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.
What 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.
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.
What 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.