The ProblemMany gamers have experienced the scenario where they must sacrifice their desire to roleplay in order to optimize their gameplay ability. Maybe you betray a friend with a previously benevolent character or miss out on checking out the scenery in a particular area, all just to get that new ability or character that you know you would like to have for future gameplay. The key problem here is one of Narrative-Gameplay Dissonance. The immersion of the game is destroyed so that you will confront the realities that...
- the game has difficulties.
- it is in your best interest to optimize your character for those difficulties.
- it may be better for you the player, not you the character, to choose one gameplay option over another despite the fact that it comes with narrative baggage.
What To Do...One of the most important elements of any role-playing game is the sense of immersion players have. An experience can be poisoned if the game doesn't have believability, consistency, and intrigue. As such, when a player plays a game that is advertised as having a strong narrative, there is an implied relationship between the narrative designer and the player. The player agrees to invest their time and emotions in the characters and world. In return designers craft an experience that promises to keep them immersed in that world, one worth living in. In the ideal case, the player never loses the sense that they are the character until something external jolts them out of flow. To deal with the problem we are presented with, we must answer a fundamental question: Do you want narrative and gameplay choices intertwined such that decisions in one domain preclude a player's options in the other? If you would prefer that players make narrative decisions for narrative reasons and gameplay decisions for gameplay reasons, then a new array of design constraints must be established.
- Narrative decisions should not...
- impact the types of gameplay mechanics the player encounters.
- impact the degree of difficulty.
- impact the player's access to equipment and/or abilities.
- Gameplay decisions should not...
- impact the player's access to characters/environments/equipment/abilities.
- impact the direction of plot points, both minor and major.
- the same diversity/frequency of combat encounters and equipment drops.
- the same level of difficulty in the level(s) challenges.
- the same quality of equipment.
ExceptionsTo be fair, there a few caveats to these constraints; it can be perfectly reasonable for a roleplay decision to affect the game mechanics. One example would be if you wanted to pull a Dark Souls and implement a natural game difficulty assignment based on the mechanics your character exploits. In Dark Souls, you can experience an "easy mode" in the form of playing as a mage. Investing in range-based skills that have auto-refilling ammo fundamentally makes the game easier to beat compared to short-range skills that involve more risk. It is important to note, however, that the game itself is still very difficult to beat, even with a mage-focus, so the premise of the series' gameplay ("Prepare to Die") remains in effect despite the handicap. Another caveat scenario is when the player makes a decision at the very beginning of the game that impacts what portions of the game they can access or which equipment/abilities they can use. Star Wars: The Old Republic has drastically different content and skills available based on your initial class decision. In this case, you are essentially playing a different game, but with similar mechanics. In addition, those mechanics are independent regardless. It is not as if choosing to be a Jedi in one playthrough somehow affects your options as a Smuggler the next go around. There are two dangers inherent in this scenario though. Players may become frustrated if they can reasonably see two roles having access to the same content, but are limited by these initial role decisions. If different "paths" converge into a central path, then players may also dislike facing a narrative decision that clearly favors one class over another in a practical sense, resulting in a decision becoming a mere calculation.
SuggestionsShould you wish to avoid the following scenarios, here are some suggestions for particular cases that might help ensure that your gameplay and narrative decisions remain independent from each other.
Case 1: Multiple Allied or Playable CharactersConduct your narrative design such that the skills associated with a character are not directly tied to their nature, but instead to some independent element that can be switched between characters. The goal here is to ensure that a player is able to maintain both a preferred narrative state and a preferred gameplay state when selecting skills or abilities for characters and/or selecting team members for their party. Example: The skills associated with a character are based on weapon packs that can be swapped at will. The skills for a given character are completely determined by the equipment they carry. Because any character can then fill any combat role, story decisions are kept independent from gameplay decisions. Regardless of how I want to design my character or team, the narrative interaction remains firmly in the player's control.
Case 2: Branching StorylineDesign your quests such that...
- gameplay-related artefacts (either awarded by quests or available within a particular branching path) can be found in all paths/questlines so that no quest/path is followed solely for the sake of acquiring the artefact. Or at the very least, allow the player to acquire similarly useful artefacts so that the difference does not affect the player's success rate of overcoming obstacles.
- level design is kept unique between branches, but those paths have comparable degrees of difficulty / gameplay diversity / etc.
- narrative differences are the primary distinctions you emphasize.