Connect with us

Editorial

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and the Spectre of Player Agency in Narrative

Published

on

Assassin's Creed

A recent controversy involving a DLC storyline for Assassin’s Creed Odyssey has reignited the ongoing debate over how game developers should balance narrative with player agency and freedom.

The controversy erupted after the release of the Shadow Heritage DLC for Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, where the story involved the player character, either Kassandra or Alexios, getting married and having a child. Members of the LGBT community were particularly upset since the DLC negated the choice to play as gay, lesbian, or asexual.

Though Ubisoft has promised to change the storyline in response to the backlash, the debate on how best to manage a good story while still giving players enough influence over the world remains a pertinent one; sadly, this is unlikely to be the last time such as issue bubbles to the surface.

Video games are becoming increasingly collaborative, with developers setting the scene and players creating their own content. Tabletop role-playing has the concept of ‘railroading’: when a Games Master (or GM) is so focused on telling their carefully-crafted story that they forget, or deliberately block, attempts by the players to make their own choices if they are contrary to the design of the GM. This is widely seen as the behaviour of a sub-par GM, and this kind of behaviour has been shown by Ubisoft, and other developers.

Assassin's Creed OdysseyWhat seems to be most upsetting to players is when they are given a multiplicity of choices, only to subsequently have that choice taken away. Similarly, players have been known to react with anger to being given the illusion of choice. This reaction was demonstrated with Mass Effect 3 and its infamous ending. Players were incensed to discover that all the additional work they had put in and the decisions they had made were, in the end, meaningless, as the result was pre-determined.

Video game writers are like any writer in that they want to tell an engaging, compelling story. A number of methods are used to try and achieve this goal while still providing players with agency and influence.

One of those methods is ‘root and branch’ storytelling. This method means that certain points in the narrative will present a ‘fork in the road’ that can be circumvented with a decision, which moves players to a different story branch. Though this style is good for storytelling, it presents a number of technical and narrative challenges for developers and writers, since all the different outcomes need to be accounted for. These challenges mean that titles created in this way are more expensive to create. As technology advances, the industry may see more games such as Until Dawn which feature meaningful, impactful choices.

A more direct manifestation of this idea is that of multiple endings. The concept of there being a good and bad ending has been in video games for a long time, with titles such as Chrono Trigger and Silent Hill being notable examples. Players are tasked to take certain actions, such as collecting a number of plot tokens, or defeating a certain number of type of enemy before the ‘good’ or ‘true’ endings can be unlocked. RPGs, in particular, have used this method to show a lasting impact on the world, and to demonstrate how player actions can change things. Though this method provides only a limited amount of player agency, it nonetheless has the advantage of providing a sense of accomplishment, despite the limited amount of choices involved.

Chrono Trigger (Chrono Break)Where the multiple endings system can fall down is when only one choice or action is tied to what ending the player receives. Games such as Fable can have the player spend the entire game playing as an evil character, but a single choice near the end of the game means they are hailed as a saviour.

Some video games have chosen a morality system in order to not only influence the direction of the story, but also to let players choose what sort of person they wish to play. Though an interesting idea, in theory, a morality system rarely works very well. Games such as Infamous lock all the best powers and abilities behind the walls of ‘Saint’ or ‘Monster’ with no room for any nuance or shades of grey.

Another strange aspect of morality systems is that the cutscenes are often pre-recorded and rendered, so if the player has performed evil or immoral actions, they will still be greeted in cutscenes as if they are the greatest hero in the world. Often, the evil player will still be given tasks to go save the townsfolk or retrieve a lost kitten from a tree, even though they have spent the last few hours attempting to set themselves up as a despot. This juxtaposition is not only jarring, but such a design choice largely negates the choices the players make and is a cause of frustration. Games such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim will provide the same quests to save the world regardless of the player’s behaviour otherwise.

SkyrimWhat is clear is that an easy solution to this dilemma does not exist as narratives will always have conflict between what a player wants to do and how the world and story within it are set up.

The source of anger in most cases seems to be where players are presented with an illusion that players called ‘choice’. This choice can be the ability to decide who the player character’s romantic partner is, only to see that choice overridden, or the choice of good or evil actions only to see that complex issue to reduced to a simplistic binary.

