Saturday, July 14, 2012

Mass Relays, Magic Wands, and My Life as a Teenage Witch

It's my second week at Iris Academy. Things are going well so far; my roommates are nice, my magic classes are going well (even the ones taught by grumpy professor Totally-Not-Severus-Snape). But today, before class, all the freshman are lead to an assembly, where the senior class president addresses us and informs us that this week is Freshman Initiation.

"Fine," I think. A way to meet more students, find the beginning points for some relationships. Should be fun. Then an older boy approaches and claims me as "his" freshman, and I immediately bristle. It's not that he's got blue skin and wings; this is a magical school, after all, and I'm no racist. No, it's the way he talks. A mixture of dominance (technically in line with the whole hazing aspect of the Initiation) and conspiratoriality, a juxtaposition of barking orders and assurances that he's the only person I can trust. It feels, to me, like the opening salvos of something that could turn very unpleasant.

(Click on pictures to view them fullsize)

If I was actually a 15-year-old witch, maybe this line of bullshit would work on me. Luckily, I'm only pretending to be one (within the context of Magical Diary, a time management/visual novel game from Hanako Games). And my young witch, Lady Grantham, has absolutely no time for this manipulative crap. I refuse to take his hand to help me up, and when that provokes him into a commanding rage, I walk out, tell the professor I'm not participating in Initiation, and move on with my education. I never see him again, spending my year romancing the class troublemaker-with-a-heart-of-gold and trying to stay out of trouble with Not-Snape.

The choice to walk away from Initiation was, in terms of the game's structure, a huge one. The relationship with Damien (the boy in question) makes up a major portion of one of the game's paths (to the point where he stands prominently in the very center of the title screen). By washing my hands of the entire thing, I cut myself out of a large portion of content. So the question is: even with a successfully completed school year, can I be said to have "completed" Magical Diary if I HAVEN'T experienced Damien's path? I paid money for this game; am I cheating myself if I don't go back and play through as the kind of person who WOULD submit to Damien, if it means receiving more of the total story?

It's a problem inherent to any game in which the player makes meaningful choices - what about the road not taken? Part of the strength of games like the Mass Effect series is that they allow players to craft a world that's meaningfully "theirs" - my doofily good-natured, neck-bearded Paragon Commander Shepard has very little in common with your tough-as-nails, Earth supremacist Renegade FemShep - they have different backgrounds, different military careers, and they've made hundreds of different choices that have shaped the universe around them over the course of the games, pruning story branches and eliminating possiblities as they go. And this is exciting, because those choices are my primary means of interaction with the Mass Effect universe (combat being, essentially, a filler between dialogues, with no impact beyond "You got a Game Over/You didn't get a Game Over" on the plot), and the lasting consequences of those choices give the series a true sense of being reactive to the players (even if that reaction usually just takes the form of an e-mail in your inbox or a modifier to your War Resources). The game is taking my decisions seriously, and that means I'M more inclined to take them seriously.

But, on the other hand, decisions like this also add to a game's... *shudder*... Replay Value.

I came to hate the idea of Replay Value around the same time that I realized it's a nasty misnomer - when people use the phrase, they don't mean "How fun is this game to replay?" They mean "How many times do you have to play through similar iterations of this game to experience all of the available content?" The Mass Effect games are TERRIBLE if treated this way - most meaningful choices come at the end of long missions that play out exactly the same until the end, meaning you're receiving relatively little "new" content as you play through the same game multiple times. The first game, especially, shows more and more of its seams the more times you return to it, until the sight of Eden Prime or, God help me, the horrible, terrible, awful, really quite poorly designed Mako Tank sequences are enough to make me sigh and shut the game off, dreams of creating some cool new Shepard concept to play through dying in the face of tedium and very, very bad driving controls.

