe not getting to the end that we're reaching out of the screen and pushing the buttons for them?

It doesn't have to be that way. In Pytho's Mask, one of my all time favorite text adventures, 90% of gameplay consists of navigating a maze of dialogue options spread over many NPCs... and every choice matters. Does that mean you can actually lose the game? Sure, but you can always play again. And for what it's worth, I got it right on the first try. Without any hints. Even though I suck at puzzles.

At this point, the knowledgeable player is going to point out that Photopia, if not the best text adventure ever then certainly the most discussed, also starts with a scene in which you're utterly powerless to change anything, and at some point you even have to follow an NPC's step-by-step instructions! Oh noes! Double standard?

Nope... you see, Photopia is all about powerlessness and the inevitability of certain events. Also, for most of the story you're a small child playing a game of make-believe with your not much older nanny. The hand-holding just makes perfect sense in context. You might complain that it takes the edge out of the puzzles in a genre that relies on them for the most part, but I'll take the single most beautiful puzzle ever, in any text adventure, over the cleverest.

Is it all a matter of context, then? Yes, I guess that's what I'm saying. When the entire premise of the game is meant to make you feel empowered, like in a FPS, being led by the nose undermines it entirely. Doubly so if it's also a stealth game, in which you're supposed to be clever. And when the fate of the world rests on my shoulders, having my very first actions in the game influence exactly nothing is the fastest way to ruin my confidence.

But I guess it's easier to make a game look like a movie than to give players even the illusion of agency. Because, isn't it, game developers are artists. And artists, as we all know, want to control their creations.

Luckily, not all of us agree. Let your players choose, even if they choose wrong. Otherwise, what's the point?