Friday, January 28, 2011

Rotted Report 05: The illusion of choice

I had a pretty solid week of modding, probably my best since starting this blog. I completed around 30 seconds' worth of cutscenes (which may seem puny compared to the 103 minutes of cutscenes that are in Dragon Age 2, but for a week of mod development, it ain't bad). I also added an important test area to my mod. And I implemented two central game features - well, theoretically at least. I haven't tested these features yet, and I'm expecting to find them in a comical state when I do.

Unfortunately, all this progress was somewhat counterbalanced by a single decision I made that will end up creating more work for me. I decided the mod is too linear, and needs to be slightly redesigned. Yes, redesigned. Read on if you dare.

I don't want to get deep into the linear/nonlinear debate, especially after pontificating earlier this week about the state of modern RPG design. If you've read the other posts, you won't be surprised to learn that, as an old-schooler, I prefer nonlinear games. However, there are some forms of nonlinearity that I value more than others. Here's how I would rank 'em:

1. The ability pick and choose your quests. To me, this form of nonlinearity, exemplified by Baldur's Gate 2 and Oblivion, is the most rewarding. Sadly, with just a few sidequests, I won't have too much of this in The Rotted Rose - it's simply beyond the scope of a mod.

2. The ability to solve quests in multiple ways. With massive games like Baldur's Gate 2 becoming rare, the existence of multiple quest endings has become the standard for nonlinearity in RPGs. The Rotted Rose will endeavor to meet this standard.

3. The ability to solve required quests in whatever order you like. This I consider the lowest form of nonlinear play. Whether The Rotted Rose will include it is the whole issue in a nutshell.

The Rotted Rose's second act - the part of the game where most of the action takes place - is made up of three quests in which the PC has to track down some allies who have gone missing. There's no logical reason why the quests can't be done in any order. Nevertheless, I initially decided to impose an order, with my logic running something like this:
  • Imposing an order to the quests helps with progressive disclosure. I can introduce each quest separately, without having to dump a lot of information on the PC at once.
  • Knowing what order the PC is going to experience things reduces the amount of scripting I have to do, and makes things easier for me in general.
  • See #3 above. It's not worth the extra work.
Now that I have a better idea of how the mod is shaping up, I've changed my mind. Without a large number of sidequests (I'm planning only 3-5), the total amount of nonlinearity - of both high and low forms - is insufficient for my tastes. In fact, if the three main quests were doled out one-by-one as I had planned, the Denerim world map would only include three locations at the start of the game.

But perhaps more importantly, having to report back to an NPC after each quest feels overly confining. The player should get the sense that the PC is acting of his or her own accord, even if that sense is based largely an illusion. Taking directions from a taskmaster all the time - especially when the order of those directions is totally arbitrary - makes the PC seem more like a henchman than a hero.

So I've decided to do a little redesign, which is my prerogative as a modder working on his own time. When I'm done, the player will have the option to do the three main quests in any order (though there will still be stages at the beginning and end of the game that must be done in a particular order, for dramatic purposes).

For the most part, this will merely involve changing a few scripts. However, to avoid overloading the player at the start of the game, I'll also have to do a little rewriting to shift a few key bits of information from the current quest giver to other NPCs. Finally, there's at least one cutscene I'll have to create to accommodate the possibility of things happening in a different order.

I'm actually pretty excited about this, partly because I've been grinding away on cutscenes for the critical path for so long that I'm eager to move on to something (anything!) new. But also, I think it will make for a better game, and one that's closer to the wide-open, nonlinear style of play I personally enjoy.

The Rotted Report is a periodic update on my upcoming standalone adventure for Dragon Age. Feel free to stop by The Rotted Rose project page on the Bioware Social Network. 


  1. Ok sounds good, one thing though will there be Realistic consequences for based on the order in which you do these three quest. I mean not like in Origins when you can do redcliff first agree to get help from the mages for conner then go and do the Elves, Dwarves and the Ashes before the mages then go back to redcliff and every thing is the same.

  2. That shouldn't be an issue for TRR. You really can't set aside a quest at a key moment like that. Besides, all the action of the mod takes place in short period of time (one night in Denerim), so you could theoretically leave in the middle of something and return to find things unchanged.