Magical Diary is less punishing in this regard - you can skip dialogue you've seen before, and the choices are diverse enough that a second playthrough offers a great deal of new material to explore. There's still that sense of spinning your wheels as you repeat the same introductory sequences over and over, though (and skipping dialogue tends to mute the emotional impact when I get to the new parts, diminishing the context they exist in). And in a way, it's worse, because the game has an achievement system that tracks various mutually exclusive story moments, meaning the game is actively incentivizing a complete exploration of all the choices available to me as a player. Which leads to another problem, one more fundamental to the way we play.

When I played as Lady Grantham (and Gabriel Shepard, and any number of other RPG heroes), I followed a simple rubric for my choices - I picked the ones that seemed "Right" to me. Essentially, I played the characters as though they WERE me - albeit me as a 15-year-old witch or a highly trained Space Badass. That's part of the appeal of choice-based games for me, seeing what I'd do in these fantastical situations and deep moral quandaries.*

But this system of choice is also extremely limited - there might be a little wiggle room in how I'd decide an issue, but most of my decisions (like walking away from Damien), were pretty clear. I could just play through the game as "Lady Grantham, except she made one huge decision differently," but it feels dishonest to me - it doesn't fit with the way the character acts in my head. So the choice is to either invent a new person to play as, one with fundamentally different choices and values from my own, or to make choices on a whim, simply attempting to find new outcomes with no concern for character consistency (there's something appealing about this idea, given that trying to figure out "What Lady Grantham would or would not do" is essentially me arguing with myself like a crazy person).

Both of these options are concerned with one of the harder-to-track components of choice-based games: Consistency. Real people are (generally speaking) consistent - they have control over themselves every waking minute of the day, and the ways they use that control add up to a stable identity. It's part of what makes them seem, you know, real. Game characters, on the other hand, only have moments of control every few minutes - usually when a dialogue choice is presented - and generally very little incentive to have those disparate choices jibe with each other (and there may even be incentives to act INconsistently - Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey comes to mind as a game where the neutral character alignment, which leads to the game's most positive ending, really just means alternately choosing between "Nice" and "Evil" choices to stay in the middle of the sliding morality scale). Most systems that try to address these mood-swing-prone characters are punitive in nature - a Mass Effect character, for instance, who vacillates between Paragon and Renegade responses will be locked out of high-level Paragon or Renegade dialogue options (usually the ones that have the greatest impact on the story). But most games, sadly, don't care about the issue at all.** If the player cares about consistency (and if you're trying to experience a story in good faith, you do), in most cases it's up to them to provide it.

To do that in Magical Diary (and the next few paragraphs follow a pattern I've established in many, many games that encourage replay to experience different choices), I need new criteria to make decisions with - ideally ones that lead to me becoming emotionally involved with Damien, since the goal of this second playthrough is to experience new content. So, in the interest of consistency, I decide this new character is as demure and lovestruck as I can make her within the choices presented to me, a sweet pushover who follows whatever orders she's given. I create a new girl, name her something nondescript, and start playing through the first several weeks of the game again, meekly acquiescing to whatever anyone says.

It feels fucking gross.

Worse than that, it feels fake. Maybe it's a failure in roleplaying on my part, but caring about the games I play, and the stories they tell, means I treat choices like they matter - and emotionally investing myself in obviously wrong choices makes me feel sick to my stomach. This isn't going to work (as usual - my Renegade Shepards always had a sappy tendency to pick more and more Paragon options the more uncomfortable I got with doing mean things to virtual people) - so I switch to Plan B: gaming the system.

I start making choices just to find out what the outcomes are. I intentionally limit emotional investment. I maintain 10 different save files in parallel, 10 witch-girls with the same name and incrementally different decisions. I'm not a role-player anymore, I'm a data miner. I'm not exploring one character's passage through a year at a magical school, I'm playing a video game where the goal is to find all of the content hidden within a matrix of choices.

In a way, it's fun, interesting. I'm learning a lot about the universe the game takes place in, and about the other characters. The only character I'm not learning about is the one I'm playing as, because she's not really a character at all. She's just a tool I use to make choices.

