I’ve written a lot about game design in this blog, mostly because game design is in the title but also because I want a job designing games (so any headhunters in the industry who come across this, hint hint). But the real thing that keeps me interested in games are their stories. Now that sounds pretty silly, and for the most part it is. Storytelling in games is clearly starting to go somewhere, but it’s still mostly stuck in a premature, juvenile stage, where developers treat it as a sort of excuse to allow players to move from one exotic location to another. But some developers out there are starting to realize that truly effective games allow the story to drive the player’s actions, not the gameplay. And most of those developers are makers of role-playing games, be they Bioware or Atlus. And for good reason too, out of all genres RPGs are the ones most dependent on strong stories and for good reason. How else are you supposed to carry an 80 hour world saving epic of heroism and romance?
Until this came along.
Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer, its title is longer then the actual game. And for good reason as you’ve probably noticed the words “Expansion Pack” looming there just beneath the title. MoB is not only the first expansion to NWN2, which is a pretty damn good game in my book to begin with, but it’s a direct sequel as well. NWN2 got a lot of heat from players and the press for it’s ending, which to put it in nice terms, was horrible. To make a long story (and I mean long) short, the campaign ends with the Big Bad Evil Guy turning out to be a load bearing boss, and then rocks fell and everyone died. Considering that the game was 50 hours long and people had grown attached to even the most grating of its supporting cast, this literally came as blow to the stomach. It was the kind of thing you hear about in mostly true bad DM stories told on gamer forums. So Obsidian apologized by giving us a game that extended the adventures of your character for another ten levels.
So what makes this game so great? How can an expansion pack to a game that ended so badly turn into the greatest RPG story ever told? Well because it is an expansion pack. The reason why MoB works so well is because it doesn’t have any time or space to waste. Everything in the game needs to be concise, it needs to have a purpose. Brevity is the soul of wit.
Mask of the Betrayer is a story about three things; it’s about the truth. It’s about masks and how a simple truth on the surface can often hide a much deeper truth beneath it. It’s about God, about the relationship being mortals and the divine, and whether it can ever be morally right to turn away from God. And finally, it’s about love. Not just romantic love, but love in general. It’s about how love is the source of all betrayals. The reason why MoB is the most effective story ever written for a game is because there is not one piece of content that doesn’t somehow thigh into one of those three themes. It’s story wasn’t written as some last minuet fix to link a bunch of unrelated modules together, instead every single piece of content links back to the story in someway. If it doesn’t, then it’s cut out. How many games can you honestly say were a genuine labor of love?
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned about creative writing is that only a bad story tries to trick the audience, pull the wool over their eyes and the rug from under their feet, usually by introducing some ridiculous twist that they couldn’t possibly have seen coming. Inversely, a genuinely well crafted story doesn’t try to trick or twist the audience, in fact it tells them how the story is going to end right away, but it doesn’t matter because you still want to know what happens next. Do you know what separates The Sixth Sense for the rest of M. Night Shamalayn’s films? It doesn’t have a twist. Oh sure you find out that Bruce Willis is dead in the end, but when you watch it again, you only ever see him with the kid. And if there are other people in the scene with them, Willis doesn’t interact with them, and they act like they don’t see him. From the very start Shamalayn was telling us he was dead.
Take Men in Black as another example. Do you remember what happens in the beginning of MiB? Oh yeah, Will Smith chases a guy who turns out to be an alien. No before that. You watch a seemingly pointless intro of a bug flying around the New York while the opening credits roll, before finally being squashed by a train, and it’s funny. Now what happens in the rest of the film? A giant bug rampages around New York and gets squashed in the end, and it’s funny. You see how MiB told you not only what’s going to happen in the film, but also established the tone, while not giving away any details.
MoB is exactly the same, and it ends up having one of the best openings of any RPG out there. Those of you who did play it will probably think I’m crazy, because all that opening was was some boring brown underground tunnel were you fought a technicolor bear at the end. But like Men in Black‘s little bug, it actually manages to tell us how this story is going to end and it’s theme. And because it’s an expansion, it doesn’t have to waste our time with any tutorials. So what happens at the beginning? A hero journeys into the domain of a god the rescue the soul of someone important. What happens at the end? A hero journeys into the domain of a god to rescue the soul of someone important. The specifics might be different, but the basic idea remains the same.
When you start the game you find yourself underground, standing in the middle of a circle of stone pillars, engraved with runes. In fact it’s that one right above. One of your first acts of consciousness is to reach out and touch one of the pillars. When you do so, you receive a vision three things in this order: a laughing boy, a woman with a golden face, and a wall of screaming souls. Throughout the course of the game you will encounter three waking dreams, one in each module of the 2nd Act. In those dreams you will find one of three things: a laughing boy, a woman with a golden face, and a wall of screaming souls.
Both Neverwinter Nights 2 and Mask of the Betrayer folllow a three act structure. Only that’s a lie. Yes NWN2 has three acts, but it does a piss poor job of doing it right. In a real three act story, the first act is the shortest, but in NWN2 it’s the longest. In fact the 1st Act should have ended by the time you reached the titular city of Neverwinter, but it doesn’t. It spins its wheels for another 10-15 hours because it still has to introduce the real BBEG and its minions as well as the rest of the supporting cast. Your goal of getting into the posh, upper-class district is stalled and the plot just refuses to budge for what seems like forever.
But Mask of the Betrayer doesn’t have the luxury to just waste its time like that. It has only a limited amount of space to tell its story, and as such it has a more natural pace to it. In the 1st Act you awake in a bear god’s barrow, escape, find companions, defeat the bear god and discover the horrible curse that’s been inflicted upon you. In the 2nd Act the game opens up and you search for clues that will help you answer the dramatic question posed by the end of the 1st Act. This is the longest part of the story. Finally in the 3rd Act you are ready to confront the question. And in the end, the answer is yes, you can cure the curse. But you already knew that, and yet you still want to know how it goes.
One more point I want to make, and it might be where Betrayer makes its best contribution to the genre and the industry. To put it concisely, it doesn’t have a villain. Sure it has antagonists, there are people and factions who will openly oppose you, but none of them are doing it for teh evulz. To many of them, your character represents an evil that must be expunged at all costs, even if you decide to play a Lawful Good Paladin.
The bear god you fight in the 1st Act is a heroic antagonist, acting on behalf of an oath he swore long ago, and after you beat him he offers to join you and help rid you of your curse. MoB is not about saving the world, it’s about saving yourself. If you fail, the Realms will keep on spinning, but you’ll have suffered a fate worse then death. As such the stakes are far more personal, instead of saving a world we have no stake in, we have the save the soul of a character we’ve been playing as for nearly 60 hours. There’s your motivation. And just because there’s no Sauron knocking at Gondor’s gates doesn’t mean that winning the game makes you feel any less like a hero. The quest is of a personal nature, being an evil character is a valid option for once, not like the original game that railroaded you into being the hero regardless of how selfish your actions where. Yes ladies and gentlemen, you can role play in this role playing game, and for evil characters there are some pretty horrendous things you can do.
So there you have it, my longest update yet. I believe that while looking at a piece of storytelling that breaks the mold and does so many things right is a good way to learn how write for future games, you can’t get a 100% accurate look until we’ve explored another series that has completely and utterly botched RPG storytelling. Join me next time, as we learn what Final Fantasy is doing wrong, and how we can learn from, and fix its innumerable mistakes.