Why do you play videogames? It’s a simple question, but every time you put down £40 for your latest toy you commit yourself to tens or hundreds of hours sat before a screen, so what is it keeping you interested and stopping you from putting the controller down and going back to finish Sense8?
It’s something I’ve been wondering for a while now, and never more so than while playing Pillars of Eternity, Obsidian Entertainment’s ode to the computer RPGs of the nineties like Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale. Funded by tens of thousands on Kickstarter (including myself) it is by all the usual metrics a success: 89/100 on Metacritic, awards from major gaming publications and the usual laudatory praise heaped on any game professing more narrative sophistication than your average Call of Duty sequel. Despite this, I and a not insignificant number of others have found it a surprisingly unengaging experience, which appears to be due to it suffering from one of modern gaming’s most damning flaws: assumed empathy.
It’s one of the biggest story problems you can have, expecting the audience to automatically care about the world and characters set before them and making no effort to convince them to do so, and yet it’s everywhere in modern gaming, particularly in the AAA market. Call of Duty expects the player to care about the fate of the United States every time it’s under attack from vaguely defined swarthy foreigners, Assassin’s Creed long ago ditched any attempt to make the player central to the story and Tomb Raider assumes that battering the player character will engender audience sympathy just because they puppeteer her between cutscene beatings. The worlds and character models are fabulously detailed but without an emotional investment it’s all for naught. So with this essay I’ve decided to examine the five main ways an RPG can motivate its players and invest them in its story, how to make them work effectively for your game and how PoE flubs each and every one.
The first is to make the player care about NPCs in the world. This is how all non-interactive fiction works, as the audience must form a human connection to a work of art to care about it (art being a reflection of human experience and whatnot). This is typically done in games by introducing the PC as having pre-existing relationships with story-relevant NPCs, building the player’s relationships with them early on and when the story kicks off it directly affects them, so the player’s emotional investment makes them want to follow the plot you’ve laid out. This is why the protagonist’s beloved peasant village getting nuked at the end of act one is a cliché, hurting or killing the PC’s friends is a simple way to make the player want revenge on the villain (which is why people still remember Aeris’ death in FFVII).
Bioware’s wuxia epic/Bridge of Birds knockoff Jade Empire does this well. The PC is introduced as a student at a martial arts academy and their relationships with three NPCs developed: Master Li, their teacher and the school’s headmaster, Dawn Star, a friend of the PC, and the Water Dragon, a mysterious apparition who tells you she’s wounded and in need of your help. By act one’s end Master Li is kidnapped, Dawn Star wants to rescue him and your beloved peasant village gets nuked by samurai Darth Vader. The player wants to rescue Master Li and take revenge on his attackers, and you’re on your way.
Pillars of Eternity meanwhile has a surprising lack of well-developed NPCs. The PC begins the game as a migrant to the land of Eora, before quickly falling victim to a soul-stealing hurricane which leaves them able to sense others’ souls. None of the tutorial NPCs are memorable or survive this maelstrom (not necessarily a bad thing), but for a long time after there are no NPCs for the player to form a strong emotional connection to the world through. Non-companion major NPCs with strong connections to the plot are absent for some time (besides the purposefully mysterious villain) and they rarely have much to talk to the player about besides their role in the plot. The same goes for the player’s companions. Each has their personal quest and motivation to follow it, but outside of that they barely exist. Unlike NPCs in most RPGs few have any connection to the setting you find them in, or if they do it tends to make itself manifest much later as part of their quest. This has the effect of feeling like you just pick up a lot of hitchhikers who are willing to put their own desires and goals aside to suicidally charge to their deaths for some stranger they just met, and if you leave them where you find them the overall story barely changes.
To go back to Jade Empire, many of the player’s companions initially have a personal connection to the place the player meets them, which helps get the player invested in that place and the conflict within it. For example in act three the PC meets Princess Lian1, the emperor’s daughter who moonlights as a ninja and who wants to defeat the Lotus Assassins, an organisation she believes has corrupted her father. The PC is chasing these assassins, revealed as the people behind the destruction of the PC’s beloved peasant village, and Lian’s personal connection to them helps to frame the conflicts in the Imperial City and the player’s personal goals with regards to them and their local influence, giving the player a reason to care about life in the Imperial City. PoE on the other hand repeatedly drops the player into new areas with their own conflicts, but there’s little to no human connection to them so for all the effort put into creating and developing resolutions to these conflicts they’re curiously uninvolving.
The second way to motivate your players is to threaten either them or the world. In the former case something or someone is attempting to kill the player and they fight back out of self-preservation. In the latter the fate of the world (or at least part of it) is endangered, and the player cares because they are invested in the NPCs who are part of it (as discussed above), as a story’s stakes are only as high as how much they impact characters who we care about. This is why the potential end of the world has become a cliché, as it threatens the end of both the NPCs the player is invested in as well as the world they connect the player to emotionally.
