Player Freedom vs. Railroading, Revisited

Although I’m still implementing material for Act 2 in Vespers, I’ve been working with NR on creating some of the new material for Act 3. In Act 3, there is considerably more action, and the story branches out in a couple of potential directions. There are a set of interactions and events that occur inside the monastery, and others that occur outside the monastery, where the player had not been able to venture before in Acts 1 and 2.

In reviewing the interactions and events for Act 3, I referred back to the design document I made, which I discussed a while back in another post. In so doing, I began to think about storyline issues I hadn’t considered before.

Be warned, spoilers are in that previous post, as well as below.

In the design of the original Vespers, Jason clearly intended that the events inside the monastery would be experienced before those outside the monastery, and he designed the game so that the player was guided in this order. Once the player wakes, he is encountered by Constantin, who urges him to follow him to the Cloister to investigate an important event. Following that, a series of subsequent events is triggered that advances the storyline in strange and interesting ways. The impact of the “inside the monastery” action is powerful and does a remarkable job setting the tone for the rest of the game, including the other, subsequent events mentioned that occur outside the monastery (as well as those in Act 4).

[SPOiLER WARNING] Vespers, Act 3. Click for a larger view.

[SPOILER WARNING] Vespers, Act 3. Click for a larger view.

But that got me thinking…I had never tried to play the text game where I pursued the “outside” events prior to the “inside” events. Is it possible? Would the “inside” events still be available afterward? What effect would it have on the flow and impact of the game?

I’m not sure if Jason specifically intended it, but it turns out that it’s quite possible to skip the “inside” events and go right outside the monastery to encounter the “outside” events. Technically, there is no reason why the player couldn’t do this, as doing so neither interrupts the storyline nor causes any problems with puzzle or character disconnect. Outside the monastery, the player can visit the other buildings on the grounds, and tackle several puzzles. If the horse puzzle can be solved, the player can travel outside the monastery grounds, which eventually leads to the avalanche puzzle. Surviving that, the player can then return to the monastery to trigger Act 4, where there are several other puzzles and events that lead to the dramatic climax.

But by doing so, what happens is that the player no longer has the opportunity to experience those initial “inside” events, since upon returning back to the monastery for Act 4 those events are now in the past and no longer relevant. It’s a missed experience – not one that is important for advancing the plot, but one that is important for setting the tone and dramatic tension of the game. By skipping the “inside” events, the game seems to have much less impact, and some parts don’t seem to flow quite as logically as they could.

So the question with regard to skipping the “inside” events is no longer, is it possible, but rather, should it be possible?

As Ron Gilbert said in his classic 1989 article, Why Adventure Games Suck, “Anyone who has designed a story game knows that the player rarely does anything at the right time or in the right order.” Although the context of his statement had to do with timing and drama, it’s also applicable to the conversation here: what is the right balance between player freedom and railroading?

Of course, this is not a new topic for discussion, with other people addressing different aspects of it in the past. It goes back longer than this, but there was the Ars Technica article from last year that addressed the various issues with storytelling and player freedom with BioShock Infinite, which included mentions of the LucasArts SCUMM titles. As the author stated:

When playing Infinite there’s an uneasy tension. You can either respect the pace and plotting of BioShock Infinite’s story, or you can set the story to one side, killing any sense of urgency but giving you the time to explore. You can’t really do both, however, without abrupt changes in tone and jarring changes of pace.

It’s somewhat the same with Vespers: the player can set the story to the side and explore the outside of the monastery, but in doing so ends up potentially skipping key parts of the story, resulting in a still-cohesive but less enjoyable experience of the story. But is that freedom (or even the illusion of it) worth the potential for a less complete experience?

There was also the follow-up to that article in Gamasutra, which touched upon some interesting concepts (including the “storytelling” cotinuum and the “living another life” continuum) but also included this snippet at the end:

For game designers, when designing a game it is important to consider the purpose of your game at the outset and how much player freedom and choice you envision granting. If the purpose of your game is to tell a very specific story, it may not be wise to give the player too much freedom or choice. However, if you want to tell a story that the player can change, you should also give the player some freedom to explore and interact with the world, because it is becoming a world they are truly part of.

Vespers certainly tries to tell a specific story, and in doing so Jason largely limited player freedom. Although there is an openness to certain parts of the game, the sense of freedom is largely an illusion, and there are only a few significant options when it comes to player choice. Descriptions and NPC interactions do change with those choices, but the impact on the overall story is not large.

But the quote did get me thinking about how narrowly we sometimes think about interactive storytelling in games, how much work has started in this field, and how much more there is to explore, discover, and experience. I think the true advances in gaming over the next several years will be in the evolution of methods to integrate story generation, pacing, and plot into the game mechanic, so that the game doesn’t necessarily serve as a vehicle for the story, but rather as a means for gameplay and story to come together, piece by piece, within a general framework. We’ll see.

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