April 5, 2009

Life Of The Party

[The following article was published on GameSetWatch about a month ago. This Anniversary Reprint Edition features an exclusive new story by Marek Bronstring. And some pictures, too.

Marek Bronstring: Mostly, you see publishers from the outside and people who pitch to them always complain about the long process of getting a publisher signed up to something. It's interesting to see the other side a little bit. This executive got a call from a friend of his, a pitch call. This friend said, "okay, I'm gonna give the phone to my brother now, his name is Mario."

Mario got on the phone and said "...look, here's the deal: I'm probably the best Elvis impersonator in the UK. I want a game about me. Well, about Elvis, but I should be in it." So that was weird in itself but then the exec was like, "okay, whatever, let's hear the pitch."

And Mario the Elvis impersonator was like "...what do you mean? Aren't you the publisher? I thought you could come up with the game ideas for it."]

Last week, [man, this piece dated fast! -- Duncan] Kotaku claimed that more than 20 people lost their jobs when Obsidian Entertainment's Aliens RPG was cancelled. Though not confirmed, no one should have to look for any other reasons why that report was bad news. Selfishly, perhaps, I thought of some anyway.

Very little was ever said about the Aliens RPG, but I'm sure that I would have played it, regardless of whether it now gets completed. I've found that Obsidian Entertainment, compared to every other developer that makes party-based RPGs, has consistently had the most interesting and forward-thinking ideas about party members and dynamics, whether in games that I like (Knights of the Old Republic II) or ones that I don't (Neverwinter Nights 2).

If RPG parties don't seem like a design element fraught with weakness, consider games like Knights or Mass Effect wherein your character faces the greatest conceivable evil in the universe, but isn't allowed to take more than two people along to fight it.

No game fiction has ever made a convincing argument for why the world's biggest hero can't deal with having three guys around at once. Restrictions on party members are a tech limitation, presumably; in the isometric Baldur's Gate days, the limit was five. Still, there were always more characters available, so why not six? Why not seven? What can they possibly be doing that's more important than saving the world?

I think gamers largely recognise it as an issue of engine capacity or gameplay balance, but that doesn't make it any less of a logical flaw. Whenever the player character meets an exciting new person, he should never have to lamely respond "I'd love to have you on board, but I don't have room."

Party members haven't aged very well conceptually. Games used to present them solely as stat amplifiers and combat assists, but even as they developed voice acting and subplots and became love interests they still seem more often than not like accessories instead of personalities.

If it wasn't so steeped in familiar RPG convention, it would surely seem bizarre that party members, upon their initial meeting with you, sign on to your cause and then hang out inactive at your headquarters forever after you decide they're no good in fights.

Why would anyone be so content to be relegated to the background and how can they afford to put their lives on hold? No hero's that charismatic. Maybe in the future all RPG protagonists should be eccentric billionaires who hire random pedestrians to carry their bags; it would explain a lot.

The closer RPGs approximate our own reality, the less plausible this comes off. It's passable in fantasy worlds where nobody has a job other than tavern owner or blacksmith, but when placed against the near-future military backdrop of BioWare's Mass Effect, certain conventions become absurd.

The commander is required to buy munitions from his subordinates and, on a whim, appoints as his closest advisors and ground team foreign nationals and volunteers who never passed a security check and are happy not getting paid. If you're in line for a promotion on the good ship Mass Effect, twenty years of service doesn't cut it next to a mysterious alien with a past.

With every game they've made in the last six years, BioWare have moved closer towards a cinematic style of storytelling, an more immediate combat model and away from traditional CRPG artifice. Except they're still encouraging players to accumulate characters as extra abilities and then leave them in the engine room, forgotten.

Obsidian writer/designer Chris Avellone addressed this point ten years ago when he worked at Black Isle Studios. In Planescape: Torment, a disparate cast of characters, in the usual fashion, abandon their everyday routine to support a stern, violent and naked man with more tattoos than memory.

For once, this is remarked upon as odd. In a denouement equivalent to a detective gathering all the murder suspects in the parlour room, the Torment party members' motivations and histories are all revealed to be deeper than originally apparent. Given their specific, tragic circumstances, they had no choice but to follow him when he asked.

Knights of the Old Republic II echoed that scene. One of the game's principal features was its influence system. Players gained influence with their companions by performing actions that they endorsed, which unlocked additional dialogue options.

Avellone works this mechanic into the story, explaining that the main character is in fact so aberrantly charismatic that he exerts a metaphysical influence on people which compels them to do crazy things like join his party and fight on his behalf. He is therefore dangerous and must be stopped.

Neverwinter Nights 2 players don't have the same luck. In that game some party members will quit or switch sides based on the level of influence the player has with them. Most will leave over ideological disagreements, but at least one person will side with the enemy at a critical moment if the player didn't put her in the party enough or give her any cool armour or weapons.