The PC in Jade Empire is visited early on by the Water Dragon, an entity who guides spirits to the afterlife but has been captured by the emperor, causing the recently deceased to get lost in the material world and lash out at people. The player cares about the world through their relationships with the NPCs they know and so wants to save it, and just prior to meeting the Water Dragon the PC meets the ghost of the academy’s previous master who, unable to find his way to the afterlife, attacks them. This and the continued threat of dispossessed spirits throughout the game makes the threat felt to the player, reminding them what is at stake.
The central threat to PoE’s world is introduced in the first town: a magical curse causing children to be born soulless. This forms the first major questline, of the player trying to find a way to fight the curse, siding with either religious extremists believing they can pray it away or a scientist favouring wildly unethical human experimentation, and either defending or overthrowing the local lord whose obsession with the curse has killed many who tried to help. The problem is the player has no immediate human connection to this threat via major NPCs until sometime into the quest. One companion is personally affected by this tragedy, but she is met far later in the game and her connection to it is only revealed over the course of her personal quest. The only major plot-relevant NPCs in the first town are the religious leader, the scientist and the lord but they are only met midway through the town’s questline so until that point the threat is more abstract. As in journalism all stories are ultimately human stories, but PoE forgets this and so when the player stumbles across a grand, complex and morally ambiguous conflict they have little incentive to care.
The looming threat to PoE’s PC, and the main plot proper, is also only introduced ten hours in. After the tutorial soul storm the game takes a break for the entire first town and its associated questlines to take place before the PC can discover what happened to them in the next major area, by which point the player may have lost interest in the mystery. The story then fails to make its stakes clear after the reveal, effectively that the player will go insane if they cannot find a way to keep their condition in check, by making said stakes multiple choice. The only occasions the PC’s condition can show any sign of deterioration is when responding to companions asking the PC how they feel (the flavour text gives barely any clues), but the responses range from ‘I’m fine’ to ‘AAAAAAAH!’ Stakes only matter to a story if they are imposed by external forces, and these are curiously lacking throughout much of Pillars of Eternity.
You may be wondering why Jade Empire of all things is my yardstick for RPG storytelling here, but it’s because Bioware’s incredible success as a developer, financially, critically and especially with players is because they are one of the few game developers consistently dealing in solid, functional storytelling. Nothing they’ve produced will ever be mentioned in the same breath as Don Quixote or Battleship Potemkin, but they have drama, stakes, import and meaning which make their stories satisfying to experience. This is why their stories resonate with people to the extent of producing their massive, devoted following and why Jade Empire, a game I played as a twelve year-old, has stuck with me through all these years.
The third way of motivating your players is to make your story ultimately about them. This is the most crucial part of telling a story interactively, the player has to feel their actions affect the world around them to care about it. If nothing the player does feels like it has consequences their actions feel meaningless and continuing your game feels pointless. The clichéd RPG way of doing this is to make your PC The Chosen One, prophesised long ago by a cabal of old bearded men to be the only one capable of wielding the sacred plot device to defeat the Dark Lord and his guttural, dark-skinned minions. It’s hacky as fuck and more than a little yawn-inducing by this point (even if fantasy literature hadn’t run this trope into the ground when computer RPGs were still played on mainframes) but it ultimately works and the player feels like the story’s hero. If you’re more adventurous you can make the story about the PC’s development as a person over the course of the game, with how they act in the face of some non-world threatening situation as their defining moment. In either case, unless your story is entirely on rails and character development done solely through cutscenes (as in Final Fantasy), the method of developing the PC in your story is done through the mechanic of choice. The player is given options for how they react to characters and situations in the world and their decisions and impact on the world around them comes to define both them and their relationships with it.
Jade Empire goes the clichéd route, quickly revealing the PC as the last of the Spirit Monks, an order devoted to worshipping the Water Dragon and as such the only one who can restore her power and save the world. Choice is used throughout the game in every conversation and quest the player is involved in, but it falls into the same trap as many games by only including definite ‘good’ and ‘evil’ options, so the player can only really define themselves as either the humanist saviour of the world or its next tyrant. PoE’s developer Obsidian however often takes the more adventurous route in their work. Their deconstructionist take on the Star Wars mythos Knights of the Old Republic II is centred on the story of the Jedi Exile and is fundamentally a meditation on the concept of the force and how it relates to the concepts of Jedi and Sith. The player is given a wide variety of ways to respond to the world and characters around them, and the PC’s mentor Kreia is quick to point out the consequences and philosophical implications of every choice you make. Unlike KOTOR I which was a grand, galaxy-in-peril epic the sequel is a far lower key personal story, but the focus on the consequences of the player’s choices make the PC’s story feel more important to the point that even the villain’s later attempted invasion of a planet feels like background to the PC’s development.
With Pillars of Eternity however they completely miss what previously worked. The story is built about the PC’s journey and ultimately how they choose to act after discovering the truth behind the soul plague, but the PC is a blank slate leaving a huge void at the story’s centre. Their only backstory is a paragraph of text chosen during character creation which has no effect on the game. This is not a bad thing in and of itself but there’s little opportunity for the PC to express themself to others and so develop themself as a character outside of passing moral judgement at the end of quests, which makes them feel little more than a bland moral arbiter. Ironically the game’s morally ambiguous quest endings help make it feel less realistic, as every choice is presented as just as morally justified as any other. While it’s admirable to attempt something more nuanced than ‘give money to beggar/stab beggar’, real life does occasionally have more clearly-cut ethical problems, and their absence here feels artificial. It ultimately makes every quest feel like a constructed test for the player and not a natural product of the game’s world.
