RPGWatch Side Quest - Manipulation and Perversion

Dhruin

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It's nearly time to kick off some formal content for 2008 but it's been a while since we've had a Side Quest discussion piece, so we'll ease into the year with some conversation. Corwin raises the interesting subject of developer manipulation in RPGs - but then adds an oddball theory into the mix, so it might be fun to see where this goes:
What brought all these thoughts rushing through my head this morning was the ending for Act 1 of The Witcher. I feel manipulated. The Reverend is an obnoxious, arrogant, offensive, hypocrite. He's also old, ugly, male and has a loud, grating voice. There's not much more the developers could have done to make me dislike him either directly, or indirectly.
Read it all here. Don't forget to add your comments; very minor spoilers for The Witcher might apply.
More information.
 
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GhanBuriGhan

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Of course RPG games are all about manipulation, in a sense - being manipulated into following the story that is, when "real" people would probably do anything but. But I can't say I have felt manipulated in the sense that Corwin describes, or deliberately taken the "other" choice because I thought the developers were pushing me a certain way. I have however made choices that seemed "less obvious" simply to see if I was actually allowed to follow through with it, or if it was a pseudo-choice that would railroad me back to the main path quickly by some trick. A test of sorts on how easy it is to poke holes in the illusion. How annoyed I was that the seeming "choice" to join Dagoth Ur in Morrowind never materialized. Or the many dialogue "choices" in Baldurs Gate that all funneled me into fighting the NPC anyway. How pleasant a surprise in the witcher that actually allows you to walk to your own doom
Like when you confront Azar too early in chapter two, and get fried
I guess it's part of the core "feel" of a good game as many here define it, that you feel that choices you can make are real - if that feeling comes up (like it did in the witcher) I don't metagame choices but simply try to follow what I think is suitable for the character I am playing.
 
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Benedict

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The abigail / priest choice is a tricky one . . . to modern eyes the priest was obviously a total wanker with serious issues with women, to the kind of superstitious, largely misogynistic peasants of the sort of era they were trying to evoke he would have been largely unremarkable. In order to capture the feel of a mediaeval witchhunt they had to make a character than anyone with a modern day moral framework would have no choice but to dislike, which made it feel a bit like a foregone conclusion what one would choose.

But then I did feel pretty bad when it ended up with me basically slaughtering the whole village as a result.
 
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GothicGothicness

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Hehe, well if you choose to sleep with Abigail after you get that card of her, the choice should be much easier ( she looks like a total lunatic smeared in blood and surrounded by dead skulls! )
 
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Squeek

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RPG is something you can do alone, but at its soul role-play gaming is something that's done collaboratively. It's like dancing. It's like sex. To experience the good stuff, you need a partner who's willing and able.

Something's wrong if you find yourself wondering whether you're being manipulated. That's what Johns ask themselves when prostitutes offer them choices. Those guys are kidding themselves.

That's why "choice and consequence" will never really satisfy. No matter how many choices you're offered, it won't ever be enough when you're the only one making the decisions. The game needs to make its own decisions about similar kinds of choices, and those should be enigmatic, beguiling, and a bit alluring.
 
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GhanBuriGhan

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RPG is something you can do alone, but at its soul role-play gaming is something that's done collaboratively. It's like dancing. It's like sex. To experience the good stuff, you need a partner who's willing and able.

Something's wrong if you find yourself wondering whether you're being manipulated. That's what Johns ask themselves when prostitutes offer them choices. Those guys are kidding themselves.

That's why "choice and consequence" will never really satisfy. No matter how many choices you're offered, it won't ever be enough when you're the only one making the decisions. The game needs to make its own decisions about similar kinds of choices, and those should be enigmatic, beguiling, and a bit alluring.

The game making choice - Are you talking about a Dungeon Master AI, multiplayer, or even Pen & Paper? I couldn't quite follow your meaning here.
 
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magerette

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Squeek, like a lot of us, has his own definition of RPG which I often fail to fully appreciate( in the sense of understand, not like or dislike) so I'll just say I have no idea what's meant there either.