There's no grand point I'm driving toward here - play your games the way you want. I'm just recounting my personal experiences. No Shepard's ever mattered more to me, been as "real" to me, as the first one I saved the galaxy with. And I can't help wondering if I wouldn't have been happier letting Magical Diary be the singular adventure of one Lady Grantham, the prank-loving spitfire of Horse Hall. Because as it stands now, having sent Boring McNoname through a hundred different possible lives, no one more valuable than the next, it occurs to me that I've had a great deal of Replay, and precious little Value.

*One of my most moving gaming moments is from a choice in Mass Effect, actually. On the planet Noveria, you encounter the Rachni Queen, unintentional broodmother of the horde of mindless insectoid monsters you've been fighting throughout the level. The choice: Let her go, trusting her word that the slaughter was inadvertent, and that past wars were caused by miscommunication, not malice. Or kill her, ending the Rachni threat forever, at the expense of committing genocide on an entire sentient race.  If it sounds familiar, it's because the situation is an almost-direct lift from Orson Scott Card's novel Ender's Game, one of my very favorite books. (Card has become controversial in recent years for his less-than-tolerant stance on the morality of homosexuality, but Ender's Game, and its sequel, Speaker For The Dead, convey truly beautiful messages of compassion and humanism that have always resonated with me, even when their creator has failed to live up to those ideals.) Being presented with Ender's choice felt.. powerful to me, in a way very video games have managed to evoke. Sparing her made me feel, for a moment, really, actually happy.

** A few examples of this done right: Alpha Protocol (an adequate action RPG with an INCREDIBLE grasp of how to do choice-based consequences in a video game, I do not talk about this game enough, given my interests), boils all conversational choices down to three basic emotional stances (aggressive, professional, and suave), and then assigns the player an unseen reputation that subtly affects how people respond to them if they pick one option more often than the others. And Dragon Age 2, which uses a similar tracking system, except it uses it to determine which of three attitudes the player character uses in non-choice dialogues - brief asides, combat quotes, small things like that. It goes a long way toward making you feel like you're playing as a person, not just a choice-vehicle.


  1. I think you raise some really interesting points with regards to replaying story-driven games. Particularly you make a good point about second-playthrough characters often being choice-vehicles rather than people. I'd never thought of it that way, so it's really insightful. I've often considered some of your points myself, and I agree that it can feel "gross" to play a different character to the original one.

    I had this kind of weird incongruous experience in Mass Effect. After seeing so many people slag off "ugly" FemSheps and giving compliments to pretty FemSheps, I decided to start a game with a "sexy" FemShep instead of the slightly masculine rough-edge Shepard I played with before. I gave it a good go, honestly, but I just kept looking at that face and thinking "this voice isn't yours" and "your lips are moving weird" and "ewwwwwwwwwwwww". I think the word "gross" is the perfect way to describe it. A pretty-looking sexed up Shepard was just... well... plain WRONG! Like an imposter in my world. And even as I played through the game with my old Shepard the second time - intent on making my decisions differently - I found myself incapable of deviating from the choices I had made previously.

    In a game design document I wrote up a long time ago - an RPG focused around romance - I tried to get round that by creating traits/goals for the character as part of the character creation process. So for example you could be a girl who values a logical approach over an emotional one, and whose goals focus on the betterment of her craft (as opposed to the betterment of her community, or increasing her personal wealth). In doing so, I was planning to make only certain dialog options available to certain characters - so the logical girl wouldn't even get to see the emotionally-driven situations, and vice versa.

    But I guess that this kind of approach would only be feasible on a small scale really. :)

    1. Oh, I think that idea is conceivable - I just think that the game wouldn't be graphically impressive, or have voice. I think that we could do a lot of fascinating narrative and choice-based options if we deliberately scaled back to an 8-bit or 16-bit graphical style.

  2. I don't know, I think traditional top-down/isometric RPGs still look pretty and could have this kind of system. Also Visual Novels lend themselves quite well to this, especially since decision making on the player's behalf is usually relatively limited within VNs. But something like Mass Effect probably not - it would multiply the spoken content by about 8 times. That would just be crazy!