February 6, 2008
The Game Developers Choice Awards are the Oscars of the game industry — the award with which members of a creative industry recognize achievements of their own. In 2004, game studio BioWare walked away with three awards that are of particular note for this discussion: Game of the Year, Original Game Character of the Year, and Excellence in Writing. All of these were awarded for BioWare’s RPG Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KotOR) which also won game of the year awards from a slew of industry publications. While certainly not the most recent major RPG, it provides a good example of the strengths and weaknesses of the quest flag and dialogue tree logics.
KotOR uses quest flags and dialogue trees to reward and sustain engagement with its fictional world; to establish patterns that, when altered, produce small moments of surprise and pleasure; and to direct the audience’s attention to a series of things that must be accomplished through play — which, like a magician’s misdirection, keeps audience attention away from larger story developments until the moment they are revealed. This is generally done quite artfully. Even an exceptionally awkward-seeming opening exposition is later given deeper resonances as players progress through the main quest.
This main quest provides the spine of KotOR’s fiction. It represents a massive undertaking on the part of the player character to — what else? — intervene in events that will shape the history of the galaxy. In a manner typical for multi-stage quest design, the desired intervention requires learning the location at which these events are taking place, which requires gathering data from partial maps on several planets, which requires getting to the locations of these partial maps, which in each case can be accomplished in multiple ways, with each approach having multiple steps that may have smaller quests as prerequisites, and so on.
Against this epic backdrop (with its many components, some rather mundane) other, optional quests are presented. Some involve developing the relationships between the main player character and her or his traveling companions. Others involve taking a role in the events happening on particular planets, often with a decidedly interpersonal element (e.g., a wife begs you to find evidence to clear her husband of murder charges, which soon leads to revelations of his infidelity, which you must choose whether to discuss with them). Some are quite small, such as discovering your ship has smuggled cargo aboard, being given the code for the container, and being offered good payment for the goods by a crime syndicate representative. In cases such as this last one, the player need only decide what the characters will do with the one-stage quest — and then enact the decision in the game’s fictional world (travel to the places, interact with the objects, and talk with the appropriate NPCs).
In addition to all these activities, there are also others embedded in the fictional world — ranging from the pleasures of exploration and spatial mastery to “minigames” of card playing and racing. Some of the minigames, in turn, can unlock additional quests and NPC interactions, as well as provide resources useful in completing parts of the game to which they are less directly connected.
Given all this, conventional wisdom has it that playing a major RPG takes experienced gamers something like 40 hours. But fans of the genre often spend longer, indulging in many optional activities. In addition, many play through the same game multiple times. This is particularly true for games, like KotOR, that provide different gameplay options to characters that approach the world with different ethical stances.
What drives players to spend 40 hours, 80 hours, or more with a computer RPG? If we look only at the quest journal, where the operations of quest flag logics are exposed to the player, the appearance is of a massive indulgence in the pleasures of the to-do list. And certainly there is some of that. But more centrally KotOR is constantly providing doses of narrative closure and transition — from the small satisfactions of quest stages to the holistic sense of a planet’s stories, characters, geography, and history that can be developed over one or many playings. Jill Walker Rettberg talks about the pleasure found in learning the quest-based fictions of a place, the “network of fragments, most of which are not necessary to experience the game fully, and yet which cumulate into a rich experience of a storied world” (2007, 310).
At the same time, beyond its narrative pleasures, KotOR is also, continually, providing other reasons to keep going, to move one part of things along just one more step. A powerful element of this can be found in the rewards given with each bit of quest closure. Some rewards are as simple as cash that can be used to purchase items in the game, bribe recalcitrant NPCs, help those in need, and so on. But many story elements also, when brought to fruition, deliver experience points (XP), another convention borrowed from tabletop RPGs. As characters accumulate experience they increase in “level” and become more capable in the game world. Each new level is achieved at a particular number of XP, and the drive to hit the next number is another motivator for the “just one more thing” mindset that can keep players at KotOR for hours after they’d planned to stop for the night.9 It is this quantified progression of a primary player character that has led William Huber to call the RPG genre a “statistical bildungsroman” (Forthcoming).
And at 40 hours, 80 hours, or more, the extent of audience engagement with KotOR is certainly more akin to a thick German novel of personal development than, for example, a film (or even a season of television). But, again, a better analogy is probably with a tabletop RPG campaign — into which players can easily invest a similar amount of time. As in many RPG campaigns, KotOR works to create a sense of flexible story-making couched in world exploration and character development. To this end, the player’s character can visit planets in different orders, and multiple times; quest items can be found at different points in the quests to which they’re connected; and necessary items and information are often available in multiple ways. However, while these things are also true of tabletop RPG campaigns, in KotOR and other RPGs they must be managed through quest flags and dialogue trees (rather than human memory, improvisation, and creativity). As mentioned earlier, this creates difficulties for game authors.
Much of the narrative power of Knights of the Old Republic comes from the ways that it makes playable structures out of tried-and-true narratives. A self-contained example of this can be seen in one of the optional quests on the planet of Dantooine, relatively early in the game: the feud between the Sandrale and Matale families. I encountered this quest while playing the “Platinum Hits” edition of the Xbox version of KotOR — and it is worth noting that the experience of those playing other versions might be different.
