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Note: Potentially spoilery gameplay commentary on Fallout, Oblivion and Mass Effect 2. 

Context: We needed something to talk about, so Butch found a game review.


Start here:


Put aside that this is a sequel to one of the best games I ever played on the COMMODORE 64 which right off the bat makes it awesome, I give you this not as something you’ll play (you won’t, it’s PC) but for one sentence:

“Even if you choose just to wander killing raiders ad infinitum, that has consequences.” In other words, if you take your sweet time doing the quests, the world doesn’t wait.

Too hard? Good thing? Give that review a read just to see what its about and then recall Skyrim.


I like the idea of consequences for taking too long at quests. I mean, no doubt it’s a lot of fun to just dawdle, exploring every cranny of every cave and wandering off on side quests, but it always does break the realism for me when you have some supposedly pressing matter to attend to, but there’s no problem if it takes you 3 weeks to actually get around to meeting so-and-so at the inn or whatever.

This was kind of an issue with DAO and the Mass Effects (which, obviously, I loved to pieces): darkspawn/Reapers are invading! The entire land/universe is in danger! But what the heck, let’s take a few days off to settle this person’s mind about something that happened years ago. (Again, I love the companion quests, but they don’t exactly fit into the general “urgency” vibe that the games overall were kind of trying to present.) DA2 was interesting that way, since they basically told you up front that it took place over 10 years of Hawke’s life. This means you don’t have that sense of impending doom that (one would think) you’d kind of spend most of your time trying to thwart, and wandering around doing random quests makes perfect sense. You’ve got time to kill.

From the point of view of open worlds like Skyrim, yeah…I just don’t even HAVE any sense of urgency, despite the fact that the main narrative suggests that something of rather pressing importance is going on. My suspension of disbelief is most challenged by all the little quests where people express some urgency but then aren’t at all put out if you take months to actually rescue their captive family or whatever. The feeling that everything you’re not actively involved with is just on hold is clearly not realistic, and I would respect a game where, if you went back to pick up some long-ignored quest, things would have moved on without you: the farmer hired another adventurer to recover those magical beans, or the dragon you were supposed to kill ate the village you were supposed to protect, or whatever.

Obviously, this would potentially be a challenge in some ways…you’d be afraid to even talk to people while on a quest, for fear they’d give you some other quest you didn’t have time to take, and it would present you with all kinds of choices as to which thing you want to/can take on at any given point–and some players would undoubtedly just hate the sense of having a clock ticking over their heads all the time. If you play because you want to explore a world, than having all these time constraints would be a pain.

It probably depends on the game. I could see this working really well, or not that well (like pretty much everything one can imagine in a game, I guess), but it’s definitely an interesting idea.


Yup. Especially as quests are, in order to be interesting, rather urgent. You don’t ever get something like “hey, if you could clean the gutters by fall, that would be great, but if not, no biggie” because that’s no fun. But, it makes no sense to follow “Our village is being ravaged nightly by werewolves” with “but whatever, take your time.”

I thought [the extended time frame] was a GOOD thing about DA2. People derided it because it didn’t have the sense of urgency. It didn’t have an overarching “bad guy,” no reapers, no archdemon, no Andrew Ryan, just a story. But I liked that for the reasons you state.

I thought DAO got away with this more than ME did. In DAO, I always got the sense that darkspawn were a creeping threat. After all, there were those dwarves who were pretty much saying “Hey, whatever, we get darkspawn non stop down here.” So you could take months (and it is alluded to in camp that it was months) gearing up, flirting, etc. When entire planets are falling to reapers left and right, like daily, that seems less believable.

Yup to things happening if you don’t do a quest quickly. Especially the other adventurer bit. That I like. Certainly true where there’s a bulletin board in town offering up quests. Why put up that board if no one else reads it?

But then, people do not like time limits. Fallout 1 had a time limit. You had 500 days of gametime to find the chip or the vault died. Which makes sense. You’re sent out into the wastes because the vault is running out of water, giving the vault 500 days worth is pretty generous. But what cheesed people is that you weren’t TOLD that there was a hard and fast time limit on the game (if you failed that quest, the game was over. Done. Fade to black). Now, it makes sense to think that you probably would have some sense of urgency, and the game is punishing players for not playing a role in a role playing game (like, who does that?), but it was sort of a shock when the game pretty much said “Hey man, game over.” People did not enjoy that feature.

Time constraints could be a pain… But then, it might alter the tendency that we (and, I think, most) players have to do the very unrealistic thing when talking to NPCs: Say “Sure!” whenever anyone needs anything. Admit it: You’ve never said “no thanks” to a quest, despite the option to do so. Which, really, wouldn’t happen in real life. Maybe forcing players to pick and choose would be good. Make the decision: is it worth 500 caps? Maybe that loot chest the other guy’s offering will have something better?


