Fiction is a Three-Edged Sword

Fiction, interactive fiction and narrative

Friend or foe?


Narrative games are full of binary choices, and the most common is “friend or foe?” Will you be nice to the NPC, or will you be nasty? Save the baby or burn down the farm? RPG games often have a stack of these choices, several hundred across the course of 20 hours play, and they use them to collect data on what kind of character you’re playing as.

Unfortunately they don’t do anything very good with the numbers. Here’s a suggestion for something better.

In my soon-to-be-released Undum game No Space to Breathe, the story revolves around an interrogation by the protagonist of a character they once knew, a long time ago. The crisis comes from the protagonist’s choice of how they will respond to this figure from their past, who is now is serious trouble. Will they be sympathetic and kind? Will they be hard and uncaring? Will they listen, or will they turn their back? In short, are they a friend or are they a foe?

The choice isn’t a simple one: the player making it, after all, knows nothing about either character to begin with. So the bulk of the gameplay is an exploration of that choice, until the time comes for it to finally be made.

So the player’s choice of “friend or foe?” is really the outcome of a series of choices over time. These little choices guide the flow of the scene, and the state of mind of the NPC character, towards an eventual result. In structure, then, this is the good/evil choice of an RPG, crushed down into a single scene in a single room.

Ideally, a structure like this leads to a seamless emotional arc in which the player’s intentions and the character’s actions go hand-in-hand towards a conclusion that seems so perfectly wrought it seems impossible that it was pre-authored…

Of course, in practice, it doesn’t go like that.

A lot has been written about the failures of the way RPGs track good/evil stats. (Recently, this article by Dan Staines and Malcolm Ryan). The core complaint is usually one of arbitrariness, because of a few core problems:

  • The actions offered to the player are often comically extreme:

Do you want to give the beggar some bread, or steal his blanket?

  • The results are comically bathetic:

You’ve murdered the innocent family. -5 points.

And then the big one:

  • Because the results of all your actions are scored in a common currency, the game accidentally introduces a moral economy in which good actions are tradable for bad actions:

You’ve walked an orphan to school (+2), dug a new well (+3), so you can now kill the bartender’s daughter (-5) without damaging your status in the village.

The problem is a mathematical one. RPG games tend to use a single scale to record how good/evil you are, and actions you take add or subtract to that score. This model is easy to communicate and understand – it is, after all, exactly the same as the money system most games also use. Unfortunately, that simplicity makes it convenient for players to game the system, so they are free to stop treating good/bad choices are anything but modifiers. And the analogy with money is what exactly what leads players to trade good actions for bad ones.

In the final analysis, under such a system, players won’t take responsibility for their choices because they don’t need to. So long as there are enough orphans around to feed, or peasants to be polite to, it’s easy enough to wipe clean the mistakes of the past, and buy yourself a clean rap sheet.

The problem is the system is memoryless: a score of +5 followed by a score -5 is the same as a score of zero. But is that right? Is a player who fed an orphan and hit a beggar the same as a player who did neither? And if the good/evil, “friend or foe” stat is supposed to measure the opinion that the world has of the player, shouldn’t we also pay attention to the player’s past choices when they make new ones?

That’s the key idea behind the system I used in No Space to Breathe: that initial impressions carry more weight than later impressions. A player who comes into the village and immediately burns down a house is making a more significant moral decision than a player who feeds the orphans, makes friends, and then commits his act of arson.

Such a system is likely to be hard to game, but it doesn’t need to be complicated. In No Space I simply tracked two stats instead of one: a friend stat, and a foe stat. Every time the player does a kind thing, their friend stat increases by one. Every time they do something cruel, the foe stat rises instead.

(Note that the Mass Effect games do something similar with their Paragon and Renegade stats, but they use them to unlock options which the player can then choose to take – a neat solution for ensuring the player remains in control, but not so good for creating that seamless emotional arc mentioned above. If it comes to the crunch and the game needs to know Are you good or bad? and the result is not extremal, then Mass Effect‘s solution is to ask the player.)

For No Space, I wanted the calculations to happen off-screen, and there had to be a final score. So I used an average:

Friendliness (%age) = friend stat / (friend stat + foe stat) * 100

That is, the player’s “friend or foe” score is the proportion of the time the player chose to make a friendly choice.

I’ll write up some of the implications of such a system in a future post. With graphs.





Author: joningold

Jon Ingold is a writer and games designer from Cambridge, UK. He is co-founder of inkle, a company specialising in interactive narrative for mobile devices. He has written prose, plays, short films as well as interactive fiction, both in hypertext and parser-based systems. His short stories have appeared in Interzone magazine and his IF works have won competitions and awards.

11 thoughts on “Friend or foe?