After being warned that tensions between the two prominent families were in danger of overflowing into a violent civil conflict, my party traveled south to the Sandral estate and spoke with the patriarch, Nurik Sandral. He told us that he felt great sorrow over the disappearance of the young Matale heir, Shen, but knew nothing about it. He told us that his own son, Casus, had been missing for some time — and speculated the two might have met similar fates amid the dangers of Dantooine.
Nurik asked us to show ourselves out. But shortly after this his daughter, Rahasia, appeared. After I selected some friendly things for my player character to say to her, she revealed that her father had, in fact, kidnapped Shen Matale. In typically Shakespearian fashion, she and Shen had fallen in love. She gave my party a key to a side entry of the Sandral estate, making it possible for us to sneak in and rescue Shen. Once we reached Shen he refused to leave without Rahasia — and the result was Shen, Rahasia, and the three members of my KotOR party all coming out the side entrance at once . . . where we found ourselves confronted by the patriarchs of both families and their battle droids.
After some tense dialogue-tree discussions (in which I chose statements supportive of the lovers and designed to defuse the conflict) the two lovers ran off to live in the safety of the Jedi enclave, while their fathers just barely held back from igniting a conflagration. Later, while exploring a portion of the planet further north, my party came upon the Matale family compound. The guard droid granted us an audience with the patriarch, Ahlan Matale, who we had last seen as his son ran off to the enclave with Rahasia. Ahlan proceeded to demand, at length, that something be done to find his son — outlining his suspicions that the Sandral family had kidnapped Shen. He offered us a reward (which sounded more like a bribe) should his son be found. I suspected this inappropriate dialogue tree segment might be active because of a simple flag of the firstTimeTalked variety, so I took my party away and then returned to the compound. But flag structure was, apparently, organized in a different way. When we returned Ahlan Matale came out, again, to demand an investigation into the possible kidnapping of the son he had already seen rescued from kidnapping. This illustrates one type of problem with the quest flag and dialogue tree approach, a type which results in inappropriate events.
The other major type of problem was illustrated shortly, when my party discovered the body of Casus Sandral. An amateur archaeologist, Casus had apparently been killed by wild animals while undertaking a dig in a dangerous area. We immediately went to the Sandral estate with Casus’s diary, in order to share it with his worried family. But the estate was shut down entirely, without even the droid out front who had greeted us on the first visit. This second type of problem is visible when the game seemingly-arbitrarily shuts off quest possibilities that have the force of narrative drive behind them.
Both types of problems emerge, most commonly, at the juncture between the freely-explorable fictional world and the rigid structures of quest flags and dialogue trees. I encountered these problems regularly in my playing of KotOR. Just as the game expected me to visit the Matale estate before the Sandral estate, and produced inappropriate events when I visited in a different order, the same was true on a planetary scale. For example, I visited the home planet of one character who joined my party, Jolee Bindo, later in the game than KotOR’s dialogue tree structure expected. As a result, much of the conversation between him and the main player character consisted of his darkly hinting at truths that had already been revealed in a dramatic fashion. Given this, each conversation with Bindo undermined the sense of KotOR having a consistent fictional world. At the same time, the conversation path with another key character, Carth Onassi, was shut off entirely after not being pursued in the expected manner — despite the fact that there was clearly much to discuss.
These problems do not spring from poor work at BioWare. The staff at BioWare are among the very best computer RPG builders, KotOR lead writer Drew Karpyshyn is one of the industry’s most respected figures, and KotOR is a showcase of talent and hard work. Rather, these problems spring from a poor fit between the simple, brittle structures of quest flags and dialogue trees and the ambitious, flexible game design they are being used to support. Those of us familiar with the logic of milestone-based progression — from business plans, grant proposals, employee evaluations, and so on — know that any detailed set of milestones will generally meet one of two possible fates. First, as the situation evolves, it can become clear that the milestones will be revised for one or more reasons: the steps may not be what one originally thought, or may not happen in the order originally thought, or might need to be divided up differently. Second, an alternative fate is that the milestones themselves become a fetish, irrationally driving behavior in a situation that they clearly no longer reflect. Even in a world simulated as partially as that of Knights of the Old Republic, pre-created milestones still become an uneasy fit with the evolving situation. Unfortunately, only the second of these two fates is possible for KotOR’s milestones, which cannot be revised by the system.
Given this situation, the prospects for fiction in games may seem grim. But there is a widely-practiced alternative approach to the combination of games and fiction — one which is more successful in important respects.
9In addition, KotOR also provides a quantification, exposed to the audience, of the different ethical approaches available in many RPGs. This is connected to the notion of the “force” that pervades the Star Wars fictional universe. Some quest actions are considered “light side” (those that display traits such as compassion and generosity) while others are considered “dark side” (those that exhibit traits such as selfishness and a taste for needless violence). When these are completed the player character is awarded a certain number of points that move them along the spectrum between light and dark. Often the dark option is an easier route through the quest objectives, creating a game mechanic for the deep-rooted Star Wars theme of the temptations of the dark side. These choices also alter how the rest of the game is played — for example, some items may only be employed by those on the light or dark ends of the spectrum.