Choice, Consequence and Thematic Coherence in Chris Avellone’s games.

“Reactivity”. “Choice and consequences”. “Influence”. These are the watchwords for the RPGs designed by Chris Avellone.

For example, one of the major features of Alpha Protocol (2010) was the branching path structure of its story, depending on what the player chose to do. The world of Alpha Protocol reacted to the player’s choices, making it feel like they were really changing the story as they played.

More than just being a quirk of game mechanic design, this philosophy permeates the Avellone-led Black Isle/Obsidian RPGs in surprising ways. It goes beyond just being a player ego-stroking mechanism into every aspect of the games.

Planescape: Torment‘s protagonist can influence the story, setting and other characters in countless ways, and while this in itself makes for an interesting game, the mechanic complements the theme of the story: that belief can influence reality itself. Musings on self-fulfilling prophecies and consensus reality are integrated with the structure of the game.

If video games are power fantasies, designed to make players feel like they can impact the world, then these RPGs are both archetypal examples and subtly subversive at the same time. While they allow the player to make all manner of changes to the game world, they also ask the player to reflect on the consequences of their actions.

To see how this approach differs from other RPGs, consider the popular but controversial Mass Effect 3, the original endings of which prompted criticism that none of the player’s choices really mattered. Defenders of the game replied that this was the story BioWare had wanted to tell, and so it should be accepted by the players as such.

It is a delicate balance, but in a medium defined by user input, the experience is most satisfying if the need to tell a story is balanced with giving the player choice in how it unfolds–if the story is the player’s story, and the player is not simply a bystander.

In many games, the player is to the game’s plot as Indiana Jones is to Raiders of the Lost Ark. They are at best just there to perform the requisite tasks to fulfill the writer’s story. Not so with Planescape/KotOR II/Alpha Protocol–in these, the player is the story.

Perhaps the most famous of Avellone’s characters is the enigmatic Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic II. She embodies the philosophy of player choice more so than any other single character. (Her avowed hatred of the predestination element of the Force could be interpreted as opposition to the “railroading” so common in games.)

Kreia is seemingly amoral, allied with neither the Jedi nor the Sith, but uses both to achieve her goals. To gain influence with her, the Jedi Exile (the player’s character) must show that they can make logical choices consistent with furthering their own long-term goals–in other words, that they understand choice and consequence. Kreia doesn’t care if you are good or evil–just so long as you know what you are doing and can strategize to make it happen.

In this way, the game mechanics, characters and story are all fully integrated. The mechanics reinforce the characters who reinforce the theme.  This level of coherence is what produces a truly satisfying experience. When game mechanics clash with the theme or the story, the player feels subconsciously confused.

Since games, unlike other art forms, rely on user input to tell the story, it only makes sense to center them around the user’s input in every respect. If thematic coherence is what makes Art great, the greatest games should surely be built around the idea of player choice.

What's your stake in this, cowboy?