I was reading the series of Richard Garriot interviews at Crispy Gamer and he was talking about the player getting attacked by children. In the comment (part one, page three), he says,
“And what I created was a room with cages in the four corners filled with children, and in the middle of the room was a lever. And if you threw the lever it would open the cages. But the things that actually looked like children were in fact monsters, and the monsters would just come over and attack you. … you don’t have to kill the children: They could reload the room and not pull the lever; they could put the children to sleep and walk out; you could charm the children and make them walk away; they could drop their weapons so they wouldn’t hit them and attack them until they went below a quarter hit points and the kids would run away; they could use a fear spell and make them run away, etc. There are lots of options that don’t involve killing children.”
In theory, I love this idea.
Well, let me back up a step and say that I love morality tests in gaming. It provides depth and meaning and creates a relative scale for your actions. It brings the game and its characters and that setting to life.
And I love the idea that if a beggar asks me for money, it’s not an empty activity. Stuff is happening, both in the game world and behind the scenes. Behind the scenes, maybe, as in Ultima, my compassion is affected by my decision which affects my success in the game. And in the game, maybe the beggar gives me some information as a favor or helps me later in the game in some small way. Shoot, maybe it just changes the number of people who beg from me because they see me as a rich patsy.
Ultima originated this concept and some of my favorite games of today, like Fable or the Witcher or something from BioWare or Obsidian Entertainment have advanced the mechanic.
So while I happily admit I love morality tests in gaming, the above quote bothers me because it’s, as Garriot says, invisible. Too invisible. And without any resolution. You’re not sure if you’re being tested or not. You’re not sure if there’s going to be some impact or not. (And in his example, there is no impact.) And while that is a great way to get at a player’s true colors, it’s also frustrating to the player.
What bothers me is that the other solutions are not implemented. First of all, re-loading is never a solution. That was a throw-away comment to appease his brother. But as to his other solutions, if I’m attacked by children and I cast Sleep, I wonder “what next?” I need to see if it changes anything. And in Ultima, it does not. If I come back 10 hours or 10 days later, the kids are waiting to fight me to the death because they only have two states: in the cell/passive and out of the cell/aggressive.
BioWare committed a similar failing in Baldur’s Gate II. There was a plot where you were attacked by someone who was clearly not in their right mind (I think it was in Nalia’s Keep?). There was a chance that if you Charmed the person it would instantly resolve the scenario – but not always. I think there may have been another solution, like Sleep. Regardless, when the alternative methods of plot resolution don’t even work reliably (in that one instance in the entirety of the game where there is even the possibility) you can’t expect the player to think to ever use that method.
To make it work, we need feedback and closure. Maybe not “you receive 100 experience. You earn 10 good points for avoiding combat,” but something to let us know that the scenario has been completed. For example, in most games the kids “spawn out” of the game world and the lever becomes useless. The encounter cannot be triggered anew. And then later in the game, the kids or someone else thanks you for not killing the children – letting you know that your decisions are relevant.
But there has to be some level of understanding of the mechanics of a puzzle before you can put the player into a puzzle.
You need to first create the dilemma on a smaller scale and show the player how they can behave and what kind of results they can expect. After that, we can put the player in non-obvious scenarios and give them rewards for alternative thinking. And then, if all that goes well, then we can have the player attacked by children and rightly assume the player’s first thought may just be to Charm the children because he worries about the outcome, the world and story – his immersion.
And throughout it all, the results have to be consistent or make sense no matter where the player uses these methods.