This started as a post on binary moral systems in games, but has morphed into something quite different. I think I’ll get back to exploring moral systems in game design sometime soon, but for now I want to discuss something a little different: divergent narrative in games.

A lot of people were pretty upset by the end of Mass Effect 3. With the Mass Effect series, developer BioWare was trying something extremely ambitious, something that, to my knowledge, has never been done before. By allowing you to import your saved character from game to game, by the end of Mass Effect 3 you had the culmination of three games worth of choices. Some, very difficult choice. And while the final fight was appropriately harrowing, the game ended by essentially making you choose the red, blue, or green ending. Thus the hoopla.

But while that choice was indeed disappointing, I think there’s a deeper reason that people were upset about the ending, and one that perhaps isn’t being talked about very much.

What the Mass Effect series promised players was that our choices would make a difference. That they would have a tangible effect on the world. And for the most part, the first two games maintained this illusion. Yes, illusion. Because as the third game illustrates so well, everything plays out basically the same regardless of what we do. And to some extent that makes sense. In Mass Effect you play as a singular figure who, however influential, is still one man (or woman) in a galaxy of trillions. There’s a lot going on that we as Commander Shepard don’t have a direct hand in. But part of BioWare’s design of Mass Effect is to put the player at the crux of galaxy-rocking events. So it feels like our actions should have broad and lasting consequences. (ME1 ending spoilers!) When Sovreign attacks the Citadel at the end of Mass Effect and you have the choice whether to save the Council or not, that’s a big decision with some very wide consequences. It feels as though this and other decisions out to tangibly change the world.

But ultimately we’re still run through the same basic series of events. Mostly this is just a development necessity. The Mass Effect games clock in at least 20 hours each. There’s no time or budget to craft multiple complete storylines. And it’s well justified in the plot: the impeding doom of the Reapers coming is going to railroad galactic priorities regardless of what you would do on your own as Commander Shepard.

That’s the problem, though. Ultimately, the narrative and the game mechanics are telling the player contradictory truths. And by the end the narrative still stands, and it seems the game mechanics, the way we interact with the world of Mass Effect, were the lie. Thus, the player feels betrayed.

So with due respect to the 20+ hour experiences that we know and love, I believe it’s time for someone to step in a bold new direction. Let’s imagine a game where your decisions as the player did lead to drastically different events, not just different twists on the same event. It would be the sort of game where your play-through really would be dramatically different from your friends’. Never mind nuances on the same plot, but, say, three to five distinctive plotlines.

So let’s go back to developmental constraints and see where this leads. Obviously each plotline couldn’t be sustained 20 hours. That would be the equivalent of developing three or for games, even if you assume some overlap of locations and characters. But what about 8-10 hours of predominantly unique story per plotline? A triple-A developer would have the resources to do that, and 8-10 hours of gameplay nothing to sneeze at.

Plus, you can pretty well guarantee that the player is going to replay the game at least once, meaning the standard play-time for an action/adventure/RPG type game is met. And furthermore, the player is rewarded for playing differently, enacting different characters in the same situation. It gives the developer a lot of room for artistic exploration of human psychology, personality, the nature of life, etc. If games are truly an art form, they need to communicate on an intuitive level through aesthetic means. This sort of design would open up new avenues to do that.

I’m not saying that old modes of game design should disappear, only that the growth of the medium comes through continuing to explore new ones. This seems like a logical progression that has a lot of new territory worth exploring. I can’t wait to see some big games that take the risk and employing truly divergent plots to develop meaningful player choice this step further than anything that’s come before.

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