Once the illusion is stripped away, anger at those behind the curtain is a natural reaction. Developers need to be aware that video games are more collaborative than they have ever been, and the collaborators are also the customers.

Continue Reading
Comments

Editorial

The PlayStation 5 Specs Are Beefy, But Not Entirely Necessary

Published

on

PlayStation 5

Six years have passed since the launch of the PlayStation 4, and, consequently, the launch of the eighth generation of consoles. Throughout this time the industry has seen a shift in how the medium is consumed. Nowadays, gamers are no longer forced to experience titles through conventional controller inputs thanks to the implementation of VR, while visual performance and optimization are at record heights given the current technology available to developers.

For well over a year now, rumors and speculations have sprung up surrounding the next generation of hardware from both Sony and Microsoft, with the latter being more open about its technological aspirations. Despite withholding true hardware specifications, Microsoft does not shy away from igniting conversations around its next systems (yes plural). Sony, on the other hand, has been extremely tight lipped on the topic, only hinting at the PlayStation 5 during a discussion on the success of the PS4.

Until now, consumers were left to speculate on the possibilities of what the PlayStation 5 will contain. To the surprise of many, however, Sony has unexpectedly opened up about the final specifications that will be found within the upcoming hardware. Lead architect on Sony’s next console Mark Cerny detailed how important this generational leap is for the company and what consumers can expect from its beefy machine. While confirming some rumors, and debunking others, Cerny expressed Sony’s desire for the new generation to allow “for fundamental changes in what a game could be.” As a bold statement by Cerny, this ideology will help Sony fall in line with the trajectory that other studios, such as Xbox, have had during the eighth generation of consoles.

For those who are unaware, the PS4 launched in 2013 to wide success, re-establishing Sony’s brand at the forefront of console gaming. Although the console became a household and media juggernaut, many tech-savvy individuals were quick to point out the flaws within its hardware. For example, much of the specifications that the PS4 touted were, in fact, already outdated at release when compared to high-end PC rigs. Despite the obvious limitations of console gaming, the choice of hardware found within the PS4 proved puzzling, as it was being marketed as a giant leap forward for the industry. Sony would later attempt to mitigate the ongoing damage caused by underperforming hardware with the mid-generation iteration of the PS4 Pro, though this attempt only served to extend the console lifecycle by another few years.

From the outset, Sony knew its largest issue was underperforming hardware, and, thanks to the information detailed by Mark Cerny, the community finally has some insight on how that will be addressed. For starters, the CPU found within the PS5’s hardware will use the third generation of AMD’s Ryzen line which is a massive leap over the PS4’s Jaguar chip. Although I am not much for technical jargon within the PC economy, I do understand how much the Jaguar chip held back performance within the eighth generation, and I welcome the Ryzen with open arms. My only hope is that this upgrade will be enough to sustain the PlayStation 5 throughout the years and maintain its presence as a PC competitor.

Additionally, the custom AMD Navi GPU that will be present in the PS5 will support ray-tracing, a feature that only a few games fully utilize on PC, but nonetheless will provide a more realistic experience. Although this specific feature is a welcome addition to the console ecosystem, I honestly never expected it to be a priority. While having real-time accurate reflections within the environment will definitely increase immersion, I would personally desire a more optimized experience that will never falter during play. We will have to wait until more is revealed on the PS5’s ray-tracing technology, but I can only hope that it will not take priority over performance.

Building upon the implementation of ray-tracing with the PS5, Cerny noted that, for him, the audio technology present within the PS4 did not achieve the standards of a generational leap from the PS3. According to Cerny, the PS5 will implement 3D Audio, dramatically changing how gamers perceive sound within a video game. The inclusion of 3D Audio sounds like a well-deserved feature for PlayStation veterans. However, I feel as though this addition will only benefit those who have an entertainment setup that supports it. Unfortunately, individuals who resort to stereo speakers could potentially see no difference in how the audio is delivered from PS5 titles compared to those on PS4.

