Conversation on IRC sparked my internal gaming theorist; we were discussing System Shock 2, Deus Ex, that sort of game. Brandon has written most of what I have to say on the subject, but there’s one thing I haven’t seen him wax lyrical about that is, to me, pretty important. And that is the concept of subtlety in replayability.
One of the biggest features of the SS and DX series’ is the idea that decisions have consequences. This is rarer than you might think. Skyrim, for example, has decisions, and those decisions have consequences – do I kill the turncoat fence as part of the Thieves’ Guild questline? Do I destroy the Dark Brotherhood, or join them and kill the Emperor? – but the consequences are all small fry. If I kill the fence, whatever: maxing out Speech turns every damn merchant into a fence. If I kill the Emperor, fine – it doesn’t stop me from completing the Imperial Legion storyline, and the only change to the game as a whole is a single line of dialogue. No action leads you into a situation that can’t be escaped from.
This is sort of a problem; I love Skyrim, but it’s not for its decision trees – it’s because it’s a really big sandbox.1 I do not feel that the failures or successes of the Dragonborn are my own, and I do not identify with them. This is partly because of the design choices (the Dragonborn is the Dragonborn. Before that you played the Hero of Kvatch. At no point did you play ‘Oliver’) but also because at no point do I have real control over the game. It’s a good game, but it’s not a great game.
For a great game, you need decisions with real consequences: you need the impact to be far enough down the line that by the time you get there it’s too late to do anything about it. You need the player to be going “oh, fuck, I should’ve done X“. The DX games do this very well; everything is fixed once it has been decided. If you’ve got a pair of bots opening up at you and you decided to put your points into a cloak that hides you from biologicals, well, fuck you.
This works for two reasons: first, as stated, consequences are far enough in the future that making a different decision is very, very hard (or impossible). The past is immutable. Second, however, the decisions are obviously decisions. To draw on the example above: when immutably assigning augmentation points, I was told “Oliver, you can have either A or B. A will hide you from biological enemies. B will hide you from mechanical enemies. Choose wisely”. This is a necessary element of the “oh fuck” moment; the knowledge that you could have avoided the shitty situation you find yourself in. It creates a large amount of replayability because, on completion, the user has an incentive/opportunity to restart and handle things differently.
However, there is another kind of decision-making; subtle decision-making, that leads to subtle replayability. This is something DX handled really, really well (I happen to think the System Shock games did not, or, more accurately, did not bother trying). The example I used above was one where the interface prompts you with ‘this is a decision’, but there are many where it doesn’t.
So: example time, yet again. Around halfway through the game you’re tasked with infiltrating the Brooklyn Naval Shipyard, where a cargo vessel filled with vats of virus is being stored.2 Now: you can totally just break in. Takes a bit of effort, but you can do it. This is not, however, your only option.
Earlier in the game you’re confronted with a pimp beating his hooker, Sandra (yeah, it’s a bit dark. It’s a fucking dystopia. Or as we call it, New York City). No plausible relationship with the Naval Shipyard; hell, at that point, you don’t even know the Shipyard exists. No plausible consequence of what you do – she’s nothing more than a particularly unlucky hooker in a particularly unlucky city. You can save her, or you can let her die. Fine.
Except….if you let her live, suddenly you don’t have to break into the Shipyard. Because that unlucky hooker went to high school with a guy who can get you inside, no questions asked, without any fighting. And suddenly Sandra is Important. Things like this are littered throughout the entire first game – there is no one way of doing anything – but they don’t make themselves immediately known.
Skyrim fails at decisions because it’s got obvious decisions with small consequences. DX wins because it’s got obvious decisions with big, immutable consequences. This enables replayability to resolve “oh, fuck” moments But DX also has a third kind of decision; subtle, with small (and not-so-small) consequences. They do not incentivise by way of resolving “oh, fuck” moments; they incentivise because once you’ve discovered one, maybe in your second playthrough to resolve an “oh fuck” moment, you want to find what else is out there. The first DX game handled this really, really well, as did the third.
So while a good game, like Skyrim, doesn’t need to have any consequential decisions, and a great game only needs to have consequential ones, a really fucking great game has those going hand in hand with subtlety and nuance. With things that have consequences without ever appearing to be decisions at all.