It might not be convincing that she'd want to kill her former friend based on that grievance, but it's a pretty accurate indictment of typical RPG player behaviour. I never selected that character precisely because I did think she was useless, and games have conditioned me to think that she wouldn't have a problem with that.

In Knights II, Obsidian had players take direct control of their supplicants for solo missions, and the full cast featured in their own cutscene-driven subplots. Neverwinter Nights 2 treated its concluding battle with appropriate gravity by allowing the players control of their entire party. Obsidian granted those secondary characters greater presence with each successive game -- until removing them entirely in their upcoming spy RPG, Alpha Protocol.

Alpha Protocol has one controllable character and no permanent party members. Maybe it's a deliberate change of pace for Obsidian, or maybe it's the best solution of all. Alpha Protocol will certainly be free from deadbeats and hangers-on who admonish you for acts of kindness but will still do whatever you say. The best way to deal with those plausibility issues is not to invite them into the design in the first place. It'll work, but because it's the safe option.

If it marks the beginning of a new approach for Obsidian, then I'll miss the subversion and the experimentation. Developers can craft a character with a wealth of personal history, trust issues and the potential for an ice-thawing courtship, and they can have them try to kill me for not buying them shoes. I like the second option more.


Unknown said...

Chrono Trigger did really well in explaining its limited party size. For a chunk of the game, the most characters you have available is three. When you find your fourth party member and travel through time, you end up in a surreal void with a single lightpost: the End of Time. It turns out that the timestream can only be bent so much before it breaks, and you'll have to leave party members in the End of Time so that there are only three people jumping around the time-space continuum at once.

On the "why?" front, I think limiting the number of PCs is an important gameplay choice. It reduces the scale of battles and avoids overwhelming the character with too many choices and too many characters to pick from. Pokemon has a party size of six, and that's enough that I often confuse myself with my party selections.

Andrew said...

I found Chrono Trigger's explanation utter rubbish - there is no reason given why when in their own time zone, there can't be 4 people in the party - the 3 from different times and the 1 from that time. Grr...silly game mechanics! I agree, I love games which allow me the full complement! Or at least keep them nearby and handy - such as in a spaceship (a half measure but good enough).

Not many do, sadly.

Obsidian isn't the last, I hope, but it is a sad trend. With better and better AI, you don't even need to have unwieldy control over every party member to have combat mechanics work - having a team of 12 or 20 wouldn't matter as much.

Well, who knows, maybe we'll all have to play MMORPG's to get a party fix in the future. :(

Duncan said...

Chrono Trigger notwithstanding (I've never played it, sorry, I'm hopeless) I do agree with Gregory. A party of more than six characters gets really unwieldy and impractical, no question. I think a better solution to that though -- at least from a narrative perspective -- is not a limited amount of character slots, but only having a total pool of three/four characters to begin with. I.e., the player doesn't have "party limits" but just "a party" that happens to only have a couple of people in it.

Obsidian's Neverwinter Nights 2 expansion Mask of the Betrayer is a game that gets this so right and also completely wrong. There are only four party members, which allows the game to focus on a tight core cast without spending any time on extraneous character subplots. So that sounds okay, except the game only ever lets you take three of those four characters in your party. Party limits never seem more insane when you're always leaving behind -- and returning to collect -- one person. What's worse: the game's closing narration addresses what happens to each of your party members except for the one that you don't have in your party at the end of the game. It's really amazing to me that they overlooked that.

Alex Denham said...

I would really rather the game just took the decision out of my hands entirely - why not have party members joining and leaving at different points of the narrative, like you point out - they MUST have lives outside of the player character's influence, so why not play to that? "I'll help you with this mission but then I need to get home to help my own people" or whatever..

Andrew said...

Small parties, or parties which exist at the start of the game are fine enough, as are ones which swap based on events - although all to commonly it seems forced - "ah ha, this person joined, and suddenly this other one has to leave!".

I think there are ways of having larger dynamics - it'd be an interesting game if done well. There could be ways to split up (or have AI) so micromanagement of combat wasn't required, and the party interactions could be that much deeper.

The sweet spot might be a party of 4 to 6, but there is a huge amount of unexplored territory with larger groups of interacting NPC's - although some games have had extra NPC's you can't all take along of course.

I just think the limit being imposed for nothing other then mechanical reasons is a bit silly. For instance, Baldur's Gate 2 - all the party interaction scales well enough for 6 people (covering just about every conversation combination of input) but mechanically and balance wise only allows 6, not the full complement of around 12. A real shame, since it simply requires that many more playthroughs to get everything out of it, and a lot of stuff is lost.

Maybe I just enjoy my sim games - if you like some kinds of management (but with AI to take over if you don't) more people I think is a viable route to some interesting ways of doing party behaviours.

Just because games haven't done it too eloquently so far doesn't mean they couldn't :D