NWN 2: Under the Influence

by Dan H

Dan continues to do nothing but play Neverwinter Nights and shares his thoughts on the Influence Mechanics and choice in RPGs.
In my previous article on the subject, I talked about how the streamlined, all-plot-no-guff attitude of the modern CRPG detracted from the sense of world and immersion. What I'd like to talk about in this article is how the same problem is exacerbated by some of the elements which are, ostensibly, designed to improve the sense of immersion.

Specifically, the Influence mechanics.

Any CRPG fans out there will know the basic setup: you control your character, and throughout the course of the game you will pick up a variety of quirky minions whose primary purpose will be to carry your loot, and get in the way in a fight. Your interaction with these companions (or followers, or henchmen, depending on what you call them) ranges, depending on the game from "none whatsoever" to "scads of detailed side-quests and sub-plots, along with some variety of romantic interest."

In an effort to make your relationships with your companions that little bit more complex, Neverwinter Nights 2, borrowing from Knights of the Old Republic 2, uses a system of "influence", whereby your companions genuinely react to your actions, and you become closer or more distant depending on whether or not they like what you do. No more do you have to wonder precisely why your Paladin companion doesn't bat an eyelid at your trucking with demons, or why Jack the Necromancer is still hanging out with your zealously good-aligned party.

This is, in theory, a fine idea.

In practice, however, it has some very big and (I would suggest) very obvious flaws. Games, all games, boil down to a series of rewards and penalties. The act of playing a game is all about maximising your rewards and minimising your penalties. In most games, this is very simple: you do well, you advance through the game, and you win, or you do badly and you lose. End of story.

Role-playing games (both pen and paper and CRPG) have a much harder time of it, because there is an expectation that you will be presented with decisions, and that your decisions will be supported. For this to work, there has to be a tangible reward for both decisions. NWN2, for the most part, does this fairly well: you regularly have to choose how an encounter will progress, and you genuinely feel that whichever choice you make will be equally supported by the game. Diplomats and berserk maniacs both have an equally good time when it comes to sidequests.

The Influence mechanics, however, fail to reward your legitimate choices. Either you pick the option that gives you influence, in which case you will get an explicit, game mechanical reward which will go towards unlocking more of the game (and frequently also unlocking even more explicit game mechanical bonuses). If you pick the option which loses you influence, you get nothing.

Not only does this, essentially, penalise you for playing your character (which is a cardinal sin for any RPG, C or otherwise) but it creates a deeply, deeply peculiar party dynamic, in which you are constantly second-guessing your companions, doing your level best to grab influence wherever possible.

It also makes bugger all sense from a narrative standpoint. Frequently, your "influence" with your companions is the key to making them develop as characters, put aside their prejudices and grow as people. Which is great, except the way that you gain influence in the first place is always to pander to the very personality traits that you will, later, convince them to put aside. I'm sure it's all very zen that you can make the arrogant characters humble by telling them how great they are, and get the violent characters to show restraint by encouraging them to fight at every opportunity. It doesn't make much sense though.

I've been working for a while now on a theory that choice in an RPG is a paradox: for a choice to be meaningful, it must have consequences, but consequences by definition penalise some choices, and that negates the original choice, because it turns a character decision into a tactical decision. I've now come around to the idea that it isn't actually a "paradox" at all, it's just a rule for how to do these things right. A meaningful choice in an RPG has to lead to an equal reward whichever path you choose.

To put it more succinctly: a real choice needs to have consequences, none of which suck.

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Comments (go to latest)
Guy at 02:32 on 2006-11-24

Ahem. Actually, what I meant to say was, there's a really interesting book by Johan Huizinga called "Homo Ludens" which if you haven't already read you might enjoy. Um. Yeah, one of the things he says is, games can be divided into two types according to the quality of tension in them. Jigsaw puzzles have some tension associated with the fact that the particular piece you're holding in your hand might be difficult to find a spot for, but on the other hand, overall there's the reassuring knowledge that if you keep playing the game then inevitably you will ultimately win. Then there's games like chess, which have an entirely different order of tension, because it's possible - indeed, often it's likely - that you'll lose.

Anyway, when you say that a real choice needs to have consequences, none of which suck... I don't know, it reminded me of that thing. It kind of strikes me as an odd thing, because... while I know what you mean, I also sort of think... the most exciting games have consequences which do suck, and which you can't do anything about except trying to find ways of coping with them. I think the thing in most CRPGs which kills that for me is the whole save-reload cycle (and the built-in assumption on the part of the designers that that's how the game will be played).

Speaking of which, have you ever played Nethack?
Wardog at 12:43 on 2006-11-24
Hmmm...I think, she says speaking for someone else, Dan doesn't mean "choices that don't suck" in the sense that your decisions may lead to unfortunate consequences (death of a character or whatever) but outcomes that seem to indicate the designers wanted you to take the other route. I mean, if I do something in game and it leads to the destruction of, say, my home village and then I get to walk angstily around the charred remains, discovering the smouldering teddybear my young in-game sibling was very attached to them I'm happy (well not exactly happy 'cos I've destroyed a village) but I'm happy because the choice to destroy the village was clearly supported by the engine. But the probolem with the influence mechanic is that, either you say what the NPC wants to hear in which case you get extra dialogue options, more choices in game etc. etc. or you don't and you get fuck all.
Guy at 12:08 on 2006-11-25
Ah, gotcha. I haven't actually played NWN2 (or any other games for six whole weeks - can you believe it?) but I see more clearly now what the problem with the influence mechanic is. I guess I'd put it back to the horrible save-reload assumption. The designers assume that before every dialogue, you'll save the game, play it through and if you make an unsupported choice, you'll reload and make the other choice. Which, of course, is not really much of a "choice", or much of a design. Hmm.

Yes, but I think in terms of how we think a game actually should work we're on the same page
Guy at 12:12 on 2006-11-25
...same page, dammit, my comment got cut in half! What I wrote next was, something something, you should be able to see the character who was going to inherit the throne in Act 3 die in Act 2 and then figure out who is going to inherit it now, but you shouldn't be able to wander round the edge of the backdrop and see that it's not a castle, just a bit of painted fabric, that someone's only bothered to paint half of. I wrote it more coherently the first time. :P
Wardog at 13:06 on 2007-01-01
Hmmm...that's an interesting point actually and one I hadn't quite encompassed - I mean the idea that games are basically being designed on the assumption you're going to be making extensive use of the save and reload.
http://orionsnebula.blogspot.com/ at 17:59 on 2011-01-18
BioWare seems to have finally figured this out. In Dragon Age 2, apparently, you can unlock new dialogue and stat bonuses by driving companion approval positive OR negative.

(Actually, they tried this with Dak'kon back in the day as well...)
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