I do agree that if the feeling of manipulation is too strong or marked by the kinds of thoughts Corwin presents, it could be disruptive to an extent. I don't think it indicates there's something inherently "wrong" with the game unless it's exceptionally clumsy. I think it indicates that the game is making an attempt to draw the player into the dev's intended script. As I said in my comments, I see that as more of a positive challenge than a negative limitation, but that's me. :)
 
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Terry

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In the first act of Witcher did I feel manipulated? No the choices I made were part of the overall flow of how I went through the story up to that point. Yes I helped the townspeople but through those acts their dirty secrets were reveled. Was Abigail a saint no not even close but I guess if you have a choice of only hanging a murderer or one who is an accessory to murder I would have to chose the former.
This is one of may mutually exclusive choices you run in to in Witcher, that is what makes it such a fun experience.
 
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Squeek

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The game making choice - Are you talking about a Dungeon Master AI, multiplayer, or even Pen & Paper? I couldn't quite follow your meaning here.
In single player computer games the only source of collaboration available is the software. So I'm saying the software needs to provide collaboration and that that collaboration should be genuine.

Why the heck not? There are some awfully smart people out there, walking around, who would be willing to give it a shot. I once knew a guy who studied and taught computer science, mathematics and physics at Oxford for almost twenty years. He had two doctorates, a masters and an undergraduate degree and was looking for a new job.

Maybe I have no business asserting this, since I don't program. But I think the products we're seeing are more the result of design decisions than technical limitations. People who write product plans for these games assess us and decide we'll be easily satisfied.

Some, like the folks over at Bethesda, get pretty smug about it. We should wise up and demand more.
 
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As a case in point, many games have a certain "reactivity" when it comes to the game world: townspeople react when you clear out the kobold caves, or they'll offer a tidbit of customization if they've talked to you before - "Oh, it's you again. What do you want now, <charname>?" -- but that's usually as far as the reactivity goes.

The Orc Army doesn't attack Inmesvale or set up camp in the Ruined Temple of Amaunator, if you've killed Firkraag or defeated the Shade Lord, respectively.

The instances of such reactivity need not be large, nor do they need be particularly well tied to the plot, nor would they even need to have far-reaching consequences. They need not be as complicated to program as a full-fledged romance, either. If you're lucky, you'll get a case where the army invading the Seer's camp in the underdark won't have mind flayers with it, if you've cleared out a certain area; very rarely can I think of a case where the reactivity of the game has been more proactive in nature.

That, I think, might be something worth exploring, if I were designing a game. I know the game is going to manipulate my actions: the more heavy plot-driven the game is, the more I'm going to be hemmed in, somehow. I accept that. If instead of giving me the feeling that it was merely the game designer doing the manipulating, though, I could feel like it was the antagonist that was doing the manipulating, I'd get a nifty little world-building illusion and an actually clever-seeming villain to boot, instead of the now-cliché "I'm too powerful to care about you, but when I do eventually realize that you're a threat to me, it'll be too late" passive Foozle. Mephistopheles in HotU was a manipulative villain, certainly, but it was utterly passive in relation to the PC. He never actually did anything to my character, or did anything in response to my character: his actions were set in stone no matter what I did. Every other game villain I can think of is exactly the same way.

One would have to choose one's events with care, I'd imagine, for subsets of reactions to all make sense within the current framework of the overall story, but I think it's something that could be done, particularly if such sets were kept small and their effects relatively localized...

... if one was interested in presenting a more reactive experience for the gamer. I don't see much evidence of that in the industry at present, though. If anything, story-driven games are tending more toward a movie-like experience.

Personally, I can still enjoy the regular Passive Foozle, and while the feeling of being manipulated by game designers, instead of something In Context, can be annoying, that feeling is mitigated by the inescapable knowledge of what I'm doing: Playing a game. I know it's not a real role-playing experience; it's a pre-programmed piece of software, and no matter how well they disguise it, there are only going to be so many things that I can do, and only so much influence I'm allowed to have. That's all right with me.

