Why even the best PC RPGs are still too linear

Corey and Lori Cole made an interesting Kickstarter update recently about their upcoming game in Hero-U. They talked about how even the RPGs that tend to offer the player choices in terms of plot (I’m thinking the typical Bioware RPGs) tend to only in reality have two paths: a good and evil path. The Coles conceded this is a step up from a linear, non-branching story (which tends to be the norm in the gaming industry) but they reckon they can do better, because in real life that’s how things work.

I totally agree with them. One flaw for example with the game Knights of the Old Republic (awesome game as it is) is that your actions affect a bar between the Light Side and the Dark Side of the Force. Doing more “good” actions means you go higher up the scale towards the Light Side but “evil” actions means you’ll go lower. However what happens in the situation where you’ve accumulated a lot of “good” points by going around the galaxy doing menial deeds like delivering the newspaper, helping an old granny across the road etc. but then you eradicate the population of an entire village? Let us say that the scale has 200 points. 200 points and you’re basically an angel, 100 is neutral and 0 the epitome of evil. The funny thing is, on a binary scale, you may have accumulated 90 points doing all these little random acts of kindness but the one event of killing the villagers is a 30 point penalty. Sure you’re not as good a guy but you’ll still get the good guy ending which is pretty ridiculous. Being seen as a hero or villain is a bit more complex than that.

I think the best games so far to have meaningful endings or at least more realistic relationships are the original Fallout and Arcanum. Both of these split the game into different groups, settlements or factions which you can help or hinder. So depending on your actions in the game, the epilogue will change meaning a variety of different endings. Saved that village from their bandit problem? They hail you as a hero in the ending. Helped the mutants claim a homeland of their own? Well your character is actually a bit of a racist and doesn’t like mutants so he left them to their own devices. By making decisions about different groups or factions, you can create more interesting, complex and (most importantly) realistic characters. Most people in history aren’t heroes or villains but they usually sit somewhere in between. By having endings where some people you met prospered while others did not, seems to be a better way of creating an ending to a game – i.e. tying NPC relationships to the ending of the game, not a points spectrum.

It will be interesting to see if this is the approach that Hero-U will take however, what would make me ecstatic is if the Coles develop and even better model altogether. If anyone could do it, it’d be them.