Monday, June 13, 2011

The Ego of the Gamer: Reputation

No matter how I try not to, I care what people think of me.  Deeply.

But I don't mean my writing, or even my actual self.  (That would be the Ego of the Blogger... and that's a separate problem!)  When confronted with moral, ethical, or straight-up narrative choice in gaming, I tend to want the maximum number of people to like me.  I want to do the right thing for the many, and occasionally to intimidate or even scare the crap out of the unpleasant few.

This is how my Courier and Lone Wanderer end up maxing out their positive Karma fairly early on.  This is how Shepard ends up 4-5 times as Paragon as she is Renegade.  This is how I end up saving every Little Sister in Rapture.

What I've been realizing over the past weekend, though, is the extent to which I've been trained by reputation systems to expect some kind of external reward for behavior that benefits someone other than the player character.  Reward in coin (or caps) and experience always follows for objectives completed, of course, but I've grown deeply accustomed to some kind of system that traces my actions and allows my reputation to precede me through the game world after a certain point.

Larian's Divine Divinity had such a reputation system, aptly called "reputation."  Good deeds earned you points and evil deeds cost you points.  With high enough points, more quest and dialogue options opened up to you.

Over the last few days, I've been having another go at their late-2009 follow-up, Divinity II: Ego Draconis.  Actually, I'm now playing the expanded version, The Dragon Knight Saga.  With the expansion and the major patch that accompanied it, Larian removed many of the game-breaking obstacles and brought some of the fun back to the title.

It's not my screenshot, but that player character on the right does look just like my Ellin does.  Eerie.

In the Flames of Vengeance content, the game has suddenly developed a deep and pressing need to force the player into moral choices.  Nearly every quest I am offered has an alternative quest along with it: do I collect this necklace for the possibly-shady man who first asked me to retrieve it, or do I collect it for the possibly-shady mage who needs it for a spell?  Who gets to keep the house, in a fight: the man who legally owns it but has swindled hundreds of others, or the group who claimed it from him but who otherwise have left everyone else alone?

These are the kind of decisions I have made in games for two decades now.  We've been presented with choice, or at least the illusion of choice, since we first read that exits are north, south, and up.  And yet here I sit, in 2011, seemingly paralyzed when a game asks me to make a decision about a quest.  I hover over my dialogue options, unsure.  I stand adrift.
In short, finding myself in a game that doesn't tell me which is the paragon or renegade option, a game that doesn't tell me I will gain or lose karma for acting in a certain way, has left me at a loss, momentarily unable to make a simple decision for myself.

Perhaps we shouldn't have visible meters of Shepard's Paragon or Renegade status, or know how we stand with the White Glove Society, the Powder Gangers, and the NCR.  Maybe Little Sisters shouldn't come forth and reward us quite so often.  Or maybe I'm the only one who has apparently been rendered temporarily too lazy and stupid to tell right from wrong.

For what it's worth, in the revamped Dragon Knight Saga version, I can recommend the game to anyone who just wants some brainless RPG fluff.  It's not deep, and it's not innovative.  The same half-dozen voice actors populate the entire fictional nation.  The quests are skin-deep, the dragon mechanics are pastede-on-yey, and the story and art are as generic as a High Fantasy world gets.

But what the game does understand is a sense of fun and exploration.  Just as its predecessor did back in 2003, Divinity II compels me to look in every nook and cranny, to open every box, and to explore right up to the edge of every map, looking for hidden quests and treasures.  I like that in a game, and I also like its absence of class structure.  You can pick and choose the skills that suit you best and play a dragon knight of your own choosing.

What I really recommend, though, is spending the $6 on GOG and picking up Divine Divinity.  It's old and probably still has some comical translation errors, but I had fun 12 hours at a time exploring its map and part of me enjoys it still.


  1. I've long felt that games would be more interesting if it wasn't so obvious which choice was the correct choice.  That's one of the things that I liked about the original Dragon Age: Origins and which made me sad about their adopting Mass Effect's dialogue wheel in the sequel, which arranges options in a much more obvious way.  And it's why I laugh whenever inFamous positions itself as a game about difficult moral choices -- because its choices are almost always of the, "Do I save these orphans, or use them to bludgeon a bunch of kittens to death?" sort.  I think that real choices are more subtle, and it *is* often difficult to know which is the "right" choice.  I wish my games reflected that more closely.  I'd also like to see more character development for character development's sake, rather than simply to get a reward.  And I think I'd really enjoy seeing a game that employed all the RPG mechanics in the background to track my progress and abilities, but didn't expose them to me.  If I gain lockpicking skill each time I pick a lock, that should be apparent over time as locks become easier to pick or I can pick locks I couldn't before, but I don't feel like I need to know that I have a 52 lockpicking skill now so I can go back and try that lock that I couldn't do before that required at least 50.  I think a fluid game wherein you judged your progress by the way they help you operate in the world and wherein you judged your reputation by how people treat you or who will talk to you would be more interesting and more fun, especially if the choices *were* more difficult and less black-and-white and your reputation might differ from person to person rather than being a worldwide statistic.  

  2. A number of friends and acquaintances ended up playing  (or re-playing) through Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 at the same time I was playing them, this spring.  I was truly surprised to find how many played a straight Paragon or straight Renegade Shepard.  The options for "good" and "bad" were there, seemed to be the reasoning, so it must always be right to play one or the other.

    Meanwhile I sat there and thought, "Given the conditions of the situation, what seems like the wisest course of action at this moment?" and came out "paragade" in both games.  (Admittedly, with the paragon bar 95% - 100% full and the renegade bar around 20%, but still.)

    I do find myself wondering: if the options were mixed up, if the dialogue weren't in a pre-defined wheel but instead needed to be read carefully in every conversation -- would people play differently?

  3. That's one of the things that I liked about the original Dragon Age:
    Origins and which made me sad about their adopting Mass Effect's
    dialogue wheel in the sequel, which arranges options in a much more
    obvious way.

    That really doesn't make sense to me at all.  There's no Paragon or Renegade karma, only whether your companions approve or disapprove of what you do.  Most of the choices come down to helping the mages or the templars, and I think there are plenty of good arguments on both sides.   The dialogue wheel is just a superficial mechanic of that.  It's like saying Baldur's Gate 1 has the same choice options as Planescape: Torment because of the dialogue list.

  4. I admit that I wound up playing that way as well -- very high Paragon and middling Renegade.  Some of that was based on in-the-moment consideration of what seemed right for that instance, and admittedly sometimes "Paragon" and "Renegade" seemed to map less to "Good" and "Evil" and more to "Softie" and "Badass" and there were some situations where you needed to be a badass to do the right thing.  So it wasn't as completely black and white as I made it sound in my comment.  :)  

    I also admit that I was much more likely to choose a renegade option if it was time-delimited.  That flashing icon made me feel like I was going to miss something important if I didn't tap it *now*, and I thought a lot less about the consequences under those circumstances.

  5. Perhaps that comes out more in the full game.  I admit that I only played the demo, which completely turned me off the idea of buying DA2.  All the choices in the demo seemed to be fairly clearly delineated into good/bad choices based on wheel position.

  6. I would say yes, actually.  I tended to play straight Paragon or Renegade (except for a few interrupts and Tali's trial in ME2).  I am meta-gaming a bit, but I get f-ing annoyed when I get locked out of the "I win" paragon/renegade button because I skipped one paragon/renegade choice.  In short, I felt like the game pigeon-holes you into one or the other and actively discourages doing anything but that.  I think choice mechanisms work best when they make you pick between 2 mutually exclusive bits of content, rather than having one be a reward and the other be a punishment.

    DA2 makes it so that it tracks 2 quasi-karma meters: (1) your companions friendship/rivalry points and (2) your dominant tone.  The former doesn't really apply to "I win" buttons and doesn't have a major effect on your dialogue options.  The latter does.  Depending on your dominant tone, you will have different "I win" options at different times.  Additionally, the way the game keeps track of your dominant tone means you can "deviate" from it without worrying about whether that deviation will cause you to lose out on something down the road.

  7. But the question is, why do you care whether you take a more or less aggressive tone? In Mass Effect, you care because of the Paragon/Renegade persuasion options. Dragon Age 2's system of incentives is a little more complicated, for the reasons wsn explained above.

  8. I actually really *don't* care because of the Paragon/Renegade persuasion options, in Mass Effect.  I care because I'm trying to define a person, to play a specific character.  And that's the issue here for me -- I don't like it when the mechanics of how my decisions are going to result in a specific game mechanic advantage are too exposed, because that makes me want to make choices that game the system rather than thinking about what my character would really say.

    That's part of what the article is asking, though, isn't it?  Whether or not we should care because of incentives, or whether it would be better to care because that's the character we're defining -- maybe an incentive-based system skews the thinking about how to choose options in a way that reduces the role playing aspect.
    But, the "it seemed to simplify things" comment that I made above (again, based on the demo, so maybe this isn't indicative of the full game experience) seemed to take all the grey out of making dialogue choices by sorting them into one side of the circle or the other. If you've decided that you're playing a certain type of character, you always know your dialogue choice is going to be in roughly the same place.  It made it too black-and-white to me.  

    All of this can fall apart to some degree, of course, because often what the character actually says often doesn't match the small snippet in the dialogue list, and that's where the radial arrangement *can* help, to me, because it at least cues you as to tone your character is going to use to help prevent those.

  9. In DA2 the importent choices don't break down by tone, but are influenced by it. In those cases the wheel doesn't help at all in metagaming and you almost have to decide what the character would most make sense to say (and maybe what your companions would want to here). I don't know how well the demo represents it, but DA2 wheel (appearances aside) is not the Mass Effect wheel. I think the key insight for me was learning the meaning of all the wheel's icons…

    I suffer from the article's mentioned indecision, but primarily because of the binary choice thing. I don't have issues with choosing right versus wrong, personally, but I do tend to have issues with "what did the writer/developer" think was right/wrong. If it's a binary, I much prefer the ME paragon/renegade where it is telegraphed the tone of the results beforehand. (I also tend towards the more paragon than renegade in my "canon" femShep.)

  10. In ME1, as of course you know, you actively have to buy persuasion/coercion points, so you're deeply invested in one outcome, so I played Red Jenny Shepard as a saint until it came time to save or abandon the council. I couldn't bring myself to save them so I took the renegade points and rationalized that RJ Shepard would be willing to sacrifice herself and if necessary others (as she had at the Skyllian Blitz!) to get the shot at destroying Sovereign and saving the galaxy. Then I kept her a nearly flawless paragon throughout ME2 because of the interrupts.

    I wanted to play ME2 again with all the other story, so I had to find a downloadable male character who'd made every other renegade choice but had saved the council. I did and played him as a straight Renegade throughout ME2.

  11. I definitely see what you mean. When I replay Fallout 3 I'll probably play as a real jerk (I was an imperfect but very ethical Wanderer the first time) but I won't help slavers, because I don't want to. It'd make me feel sick in a way that would detract from my escapist fun. In ME the paragon points I'd acquire by doing the ethical thing would cost me opportunities down the road. My character would be nerfed in some way. But with the less explicit and AFAIK less important morality system of FO3 and the total situational (relational?) ethics of DAO, I can do what I want without worrying about how points are adding up. 

  12. Fun fact: in ME1 you can save your character and start at the beginning with your saved stats.  If you play enough times you can have full coercion and persuasion and play either way you want.

    I really think the problem with ME2 is not the paragon/renegade meters per se, but the method of calculating whether or not you can succeed at a paragon/renegade check.  It calculates it on a % of total possible P/R points gained up until that point, and some of the checks are pretty high.  If they imposed a ceiling on the amount of points required (i.e., Tali/Legion check is 80% of renegade points acquired or 100 renegade points total) then I think this would solve a lot of people's complaints.

    I don't have a problem in theory with not being able to persuade/intimidate someone because you don't have the rep to back it up, but I would like to be able to try it and fail and have to deal with the consequences.  The Dragon Age series did this, which I appreciate.

  13. Right, that makes sense. I play as a roleplayer myself - trying to get into a character's head instead of maxing anything out. But to play devil's advocate a bit: if you're really into a good roleplaying situation, don't you look forward to the points where your character fails at something? I mean, for me, that's where the drama and the character-building really comes from. So I seek out opportunities to lose appropriate gameplay advantages.  All ME1 is really doing is giving you more information. That information can be helpful or harmful to roleplaying depending on how you use it.

  14. That does make sense.  I think it's just too much of a temptation, having that information there.  It's like when I first got a bike computer installed on my bike -- it took a long time for me to train myself to not look at it and to not constantly try to beat my pace or scold myself for going too slow on this segment or that segment.  And it kind of ruined the ride for me.  I think it's too hard for me to not try to play to the stats when the stats are very "out there" like that.  :) 

  15. Well, there are some issues with hiding the reputational intention of your answers in these kinds of games. Firstly, in general, when we interact with others, we know what we're trying to do with our responses. The fact that we can't write our own text for this stuff and have the game respond in a contextually correct manner means that the writers are going to get it wrong for many people. You've posted about this kind of thing. On my latest playthrough of ME2, on the Archangel recruitment mission, when his identity is revealed, the one designated as "Renegade" didn't seem particularly mean, selfish, or...renegade-y. It's got to be something, though, and it at least let me know how the game viewed the choice. 

    What would be a better thing for these games to do is make the responses of individual characters to those things be different. Too often in Mass Effect, Paragon and Renegade are two sides of the same coin: getting your way with everyone you meet. Fallout: New Vegas deals with this particularly well, because it's utterly impossible to get your way with everyone. If you've helped the NCR, Caesar's Legion is going to try to put a bullet in your brain. If you try to take over New Vegas yourself, both of them are not going to be especially happy with you. Helping the Powder Gangers isn't going to endear you to the fine people of Goodsprings, and no amount of charm is going to get them to see it otherwise.

    And another issue is that these reputation systems are all, in fact, systems. They're not real humanity, and these systems will be picked apart by the jackals soon enough in strategy guides on the Internet, so why not just cut to the chase? New Vegas is the best I've found in this regard. Fallout 3 let you trivialize Speech checks, to the point where you never actually needed to put any points into speech to win every speech check. Just save before you talk to someone, and reload if the d100 didn't come up lucky this time. Not that this wasn't a hellaciously boring way to go through the game, because it most certainly is, but it let you get your way with everyone. New Vegas; in presenting the required skill level for a particular Speech, Science, Medicine, or whatever check; avoids that kind of dodge. How much do you want to get the "good choice" here, with this thing? Well, that's going to require some investment on your part. Letting people know what that investment is up front makes it less arbitrary for the player. We didn't grow up in the Nevada Wasteland. Those of us who aren't Fallout nerds don't know how you're supposed to act, and the Courier is not newborn into this world. He or she has lived through this world long enough that he should know enough about how things work, we don't and the reputation effects help with that. The Courier would know that the Legion would hate it if he helped out the NCR. Random game player doesn't, so it helps bridge that knowledge gap. Yes, once we're well versed in the game and the world, it might be nice to play without that (and it might be nice to have the option to turn off all those notifications in the hardcore mode) but for most players, it's an important tool to be able to appreciate what's happening around their avatar.

    And as an aside: I did go and get Divine Divinity yesterday. Didn't do much with it, but what I found very interesting and nice about the game is that it gave 1920x1080 as a resolution choice, even if it only displayed in the center of the screen. That's what I call forethought in texture production. I'll get to it more after I finish mucking around with Sacred Gold (also on Less graphical forethought, but a very good exploration game as well, like its sequel, and a very ruthless design, which for some reason appeals to me in a nostalgic kind of way.

  16. Knowing I generally only play through games once and my ridiculous desire to see all the content, I stall out at decision points frequently--actually, I stall out at naming the pet dog because I'm going to have him around for 40+ hours on most of these things. Between that and the dissonance that sometimes happens between the chosen text and the tone of delivery, my decision paralysis is exactly what's made gravitate to games with
    more predefined characters these day, where I can sink in and "watch" the story. Despite what I lose with feeling less agency, I generally find myself more satisfied with whatever narrative there is. Video game rpg mechanics still don't compete that well with what I want to say in my head, though Fallout came mighty close.

  17. It's not an rpg, but I thought Bioshock handled that well. A lot of it is scripted, but the precise ending you get and some of the mood in between depends on the player's treatment of the little sisters, and if the mechanic of what gains and losses were more visible, would people have made the same choices?

  18. Reading this from a link in a more recent post, I think you make a good point here; we're extremely limited in how we can interact with a game world, so numeric attributes serve as a stand-in for the ways in which we'd typically learn that information, much as "strength = X" stands in for "you know you can lift a 50-kg crate because of that one time a couple of years ago, but you can't push a 200-kg boulder because remember when we were camping?"

    It's similar to the issues that sports games present: in real life, it's silly to say that Justin Verlander's curve is an 87 out of 100, or that Matthew Stafford's accuracy on deep passes is 65 out of 100, but we see that in games because it's much better than making the gamer spend days running his or her players through drills to learn their strengths. People don't buy Madden to recreate the experience of spending 16-hour days (significantly less if you're like Tony Dungy and have both a commitment to a life outside your job and the success necessary to make that acceptable) for months just to figure out who the heck can do what on your team. They buy Madden to hear Gus Johnson announce their Super Bowl title. (Insert snarky comment about EA's achievements failure here.)

    There's nothing even remotely approaching AI that is available to game developers right now. I mean, it's a challenge just to get NPC to avoid killing themselves ... barring some kind of breakthrough, we're not likely to see anything resembling real-life interaction, so our choices are simulated relationships with a) numeric values we can see or b) numeric values we can't see. It's kind of like choosing between a spork or a spoon to eat steak: neither is the right tool, but it's better than eating Hamburger Helper. (Not that I object to the latter; I'd just prefer steak.)