Choice

Real life is an endless series of choices: toast or cereal for breakfast, cash or credit, paper of plastic. Many are relatively trivial like those mentioned; they don’t have a vast impact on the rest of your life. When you reach the end of your life, I very much doubt you will look back and regret having eggs and toast one rainy April morning instead of having an apple and an stack of pancakes.

Some choices, however, will define how you perceive yourself and how you move forward. Times of crisis are when decisions matter. Some make heroic decisions and save others at great risk to themselves. Some are selfish and worry only for their own safety and interests.

Most of the time the choices are not as clearly defined. Real life is full of gritty gray zones where the same outcome can be achieved by a variety of means with varying moral implications. There is a vast chasm between negotiating a compromise about a border dispute and assassinating opposition so you get what you want.

So, to bring this topic around to WoW, I don’t feel like I have choice in game. Regardless of faction, regardless of class, regardless of race, everyone is out for blood. Okay, there are quests and NPC’s that are friendly and benign, but they are overshadowed by those that are malicious and bloodthirsty.

In my play, I have reached 85 four times (so far) by piling up the corpses of my enemies. Trolls, humans, nerubians, orcs, beasts of every kind, elementals, spirits, ghosts, dragons, all manner of living and unliving beings have tried to stop me, and all have fallen. (I admit, I have also had the misfortune of falling a few times, but luckily Blizzard allows me the opportunity to get back up again.)

Nowhere along the line was I given a meaningful and one-way choice. Yes, some things are binary in their options such as siding Scryer over Aldor, or Puppymen over Big-tongues. But the choices are not one-way. I can always say, “You know, I was wrong. I would much rather collect shinies with Lafoo than be awesome and hang out with the Wolvar.” And, by putting in a little time, patch up relations with my former foes.

The kind of choices I am talking about are those like in games such as Mass Effect or even Starcraft 2. Those games have divergent elements to their experience based on the choices you make. Starcraft only has a few small branches that twine together again almost immediately, but the choices are there and (for that playthrough) are permanent. Mass Effect tries to take it further with sprawling dialogue trees that take into account the karma of all your decisions to date.

Now, I do not think World of Warcraft needs a karma system. Those have been historically quite difficult to implement well and anyway such an additional measure of my character is unnecessary. But I would like to see some more options.

Alright, rounded third headed for home. Here is what I would envision as “designer for a day”: have short spurts of the story where one to three different paths are possible. Suppose the idea is to clear out an area with some possibly friendly people stuck inside. You could have one path were you just say screw it and carpet bomb the whole thing, getting the job done but making some enemies along the way. Another option would be to wade in and fight man to man and clear the place out that way. Some friendly units would be saved, some would be lost, but you are “karmically” neutral.

Finally, another option would be to track down a member of the resistance that is willing to talk and offer up some sort of compromise that gets the foes to disperse, frees that friendly unites without casualty, and in general is the ‘nice guy’ approach.

Then, and this is the important part, those decisions subtly alter the world you live in and open up varying experiences down the line. Only if the decisions made early on end in tangibly different outcomes that impact the possibility of future decisions will the choices we make in game have meaning.

Now this raises issues with game design because the workload required to make quests has just double or trebled. Furthermore, Blizzard has put a great deal of effort into building a singular story that they take great pride in presenting to the player. That would all suddenly change if the story had to have interchangeable bits with differing endings.

I do not expect to see a huge shift in Blizzard’s stance on game design anytime soon. But I hope that as WoW evolves and grows into the future I will have the opportunity to make some decisions with substance, decisions that mean something, decisions that matter.

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~ by Aliera on April 15, 2011.

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