February 12, 2008

The BioWare All-Stars

For all its faults -- and it is mostly all faults -- Neverwinter Nights 2 does something I really appreciate. What I like in this game, and in Knights of the Old Republic 2 before it -- and going back to the company's Black Isle days, in Planescape: Torment -- are the party members. I don't mean as characters. I'm referring to Obsidian's philosophy of party composition and narrative utilisation. Who knew there was such a thing?!

I swear that this is qualifiable. I'm not pulling this out of my ass. Well, not entirely.

Look at BioWare, Obsidian's occasional collaborator/close competitor. Look at Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, Mass Effect, and even as far back as Baldur's Gate. These games put together a cast of characters which are very diverse, very interesting -- and which the player will never, ever use. They'll join the party, they'll play a big part in one mission, then they'll fall back to headquarters and you won't see much of them again.

In BioWare's newer games you can only take two (or in Jade Empire, one) party members with you at a time so you have to take the best. Too bad for the Tertiary Knights of the Old Republic, then, who aren't very powerful, nor are they at all relevant to the story. The game will have two or three important characters, who appear in all the cutscenes, interact with the villains, and with whom you can fall in love. It is really Two Dudes, The Girl And The Moochers Who Wouldn't Leave The Spaceship Of The Old Republic. When you see the entire party being celebrated at the end of the game, with everyone cheering and waving, what are the Two Dudes (and the Girl) thinking? "Hey, some of us worked for this a little harder than others." Or, "who the hell is that guy?"

For all their ostensible focus on storytelling, BioWare doesn't approach this like they're telling a story. Instead, they treat it as drafting a fantasy football team or like a fighting game where it ought to be a thrill to control Darth Vader or Zelda. BioWare briefly construct an entity who hopefully piques the player's interest -- this is indeed a curious character, perhaps you would like him in your party? -- and quickly wash their hands of him. From there the player has to pick up the slack. But nine times out of ten, he's staying in the cargo hold.

Obsidian doesn't and Black Isle didn't do this, at least in the three games I've mentioned. It's not that the player is compelled to pick Obsidian's "lesser" characters for the team -- that dynamic's still the same. That's not a concern, though, because unlike BioWare, Obsidian's characters all have major plot significance throughout. Their kids stay in the picture. Obsidian can give the player a concrete narrative reason why these people are in your party and BioWare cannot. This isn't a puzzling gameplay problem, it's basic narrative technique. BioWare makes a big deal of introducing characters and then sidelines them.

The Knights of the Old Republic games are a good example since each company has made one. HK-47 is a great character but he's a textbook case: he's only necessary once, when you first meet him, and any further interaction is optional and superfluous. Yet there he is, hanging around for no good reason. The same is true of Mission, of Canderous, of Juhani, of Jolee -- practically everyone except Carth and Bastila. An early party addition is the droid T3-M4 who literally is only needed to open a door. Thanks, guy, now back to the ship. We'll call you. There is no conceivable reason to put him back into the rotation.

The sequel's different. The party members all have intrinsic relevance to the story. Even the returning T3-M4, the robot who communicates in electronic squeals, is somehow a major character. You still won't use him, of course, except when you have to, but nonetheless he's interacting with other party members and carrying out his own agenda outside your direction. Obsidian turned a door key into a convincing character with a convincing life -- and he's the one with the least personality of the bunch. And no one should be under any illusions about why HK-47, the most popular character ever in a Star Wars game, reappears in the sequel -- yet he's considerably more important in Obsidian's game; dominating an entire strand of the main plot.

I don't think this is accidental. Chris Avellone, specifically, has demonstrated a major interest in party mechanics over his career, occasionally translating into BioShock-esque metafiction. Both Torment and Knights of the Old Republic have scenes specifically addressing and explaining why your companions are forced to follow you like they do, with little autonomy or self-regard. With Neverwinter Nights 2, party members will react strongly if they feel neglected or disrespected. I think this is a conscious design choice: that Avellone and Obsidian are deliberately trying to break away from that Baldur's Gate template of three characters and a wider cast of interchangeable henchmen.

As much as it blindly emulates its predecessors, Neverwinter Nights 2 takes a long, critical look at its lineage: at all the stay-at-home adventurers who have arbitrarily chosen to see the player and his quest through, and rather than suspending its disbelief, calls it out. For that, at least, thank you.

No comments: