Dragon Age: Inquisition screenshot by Flicker user Mark Molea (CC)

Setting Paths and Changing Outcomes in RPGs

Dragon Age: Inquisition screenshot by Flicker user Mark Molea (CC)
Dragon Age: Inquisition screenshot by Flickr user Mark Molea (CC)

Recently, a number of our posts here have focused, in ways directly or indirectly, on challenges associated with being adult gamers. As much as we might not like to admit it, as we grow older, our gaming habits change, sometimes by choice, often by necessity. Demanding jobs, growing families, and surmounting financial concerns all eat away at free time that we may have once had to devote to games. In my gaming life, the requirements of the real world have especially impacted one of my gaming habits in particular, that of playing through a single game with multiple characters and having each follow a distinct path.

Several years back, Mass Effect kicked me square into the world of story-based and choice-driven games. At that time, I had time to game almost daily. Because of that, and the fact that I found ME’s story and “choices” really appealing, I was able to play through the game several times with different Shepards of different classes and backgrounds. Having the ability to follow a single storyline made up of my character’s (or my own) decisions — going Renegade, Paragon, or some combination thereof — was very new and very addictive. And, because I had the time, I was able to follow through with my decisions to the end of the game. If I didn’t like the final outcome, it was okay, because I’d simply go back, create a new character, and take a different path. I saw little reason to change my courses of action mid-game (i.e. return to previous save points) if things didn’t turn out to my liking.

After wringing out every ounce of play I could from ME, I sought the same from any subsequent games that allowed for choice as a matter of gameplay, from future Mass Effect games to Dragon Age to Fable to Skyrim. I wanted to play as multiple characters in a single game every chance I got. I wanted to pick a path and stick with it through an endgame. And then I wanted to start over and pick a different path to see if it led elsewhere. And I did as long as time permitted. Those were very good times indeed.

But as with all good times, eventually they had to come to a close. Slowly, my free time disappeared into house projects and other non-gaming meanderings. Weathering this change wasn’t easy (and still isn’t), but it’s the way things had to, and have to be. At present, I’m lucky to get in a single playthrough of a grand RPG that’s replete with intricate stories, diverse endings, and dozens of different ways to get from a game’s beginning to its end. And still, whenever I get to a point of making a major choice in such a game, my brain always thinks, don’t worry, you’ll be able to play through the other path with another character. Sadly, I have to tell it to shut up.

What’s bringing about all the chatter about setting paths and changing outcomes in games is Dragon Age: Inquisition, a game that, five or six years ago, I would have played through at least two or three (or more) times with different heroes at the helm.  And because I know there’s just no way I’m going to get to a second playthrough in a timely fashion (let alone feeling like I’ll never make it through one!), I’m playing the game in a markedly different way from my usual RPG approach. Instead of stalwartly sticking to and living with my choices, I’ve been altering them mid-game (i.e. returning to previous save points) if I don’t like the immediate outcome. Part of this process is stemming from the fact that I want to know right then and there where the other path(s) go because I don’t have time to dilly-dally with seemingly “bad” choices. Being familiar with the DA universe, I know what I want for my character. And if a decision made doesn’t match that vision, I need to change it. I can’t stick to my gut reactions and first impressions because I simply don’t have the time to indulge.

I realize this practice isn’t exactly revelatory in gaming, but it’s new for me, and has led me to wonder just how common it is. When playing these games where choice is a big component of gameplay, are we of a general mindset to see our decisions through to the end, or do we tend to change them up while playing? That’s the question I put to the community today. Vote in the poll below and/or leave extended thoughts in the comments. Also welcome are conversations on how your gaming habits have changed as you’ve gotten older. What gaming issues do you face as an adult that you never considered as a younger player?

21 thoughts on “Setting Paths and Changing Outcomes in RPGs”

  1. I can’t agree with this more. I so go back and replay games multiple times, that large choices with branching paths almost make me more worried than intrigued. Since I know that this is likely to be my only playthrough, there’s a feeling that I will by stuck with this choice, and that I don’t want to choose “wrong”.

    This has definitely led me to loading old save points to have another go, because I wasn’t happy with the outcome. But at least I now know it’s not just me!

    1. I’m with you on the feeling worried bit. My previously adventurous self wouldn’t have worried one iota about an immediate outcome. But now, when big choices come along, I usually sit there thinking about what I should do for way too long. Eventually the screen goes dark, my controller disconnects, and I still can’t decide! What kicks me out of that mode is remembering that yes, I that I can go back if I don’t like how things go. But still, in that moment, the strange fear of choosing “wrong” is weirdly debilitating.