The fourth method for motivating players is to base your story around a central theme, with the PC’s journey exploring its nuances through both the main plot and subplots as the main point of the game. Planescape: Torment, a highly-regarded CRPG made by Obsidian staff when they worked at Black Isle, did this well, literally introducing its main theme of ‘what can change the nature of a man?’ outside the opening area and having the PC’s story devoted to exploring his past selves, their legacies in the world and ultimately why they differed from each other. Your companion’s questlines examined this further through exploration of their own histories. In Pillars of Eternity however they wait until its final act, over seventy hours into the game, before introducing its central point which turns out to be ‘what is the value of truth?’ There is no foreshadowing for this, no build-up, no real exploration of it beforehand in other contexts. It’s absurd, the entire (admittedly interesting) reason for telling this story in the first place is only introduced right before the end, making it feel tacked on from a different story.
The final way is to create an interesting and alluring world the player wants to explore. This works best in stories where the PC is discovering a whole new world and Planescape: Torment pulled this off beautifully. The PC is an amnesiac who comes back from the dead to find himself in the city of Sigil, a place where anything can be a portal to another dimension, demons and gods walk the streets and the local pub is heated by a man who accidentally turned himself into a living conduit to an elemental plane of fire. The games builds wonderfully on the imaginative and original world of Planescape, which is actually necessary for the game as it initially fails to create much of a driving force for the story besides the player’s curiosity, but the world is interesting and fun enough to explore on its own.
PoE aims for this as well, but it fails because the world it creates looks and feels remarkably boring. This is due to it falling into one of fantasy storytelling’s more recent traps, that of ‘grounded’ or ‘realistic’ fantasy. The problem with this is its basis in the common modern idea that prior to the 1500s everything was miserable and drab, and what results is rarely anything more than the fairytale depiction of the Middle Ages with any attractive edges sanded off, so everyone wanders around in rags and the rich and powerful are distinguished by not being covered in shit. It’s by no means unique to games as anyone who saw that terrible ‘realistic’ King Arthur movie with Clive Owen can attest, but while this style can be used well in stories meant to parallel real-world issues (as in A Song of Ice and Fire and The Witcher) it adds nothing to PoE. Much of the game’s plot involves character’s relationships with gods, who are entities you can talk to and demand help from and a ‘realistic’ visual style adds nothing here. It also makes the related mistake of assuming that humourlessness equals realism, so there’s barely any levity throughout the game. It’s never grimdark by any means, but the perpetual po-facedness becomes quite dreary after a while.
It also feels unimaginative because it’s stuck in the post-Tolkien mindset unable to see outside of Lord of the Rings. All the usual elves, dwarves and orcs (blue-skinned here) are present but unlike their inspirations they don’t represent anything. Tolkien’s elves were what he saw as the best of humanity, which was a bunch of obnoxiously perfect tree-huggers, but PoE’s are just there because that’s what this genre does. Between that and the setting choice of a magical version of fourteenth century Western Europe this world feels barely any fresher than Eragon’s.
It’s all part of Pillar’s of Eternity’s strangest facet to me, which is that it’s weirdly conventional. Many of Obsidian’s previous works (particularly those written by Chris Avellone) have relished in deconstructing and examining CRPG tropes, but here they play it straight. KOTOR II dissected the concepts of the party and experience points, the former being the PC’s unconscious ability to influence others to trust and follow them, and the latter the PC absorbing other’s life force as a hole in reality. Planescape: Torment explored player death with the PC’s immortality making respawning literal and eschewing normal CRPG stakes. With PoE they play strictly to convention: characters will immediately throw themselves in front of a sword hours after joining you for little reason, animals assault you every few feet in the countryside and you massacre untold hundreds but no-one ever cares or reacts in any way. It even commits the classic post-Tolkien fantasy sin of assuming a story can only be good if it’s long, stretching ten-to-twenty hours worth of story over four times that. All in all it’s the anti-KOTOR II, unintentionally showing how blind adherence to stock RPG tropes warps your story instead of working with them to create it.
It’s ironic really, this genre was spawned by fans of tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, in which convincing players to follow your story is one of the most crucial skills a DM can have. PoE’s highest Kickstarter reward even included playing a D&D game with the developers, and yet here they seem to have forgotten everything they learned. People ultimately play games and read books and watch films because they care about the stories being told and the fates of the characters within them, and in a game your audience is the main character. As a game developer you’re not just telling a story, you’re directing it as it happens and as for anyone directing actors the most important thing you have to get across to them them is their motivation. Everything else is window-dressing.
This essay was originally published on Film Runner.
1Yes, they technically met in act two, but only here did you learn her identity and motives.