For now. :)
 

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I know and recognize exactly what Corwin is talking about, while I don't think I make decisions that are in a direction opposite of my intended goal (always good or neutral). However, OH hell yes if I feel unfairly/insidiously manipulated after spending $50 I will screw with the game mechanics that wrongly force me to do something blatantly unfair. :devilish:

I can see why Corwin would use the alternate choice as a method, since iirc Corwin has stated in the past, he won't ever start a game over until he has completed once, does not use codes and similar. Once I get to the point of recognizing it, I feel justified of going outside the game design since the developers are doing it. ;)

After being frustrated about the same scene at the end of chapter 1,
which was totally ridiculous, i.e. manipulated crowds always back down and flee when the leader(s) fall. So forcing me to believe I slaughter the majority of villagers was BS and in no way plausible. (Btw not all villagers were dead, I found at least 10 alive in the houses, between the Reverends house and the bridge, remember Geralt even said tell everyone to stay inside.)

So as entertainment at the end of chapter 2 fight, I had to replay it as yet another quest had broken in chapter 3 and knew I could beat it, so
I fully maxed the trap sign and set a trap right where I knew Azar would stand during the cutscene, so while he was speaking he didn't sound or look all that tough stumbling over that trap constantly. :p

Don't get me wrong there are fully acceptable developer manipulations, as PB in Gothic where key characters are invincible until they have played their major scenes. In The Witcher, I often found myself being unfairly manipulated another really good example is the Shani and Triss quest in chapter 3. I found it completely unbelievable and then Cd Projekt pissed me off when they berated me with the completely asinine response from the secondary choice. I can respect Cd Projekt for their talent and accomplishments but they start jacking me around trying to piss in my beer, that annoys me. :plotting:

The Witcher set an idea/vision/goal to try to make no choice good or bad which could be seen as a very good goal. Many people like to point out how this is representative of real life and I disagree. I felt the unrealistic padding and could have forgiven them but they had to go and keep kicking us in the shins. :whip:
Instead of dealing in absolutes (nothing good or bad) they should have attempted amap, it would have been a much better flowing and balanced feeling game. They wouldn't have put all that false pressure on themselves, since many times their quests work very well in feeling and application. The game design was at it's best when it tried to unite instead of the lows when the game tried to divide.
 
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Dantre

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Personnally, I don't feel manipulated by the devs. However, I played many console RPGs where you never have any influence on the story to begin with. At best, when you are offered a choice, it's completely meaningless (like, for example, asking you if you wish to drink the tea that you know is drugged, then making you drink it even when you said no). There's also all those adventure games where you can only solve the puzzles in the single way that the designers decided...

So, when I'm playing a PC RPG, I feel I have much more freedom. When that freedom is more of an illusion in the end, I don't even notice it. What I do notice however is when the game react to the things I did, like the examples IamaGuest pointed out. Of course, I haven't played "The Witcher" yet (got the game, but not the PC that can run it), so maybe in that game there is more of a feeling of being manipulated than is usual in a PC RPG.

I believe it's all a question of perspective.
 
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GhanBuriGhan

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In single player computer games the only source of collaboration available is the software. So I'm saying the software needs to provide collaboration and that that collaboration should be genuine.
Maybe we do indeed need MORE not less manipulation. The idea of a Dungeon Master AI in games is a pet idea of mine. In my opinion, to become more dynamic and to please a wider variety of playing styles (and thus to remain both commercially successful as well as interesting to the hardcore) games need to become more active in adjusting themselves to the player. I imagine there could be a "meta AI" that constantly polls the players actions and adjusts the game in subtle ways to make the experience more interesting, just like a good DM does. For example, if a player wins all combat easily with hardly a scratch, it could slowly increase the number, level, or type of opponents, or even nudge up an invisible difficulty slider that affects the underlying stats. Or it could do the reverse if a player has to reload frequently. If a gamer rapidly clicks away all dialogue it could offer more simple (e.g. binary) choices, while a gamer that appears to read all dialogue fully and takes time to decide which option to pick could get additional options. If a gamer develops his character as a mage, the game could notice and change loot, monsters, and even quests to better support that playstyle (particularly useful for this would be to trigger quests that actively "come to the player", something the witcher does very well, e.g. the incident at Vivaldis Bank). And of course do the same for a fighting or stealth oriented character. A game could even use ingame dialogue to find out what the player likes - does he enjoy exploration, fighting, dialogue? Then give him more of that. Is he frustrated by running around a huge map? Then give him options to skip that.
And so on. I think more plasticity in the provided experience could be a huge boon for roleplaying games, and it does not have to be through endless options screens. In a way that means more manipulation, but it would be in the interest of the player.
 