  2. The way saving in DA works it might as well be save states. This can be good or bad: I typically like to stick with what I chose, hoping against hopes that the developers took every choice into consideration. Sometimes it doesn’t work but for the most part (in DA:Inquisition anyways) it’s served me pretty well.

    1. Saving in the game and those autosave states, yeah, that’s an issue for me. For awhile, I was simply forgetting to save often enough! Then when I tried to go back, I only had an immediate autosave that was no help, or a save from way too long in the past that was no help either. Now I’m managing my saves a little better, but it’s good to know that some thought may have been put into each choice by the game’s creators. It’ll help me lighten up a bit moving forward.

  3. Time was I used to stick to whatever choices I made too. It helped make each of my characters feel distinct from one another. I’d often have my “real” character, and then several “alternate reality” versions of them, mostly to see how that version would affect their world.

    Now though? I can only have 1 character, maybe 2 if love the game and it’s short enough. So while I’ll still live with the smaller decisions, but if the major ones don’t result in the outcome I want I’ll call it a mulligan and go back to make the choice I want. I’ve found that it’s led to new save practices too. I used to keep 2 saves, updating one regularly and the other only at major points. Now I’ll sort of leap-frog them as insurance against getting stuck with a decision I don’t want.

    1. I’m now using a very similar saving technique to the one you mentioned. Prior, I actually never kept multiple saves until I got to the very, very end of a game. Now I keep at least three, just in case. It’s not great memory-wise, but it’s helped me from feeling like I’m wasting time by going back.

  4. One of my friends joke that I got into gaming at a bad time, now that we’re gradually getting older and time is so limited. I have to agree with her assessment. Had I gotten into gaming earlier, I’d be able to enjoy the extra amount of free time I had to play or replay games I enjoy very much. Dragon Age: Origins is one of those games I really wish I had time to replay again. So many origin stories to try and so little time! I’m sure I’ll fit in time where I can some day, and if not, at least I got to enjoy the experience all the way through the first time!

    As for choice based games, I tend to let all my choices rock the first time, regardless of how I feel about it. I view it as how we live life––we all make choices and we never know what the full outcome or consequences of those choices are until much later. I rather let it all play out until the end without going back and fixing anything. At least, unlike real life, you get a do over if you hated how your game’s story ends. :)

    1. That’s a great way of looking at things! And it makes a lot of sense, because the reality is that we all have limited time and have to do our best with the choices we make. (Though, boy oh boy, if we got “do overs” in real life…!) Considering that it’s taking me forever to get through DA: I, and that I’ve made a personal promise to play both The Witcher 3 AND Arkham Knight before the end of the year, I may have to start taking that approach soon.

      Your friend makes an interesting point about getting into gaming at a bad time, by the way. Not only is there so much choice in games generally, but having games with tons of choices only compounds the situation. But if nothing else, discussing ways to manage that challenge makes for great blog posts. 😊

  5. I tend to stick with my choices. Even in Pikmin 3, which gives you the option to redo previous days, I would rather live with my mistakes. If I accidentally lead 50 Pikmin into a pond, where they promptly drowned…I could do the day over, and it would make things easier in the long run, but I don’t. That’s not really the same as decisions in an RPG, really, but either way, I guess since you can’t take back your decisions in the real world, I don’t like to do it in my games, either.

    1. You’re right, it’s not quite the same, but it also is in a way. Maybe whatever happens to the 50 lost Pikmin doesn’t affect the game as drastically as choosing to defy a teammate in a big RPG, but I bet it affects how you play Pikmin 3 from that point on. Living with and learning from your mistakes is the better option, and I wish I had time to take on the world that way in Dragon Age: Inquisition. It would make the experience feel more organic.

  6. I tend to do a combination of both. I’ll usually make decisions based on instincts but I make sure to save immediately before I make that decision so I can go back and just check out the alternatives.

    IE. Fallout 3- blow up Megaton or not? I chose not but I definitely saved and then nuked the shit outta that place to see what would happen.

    1. Seems like a solid way to play. I can never remember to save often enough (and autosaves are just no help sometimes). For the really big events (like the end of Mass Effect 3, for example), there, yeah, I’ll save till there’s no tomorrow. Guess it kind of depends on the context of what’s going on.

