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Flexible Backstories and Early Game?

backstory background character flexible

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Poll: Narrative Flexibility in Project Eternity from the Beginning (81 member(s) have cast votes)

How much control would you like to have over your main character's backstory?

  1. I'd like to control my character's past accomplishments and/or level of prestige. (25 votes [8.87%])

    Percentage of vote: 8.87%

  2. I'd like to choose my character's wealth/financial background or starting skill level. (22 votes [7.80%])

    Percentage of vote: 7.80%

  3. I'd like to define my character's personality, habits, and other quirks in advance, in addition to defining these through play (would affect dialog options). (40 votes [14.18%])

    Percentage of vote: 14.18%

  4. I'd like to determine my character's moral alignment, values, and other motivations in advance, as well as defining these through play. (38 votes [13.48%])

    Percentage of vote: 13.48%

  5. I'd like to pick areas of knowledge in which my character has prior learning (could affect dialogue options and certain checks). (52 votes [18.44%])

    Percentage of vote: 18.44%

  6. I'd like to choose my character's religion and/or cultural heritage (could affect dialog options and starting location). (55 votes [19.50%])

    Percentage of vote: 19.50%

  7. I would be happy picking from a few generic archetype-based backstories (ex. orphan or widow) that explain my character's call to heroism. (30 votes [10.64%])

    Percentage of vote: 10.64%

  8. I think this detracts from the strength of the narrative. (6 votes [2.13%])

    Percentage of vote: 2.13%

  9. I am ambivalent/apathetic to this. (14 votes [4.96%])

    Percentage of vote: 4.96%

Should Project Eternity offer different starting locations?

  1. One should be able to start a character in virtually every small village. (3 votes [3.70%])

    Percentage of vote: 3.70%

  2. There should be a series of starting locations, that you can choose from depending on your character's cultural heritage. (34 votes [41.98%])

    Percentage of vote: 41.98%

  3. I'm content with all characters starting from the same place. (41 votes [50.62%])

    Percentage of vote: 50.62%

  4. I think this is a bad idea for some other reason. (3 votes [3.70%])

    Percentage of vote: 3.70%

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#1
mcmanusaur

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I don't actually make it a habit to playing games through multiple times, but like many of you when I do so I try some things differently the second time around. However, the issue I often run into is that there is a latency period at the beginning of the game before my character has had the chance to make any choices, or at least before those choices have had a chance to affect the gameplay experience. Even if later on in the game's trajectory a lot of differences do come into play, the beginning of successive playthroughs always seems to feel the most repetitive part and skipping through the same exposition cutscenes becomes a chore.

 

Thus I wonder whether people could see the main character's backstory being customizable in the manner described in this thread, or if it's something that people feel is out of PE's scope or is undesirable regardless. Given the amount of effort being put into PE's setting, and the fact that it features multiple races, I thought it would be cool if certain elements of your character's background could even affect your character's starting location. The first objective could still be "report to large city X" or whatever it is, but this would definitely add a lot more variety in the game, as long as we were willing to part with a bit of linearity.

 

I realize that this may interfere slightly if most locations are designed around relevance to specific quests that you're not supposed to reach until later in the game, but one would hope that there are at least enough self-justifying locations that a handful of them could be used as starting locations.


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#2
JFSOCC

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Have the choiceless part be in a skippable prologue. (with maybe a confirmation dialogue "are you sure you wish to skip the prologue?")

Much like Fallout 3, if I recall correctly, you can immediately move outside the vault and start the game, missing some of the stuff which is really just to get you acquainted with the mechanics.



#3
Micamo

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I really like these sorts of mechanics in games, but there are two things I'd hope the Eternity team manages to avoid if they go with this sort of thing at all:

1. If you have multiple starting locations, don't make the same mistake DAO did. That is, don't introduce a plot in the prologue and then throw it under a bus to not be resolved until way, way later in the game (or not at all). Especially not to replace it with a much less interesting and emotionally engaging plot. I remember being all excited to explore the Mage/Templar thing after finishing my origin story when I was playing DAO for the first time, then being dragged away kicking and screaming to join the grey wardens. I didn't care about Caelan or the Darkspawn, dammit, I just wanted to go to Aeonar and save Lilly! The majority of the origins had this problem (Human Noble and Dalish Elf didn't, only because they were so boring the Darkspawn crap was actually an improvement).

