September 7, 2009

Choice Matters

I've recently finished Overlord: Dark Legends for the Wii, and something felt off during my entire playthrough, compared to the original Overlord. Reading Challenges for Game Designers, and the blog Game Design Concepts helped me figure it out. It's really simple. It can be summed in one word: choice.

But this word has many consequences...

1) Choice?

Yes. Choice. As I discovered in the sources mentioned above, there are different kind of choices. Some are good in a game, some... Less so.
A meaningful choice has an impact on the course of the game. Also, you take one because you have at least an idea of what the consequences will be. A blind choice is one where you do not know what will happen when you make it. A meaningless choice is one that has no impact. Whether you take one path or the other, the rest of the game will be stricly identical. It might as well not have been there. An obvious choice has different outcomes, but one is so evidently superior to the others that you will always take it.

In Overlord, everything is about meaningful choices. Yes, you are an Overlord. But will you be the evilest on the block? Or will you help grannies cross the street, and then mangle the young whippersnapper that tried to run the two of you over? There are many moments where you have a choice between Evil and less Evil (or even, ewww... Good). At the start of the game, you are explained what the consequences of corruption(your evilness meter) will be : your spells will be more powerful, but you will gain less gold. There are different endings as well: almost good, quite bad, and evil.
In O:DL, the only choice you get while following the script is whether or not you will do the optional quests. How meaningful...

"What about your equipment? There are forges to be discovered in O:DL !", I hear some of you say, "so you can choose what to wear, at least"
Oh, yes, you can. You have different armors, with no clue as to what they do, for gold... You have different weapons, with some little clues as to what they do, for gold. So, you just buy the most expensive one. Because expensive = better, right? And you've got more gold than you can shake a stick at. Now, that, you see, is a blind choice. You just hope your decision is good.

How is it meaningful in Overlord, then? Aaaah, am I glad you asked...
First, you have to choose whether you will take an expensive piece of equipment, which is potentially stronger, or a weaker one, but far more affordable (and so, enabling you to buy more pieces of equipment). Because if in O:DL, you will soon have more gold than your really need while playing the game normally, in Overlord, it is not so.
Then, the equipment itself. They begin bare. You have to sacrifice minions to make them stronger (I'll get back to the concept). But if you sacrifice minions, which you summon using Lifeforce gathered from defeated enemies, maybe you won't have enough Lifeforce to play the game efficiently ...
Finally, what will you upgrade? For example, armors can give you more mana, more life, and a third choice that escapes me right now... But you can not upgrade them all to the max. Each armor can only accept so much minionic lifeforce. You must choose what is more important to you.
That way, your Overlord is equipped as YOU see fit. You know why you made every choice. You know what these choices entailed.

To change a blind choice into a meaningful choice, you need to give players data. Give them an idea of what each choice will result in. Or, if you want them to explore, give them feedback on their choices. What are the consequences of their choices? Delayed consequences are fine, as long as the player knows what action begat what.

That covers no choice, and blind choice.

Now, Let me tell you about Minions' Sacrifice and Minion's Sacrifice in O:DL.

In Overlord, part of the equipment upgrade process is to sacrifice minions. Not only do You get the armor you want, you also get to see a cool sequence where all the minions you've just decided to sacrifice run en masse and jump gleefully ("Woohoo!" "Yeehah!") in the bubbling cauldron of the forge. Imagine the sight when you've decided to sacrifice 400 of them (And the colors are respected, too). Check around you: people love that sequence. As I said, in 0:DL's forge, you just buy your equipment and are done with it. Maybe it's because the Wii can't handle it? Maybe. Doubtful.
Be aware that this paragraph was just a rant because they took out of the game something that added to the flavor and the atmosphere. The next one is about choice. Really.

So, they added Minion Sacrifice. How evil (and it's an honest "How evil", not a snarky one). You grab a minion by its throat, shake it to build up the pressure (thus called the TG&S: Throat-Grab & Shake), and then break his neck to replenish your Health/Mana. Very cool idea.

Now, how can you replenish your Health/Mana.
Breaking a minion's neck gives you a shade of Life or Mana depending on its type. Something like 10% of a bubble.
You can also sacrifice a minion by sending him in a Life/Mana well, which gives you 50% or 100% of a bubble. You can also wait for Life potions to drop when your minions destroy objects. They give you 50% or 100% of a bubble.
There are at least 2 of each well type per map. Maps are small, and you can backtrack without penalties. The more you are hurt, the more the potions drop.
Know what we have here? Those who said "an obvious choice" can join my minions and have a cookie ! Why break a minion's neck when you just have to backtrack a bit and sacrifice the same minion for more health?

To change an obvious choice into a meaningful choice, the Risk/Reward ratio of each choice must be close(r). For example, if there were less Life Wells, snapping the neck of a minion for less life might be interesting if I am pressed for time. Provided it replenishes enough.

You can also TG&S a minion, and then release it in a direction of your control. After a (short) time, he will explode. You're told that you can destroy some barriers with it. You encounter 3 of them in the zone where you're told that, and then never see them again.

TG&S&E is also advertised as an attack move, but the process of grabbing, shaking and sending is very long. So either your other minions are doing nothing while you do it, or they have already killed the foes they were sent on before your minion bomb is ready.

Again, the obvious choice is not to use it beyond the barriers...

Is there a meaningful choice in O:DL? I honestly can not recall. To their credit, I can't find a meaningless choice either.

After this lengthy demonstration, I'm sure you're asking yourself: ok, but why does choice matters?

2) Connection and Feedback

I'm not talking about the controllers. I'm talking about the player, and his relation to the character he's playing.

When there are no meaningful choices, I find it's hard to relate to the character I'm playing. He's just a puppet on strings. I'm controlling it, but someone else is controlling my actions. I follow the script.

But when I get to make choices that do matter, it gets different. He becomes my character. My avatar. Anything that happens to him, or people close to him (especially when they're close because of my choices) is important to me.

In Overlord, as you advance in the story, your tower evolves because of your choices. It gets rebuilt. New rooms are opened, new decorations that you buy, trophies that you pilfer. You can't have everything, so what is there is what you've chosen to be there. It becomes your tower, an extension of your Overlord. Plus, you get to have a cool mistress.
Incidentally, this is also where you begin everytime you launch the game. So, the first thing you see is everything you have done so far. A good way to congratulate the player, and a good way to make him want more.

In O:DL, you do start in the same place (it's not your tower, it feels more like the cellar of the castle, but whatever). But it does not change, apart from the mana/blood/minion stonesthat get stacked around your throne. These stacks feel small compared to the size of the room, and the room in itself feels drab. You don't feel any need to stay here, whereas in Overlord, it is fun to simply walk the halls of your tower basking in your Overlordness.