  7. Reblogged this on Recollections of Play and commented:

    Gaming isn’t the only hobby that’s taken a hit in my adult life, but the way I play games, especially RPGs, has fundamentally changed over the past decade. No longer do I have the time to stroll through a huge story with multiple customized characters, collecting and discovering and squeezing every bit of goodness out of a game’s every nook and cranny. Nowadays, I tend towards taking a single path in a game and changing the outcome when needed, rather than sticking to choices with the knowledge that I’ll be able to take another path with another character. This journey towards RPGing with limits is something I explored recently on United We Game.

  8. I’m in the same camp as the commentor who said choices in games tend to be more worrying than fun. Usually a branching path moment requires a trip to GameFAQs to try and work out the ramifications for every option and then choosing accordingly. It’s a hassle basically. Perhaps I need to lighten up a bit and just go with the flow… but there are too many games that handle these things poorly and punish the player!

    It can be a real risk sometimes – if I hadn’t checked on a walkthrough then there’s no way I would’ve gotten the “good” ending of Persona 4, for instance. And in that game I wouldn’t have been able to go back and “fix” my mistake either because the game gives you no warning or indication that you should save before the particular events that determine the ending. You have to get it right first time!

    1. I’ve done that plenty myself — get to a critical choice point in a game and, instead of barreling through, head to the Internet to see how things might play out! It does put a kink in gameplay, but sometimes, it’s just the thing to do.

      Your note about Person 4 makes me think of all the different ways games “warn” us of those points of no return. (Well, those that actually do, anyway. Many don’t!) It’s funny when you think about it those “if you have anything left to do, you better do it now” conversations. So non sequitur and yet so necessary.

  9. Old games for me seemed to have a desire to make “moments” more than anything, something that is sort of coming back. I can’t often think of really cool moments in more recent games that resonated well with me, I can do so far easier and more consistently with the older games.

    1. That’s a really interesting point…and you’re right. In many of the recent games I’ve played, as good as some of them were, there are few outstanding scenes or moments that reside in memory. It’s all just a mish mash of “that game was soooo great/bad/other.” It’s hard to find intimacy, if you will, with a sprawling game like The Witcher 3, over something that’s more contained, like, say, Chrono Trigger. (Which is still a “big” game, just not by today’s standards.)

      1. Big but has moments of focus. Open world must be consistent and you have to CREATE memories, other kinds of game worlds craft them for you as the designers sculpt the world.

  10. I’ve done both, depending on the game and the decision. In some, nope, go back and try again. In others, yeah definitely played all the way through. If I enjoyed the game I’ll go back and replay and replay anyway.

    Then there are moments where I’ve just had to go “bugger that” and quickly changed it regardless of whether I was going to play through it again with different decisions. Like at the end of Mass Effect 2 with (spoilers) our surprisingly killable Salarian friend (goddamnit he was going to survive the suicide mission if I had to replay the ending ten times). I tend to have a “everyone lives!” attitude to gaming, with the survival of my crew/soldiers/team-mates/party-members/whatever being the primary goal. It’s why I’ve never managed to get through an Iron Man Mode on Xcom:Enemy Unknown/Within.

    But, yeah, I get where you’re coming from. Inquisition came out a far too short while before I made the move from Oz to Canada and I didn’t have the room in my bag to take my Xbone with me, so I wanted to get as much out of it as possible. So I played once, picking the Mages, got to the second or third from last main plot mission (enough so I had a pretty good idea what was going to be the results of that decision) than started again with a different race, picked the Templars and played through to the end.

    1. I’ll tell you, I wanted to badly to replay ME2 just to keep Mordin around, but time just didn’t allow for it. (Getting the full trilogy is back on my to-do list, so by goodness I’m gonna make it happen someday!) But I’m with you in wanting as many teammates to survive as possible (no matter the game). That just makes for a satisfying ending generally, to have as many friends at your side as possible. Every now and then, I try to take the evil/renegade path in a game, but I’m usually not too happy with the results.

      My first playthrough of Dragon Age: Inquisition crapped out just after I decided to side with the Templars. As much as I might have liked to see how that played out, I re-started the game and went with the Mages. I’m fairly happy with the way things have gone are are going in the game so far. Any nagging feelings of “I should have picked the Templars” have pretty much dissipated. Really, I just want to finish the game now so I can move on to The Witcher 3!

      1. Ah the Witcher 3, the main reason why I was tempted to just bring my Xbox along regardless.

        I will say that Bioware did a much better job of making both sides sympathetic this time around than they did in Dragon Age 2 (where the only side that made sense was protecting the mages from the consequences of Anders’ terrorism). There’s enough vocal bastards on both sides and enough regular mages and templars who think this whole rebellion is a ridiculous and unnecessary waste of life.

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