This Musical Monday was inspired by the 2011 computer game Skyrim. More specifically, it is inspired by a comment I saw concerning the game in which the commenter observed that no matter what the player does in the game, they essentially cannot change how the story ends other than by choosing whether or not to advance the main set of plot quests. Basically, the player can either play through the main set of plot quests to their preordained ending, or they can choose not to. There are no meaningful choices to be made in this regard.
Naturally, to discuss this element of Skyrim, I am highlighting music from Crusader: No Remorse, a 1995 computer game. But lest one think that I'm not going far enough back in computer game history, I'm also going to reference The Summoning, a game that was released in 1992. And because Skyrim is made by Bethesda, I'm also going to throw in some obligatory Fallout 3 references. What is the common thread between all of these games? Quite simply, the decisions made by the player while playing these games don't matter at all. The end result when you "finish" all of them is fixed from the outset. And quite frankly, after twenty-two years, this kind of limited and restrictive story-telling is getting a little bit ridiculous.
The Summoning was released in 1992. It was a role-playing style game in which your character, the chosen hero, was sent into a massive maze to try to work your way into the fortress of the evil Shadow Weaver and defeat the villainous dark overlord. You could develop your character to a certain extent, mostly by deciding which weapons to get good at using and which kind of magic to be good at casting, but for the most part you ended up pretty much good at everything. But what you couldn't do is alter how the story turned out. You were, for the most part, limited to fighting your way through the particular part of the maze you were in so that you could get to the next part of the maze. The story, such as it was, simply progressed depending upon how deep into the maze you had gotten, and there was simply no way for you to change the outcome.
Three years later, Crusader: No Remorse was released. In the interim, the graphics of computer games had improved considerably. The game even included some (very badly acted) live-action cut scenes, mostly involving characters giving you missions, making chitchat between missions, or blaming you for things going wrong. But once again, you couldn't change how the story turned out. You could only successfully complete a mission and have the story advance along its predetermined path, or you could die. You couldn't save Private Andrews, or prevent Sergeant Brooks from getting captured. You couldn't stop Major Vargas' betrayal, or really do anything other than follow the provided missions and work your way to the end of the packaged story.
If we jump forward to 2008, when Fallout 3 was released, we see a much more open world, providing the player with a large sandbox in which to play. The player can take their character and wander about the Capital Wasteland righting wrongs, fixing problems, engaging in nefarious deals, and generally getting into trouble. But, once again, the "main" series of quests that make up the "story" of the game are essentially immune to player action. You cannot prevent your father from dying. You cannot avoid getting captured by the Enclave. And in the end, you cannot avoid retaking control of the water purifier and activating it. Nothing your character does in the rest of the game changes these facts. There is a "karma" system designed to evaluate how good or evil your character behaves in the game, but how saintly or villainous you have been has no bearing on the outcome of the main quest. Your karma doesn't even change whether or not the vaunted Brotherhood of Steel will agree to work with you in the game's final conflict - they will, with no questions asked.
So we get to Skyrim, and the story is essentially the same: No matter what you do during the game, the main story-line is immune to your decisions. Your only choice is whether to keep following the main quest line, or to simply abandon it and leave it unfinished. Your choices as a player simply don't matter one way or the other. The story will resolve in one way, and in only one way. This isn't a unique feature of these particular games either. The list of computer games that have fixed stories is as long as my arm. And to me, that is something of a problem. Computer game stories are still at the same stage of development they were in more than twenty years ago. One can forgive older games like The Summoning and the two Crusader titles for having stories that limited the impact the player could have. Computer games were still very much a developing medium, and just having a coherent and interesting story of any kind was something of an innovation. But computer game developers have been turning out the same type of story for more than two decades now. It seems to me like there should be room for games in which the choices a player makes has an actual, substantial impact on how the game resolves. In fact, I think this should be the standard at this point. But it isn't. The standard for computer games is a lazy, linear, essentially non-interactive story. Choose Your Own Adventure books were doing a better job at providing interactivity in the 1980s than computer games are doing now. And that is a shame.
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