I quite like the idea of a time limit on the major quest, but I can also see being peeved about having it hit you without prior warning. Now if you had reminders during the game, like people saying “I’ve heard about a lot of vaults where everyone died because no one came back with the chip they needed in time, hint hint” (or something less blatant), that would be another thing. It’s totally fair to have a limit, but if you don’t know, going in, that it even exists, I can imagine being unhappy about having it suddenly end your game.

Oblivion had this thing when you were bitten by a vampire, where every time you slept you’d get an ominous message about your terrible dreams, which would signal that your vampirism was advancing. Of course I learned to avoid this by just never sleeping, but I still thought it was kind of a cool mechanic. (Maybe Skyrim has it too–I don’t know, since I became a werewolf early on and therefore immune to vampirism.)

Maybe in a time-limit game where they wanted to avoid showing an obvious ticking clock, they could give you occasional nightmares about everyone you know dying or something, just to kind of hint at the fact that there IS a time limit here, even if we’re not going to tell you exactly what it is. Then I think if you take too long and everyone dies, that’s on you: you were reminded that there was some urgency to this mission, and you ignored those reminders.


Yeah, ENDING the game was a bit much. I mean ENDED it. It wasn’t “Well, they all died, but you can still mop up these other quests that you thought were more important than your family,” I mean it was cutscene, credits. And if you hadn’t been near the place where the chip was, then you pretty much had to reload something way far back.

But here’s the weird, now that I remember it: Saving the vault also ended your game. So either you saved the day, cutscene, credits, or you hit 500 days, cutscene, credits. You just weren’t going to help everyone. Which is cool, sorta.

Maybe have a time limit for the major quest but at least not have it be a game endpoint. Or do. I can’t decide if making games finite is cool or not…. I like to take my time and savor, as do you, but then, I also like to role play…. are those mutually exclusive?


Hm. Roleplaying and savoring do seem kind of at odds, if only because in order to savor the material in a game, you have to kind of be aware of it as a game. “I want to get the most I can out of this location/level!” is not the kind of thing most people think when going about their daily lives.

But then again, on vacation we do that all the time. “I want to really experience everything this place/trip has to offer!” is a common feeling for a holiday. So maybe one just has to roleplay characters who view life as kind of a vacation. Characters who are perpetually tourists as they move through the game world.

Which is fine, and is actually supported by most games in the way they regularly give you new environments to look at and new levels to explore, so I would say it works great…except in those games with a built-in sense of urgency, as we mentioned before.

“Reapers just took over another planet!”

“Yeah, OK, but I really want to check out another art museum here before we move on…maybe buy some souvenir fish. I want to make sure I don’t miss anything!”

I mean, that’s a character you can play, but does it feel like the right character for the circumstances? Does it feel like a realistic response for any kind of normal character in that situation? Or does it feel more like “damn, Shepard, you could really show a little more concern here for the fates of billions. Maybe scanning one more planet for salvage we don’t need anymore ISN’T the most important thing we could be doing.” (Although as to time limits and Mass Effect, ME2 did have that bit near the end where once the Reapers attack the Normandy, time DOES matter…if you wait around, almost your entire crew will be dead by the time you go through the relay after them. And I respect that, although there was a bit of “wait, NOW time was important and you didn’t tell me in advance?” such as maybe Fallout players felt.)

So I think in some games, yeah, you can’t really savor AND roleplay. In others, sure…if there’s no immediate threat, why wouldn’t your character stop to look around and make sure there wasn’t anything useful before moving on?

Take TLOU (not that you roleplay Joel): there’s a mission, and it’s pretty important, but it’s not as if there’s any real time limit, and you know going in that it’s going to take a while. Plus, you really need those supplies! So peering into every possible corner and wandering down every hallway is actually a rational course: if you just bolt straight through, you’ll miss a lot of materials that will help you in practical ways. We can argue about whether you ‘savor’ TLOU, with its mood of overwhelming grimness, but a similarly non-time-constrained game with more roleplaying could make sense.


1) RPG styles: Some people think “What’s the best, most realistic way to play this role in this story?” Some people think “I can be anyone! And if I want to be someone ridiculous, so be it!” and get annoyed when they can’t be someone who doesn’t fit the story one bit. The second class annoys me. But devs seem to want to please them, while telling a story that needs a realistic protagonist. Hrm.

2) You mention knowing you have all the time in the world in TLOU to search and all. Is that cool? Just last night, in the sewers, I found a loot room with two clickers. Killed them, Henry yells “You all right?” Joel replies “Still in one piece,” and you know, ok, all clear, search at will. But that’s metagaming. Joel would have thought “That asshole, there may be more, why the hell is he yelling?” Not “Phew. All the time in the world.”

I usually, selfishly, justify savoring the same way I’m justifying taking my sweet time in TLOU: If you really were being pursued by such threat all the damn time, you probably would make sure you checked every crevice for food, supplies, ammo, etc.