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Squeek

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I like all of that! Let's take it even further! I'm imagining system participation, not just manipulation. It's what makes playing with your cat different from playing with your ball. The difference is the cat's collaboration. It's playing too.

Computers aren't alive, but they're smarter than a ball. There's a truism among actors that "acting is reacting." To hold up its end as a participant in a role-playing game, your computer should be reactive. That's the stuff I'd like to see get programmed in.

You know those stories where someone gets sent back in time? The ones where they're careful not to make any changes, because the slightest alteration might turn out to be huge? RPG needs worlds that work like that, worlds that react.
 
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Alrik Fassbauer

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If you - as a dev - "manipulate" a player into some emotional reaction ...

... THEN you - as a dev - must have a kind of prediction of the reaction or of the gamer's mind.

In principle, it's like Chess: You try to predict how the next one moves.

If you're good at psychology, you might even "play" with the feelings and emotions of peopple - and the most dangerous tricksters and schemers do that.
If you're an author - and The Witcher originally stems from a series of books, as I heard - then you can basically do the same with readers.

Build expectations ... and then fulfill them - or not.

It's a bit like the oman coming and "rescuing" Brian. :D

Imho writers of horror novels are able to do this at best. They are "playing" on the emotional reactions like a piano-player on his or her piano.
 
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Acleacius

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Hehe, more manipulation? Why cause we all love to be told how to feel and think? :)

Another good example in oblivion, since I don't want seem like I am picking on The Witcher, is during the Fighter Guild questline. Early in the quest you are asked to help.....
a girl to pay her father's gambling debt
which you are required to do. Then later you are first required to.....
drink a potion of Hyst sap (a hallucinogenic) then send on a mission to kill Goblins in the girl's village. You are required to kill the Goblins in the house while your other team members kill them outdoors. Oddly enough the Goblins are not aggressive, doing things like sitting at the table having dinner or sitting by the fire. The quest will not end unless you kill the Goblins. The Hyst seems not to effect you at all you clearly see you teammates different races killing Goblins. Then once you are force to kill them, you the change maps and you supposedly wake up after being found in the streets unconscious. Then being sent back to the village to learn what happened you murdered the villagers, weeeeeee!

Know why? It's clearly because Hyst only effects villagers and sheep, duh! We can just never get enough of those good o'le affected quests and so I did what any murderer would do, I Resurrected them with the console. It fit so nicely with the developers vision and story, now who could resist the fun? ;)
 
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Corwin

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I never did that quest, so I don't think it was the fighters guild!!
 
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Acleacius

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It was the ..........
Watersdeep village, when your sent to help her retrieve her grandfathers sword and armor to sale, you could pay off the debt and keep the armor and weapons set of her grandfather or just bring them to her. Her name was Biene Amilon and the quest is called Amilion's Debt and when you return and are forced to kill her the quest is called Infiltration and is the second to last quest followed by the final quest The Hyst.
There are many like this in oblivion as often you are never really allowed to make choices you are forced on rails on almost every quest. In fairness I know most quests try to give the illusion of choice like Deus Ex or others but bethseda doesn't seem much like they advocate choice at all, sadly. :(
 
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Ionstormsucks

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I have to admit that I did not feel overly manipulated. After all the programmers implemented choice... why would they try to manipulate me? If they wanted me to chose one particular "path" they could just force me to do it by leaving me no other choice.

I think manipulation makes only sense if the outcome of your decision is different than you expected... because only then it creates this "Uff" effect. In the case of Abigail that's only partly the case I guess. Ok, the card that you'll get if you sleep with her implies that she's not as innocent as she seems to be, but that doesn't make the Reverend a more sympathetical person. He and the rest of the bunch are still wankers and you hardly feel any regret that you killed them.
 
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Corwin

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But that's part of the issue!! WHY wasn't the Rev made a more sympathetic character? Why was he made SO odious??
 
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