2. If you have background traits, don't make the same mistake NWN2 did. Your background trait gets mentioned like, once during the harvest festival (so to see it at all you have to play through the tutorial), if even that, then it gets ignored for the rest fo the game. This is actually really common in CRPGs that let you choose things that represent your backstory, it's only briefly acknowledged during the beginning and then quickly becomes irrelevant. I suspect it's a symptom of the larger development problem that the middle of a game is usually what gets done first, with the beginning and end of the game done last (and rushed to get the game out the door, at that).
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#4
KillerClowns

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Personality should define itself during play, I agree with that much. But things like cultural heritage, socioeconomic background, and religion should be set up pregame to help make it feel more like your character isn't formed ex nihlo, and should be a constant part of the way the world views your character and the choices characters have in conversations. The fact is, even if both are equally honorable and good-hearted warriors, the world will treat a local noblewoman and a poor sailor's son from a far-off land very differently.


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#5
mcmanusaur

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I really like these sorts of mechanics in games, but there are two things I'd hope the Eternity team manages to avoid if they go with this sort of thing at all:

1. If you have multiple starting locations, don't make the same mistake DAO did. That is, don't introduce a plot in the prologue and then throw it under a bus to not be resolved until way, way later in the game (or not at all). Especially not to replace it with a much less interesting and emotionally engaging plot. I remember being all excited to explore the Mage/Templar thing after finishing my origin story when I was playing DAO for the first time, then being dragged away kicking and screaming to join the grey wardens. I didn't care about Caelan or the Darkspawn, dammit, I just wanted to go to Aeonar and save Lilly! The majority of the origins had this problem (Human Noble and Dalish Elf didn't, only because they were so boring the Darkspawn crap was actually an improvement).

2. If you have background traits, don't make the same mistake NWN2 did. Your background trait gets mentioned like, once during the harvest festival (so to see it at all you have to play through the tutorial), if even that, then it gets ignored for the rest fo the game. This is actually really common in CRPGs that let you choose things that represent your backstory, it's only briefly acknowledged during the beginning and then quickly becomes irrelevant. I suspect it's a symptom of the larger development problem that the middle of a game is usually what gets done first, with the beginning and end of the game done last (and rushed to get the game out the door, at that).

 

I've never played DA:O, but this sounds like something that results from bad writing, and could happen regardless of whether you can choose from multiple starting locations.

 

Regarding the second, this is obviously of consummate importance. It's pointless to choose such things if they don't affect your experience. I guess the counter-argument is something like "well, it's hard to know what choices you want to make until you've gotten in-game" which suggests that you should define your character more through play, but personally I find that a bit too much hand-holding and too streamlined at that. We don't need to be constantly "reminded" of our character's backstory in shallow ways by NPC's, but it should affect the choices they have.



#6
mcmanusaur

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Personality should define itself during play, I agree with that much. But things like cultural heritage, socioeconomic background, and religion should be set up pregame to help make it feel more like your character isn't formed ex nihlo, and should be a constant part of the way the world views your character and the choices characters have in conversations. The fact is, even if both are equally honorable and good-hearted warriors, the world will treat a local noblewoman and a poor sailor's son from a far-off land very differently.

 

Yeah, the issue I see with defining personality through play is- assuming they actually write enough dialog options to reflect a decently-sized list of personality traits- there should always be a lot of options to choose from, to the point that picking a set of personality traits in advance would narrow things down to a more manageable list. However, this is a problem that an RPG with traditionally "written" dialogue is unlikely to run into, but if dialogue options corresponding reflecting various personality traits could be generated (mad libs-style or otherwise) then it hypothetically could be useful to narrow the list down.



#7
Sacred_Path

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I generally like background traits, which usually combine a small description of the character's past with some mechanical bonus.

I think multiple starting locations needlessly complicate things especially on the lower levels. An open world with one starting location seems sufficient.



But macman, I kinda like your oddball approach to computer roleplaying and your ineffectual dreaming. You're like a condescending Peter Molyneux.
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#8
KillerClowns

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Yeah, the issue I see with defining personality through play is- assuming they actually write enough dialog options to reflect a decently-sized list of personality traits- there should always be a lot of options to choose from, to the point that picking a set of personality traits in advance would narrow things down to a more manageable list. However, this is a problem that an RPG with traditionally "written" dialogue is unlikely to run into, but if dialogue options corresponding reflecting various personality traits could be generated (mad libs-style or otherwise) then it hypothetically could be useful to narrow the list down.

 

 

I was initially hesitant, but the more I think about it, the better filtering sounds. With a certain amount of leeway -- a dickish character should always have less dickish options open if the player wants them to develop into a more pleasant person for whatever reason.

