I like reading Shamus Young on video games, but boy howdy do I disagree with his latest column. The issue is, should you be, and feel like you’re being, The Chosen One in games?
Ideally, the Chosen One actually glows
He’s talking about (just one aspect of) how Mass Effect Andromeda‘s story makes little sense.
In more recent BioWare games, the story has inverted all of this. The writer has adopted a parent / child relationship with the player character. The protagonist gets bossed around and you’re obliged to do what NPCs tell you to do, and the writer doesn’t even make much of an effort to get buy-in from the player. You can’t ask probing questions and the dialog doesn’t waste time justifying things to the player. At the same time the game patronizingly pretends like the player character is in charge. You’re the Inquisitor. You’re the Pathfinder. You’re the famous Messianic Commander Shepard. You’re so great. People look up to you. People love you. You’re special. You’re important. Now go do these missions and don’t ask any questions.
I haven’t played Andromeda, but I did play as Shepard, to say nothing of Batman, the Lone Wanderer, the Dragonborn, the Boss, Gordon Freeman, Jade, the Witcher, Empress Emily, Bayonetta, etc. So the first thing I’d suggest is: these games are actually trying to tell you something important about being the Chosen One. It’s genuinely limiting. Being the special person who saves the world means that you don’t get to do whatever the hell you want. Being Batman isn’t dizzying freedom, it’s backbreaking responsibility. And yes, people will tell you what to do, because that’s what saving the world involves. You gotta go save it, and probably there’s only one way to do it. (Or two ways, one involving stealth, the other involving combat.)
(Also, I know he’s being sarcastic, but “people love you”? Are people fond of the one dude who can save the world? I’d say they’re far likely to be anxious, demanding, and irritable. They’re supposed to be saving the world, and here they are in my shop selling troll fat, or stealing calipers from my barrels, or reading people’s memoirs. I don’t want to see that, I want to see some world-saving.)
Shamus goes on to suggest a way to ‘fix’ this scene in Andromeda, and his way might well be better writing. But the reason his fix works is that it leads to the exact same results. That is, you’re still railroaded. The cutscenes would set you up as Making Great Decisions, yes, but then you’d go and do the exact same things as when people were telling you what to do.
It can be fun when we do get to make overall decisions, but for obvious reasons this is a hard ask. It’s illuminating to fire up Fallout’s Creation Kits and examine how complicated a single quest is. 80% of players probably make the same main decisions, but you have to have options for the most absurd possible options. If decisions can have consequences later, you’re greatly multiplying the amount of work without increasing the amount of game players see.
Beyond that, though, I think it’s quite silly how games insist on setting up the player as the Chosen One. It’s the same sort of narrative escalation where every action movie has to be about the end of the world. Do that enough and the artificialness of the excitement becomes obvious. Corvo failing to protect the Empress once is a bad mistake; doing it twice implies that he’s just awful at his job.
Plus, you don’t have to be the Prophesied One! Maybe you’re just the security guy, as in Deus Ex. Or the guy with the really good wrench, as in Dead Space 1. Or a random survivor, as in Left 4 Dead.
Most intriguingly, you could be no more important than the NPCs. The best example of this is Stalker, where you are just one of many opportunists wandering the Zone. The first Borderlands managed this: the player character was just a treasure hunter, which is basically what the player was too. They ruined this in Borderlands 2 by making Vault Hunters some incredibly rare caste of superheroes.
Finally, the reason games often make stupid requests is, I think, a clue to how game development works. You don’t have a writer sitting down, saying “The PC will now go fetch a doohingus”, and the quest department writes a Doohingus-Finding Quest. More likely, different teams have already created a bunch of levels, and the writer’s job is to come up with some insane story that requires traversing all of them. Like writing supervillains, it’s just not a job where every instance can make sense on its own terms. Sometimes they come up with a great reason why you have to traverse the sewer level next, sometimes they don’t.
Should you be able to push back at the writer’s lame suggestion? Maybe, but that’s part of why (say) Fallout always has a dialog option to insult the quest giver. It’s kind of juvenile. More effective is when the game itself lampshades the arbitrariness of the plot; the Saints Row games are notable for this. But that option is probably only available for comedy games.