How D&D’s approach to player decision-making can influence video games
Many games have their own unique story to tell. They range from emotional, to thrilling, to meaningful — more often than not, narrative designers seek to deliver some sort of message that resonates with the player. Throughout the experience, the game attempts to establish a bond between the player and the in-game protagonist via the narrative; especially as they overcome various challenges throughout the adventure. More often than not, though, the player takes a backseat as they watch the events unfold. These events involve a character they are supposedly controlling, but the player typically acts as more of a voyeur in the narrative experience, rather than being an actor who directly shapes it.
There are games, of course, which attempt to more completely immerse the player in the protagonists’s skin. This goes beyond simply determining the rules of battle, or limiting the player’s role to that of a passive cut-scene-watcher. In these games, there is a real attempt to imbue the player’s actions with a power that enables them to genuinely impact the fate of the in-game characters — and therefore, the outcome of the story itself. This is where Dungeons & Dragons comes in.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is a fantasy tabletop role-playing game originally released back in 1974; a time when 4K TVs and dual-core processors were well beyond the realms of human imagination. The overall concept in D&D is to create a fantastical setting where players can decide which path they want to take to proceed. Depending on their in-game decisions, their created character could potentially end up with either a grim fate or they could overcome all trials before them, emerging as the ultimate champion.
Several developers over time have adopted this storytelling technique — where the player directly affects the way the story progresses (or, to be more specific, directly affects the final outcome). Although there are many examples, one company that really comes to mind is Atlus — the publisher of the recently re-released Catherine: Fully Body and the legendary Persona franchise. In Catherine, the player’s choices — especially their responses to questions — alter moment-to-moment gameplay. And in Persona 5, players face a monumental final decision that dramatically impacts — and perhaps re-contextualises — the entire experience.
In 2016’s Persona 5, Joker — the protagonist — is able to form relationships with the people around him. The bonds he forms can play a positive, practical role (by assisting him in battle), but too much intimacy has its downsides — it can prove costly, hurting these same people. Of course, the whole situation occurs in an environment where crucial limitations exist — the player has a lot of potential relationships to form within a limited time. So it’s entirely possible to not engage with anyone and simply become a loner. Alternatively, your version of Joker could become a playboy whose schedule is entirely full on Valentine’s Day.
These choices — about where to focus your time, and with who — are interesting, but they aren’t as thought-provoking as a crucial decision made near the end of the game. This is where the mastermind behind the whole affair — the so-called “God of Control” — offers Joker the chance to turn the wheels of time, which results in the general population accepting the Phantom Thieves (the name of the gang Joker leads). Given that the entire game up to this point has largely revolved around the public’s acceptance of the group (not that they exist at all, but that they are a force for good), and given that there isn’t an obvious downside to accepting this offer, it’s difficult to say no — putting players in a difficult position.
Of course, if you do accept the offer, the game ends there and then — essentially, this is the “bad ending”, where the public is depicted as a mass of thoughtless drones who can’t think critically, and who blindly accept everything the Phantom Thieves do as inherently positive. The power to enact this kind of change — to finally validate the Phantom Thieves in this way — is seductive, and is a demonstration of how easily the player might be corrupted by being able to wield said power. I must admit, provided this choice, I accepted the offer. This made it difficult for me to go back and seek the “good ending”.
It’s worth noting, of course, that Persona 5 is a largely very linear game at least in terms of the main story (although I’d argue that the relationships layer is a very significant, and quite non-linear element of the experience). In this case, it’s really the monumental decision at the end which can radically turn the world on its head.
Things become even more personal in Catherine: Full Body. The game begins with the main character, Vincent, who is already involved with someone (Katherine), yet somehow finds himself getting involved with not one, but two additional women — who all share the same name. Night after night, Vincent experiences horrific nightmares during which he needs to ascend a staircase to reach a door that will guarantee his survival. Every time he reaches the top, he finds himself in a confessional, where an unseen figure asks him a question; this is where the player gets involved. The questions asked are not actually directed to Vincent himself — they’re instead asked of the player, and are highly personal in nature (e.g. “What do you look for in another person before you begin a relationship?”) The player’s responses then directly impact Vincent’s story, including the way he actually deals with in-game relationships. All this then feeds into multiple endings.
It’s not surprising, perhaps, that we don’t see this type of storytelling too often — I’m sure it leads to extensive development effort, especially when compared to producing a much more streamlined, linear scenario that can only ever play out in one way (the addition of branching storylines based on player choice, different cutscenes, and so on, likely require enormous effort and consideration). There’s also the possibility that all of these layers could potentially result in an experience that is wide but not deep — that is, lots of options, but very short single play throughs. This may also result in the situation where there is a lot of content that each player may not necessarily even see — especially if they don’t want to engage in multiple play throughs, and even more so if this forces them to make decisions just to tick boxes, rather than as part of a genuine roleplaying experience.
And yet, folding in player choice like this — especially when that choice can significantly impact the way a game ends — is a clever way of investing players in the story, making them feel responsible for their character’s fate. It might even ask them to reflect on their own actions, should their decisions lead the hero down an undesirable path. In this way, developers can essentially set up the canvas — or the pen and paper — asking the player to write their own story.