The interview also provided information surrounding the type of storage available in the PS5. As a much-needed addition, the PlayStation 5 will contain a solid state drive (SSD), which will allow for faster load times and experiences. As many PlayStation users know, the PS4 can provide some appalling load times, leading this issue to be a constant topic of discussion throughout the entire generation. The possibility of a game having long load times was so great that it often made headlines in video game’s media, pleading for action to be taken (Bloodborne anyone?).

Thankfully, information on the PS5’s hard drive capabilities does not require too much speculation, as Cerny provided an example of how fast it will be. According to him, Marvel’s Spider-Man, which has an average of a 15 second load time on a PS4 Pro, will have just 0.8 second load times on a PS5. No indication is yet forthcoming as to how consistent this technological feat will be across different titles, and I urge consumers to temper their expectations on the speed of the PS5 because only time will tell how efficient it can be. Regardless of my concerns surrounding inconsistencies, the PS5 will feature the fastest load times of any console before it, eliminating one of the greatest issues of the PS4’s hardware.

Bloodborne gameplay 1

In addition to the announcement that PlayStation 5 will have an SSD, Cerny confirmed a much-desired feature in backwards compatibility. Although this feature will not reach as far back as the competition, the PS5 will be compatible with PS4 titles, both digital and physical. This was to be expected—seeing as both consoles will run off the same architecture—but the silence from Sony proved worrisome for some fans, myself included. While I am disappointed that PS3 titles will not be compatible with the PS5, I understand that the cell processor of that earlier device would take more effort than it is worth to make games from the platform compatible. Regardless, PlayStation fans can rejoice in this news, as it further validates any investment into the PS4’s ecosystem.

Where I draw most of my criticism from Mark Cerny’s report on the specifications of the PS5 is within the idea that Sony’s next hardware will support 8K resolution. To be clear, I am not stating that such an achievement is impossible; rather I question the necessity of it. Given everything that we know about the PS5, one can assume that the system will cost around USD $500. With 4K televisions slowly becoming a household norm, is it worthwhile for a company to be devoting resources into a feature that will likely not be consumer friendly for years to come? I understand that Sony is at a disadvantage right now with the Xbox One X outputting at native 4K, but seeking to outdo the competition to this extent seems financially unobtainable for most consumers.

My concerns develop from individuals who hear the news of PS5 and 8K resolution and assume it to be the Second Coming. It is unfeasible to have a $500 to $600 console run at a native 8K resolution. Anyone who believes this will happen need look no further than PlayStation’s competition with the Xbox One X. At its launch, Microsoft was selling the Xbox One X at a loss, solely to prevent the console from exceeding the $500 mark and turning away consumers. Microsoft’s current machine is capable of outputting at a native 4K resolution, whereas the PS4 Pro can only achieve the same through upscaled checkerboarding. The PS5 will surely be able to output at a native 4K resolution, but to expect anything more with the current state of consumer technology is wishful thinking. I urge consumers to understand that if the PS5 has an 8K setting, it will likely be only achieved in the future and through a checkerboarded solution.

Spider-Man PS4

Given the rumors that the next generation of hardware will be the last, Sony may be trying to future proof the PS5 so that it can remain on the market for as long as possible. Given the information provided by Mark Cerny, Sony may be intending to utilize every feature of the PS5 to its entirety before considering what could come after. By future proofing the PlayStation 5, Sony can anticipate where the industry is heading, ultimately eliminating the need for a mid-generation upgrade with a PS5 Pro.

I have been a PlayStation fan for as long as I can remember, but have recently branched out with the Xbox One X and PC gaming to experience what those ecosystems have to offer. By broadening my horizons, I maintain an outside perspective on how Sony is upholding its promise to gamers and how the competition tackles similar issues created by an ever-growing industry. With the eighth generation nearing its completion, I look forward to discussions such as this one as it generates hope and excitement for the future of the brand.

While the PlayStation 4’s colossal success this generation will provide a jump-start in sales for the company’s new hardware, the beginning of a new generation only reinvigorates the console wars. As a firm believer in what both Sony and Microsoft will do to shape the future of the industry, I am reminded that competition breeds excellence. Furthermore, when competition is present between both parties to win over public appeal, in the end, consumers emerge victorious.

Continue Reading