  1. While Fallout 1 & 2 has a numerical good/evil scale (and maybe 3 and New Vegas, I haven’t played them) it also has a “child killer” attribute you pick up if you do the deed. It isn’t erasable by other deeds.

    The most comical instance I remember of good/evil erasing came from Might and Magic VI, where I massacred an entire town with a single spell (in order to pick up the master level of Dark magic) and then donated to temples to get back to ultra-good (in order to pick up the master level of Light magic).

  2. To continue the thought, the Fallout stat idea could be carried on so that there are “unforgivable actions” that taint the character with an attribute. This is fairly realistic — one could imagine an ex-arsonist turning good, but everyone’s still going to be nervous when he gets out the lighter no matter how angelic he’s been.

    • I’m surprised they don’t have more of these “uneraseable” attributes. They seem a pretty clear way of saying “This is the character you’ve chosen to become.” I guess ME does this a little with its choices of, say, who lives and dies.

  3. ME feels interesting to me because it tracks mainly your manner more than your choices. Almost everything you do has a paragon/renegade option, but a lot (most?) of the time you don’t have a choice on what to do, just how to do it. I play mean, but try to avoid letting people die, which ends up giving me lots of both. I’m not sure ME can figure this out though to give meaningful responses. Perhaps even more statistics are needed, one system to track your personality, and another to track your character. Some play throughs will line up both, but others won’t.

    I like the unerasable attributes idea as well. ME tracks lots of major choices like that, but they seem to determine more what story options will happen in later sequels rather than how your character is treated. Instead your initial character history determines that.

  4. Echo Bazaar does a fair amount with tracking both sides of a quality, and there are one or two odd options that open up only if you have aligned yourself extensively with both the Church and the devils, for instance. I like the effect much better than a system in which you can’t tell a flamboyant, chaotic character from a timid middle-of-the-road nobody.

    • Echo Bazaar’s system is interesting, too, and something I was going to mention here, but I kinda over-ran. It has that “positive only” thing going, so you can gather up a lot of conflicting high-scores if you play a certain way (or you can, up to a point) — but as you say, it places requirements on those scores. This is nice, and totally brilliantly suited to EBZ’s “story montage” style.
      Where I don’t think it would work so well is in a more “compact” scene. EBZ relies on the idea that the separate story-pieces are only loosely linked, and the player does the job of binding them together in her head. For that to work, I’d guess the stories have to be kept separate enough that they don’t accidentally contradict each other.

      • I suspect you’re right about the limitations of this for small-scene purposes; in particular, it really doesn’t try to track how a specific individual might be thinking about you, for which I agree something like your system might be more appropriate. Though I can think of exceptions there too: most of the time it’s true that established impressions will override new ones, but there are also times when someone does something unexpected that is a revelation of their true character and far too significant to ignore, even if you’ve never seen any sign of it before. But if the scene is implemented on a small scale, incidents like that are probably few enough that they can be accounted for by hand-coding.

      • In No Space, those big actions are basically outputs – exit conditions from the scene. But there’s nothing to stop you adding 10 to the “friend” counter instead of just 1!

  5. I don’t understand moral (alignment) systems at all. All of them seem kind of wrong and artificial to me. I think RPGs like The Witcher series get it right: you make a choice, you deal with consequences, period. It adds weight to every decision and makes every choice unique.

    • I’ve not played the Witcher, but I’m guessing they do something similar under the hood. The reason being, that kind of choice/consequence is great for specific, trackable events — but it’s not so good for a long-term sense of how a player is approaching things. For instance, if you have an in-game companion who sees lots of your decisions, what do they think of you? Do they see you as trustworthy, violent, cruel, compassionate, weak, strong? It’s that kind of subtlety which these systems aim for — and, in fairness, most games aren’t subtle enough to pull it off.

      But without it, you can get into that state where everyone treats you as a hero despite the fact that you’re clearly a mass-murdering thug. (LA Noire, anybody? Oh except, hey, that’s all scripted.)

      • I believe originally this systems aim for two main goals: roleplay (“What would I do if I were the protagonist?”) and replayability (“What would happen if I picked a different option?”).

        The Witcher is interesting because it mostly presents choices with no “good” option available. You end up picking what you think is right (usually what you see the lesser of two evils) and eventually stumble upon the consequences of your actions at some point in the game. You’re making some friends in the process, but mostly enemies. Also, some characters will still treat you like dirt whatever you do for them.

        I have no idea what they did under the hood, but it works, unlike, for instance, approval system in Dragon Age (for example), which, in addition to being somewhat creepy, is easily gamed. They literally say like things Morrigan approves +5, Alistair disapproves -20 and stuff like that. That’s some subtlety right there.

        Looking forward to more of your thoughts on the subject and, of course, the game itself.

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