The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind
The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind by Bethesda Game Studios stands as a major milestone for the evolution of role playing games. Unlike the predecessors that preceded this work, such as Final Fantasy, Secret of Mana, and Phantasy Star – Morrowind offers the player an abundant array of freedom by which they can customize their own play experience. From the smallest detail of individual stat points to the macrocosmic moral decisions you make during the story quests, Morrowind presents a sandbox open world narrative that strikes out of the usual linear narratives that role playing games adhere to. The gameplay on its own however, seems quite dull – sticking to a first person perspective while the player swing a melee weapon or sling spells does not offer much in terms of excitement, especially when the scale of the game expands out to sixty hours and beyond. Morrowind’s quirks are at an apex in regards to the Non-Player Character death system; as murdering any NPCs will result in their permanent death, eliminating any quest lines or services they would have offered to the player. The most important advancement towards the digital story telling medium that Bethesda imparts with Morrowind stems from the idea that win states don’t necessarily stand as the focal point of narratives – as players can shape and build a path purely out of a personalized fantasy experience.
Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos
Blizzard Entertainment proudly displays this game as a love letter to the inspirations that birthed it – Dune, Dungeons & Dragons, and the Real Time Strategy genre. There is an interesting dichotomy between the play styles of the game: the casual story-latent campaign experience and the intense fast paced meta-gaming of competitive multiplayer. Those who seek the deep lore of Warcraft’s universe and characters, mainly the explorers and socializers, can find little umbrage in the campaign, which boasts an impressive array of four storylines – each with a different protagonist and race perspective. Achievers and Killers, on the other hand, thrive on the competitive online multiplayer mode. Real Time Strategy gaming stands at the apex within this mode, where players exercise the Heuristic Cycle and micro-manage various details of their armies. Even a simple match against a computer AI is an intensive matching of wits that places the responsibility of managing money, food, units, and other resources. This constant cycle of information gathering, acting upon intel, and feedback acknowledgement are the foundations behind Warcraft III’s gameplay – an experience that emphasizes the full time commitment of each and every player. However, the game’s emphasis on fast paced exciting multiplayer unfortunately leaves the campaign storyline’s much slower paced quest narrative fall flat in terms of pacing.
The Stanley Parable
The Stanley Parable offers a unique angle on parodying the various tropes of narrated storytelling, as well as utilizing player agency as a tool for comedy. Its greatest strength lies in just that- the comedic jokes and lighthearted tone that the narrator exudes as the player progresses through several choices of linear paths that resemble a hypertext narrative. The greatest failing of this work, however, lies in the very cynical nature of its parodies. The Stanley Parable presents itself to have at least vague understandings of how players will make their choices, as well as what information they will use to inform those decisions; but the game never quite attains that extra milestone of going further than just negatively portraying these tropes as being annoying or goofy. For a game that is clearly attempting to subtly imply a message of the futility of struggle in an environment of an interactive paradox. As Stanley, the player has freedom in what they do and where they go – but only within the confines that the narrator himself has defined for them. In that sense, this game is profound in presenting the issue of author intention versus player agency on the most surface level.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
In what is considered even to today to be Bioware’s genre defining game, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic truly serves as a marker for the company’s storytelling style for even their future games. The branching dialogue choice system, while seeming quite impressive at first, proves itself to be quite minimal and linear in practice. There are always three options for dialogue: ask for information, be antagonistic, or be kind. While these offer a simpler way for characters to role play towards a singular attitude, it defeats the purpose of a “branching” hypertext narrative to only have three threads to go from at all times; and this is diluted still further when one considers that one of the branches is simple information gathering. The oddity of this system further accentuates by the mere fact that dialogue does not impact the player’s moral standing at all within the longer end-game goal; instead, the morality gauge is relegated to the outcomes of quests that you undertake. While one could argue that this is Bioware’s way of emphasizing action over words in terms of building an identity – this also creates a void pertaining to whatever crucial impact dialogue choices did offer to the greater story narrative of the Evil Sith versus the Good Jedi forces.
Dark Souls, by From Software redefines the concept of difficulty and challenge to an action adventure frame. Heavily inspired by its predecessor, Demon’s Souls, From Software expands on the idea of challenging players through harsh trial and error, where they will die time and time again. In very much the same veins as Morrowind, one of the main draws of this game lies in its boisterous customization options towards a player experience: appearance, class, weapons, stats, bonuses, and much more are within control – all which are necessary to promote the ideas of player freedom and instilling a sense of community. While Dark Souls is marketed and presented as a solo experience, the game makes an interesting statement on the tribal nature of players in terms of grouping and hunting. When cooperatively assisting another player, the game presents to a shared experience with another player – an ally to depend on and trust as one navigates the perils of the game. On the other side of the spectrum, a player can act as a malevolent entity and seek out to destroy other players in their own story paths – and if they succeed they are rewarded with currency, which subsequently leads to rewards to be traded with. While the game identifies itself as a game that epitomizes the difficulty curve a player must undergo, the game also offers an interesting reflection of the duality of tribal impulses within the players.
Simply by seeing the artistic direction and beauty of the cell-shaded graphics, the amount of dedication and vision of thatgamecompany is clear. Similar to Limbo, Journey is an experience that emphasizes the subtleties of an underlying story, while also playing on the multiple senses of the players; however, whereas Limbo utilizes sensory deprivation to create a tense, somber, and hostile world – Journey instead overloads players’ senses of sight and hearing to create an enriching experience. The shifting watery sands accompanied by idyllic ruins and temples are topped off by a marvelous soundtrack that works up the grandiose scale of the journey by which the player takes. The multiplayer aspect, being inspired by the creator’s own hiking trips, offers an interesting idea on a less intrusive version of Dark Soul’s cooperative system. Instead of a player having to be summoned to your game at a whim, you have a chance of encountering another mysterious player on your journey; and this keynotes the central theme of the game: the agency of silence and mystery. The players are told nothing about the plot or purpose by they which undertake this “journey” – only strange and symbolic hieroglyphics are given as hints towards an underlying story, and even then the developers still leave things up to player interpretation. This especially appeals to achievers and explorers – as these types of players will find their end-game goal to be to gain a greater grasp at Journey’s lore.