Why should I care?
I know I’ve harped on this before but playing Fallout New Vegas has brought me back to a persistent problem in RPGs: motivating the main quest. I know I’m not the first to say that FNV has a singularly un-inspiring beginning. I’ve just been shot dead in the course of doing some seemingly pointless delivery for some faceless client. By a stroke of good fortune, I’ve been brought back to life. What do I do? Of course, I should go and find the person who shot me!
Or… I could happily stay out of their way, figuring that life is cheap in a nuclear wasteland and I’ve already pushed my luck to breaking point. Who really cares about a lost poker chip anyway? Maybe I should just spend my time in this bar buying drinks and fleecing the locals at Caravan.
In an open world game, you give the player the freedom to ignore the story and do what they want. This is all very well but what the player really wants is a story they don’t want to ignore. If I just wanted to run around killing things, I’d play an FPS.
FNV seems to have this problem throughout. I’m meant to care about the political future of New Vegas, but it seems to me that the status quo isn’t so bad and as long as I don’t interfere, nothing is going to change. Oh sure, there’s meant to be this looming threat of invasion, but everyone seems happy to wait for me to decide when that’s going to happen. Again, the freedom that the game offers it at odds with the drama it is trying to create. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Either you have real time pressure, which curtails the player’s freedom to endlessly explore, or else all atttempts at creating urgency come across as artificial. It comes back to the old “show don’t tell” motto. Drama is not created by telling the player they should care, but by giving them consequences they actually care about.
Another aspect of RPGs that seems to be at odds with creating a compelling story is the desire to make the player character a blank slate at the beginning of the game. Again, this gives the player the freedom to create whatever character they like, but without an established backstory to work with, it is hard to forge any kind of connection between the player and the world. Yes, it gives us a nice conceit to explain the player’s early unfamiliarity with their world (and run them through the obligatory tutorial quests) but dramatically it leaves the character without any investment in the world.
The solution I’d like to explore is to have a more significant “Ordinary World” (in Campbell’s terms) before the Call to Adventure. For example, in FNV you could use the same opening but accept that the player is unlikely to want to immediately hit the road to track down Benny. Instead, give them more reason to stay in Goodsprings and settle. Let them play there long enough to gain some attachment to the place, build a home an defend it once or twice from Powder Gangers and Legionaries. Give them time to invest in the characters there through repeated, positive interaction, then threaten those characters in a way that forces the player to take on the bigger enemy, to address the root of the problem. In fact “threaten” is the wrong word. You need to do actual harm. Change the status quo. There needs to be a wrong to set right, not just the potential of some future wrong that will never happen unless the player specifically triggers it. And things need to get worse the longer the player waits.
Psychonauts is a great example of this. You start as an outsider but it gives you plenty of time to invest in the characters of the camp before springing the main plot on you. There are lots of things to do during this stage and character interactions to enjoy. It’s a tutorial, but it’s not something you’d want to skip, even if you were already familiar with the controls. You have the freedom to explore, but you’re always drawn back to the main plot line. And then, once you have established yourself and found a potential future in this community (with a love interest), it snatches it all away from you. You still have the freedom to explore, but the emptiness of the camp and the mindlessness of the campers is eerie, and encourages you to accept the call and venture into the Unknown to save the people you love.
Having a main quest that is uninteresting is like having an obligation hanging over your head. Yes, you can ignore it, but it doesn’t go away, and the player will only end up resenting it. Giving the players freedom is better than forcing them to follow your story, but better still is when the players choose to follow of their own free will, because following the story is what they really desire.