 

But they shouldn't spontaneously start rambling like a noble hero of old. The area between "no gold? Then the goblins get to keep eating your cows," and "of course I'll protect you from those wretched goblins" should have an intermediary area of "I can't believe I'm saying this, but... fine, I'll deal with your stupid goblin problem for free," while the character shakes off old habits. And maybe have the character take a bluff check or the equivalent for saying something blatantly out-of-character for pragmatic gain (I.E. a jackhole playing goody-two-shoes to endear themselves to a paladin order they plan to betray and rob, where a genuine repentant would at least admit their doubts).

 

Of course, all of this would take a lot of writing, mapping values to dialogue, and overall significant amounts of work. I'm talking idealistically, not realistically, I admit.


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#9
Sylvius the Mad

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The only narrative that matters is the one that we create.  The story told in given playthrough is written collaboratively by player and the game's designers working together.

 

The suggestion that flexibility detracts from the narrative is nonsensical.


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#10
KillerClowns

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The only narrative that matters is the one that we create.  The story told in given playthrough is written collaboratively by player and the game's designers working together.

 

The suggestion that flexibility detracts from the narrative is nonsensical.

Could you please clarify what "flexibility" you're referring to? Because both those for and against explicitly defined backgrounds can make an argument that their option is the self-evidently more flexible one. "An undefined background is more flexible, because it allows the player to fill in the gaps with their imagination instead of relying on the designer's predefined options", or "a defined background is more flexible, because it allows far more organic interactions with the world's NPCs instead of merely leaving all PCs generic adventurers of no known background."



#11
Amentep

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One of the things I really liked about Arcanum was their backgrounds.  They were generic enough not to nail down too many things but still gave the feeling that your character didn't suddenly appear from the aether either.


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#12
mcmanusaur

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Yeah, the issue I see with defining personality through play is- assuming they actually write enough dialog options to reflect a decently-sized list of personality traits- there should always be a lot of options to choose from, to the point that picking a set of personality traits in advance would narrow things down to a more manageable list. However, this is a problem that an RPG with traditionally "written" dialogue is unlikely to run into, but if dialogue options corresponding reflecting various personality traits could be generated (mad libs-style or otherwise) then it hypothetically could be useful to narrow the list down.

 

 

I was initially hesitant, but the more I think about it, the better filtering sounds. With a certain amount of leeway -- a dickish character should always have less dickish options open if the player wants them to develop into a more pleasant person for whatever reason.

 

But they shouldn't spontaneously start rambling like a noble hero of old. The area between "no gold? Then the goblins get to keep eating your cows," and "of course I'll protect you from those wretched goblins" should have an intermediary area of "I can't believe I'm saying this, but... fine, I'll deal with your stupid goblin problem for free," while the character shakes off old habits. And maybe have the character take a bluff check or the equivalent for saying something blatantly out-of-character for pragmatic gain (I.E. a jackhole playing goody-two-shoes to endear themselves to a paladin order they plan to betray and rob, where a genuine repentant would at least admit their doubts).

 

Of course, all of this would take a lot of writing, mapping values to dialogue, and overall significant amounts of work. I'm talking idealistically, not realistically, I admit.

 

 

Ah, that decent makes sense; I hadn't considered that in limiting dialog options, based on personality as defined in advance, you're somewhat limiting the player's ability to develop their character. But yeah, you could definitely still have all the morally oriented dialogue options included, but simply have their tone reflect personality/alignment as chosen during character creation. Also for some elements of personality (such as introversion/extraversion), something like this might be preferable, whereas other personality aspects (for example "claustrophobic") are somewhat more unlikely to appear over time.



#13
mcmanusaur

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The only narrative that matters is the one that we create.  The story told in given playthrough is written collaboratively by player and the game's designers working together.

 

The suggestion that flexibility detracts from the narrative is nonsensical.

Could you please clarify what "flexibility" you're referring to? Because both those for and against explicitly defined backgrounds can make an argument that their option is the self-evidently more flexible one. "An undefined background is more flexible, because it allows the player to fill in the gaps with their imagination instead of relying on the designer's predefined options", or "a defined background is more flexible, because it allows far more organic interactions with the world's NPCs instead of merely leaving all PCs generic adventurers of no known background."

 

Well, rather than calling them both equal kinds of "flexibility", we should note that the former gives more freedom to the player, and the latter is theoretically more flexible as far as the designer is concerned. However, I would contest this claim; for me the former is no less flexible, as it simply involves organic interactions being written for a variety of backstory options rather than for a single defined background (after all, no one wants their customized character to be treated as a "generic adventurer of no known background", because that completely defeats the point), and thus simply constitutes more work for the developers.


