Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Game Design : Game of the Week 6 – Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic ~ Decisions

This week there was no in class lecture but instead we listened to an audio lecture to learn about a subject that I’ve already known about but my knowledge about the subject increased and was reinforced by the lesson. That subject in question is decisions, and a secondary lesson was the idea of flow theory and fun. However I would like to focus on flow theory and fun another time, I will focus instead on decisions for this post. I know that I covered “choices in games” in my Catherine blog, but this particular game of the week was the one I remember the most for it’s decision making. Not to mention I’ve learned new things about the decision making process so I wanted to share those.

Decisions are constantly present in all the games we play, though it may not seem like it at first. Decisions don’t always have to put right to “moral choices” in games like Mass Effect, they can be simple things like “Do I want to attack that person? Do I want to run away because it’s dangerous?”. You can still make complex decisions in real time, most obviously in Real Time Strategy Games or MOBA games. They do not even have to be so complex, as the examples I showed just earlier, those are simple actions that you make naturally, you hardly notice but you are still making them. Pretty much every game has them (except ones that are completely automated) and several other factors which I will describe.

Before I get into all of those things though, let’s talk about the game of the week and we’ll get into them after that.

This week’s game of the week is Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. It is one of Bioware’s (Creators of Mass Effect) most successful games and certainly one of its most well-known. The game, obviously takes place in the Star Wars Galaxy, but thousands of years behind the events of the movie saga occur. The game takes place in a time where the jedi are much more numerous in number and not too long ago an army lead by a former Jedi, Revan and his apprentice Malak waged war against the Galactic Republic. I won’t delve too deeply into the story but the characters and stories are one of the game’s strongest points for sure.

Combat in KOTOR (Knights of the Old Republic)

Gameplay uses turn based combat (though disguised as real time combat) for the majority of it’s gameplay. You create your character from a set of faces to choose from and your gender, then you’You control  a party of up to 3 characters at once, though many will join you in your journey. In battle you can pause the game, ordering individual party members to use queue up a series of attacks on a desired target. You can only control one character at a time, but you can switch to them on the fly though. Use of pause is essentially to attempt to control your entire party at once. Since the game is actually turned based, then the characters will just use the abilities you commanded them to do in the order you queued them up.

Using the "Force Lightning" ability

The game itself is an RPG, so you collect items (Yay lightsabers), weapons, armor, gain levels from defeating enemies and completing quests and becoming a more powerful character overall. You gain access to abilities that are similar in nature to some dungeons and dragons games. (Flurry attack to deal double hits, I’ve seen that around a lot. Same icon, same name, same use in other games). But like the dungeons and dragons series, the gameplay is strong still and feels rewarding as there are a vast array of items to collect that can in the end make you quite powerful.

Every character has multiple dialogue "Trees" to interact with

Now there isn’t anything too ground breaking in terms of the actual combat. What made this game ground breaking though was decisions, though more specifically they were actually story decisions. In the game based on your choices, you would become either light side, or dark side, essentially good and evil. It was pretty obvious most of the time what decisions would lead to which side but the fact you even had these varied decisions that could affect the story and characters you encountered significantly was truly a wonderful experience. It’s hard to make every decision count in a game of this scale, but Bioware had a lot of good decisions, even for little side quests, most of them had a variety of choices that could end them differently. Which meant, different rewards, different dialogue and ending of the sidequest. There were of course large scale decisions that also affected the ending too. The reasons these sorts of decisions succeeded in engaging the player was because and dialogue were all so strong anyways, not to mention every character was voiced to bring further immersion.


Now let’s take a closer look at what I learned about decisions and apply it to Knights of the Old Republic. First off, there are decisions that are actually useless, let’s go over these quickly.

Meaningless Decisions – You have a choice, but it doesn’t change anything at all or leads to the same outcome right away. You do not get a different experience in the slightest. Nothing changes. Now in KOTOR (knights of the old republic) I can’t recall many decisions that were remotely like this. Pretty much all of them lead to something different, including dialogue choices. It’s not like there was a dialogue choice that was completely the same as another, that both lead to the same reaction. There was at least different information that was provided which made them different. KOTOR lacks these kinds of decisions or at least they are not so obvious if they are.
Not all choices have a major impact but they all provide you with different information

Obvious Decisions – Decisions where there is one VERY obvious choice, who would choose the other? The choice other choice besides the obvious would lead to you losing or some negative effect that wouldn’t enhance the experience so why bother? In KOTOR, I don’t recall any of these, which is a good thing. They avoided them by providing moral grey ground, good or evil decisions. None of them were obvious.

