This may be the most convoluted thing I've written on here. Also minor spoilers for Mass Effect 2.
When I was fifteen, I had a concept for video game that I held onto for quite some time. My idea was that you would be a government agent sent into to assassinate an enemy of the state of a foreign country. You'd arrive, have things go terribly wrong, and find yourself left without resources or form of contact. From there you would have to work within your target's city and find recruits, acquire supplies, and conceive a plan as to how, when, and where to take out your target. Perhaps you could execute the mark in a couple days when he went out to make a speech, or maybe you and a militia could drill underneath his complex over the span of a few weeks and emerge like angry ants. The freedom in approach was the basic concept. I also think that a bunch of ninjas and Darth Vader showed up, I don't know I was fifteen, things change. Looking back on it though, I realize that I was wanting a game that managed to capture the best of sandbox emergent titles, and the sense of direction of a linear game. Over the past few years, a couple of games have come close to accomplishing my idea, but I feel that they don't quite make it, and so I'd like to give my take on the conundrum. First though, lets look at two titles that almost obtained my ideal.
The first of these is Red Faction Guerrilla. Those that have played the game know well the extensive tool set one is given to cause utter mayhem, and players are expected too in order to progress in the games story. Players are given a list of potential targets which, when dealt with, lessen the enemy presence in the area, eventually diminishing too a point where the plot progresses. The main draw is that is that players have the liberty to approach these targets with as frenzied a demeanour as they like.
On a small scale, Red Faction Guerilla actually encapsulates all of my ideas. It grants the player the agency to reach the goal at his or her own discretion, and there is an agreeance between the player's actions and the goal. The player is physically removing enemy forces in the immediate game world and it's removing them in terms of story. The problem with this design of “cause havoc until a story mission pops up” is that its very limited in what it allows for plot. It seems that for plot progression to be natural, the main story one can tell is that as a result of poking the bee hive long enough, you've brought all hell upon yourself, but inadvertently opened up a major base to your advances. There are of course other paths the writer can take, but it becomes incredibly easy to create dissonance between the players reckless actions and the story. I realize that since the advent of cutscenes we've had dissonance in our stories and our gameplay, but I like to think we're getting better at narrowing that gap. The next game takes a more linear approach.
I adore Mass Effect 2, and one of the things that I cherished about the game was the format of the story. You're provided the option to pursue a variety of tools, allies, and improvements to greater increase your chance of success in your final mission. Mass Effect 2 is probably the closest I've seen a released title come to achieving my dream games framework. Giving the player choice in what measures they want to approach the supreme goal. Even more praise worthy, the game does it without sacrificing any of the story. The game engages the player whether they've chosen to gather a full team or not, and maybe even more so depending on how close one is with certain characters. But, I didn't say that it did achieve that peanut-butter and jam perfection of blending player agency with a linear overarching direction.
That last sentence should make pretty obvious what I'm about to say. Mass Effect does provide the player the option to seek after such aiding advancements, but ignoring them will leave the player with an ending that feels wanting. It often feels like there is only one option to get the effect you really want. The loyalty missions are perhaps the best example of this. In almost all of those missions, there is only one way to ensure that the trust of the crew member is maintained. Sure, there can be deviation as often a choice is presented to the player that maintains loyalty, but alters something else. However, this still can feel like an undesirable option. For example, in Tali's loyalty mission, you can maintain her loyalty by either pronouncing her guilty, resulting in her banishment from the Migrant Fleet, or, with high enough bonuses, surmount an admirable defence by her association to Shepard. Now, I realize that Mass Effect 3 isn't out and all is speculation, but I'm willing to bet that gaining the aid of the Quarians will be far easier if the player chose the second option in Mass Effect 2. The problem is that when the options are to either aid yourself in the struggle or shoot yourself in the foot, the choices in Mass Effect don't feel like choices at all. What I'm after, is a game that compliments the player no matter their choice.
I feel like these two games reflect the most common ways that blending player freedom and concrete story, but they don't quite live up to this standard I have in my head. One provides the player with a lot of options, but can create dissonance within the story, the other feels like a choose your own adventure book with only one right option. So is it even possible? In some ways no. A linear story requires some sort of authorial control, and emergent gameplay puts authorship in the players hands. I do think any practical combination will require some flipping between the two, but I think it's the placement of narrative that can achieve this. For example, placing the linear narrative as end caps and leaving the middle a gooey center of player driven action holds a lot of promise. Essentially what I'm asking for is the three-act play to be adapted to gameplay mechanics.
Act one in any good story fulfils the role of exposition. In it, a story should introduce the characters, the overall goal of the hero, and in a game, explain the rules. Many video games with a story follows this. Act two is the time where the protagonist is faced with opposition to achieving the goal, and it's here that I'd love to see authorship change hands. This middle section often features a variety of roadblocks, side stories, and development of the character, and why not simply have those fabricated by the mechanics of the game. Allow the player to become exuberantly wealthy in this time instead of having a bunch of scripted events increase their funds, encourage them to go recruit followers from the towns of their choosing in place of giving them an army of npcs because of some plot device, or let the player fall because of his or her own ineptitude rather than overwhelming the player through a linear sequence, let the player right this portion of the story. However, opening this act creates a lot of problems for Act three. As I see it, either many endings are required, or the ending has to be broad enough in scope that all roads lead too it. I can only imagine the former requires ample amounts of time, money, and work, and the later requiring something simple, such as the killing of a character.
Writing this, I feel like its a very simple approach, and so it surprises me greatly that I can't think of anything that has tried it on a large scale. One game that I've always wanted to see attempt this (the one that inspired a lot of these thoughts) is Mount & Blade. Mount & Blade throws the player in a world and allows them to amass an army, siege castles, meet defined characters who react depending on how they've been treated, and be captured and lose it all. However, Mount & Blade requires the player to define their own goals, and I thought it would be incredibly beneficial to provide the player some guidance through a story structured in the manner described. But I believe the lack of such narrative is simply based on what the intention of the developers is. They are wanting to create a world where stories are completely fabricated by the player. And the reason Mass Effect 2 doesn't feature the maelstrom of player choice I'm after is because they are looking to communicate a very specific emotion too their players. And so. I wait until a developer comes along that desires to turn their mechanics into a three act play.