Sunday 18 October 2009

The Quest for Quests - Part One (The Cast)

I've played a lot of quests recently: Puzzle Quest, Vampire: the Masquerade, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, Far Cry 2, Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, S.T.A.L.KE.R.: Clear Sky and the demo for Armed Assault 2, and stumbling out of these games, it is my intuition that the concept of quests in games is deeply troubled one.

But first, an apology. What follows is a rambling forage through the inventory of games I've picked up recently, attempting to look for the right item to use. You'll see plenty of misapplied (ad)verbs from a list which appears at the outset only partly appropriate (only two RPGs?), and attempts to force a somewhat inappropriate syntax to parse. It should get a lot easier to read in part two and beyond when I check the spoilers for the right answer, and come back and solve some of the puzzles I skip over here. This is not a deliberate technique at obfusticating the answers - it's simply bad design and underwhelming and tangled prose.

It doesn't help that in many of these games, quests themselves are broken and bizarre. I've discussed elsewhere the fascist fantasy politics of Puzzle Quest, and a stillborn review I'm writing of Cthulhu staggers around in a semblance of life stalled by a character not recognising a quest item I hold. Equally, I blame ready access to, a refuge from broken user interfaces and game bugs, for spoiling the meat of some of the story delivered in quest form. But to my refined roguelike palate, it's not the stories which are problematic, but the way quests are used to shape and propel the game play.

Strangely, it is the most repetitive of these games, Far Cry 2, which has felt the most quest friendly, with the similarly story-lite free form quests of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Armed Assault 2 providing an incentive to play through the bugs (to a point: in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky, I gave up at the buggy warehouse in Garbage, reproduced with both the old bugs and additional bizarreness from Shadow of Chernobyl). All three games feature an attempt at procedural narrative, clumsily told. Armed Assault 2 builds clipped dialog from context specific information ('Machine. gunner. at. 300 metres. ahead'.) - whereas the rapid fire dialog of Far Cry 2 is delivered by different characters playing similar roles, in an ostensibly dynamic, but in reality quite symmetrical structured narrative. S.T.A.L.K.E.R (either version) plays best when the Russian jokes remain untranslated.

Contrast these failures in story telling with the pitch perfect notes played by the certain characters in Vampire: the Masquerade - Troika making the Source engine sing to be the only game to make me feel like I was cheating on my wife by playing it; and the wonderful opening scenes and smart decision in Cthulhu to have characters turn the uncanny valley into the Atlantic trench (A line I'll reuse in the review should I finish it). In Chronicles, Riddick's bad guy persona voiced with journeyman effectiveness by vin Diesel conveys a compelling series of events, and the broken inmates of Butcher Bay are no less believable than the damaged stalkers of Chernobyl.

As an aside, Source remains the only engine with verisimilitude to deliver something which successfully approximates a human being in game. Every other 3d game engine seems to me to leave their 'people' with a Cthulhoid plasticity - although Far Cry 2 is not far from the mark. Only military shooter Armed Assault 2 and Puzzle Quest from the above list have characters with close to what could be called 'normal' mental states, with every other game I've listed featuring a range of inhumanity and mental pathology - let's just use that as an excuse for their facial tics, stiff movements and unnatural sheen.

So the story component of the traditional narrative driven games is not the source of my quest frustration. But then what is?

It's not the quest content. All the games feature plenty of fetch and kill this quests, as well as light puzzle action and lever pulling. I will admit to fixed puzzles being my least favourite part of quests, but nothing which a quick perusal of can't fix. I'm not especially interested in solving word games, or shuffling through inventory screens looking for the right item. Luckily, the world agrees with me that the death of the genre which featured these the most - adventure games - was more than timely.

It's not branching dialog. The games which feature it wholesale, Puzzle Quest and Vampire, avoid the typical pitfalls of branching dialog by allowing real and interesting choices respectively to make most of the conversation decision points both natural and not obvious. In Puzzle Quest, you are presented at points choices which are more freedom vs. obedience than good vs. evil, and the seemingly consequence free outcomes allow you to shape the internal morality of your character to suit the tale at hand. In Vampire, negotiating the moral morass of social interaction is as important a choice in character development as your combat skills, and where maximising your seduction skill seems a natural decision. The only oddity is presenting choices where your character sets out to deliberately antagonise without clear motivation why you would do so: I'll have to sample those on another play through.

It's not the tension between the main quest and side quests. The RPG trope of rushing off to save the world, but then stopping to rescue a cat stuck up a tree, then solve the marital problems of two strangers, then choose the right colour curtains for a neighbour, etc. didn't feature in any of the above games - although the primary driver to find Lord Bane mysteriously disappears towards the end of the first chapter of Puzzle Quest. Vampire: the Masquerade has side quests which are more compelling than the main quest simply because they feel more important (stopping a plague, finding a serial killer, solving family disputes) than the somewhat dusty and archly political orders of a vampire prince.

It's not the procedural narrative structure. The narrative in Far Cry 2 is only procedural in form, not function. You experience a narrative where your buddies are selected dynamically, telling their individual story vignettes in different orders as they send you on the same stock missions, while the larger hunt for the Jackal has only a fixed number of possible outcomes: all controlled by decisions you make. I can't tell you if this variation in form changes the emotional arc of the narrative because I haven't finished the game. But it's the mechanical moment to moment interactions which give Far Cry 2 it's emotional punch - watching a wounded enemy lie writhing on the ground in pain, waiting for his comrades to try to collect him, the brief pause before the clinical assassination of a target. Far Cry 2 is procedural because these moments are procedural: fire, weather, the AI, guns jamming and malaria flaring.

It might be the way the worlds are structured. The 'good' quest games I highlighted are all open worlds, where you are free, essentially, to explore the entire terrain of the game with minimal gating of content; while the 'bad' quest games have a hub and spoke design, with most of the content being unlocked by completing previous quests. This is a continuum - S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky has one significant gate which requires the main quest arc be partly completed, Far Cry 2 a couple, but the locked doors of Vampire: the Masquerade and Riddick are a frequent barrier, and Puzzle Quest refuses to open it's fantasy network up until you progress. Cthulhu is a cleverly disguised corridor shooter for the most part: with a few limited hubs that have only a little more scope than Half-Life.

Paradoxically, I believe the fixed puzzles I don't like are the solution to the dilemma I find myself in. Having said that, I've still not answered why I feel uneasy about quests, and to get that answer, I'll have to ask you to wait here for part two.

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