Edited by mcmanusaur, 10 July 2013 - 09:17 AM.


#14
jethro

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I don't see where a fixed background can be more flexible. Lets assume we have backgrounds extroverted and introverted. Now the designer writes dialog options for extroverted and introverted characters and the extroverted will only see the extroverted option. Now without backgrounds the designer can likewise add an extroverted and introverted dialog option(*) and show both. For the player this is obviously more flexible, because he has more options. And it wouldn't even be wrong to sometimes choose the introverted option because humans have mood swings and don't act the same every time.

 

Correct me if I'm wrong.

 

(*) I'm assuming that the designer has the same amount of time for the dialogs in both versions, anything else would be an unfair assumption.



#15
motorizer

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Having completely different game beginnings in DA:O was a great idea....unfortunately it just moved the repetition a hour further into the game when you were funneled into the battle against the darkspawn...having different starts which then dumped you out in the wild world to go where you want would be great..

 

that is assuming the momentous event which sets our adventure in motion is not tied to one place...if it's something like being attacked by something that appears, or witnessing some treachery on the road...something that could happen anywhere...then it would be possible for each playthrough to start out completely differently


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#16
Sylvius the Mad

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The only narrative that matters is the one that we create.  The story told in given playthrough is written collaboratively by player and the game's designers working together.

 

The suggestion that flexibility detracts from the narrative is nonsensical.

Could you please clarify what "flexibility" you're referring to? Because both those for and against explicitly defined backgrounds can make an argument that their option is the self-evidently more flexible one. "An undefined background is more flexible, because it allows the player to fill in the gaps with their imagination instead of relying on the designer's predefined options", or "a defined background is more flexible, because it allows far more organic interactions with the world's NPCs instead of merely leaving all PCs generic adventurers of no known background."

 

I'm referring to the player's freedom to play the character he prefers. Whether it be through defining the character himself (a blank slate opr mysterious stranger PC works for this), or from choosing from among a range of available backgrounds, giving the player more freedom does not ever restrict the narrative.

 

In the poll, we were choosing only whether the player chould have control over things, not whether we prefer that over some alternative. Yes, a selection of pre-defined backgrounds is more restrictive than a completely open background the player can define himself, but that wasn't the dichotomy presented. No dichotomy was presented.

 

My first choice is to have the PC's background left entirely to the player to define as he sees fit. My second choice is to have a broad selection of pre-written backgrounds from which the PC can choose. My last choice is a single pre-written background for all PCs.


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#17
rjshae

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IIRC, your character is not native to the region in question. Background stories may therefore be superfluous, except to add a little color.



#18
Sylvius the Mad

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IIRC, your character is not native to the region in question.

That's a classic mysterious stranger.  That would be perfect.



#19
jamoecw

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well if they add in banter interactions based on background, then adventurer's hall fill ins won't be bland party members.  so it would add more than just simple dialog option flavor.

 

in DA:O my first play through i picked dwarven casteless, it played out fine in the beginning, but when i went back to the dwarves to get there support i had to choose between two people who were a part of groups that tried to kill me during the origin story.  while i sat there next to the most legitimate option, but couldn't choose him due to him being a party member (which wasn't an issue for the humans since it was part of the main storyline).  it was a forced pick between two evils situation, and the origin story gave a perspective that meant that i should have gone for some other third option (the first ever casteless grey warden deciding the future of all dwarves, definitely a time to shake things up).  aside from a few dialog snippets that pop up, your origin didn't matter, in that situation i might as well have been a moleman from planet X.  if there was anytime origins should have made a difference that was it.

 

in short, if you have origins, use it, if you don't use it, then don't bother wasting the development time.



#20
mcmanusaur

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IIRC, your character is not native to the region in question.

 

I don't see why you couldn't still have multiple starting locations; did the player arrive by intently sailing into the province's main port town via city A, or did they instead shipwreck while en route to B and wash ashore at C by accident? Did they move by land along a safe and well-traveled road from place X, or venture across a perilous frontier region (i.e. desert, tundra, etc.) from region Y? Did they arrive while in the captivity of slave traders, fleeing a bounty due to prior criminal activities, or on their own accord hoping for better living conditions? I still think that there are a lot of possibilities there, without reducing the character's narrative viability further.


Edited by mcmanusaur, 10 July 2013 - 01:42 PM.

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