It would be interesting if a game could let you play a ridiculous character, but respond to that in some way. Like, most of your companions left because you can’t take anything seriously, and the ones who remain keep trying to sidetrack the mission by suggesting gambling trips, or something, because they don’t take it seriously either.

The problem is, you can’t write a game for every possible character concept.

There’s somewhat more leeway in tabletop gaming, but even there it can be tough. If you’re DMing a game and your players want to be doofuses, what do you do? Refuse to play unless they take your scenario seriously? (Awkward, plus you seem kind of full of yourself.) Let them be doofy but allow realistic consequences that, realistically, will mean they never get around to completing the story you had in mind? Work with them to go ahead and create a doofy game if that’s what they want? What if only some of them want a doofy game and the rest are trying to be serious? (Nightmare.)

If what you want is everyone having fun over a prolonged period, you have to figure out something.

Writing a narrative video game is probably easier because at least you only have one player to deal with, but harder because you can’t adjust anything on the fly. Every consequence has to be predetermined, and if you didn’t think to account for what would happen if the player does X, then…nothing happens.

Which is actually fine a lot of the time. I mean, “I tried to play a really ridiculous character, but none of the outrageous stuff I wanted to do would work, so I just played the game” is OK, if the game is still good. You’re probably not going to lose that many players (because how many people choose a game solely based on how ridiculous a character they can make?), and if there are still enough options accounted for that people can feel like they’re making choices, then you can still maximize that “everyone having fun over a prolonged period” thing.

If you are allowed to play a ridiculous character and nothing ever happens as a result, if everyone else just treats you as if you were a serious character, that’s kind of a realism issue, for sure. I dunno, though, are there games that really let you play actively ridiculous characters? I mean, Shepard could be a huge jerk, to the point where you wondered why people were so enthusiastic about him/her, but jerkiness isn’t ridiculousness, it’s just an annoying character.

I guess there are plenty of games where you have some pretty odd clothing options, and no one ever mentions that…but maybe they’re just being polite. I don’t generally comment on the weird clothes of other people. I mean, something like “I can’t help but notice that you’re wearing a rabbit mask at a formal dinner” could certainly come up, but…maybe people are REALLY polite. Also, in many games, possibly terrified of you.


But then, tabletop has more challenges. A game will restrict you in some ways. Tabletop you gotta be ready for anything. I remember playing once and the DM had planned this amazing fight with this made up monster. My fighter took one look and said “Nope,” and ran. The DM figured the whole fight with the WHOLE party in mind, and losing the main fighter kinda screwed him up. But I was in character. Whatcha gonna do? No way ME or DAO just lets you say “nope.” You’re locked in there with Branka/that damn reaper/etc. Story.

Re: ridiculousness, what they do allow is terribly inconsistent characters. You could be all paragon, and then, for no reason, kill someone and no one would say “Uh…. dude? You ok? That’s…. not like you…..” They’d react to that and otherwise leave you be.

Fallouts 1 and 2 pretty much let you do whatever. Want to kill every child in Modoc? Go ahead (yup). Want to dress as a chicken? Cool.

Hell, you can run around in DA wearing nothing but burlap lingerie and a sword taller than a qunari. So I hear.


The doors that lock behind you are a pretty good gimmick. Nope, not gettin’ out of HERE without a fight.

Whereas your Bethesda games will let you bolt at any time, which certainly allows for some more realistic responses. “What the hell is that?! I’m out of here” would be a lot of peoples’ actual response to all kinds of things, from giant spiders to walking skeletons to forsworn randits.

On the other hand, I’m not playing a lot of people, I’m playing one person who lives in this world and chooses to wander around accepting peoples’ random quests, so what can you do? One could argue that the game telling you “you’re playing a person who made decisions that resulted in them being here, so damn it, you’re here until this monster is dead” is totally legitimate and simply forcing you to accurately play your own character–I mean, why are you even here if you’re the kind of person who would suddenly decide to run away from this fight? You locked that door behind YOURSELF when you chose to pick up this game in the first place!

I did walk all the way back through the Deep Roads to get some more healing potions before heading back in one time. Man, I loved DAO. That game was so awesome.

As we’ve discussed, though, roleplaying in video games is inherently more limited than in tabletop because (whether or not you’re allowed to run away from fights) you can only interact with other characters, and they can only respond to you, in a limited set of ways. So your ridiculousness, and/or other peoples’ responses to your ridiculousness, is highly constrained.

Which can still be very satisfying, of course.

It’s like, I imagine acting in a well-written play can be a good experience, and improvisation can be a good experience, and one of them doesn’t have to be ‘better’ than the other, they just have different strong and weak points.


Yes, but you can’t choose the characters in a play.  Nor should you.  Imagine if you could go to a play and design the lead.  Irritating.