Side-Quests and Narrative

Almost three years on, Clint Hocking’s Ludonarrative Dissonance in BioShock is still dangerous.

If you’ve got five minutes, you should go read his essay now, but if you had a quick look and you’re still all “tl;dr”, here’s the short-short version of Hocking’s argument: while the story in BioShock is all about freedom, choice and power, the story of player’s actions (what Hocking calls the ‘ludonarrative’ of the game) is restricted to one pre-defined path. So, despite all the talk of free will and choice, the player actually has no choice in the game since it does not provide an option for the player to do anything but help Atlas.

The danger in Hocking’s argument comes from the way that it makes you realise how prevalent this ludonarrative disconnect is within games. It’s like the little arrow in the FedEx logo: suddenly, you can’t see anything but this dissonance.

Right now, I’m slowly playing through Mass Effect 2. I say “slowly” because, not only am I experiencing a difficulty with the underlying story and mechanics of the game (I find that the cookie-cutter structure of the missions gets a little stale after 12 hours or so), but also because the ludonarrative dissonance in Mass Effect 2 means I am not as fully absorbed in the game as I really wish I could be, so I can’t do anything but slowly chip away at it.

##The problem with Mass Effect 2

Like the majority of videogames, Mass Effect 2 is about saving the galaxy. Huge, terrifying aliens are coming to destroy all life and - surprise! - only your character can stop it. This is the ‘main quest’ of the game, and given the weight of it - the protection of all life in the galaxy - it should be your number one priority. Except there is nothing forcing you down this path. In fact, the game does the opposite; rather than forcing anything, it presents the player with an smorgasbord of ‘side quests’ and gives the player the option of how he or she wants to play the game.

Heavily influencing my playing of Mass Effect 2 is my experience playing The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. I powered my way through the main quest of that game in the course of a couple of evenings. I completely avoided all of the side-quests or, indeed, anything that would take me from the path that would lead to me destroying all the oblivion gates and saving the world - I mean, who has time to join guilds and fight in gladiatorial arenas for sportI did actually complete the arena missions in Oblivion - one of the advantages of playing through the game the way I did was that I never got to a high enough level that the monsters were particularly difficult. The arena missions, then, were an easy way to make a lot of money in the game when there’s an evil demonic force sweeping the land? In the end, the game was fun, but after I completed it, I didn’t see much point in playing the rest of the game. The rest of the game being where everyone says the real enjoyment is to be had. In effect, I sabotaged my own experience of this game.

With this in mind, I’m doing things differently with Mass Effect 2. I’m trying to play each and every side-quest I can find. I’m scanning planets, talking to every random stranger, endorsing each and every shop on the citadel and trying to fuck just about every character I think the game will allow me to. Don’t get me wrong, I’m enjoying Mass Effect 2. These parts of the game are actually lots of fun and amazingly relaxing ways to kill a few hours. Except they’re completely at odds with the story. In most of the cut-scenes, my character shouts about how the reapers are coming and there’s no time for X - the galaxy is in danger and time is running out!

And yet, I waste hours - literally hours - scanning planets for minerals.

To make it worse, the game actually encourages this ridiculous disconnect. For example, your crew members will occasionally come to you with a problem that present new missions. If you choose to help them, completing these missions will increase their loyalty to you. When you first speak to them about these problems, there are two conversation options: “Sure, I’ll help” or “Sorry, there’s no time”. Within the context of the game, I’m left asking: why does that second choice even exist? If my hours of fucking around scanning planets has taught me anything, it’s that there is time. Lots and lots of time. Even still, if you agree to help your crew member, this mission just becomes another side-quest which you can tackle whenever you want. There’s nothing compelling you to go and deal with it right there (which is good, because in my game, Jacob’s dad has been in trouble for a couple of weeks now). Theoretically, you could say “sure, I’ll help”, completely ignore them and finish the main quest without any sort of punishment.

Within individual missions, too, there’s a lack of urgency or engagement. The game will tell you that someone is in trouble, that their life is hanging by a thread, but at the same time, the game actively encourages and rewards slow and methodical exploration. So, rather than rushing to the next area where the hostages are being held, you should first examine every nook and cranny, hack ‘datapads’, break into wall-safes, collect the ammo that has conveniently been left lying around the place. Take your time because the game, and the character who is supposedly in danger, will wait.

In my 22+ hours of playing Mass Effect 2, I have come across one - ONE - mission that was time-based and had a sense of urgency. A side-mission in which the player must stop a missile from launching within a set time limit. One mission out of maybe sixty.

I don’t mean to single out Mass Effect 2 with this complaint. Lots of other games suffer from the same problem. I finished the penultimate mission in the main quest of Fallout 3 before deciding that instead of facing the climax of that game and saving everyone, I would rather wander the wasteland with my dog and giant supermutant friend, hunting out all the side-questsUnlike Oblivion, it used to be that when you finished Fallout 3, you couldn’t go back and continue to play the game and explore the world - this was corrected in a subsequent patch. The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time is another example. You could rescue Zelda, or you could kick some chickens for hours and hours. In fact, it’s almost a genre staple: the RPG whose over-arching ‘main’ story is less important than the abundance of side-quests.

Other games have been more daring in their approach to the time mechanic and what it means for the narrative. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, for example, has actual, time-based consequences, constantly increasing the tension in that game. Dead Rising is also built around time: the entire game takes place over the course of three days, and actions occur at certain times within that world (and, unlike BioShock, this game does give the player the option of non-participation. The player can simply sit around doing nothing, waiting for the game’s three-day timer to run out and for rescue to arrive. It’s not a great ending, but at least it’s catered for).

Having been disappointed by powering my way through Oblivion and disappointed by taking my time with Mass Effect 2, how should I tackle Dragon Age: Origins?