I, along with most of the free world, have been playing Portal 2. Perhaps thinking 5th dimensionally has put everyone in the mood for science, as there’s an interesting issue that the Metro City board of certified physics professors has brought to my attention.
Normally they stay in their labs figuring out the mysteries of the universe, like just how much faster than the speed of sound Mayor Haggar moves during a piledriver, or the mystery of why citizens store perfectly good food and hard currency in trashcans. Recently though, one of them remarked about an interesting phenomenon in gaming. Discussing this phenomenon led to a debate, then a vote, then another debate, a couple of filibusters, and was finally settled via the standard Metro City tradition of a no-holds barred cage match. The following is just a decent summation of our findings.
Now before we begin in earnest, this article has a bit to do with Quantum Mechanics. So if you don’t know your Planck Constants from Desmond being your Constant, be wary; this session of the committee may get a little complicated. Though I will try my best to keep it from getting too confusing, I can’t promise anything. That being said, let’s get technical!
So maybe I’m still shaking off the effects of indoctrination, but my mind keeps wandering back to Dragon Age 2, and BioWare games in general. Especially after playing through the railroading linearity of Homefront, it’s nice to see that there are still developers out there who make a concerted effort to try and get gamers to truly take advantage of this medium of gaming’s greatest features: freedom and choice.
Commonly the choices in games are an under-appreciated aspect for players as the developer has to usually do twice the work for something the average user hopefully won’t notice after a decision is made. In a lot of cases the choices are tiny things and so ubiquitous we no longer think about them at all or expect them to be standard, like having multiple paths to the same end point of a level, or a selection of guns.
Then there are more obvious things like factional decisions; if you are presented with an option to ally your characters between two sides, for example pirates or ninjas, then choosing to work with the pirates will make the ninjas antagonists and vice versa.
Crafting choices like these can lead to some extra development time, but they can also make a game very engaging, and possibly worthy of multiple playthroughs. Some games, like Starfox and Heavy Rain revel in this concept, as multiple paths in an otherwise quick narrative lead to a sort of interactive movie experience. Other games will let you generate a unique custom avatar, down to crafting what they look like, what they wear, and perhaps even their back story; features prominent in most Western RPGs.
Still, these types of options aren’t too complicated to understand. You are given a choice in the present, it effects events in the future in a continuous timeline that makes logical sense: turn left at a fork and see what happens differently from turning right. When it comes to character generation, you’re working with a blank slate that lets you own the character fully in a past state, generally before the action of a game begins in earnest. This too will usually make at least a modicum of linear sense.
What’s really intriguing though is that all of these choices, even though they seem simple enough to understand, always exist in (at least) two parallel states at all times. If you chose to side with Ninjas, then that’s your reality; if pirates, this too is also the only reality. At any given time in any game with a decision that matters, the game runs sort of like portal in the show Sliders, creating multiple alternate realities at the drop of a hat, with you the player as the indeterminable particle in flux.
Does that make sense?
Alright, I am sort of jumping to my conclusion immediately so perhaps an example is in order. For this we turn back to Dragon Age 2, as a very concrete example has to do with the game’s more amorous activities.
In Dragon Age 2, four of the characters you travel with are possible love interests that you can pursue to get involved in a romance subplot (awww). This doesn’t carry any real benefit in terms of the over all game, it’s just for role-playing a character and seeing what their love life would be like. Although . . . if your social skills are really quite terrible, then perhaps they can serve as a sort of instructional simulation on how to no longer be quite as lonely. Loneliness being a state of being many gamers know all too well.
Now two of the “romanceable” (for lack of a better term) characters are men, Fenris and Anders, while two are women, Merril and Isabella. Interestingly enough, a character of either sex can pursue any of these characters into the bedroom and beyond!
The “beyond” isn’t terribly interesting, it’s just stuff like the arguments over furniture decorating decisions that come hand in hand with any serious relationship.
This is a decision that garnered the game a small controversy, where a few gamers found that having same-sex characters hit on their avatar an affront to their heterosexuality. It’s a silly complaint to say the least, as the game always gives you the option to just say, “No, I don’t really fancy you.”
What’s more important to the topic at hand though, is what it means for the characters themselves. Are all four of these companions bisexual? It would make sense, as this would account for the fact that no matter what sex the player chooses to be, they could be attracted to them (assuming you don’t make your hero hideous in the facial editor). One of the four, Isabella, actually confirms this in some ancillary dialogue; speaking of several affairs with both men and women.
However, this doesn’t seem to be the case for all of them. In fact the game presents a unique instance in Fenris, the runaway elven slave. If you don’t pursue either Fenris or Isabella, then they end up involved with each other. OK, fair enough.
But you can also pursue Fenris romantically. If you’re female, then Fenris seems to be the model pale angsty pretty boy from a quasi-human race that’s into protagonistic gals . . .
. . . but you can also play as a dude and pursue Fenris for some sweet man on man action. Since Fenris doesn’t comment on his preference for either the lads or the ladies in dialogue outside of this subplot, we have no real way to know if the bisexuality is supposed to be part of his character as it is with Isabella. The fact that he ends up with Isabella if you don’t try to get in either characters pants may seem to indicate that he may be more into the fairer sex, but it’s not a very strong indicator, so it has to be classified as an unknown factor.
In a very real sense, you decide then whether or not Fenris is gay or straight, either through action or inaction. Both choices are valid, and so both are “true”. It’s sort of a case of Schrodinger’s Cat. Until the player “opens the box” by making a choice, the character (in this one sense at least) is both gay and straight at the same time, and it’s up to an outside factor (the player) that determines which is the truth of their game’s reality.