Blind Decisions – Decisions with no idea what the consequences could be. Something like that could be in Battleship (the board game) where you fire blindly into other person’s territory. Though it changes once you actually hit something. In KOTOR, you always have information of some sort to make a decisions. Your decision can lead to unexpected circumstances but they are never blind decisions. You almost always have information to make the decision,  and you’ll get something in return that relates to that decision.

Now that we’ve looked at the bad decisions and how KOTOR lacks them, lets see what makes a good decision?

Involve some sort of trade off - Resource trades – Use of value judgement, what can you trade to get something in return? In KOTOR, it’s a simple thing like selling items for credits or selling credits for items. You could be trying to purchase powerful items to help you in return for emptying your wallet.

Decisions to trade your credits for some valuable items

Risk versus Reward – What are the pay offs of making that decision? KOTOR has these in abundance, there are plenty of decisions that lead to these sorts of risks versus rewards. It can be something as simple as, deciding to engage a set of powerful enemies. The risk is obviously you die and have to restart, the potential reward is loot that they may be guarding.

Short term and long term decisions – Self explanatory, do you decide to make a decision to make a quick buck right away? Or choose a harder decision that leads to a reward further down the road. In KOTOR, these are present all the time. If you are playing a light side character, you may see a potential benefit of doing a dark side action that could get you an item right away, but in the end that person that you decide to kill would actually have given you something greater much further down the road. Not to mention you become more evil, staying super good has benefits (like +4 to wisdom or something like that).

Being a fully light side character gives you bonuses to your stats

Social Information – This relates more to multiplayer games but it’s honest or dishonest play. Do you decide to tell a person the truth or lie to them. This obviously effects people’s perception of you in a real world setting. This can partially apply to KOTOR because I recall lying to NPCs as an option to gain rewards and dark side points, though I am not certain it would fully count since it’s not interacting with real players. For the sake of the blog and to give KOTOR the benefit of the doubt, let’s say they fulfill this though.

Dilemmas – Make the decision have a dilemma, now this relates to pretty much the whole risk versus reward thing. But it doesn’t necessarily need to be the same thing. But it relates to all of the other things I have discussed. Since short term and long term decisions can create a dilemma or sorts for a player to weigh. For the sake of giving this category a bit of difference, let’s say that we have a dilemma between choosing who will leave and who will die. There is no benefit, you simply have to give one of them up. This classifies more as a dilemma and is different from all of the other categories we just talked about. Now in KOTOR, we have many dilemmas in some of the dialogue options. I can’t remember specifically where and when but I know they are in the game.

We also have emotional decisions. This relates to the moral choices in the game, whether to go good  or evil, light or dark side. You might also gain an emotional attachment to the characters in the game as well, so if there is a decision to choose between saving or killing that character, it is definitely an emotional decision. This example is specifically in the game in the end dungeon.

Transition from neutral to dark side

Besides these thought provoking decisions, we also have decisions in combat. They can be tactical decisions that require thought on how you are going to best defeat your enemy. Which can be achieved when you press the pause button and plan out your attacks. They can also be much quicker, which are broken down into simpler decisions, such as I am going to mash the attack button on this one enemy and take him down.


So we can see that decisions were a vital part of KOTOR, it was absolutely essential to immersing the player in the story. Besides some shocking revelations in the story that weren’t quite controlled by decisions, decisions were a very important part of the story and how it concluded. Decisions were always present in the combat and in a rather tactical sense too, not like a game considered to be a “button masher”. Decisions were all around Bioware’s epic and they managed to avoid the bad decisions while maintaining the good ones in their story. I know this first hand and if any of you haven’t you should. The game is fantastic, one of my favourites and one I will remember for years to come. The story and decisions were the main driving point for me to play the game and finish it all the way to it’s epic conclusion. 

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