But what really blows my mind is that if you really think about it, ALL choices in a gaming, even several instances which aren’t active choices, are fundamentally similar. This is what I was trying to allude to above. The developers have to build in outcomes for any choice you make after all, so both outcomes will always exist in this intangible state until you make them. For another prevalent example, look at how deaths work in most games.
When you die in a game and respawn to try again, what happens to the game world in which your character perished? Occasionally, a game will go out of its way to explain this. Like say in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, which due to the framing device of the game being a story told to an audience, meant that someone had interrupted the Prince’s tale . . .
But the vast majority of games do nothing to explain this eventuality, so what happens in them?
Theoretically, the villains succeed, and the heroes lose – hence the “GAME OVER” screen that follows your death. With each respawn, you’re sort of creating an alternate branch of reality where events can play out differently. If you’re persistent and don’t get discouraged enough to quit after many deaths, eventually the hero (I.E. you) will succeed. Though not exactly like Schrodinger’s famous feline, this scenario also has a physics thought experiment associated with it called Quantum Immortality.
Now, obviously this is over thinking things to a ridiculous degree. Functionally, having extra lives or respawning is necessary so players can make mistakes and still eventually see the ending; choices allow for a more unique experience for the player and it logically follows that they need both outcomes to be fully realized. Seeing as this stuff is integral for any game, we tend to just ignore the further implications of these concepts so our heads don’t explode.
Now, is there a point to all of this other than to simply ruminate on the deeper ramifications of abstract concepts? Especially since this state of affairs is pretty much the de facto condition of all games?
Yes in fact, there is.
Complaints can be levied towards how these choices are implemented by developers. First, sometimes a developer of a game will take advantage of the indeterminate nature of a game’s reality to force a particular outcome regardless of the choice the player makes. A quick example is a jar/key “puzzle”.
You enter a room and there are three jars in a row. You know a needed key is in one of them. Normally you’d think that you have a 33% chance of guessing correctly on the first try except . . . the developer forces it so that no matter what, you have to check all three jars. Why? The key is always in the third jar you check, regardless of the order you check them in. If you go left-center-right, it’s in the right hand jar. If you go Center-right-left, it’s in the left hand jar, and so on.
This type of puzzle is just a small example of how a developer can take advantage of the fact that a game’s reality is never concrete until after the fact in order to railroad the player into a predetermined outcome. It’s common enough to have a page on TV Tropes called Schrodinger’s Gun (warning: as this is a TVTropes link – it may lead to decreased productivity).
Now this technique does have it’s uses; namely to ensure that no matter what, the player ends up in the state the developer needs them to be in, while still participating in the illusion of making choices. As with the fundamentals of player death in games, it can be highly necessary. But when it becomes obvious that the technique is being used, it tends to make your choices feel meaningless.
With the jar example: say you die after obtaining the key. You will restart just before the jars and have to do it over again, and then the fact that it’s always in the third jar becomes VERY apparent, and it’s a bit of a letdown. It ends up feeling like a cheat.
I feel that the indeterminate sexuality of the four love interests of Dragon Age 2 is the reverse of this issue, as it actually makes player choice too important in an area they probably should have limited control over.
After all, if you meet someone for the first time, you have no way of influencing any aspect of their character. If they are an oafish lout, asking intelligent sounding questions wouldn’t turn them into a highly educated diplomat, they’d still be an oafish lout responding to smarmy questioning. I’ve been in too many awkward social situations caused by one party not recognizing my repeated hints that a subject was taboo to another person to not accept this fact of life.
Perhaps what makes this more awkward to me though, (using the example of Fenris again) is that not every aspect of Fenris’ personality is as player centric. A core issue in the game is whether or not to support policies of policing mages. Fenris thinks that they are dangerous and should be controlled. You can agree with him or not, and though he reacts accordingly, his general position always remains the same. It seems then that his political beliefs are more firmly entrenched than his sexuality!
(though I do know there is some historical precedent for this, so maybe it’s not as inconsistent as I think?)
Having an NPC’s core sexuality, or religion, or other major aspects of their character being directly under player control seems to be counter-intuitive to the concept of an NPC, as they are generally written as someone the player has limited or no control of. Their purpose is to be an other, a mirror to what the player decides to do. It becomes even more noticeable if, as in the case of Fenris above, they are apparently inconsistent on this, with some aspects being informed by player choices and other being immune to them. To me at least, this type of control and inconsistency can pull me out of a game’s sense of immersion.
This is the major problem: sometimes a developer’s manipulation of reality becomes too apparent. Games at large are part illusion, and that which breaks the illusion is probably best avoided.
All else being equal, it’s better if the key is always in the same jar, or randomized to only ever be in one of them, not skipping around reality. It’s also probably better if an NPC is strongly defined and not as malleable to player choice when it comes to core aspects of individuality. Or at least it should be consistent, if they are capable of changing to fit player desires, it should probably be across the board rather than in an apparently arbitrary manner, only affecting certain parts of their characterization.
Whew! This has been a long one hasn’t it? Alright, I’ll wrap it up.
Basically, developers . . . I know it’s probably more work, but can you try to not break Newtonian Physics as much? I mean, come on, all this quantum stuff makes my brain hurt. If you do, please try to justify the malleable reality in some way shape or form! Just don’t make the justifications more nonsensical than the indeterminate game world itself.
Yeah . . . don’t do that.
The last thing our world needs is this explanation being accepted as a fact of life. Just because some people seem to think this is an acceptable solution doesn’t mean the rest of us do.
With that, this meeting is adjourned!