Despite my best intentions, I read a lot of FAQs when playing RPGs. I typically don’t need any help with strategy. I just don’t like wasting time. Whenever I stumble across a random, possibly pointless side quest, I want to know if the narrative payoff or the reward will be worthwhile before I sink five hours into it.
I fought against that impulse while playing the Director’s Cut of Shadowrun: Dragonfall. But it’s hard to resist when developers keep confusing content with morality. Allow me to explain.
A few hours into Dragonfall, I completed an optional mission for a shady fellow representing an even shadier organization called the Black Lodge (no, not that one). The mission was a disaster. One team member threatened to kill me, another tried to kill me, and it turned out we were bombing a civilian high rise for no discernable reason. Needless to say, I was not pleased with my employer.
The mission was supposed to be a test, so I didn’t know any of the details before accepting. Afterwards, I was informed that working with the Black Lodge would lead to more missions of a similarly dubious and lucrative nature. I accepted the proposition not because I wanted to – I actually felt pretty bad about it – but because that’s what the game wanted me to say.
The mission was intended to test my own morality as much as that of my character. What would I be willing do to for a dollar? In truth, it only tested my familiarity with convention. The decision essentially split the game into two parallel timelines. In one, there’s the RPG that I had been playing up to that point, the one in which my character was a relatively consistent Robin Hood watching over the outcasts of society. In the other, my character has no say in anything she does. She simply follows the orders that I give her based on information I’ve gathered from another tab on my computer.
The first scenario is far more interesting because choices have more weight when the outcomes are uncertain and driven by character. There’s no way my Shadowrunner would continue partnering with people that so flagrantly and dangerously violated her trust, but turning down the Black Lodge could anger a secretive, well-funded organization. Meanwhile, working with them could compromise her relationships with the other teammates. Both scenarios are dramatically compelling.
But only one of those scenarios exists in Dragonfall, and I knew it as soon as I initiated the post-mortem with my employer. I selected the responses that would lead to future missions solely because I didn’t want to close off a large portion of the narrative. I was playing the system rather than my character, so I just assumed (read: hoped) that the game wouldn’t make villainy the only option that led somewhere.
That proved to be misguided. The rest of my team informed me that the Black Lodge was mostly just evil, and that’s when I broke down and checked the FAQ. It turns out we’d all been right. The Lodge was bad news, and turning them down doesn’t lead to anything. It just leads to a new story where there are no missions, no rewards, and no consequences. The Black Lodge – supposedly one of the most powerful organizations in the world of Shadowrun – basically ceases to exist.
It’s doesn’t make for much of an ethical test, either. The decision carries less impact when the game has to withhold information in order to get people to choose the evil option. As an experienced Shadowrunner, I should have heard of the Lodge, so my first agreement didn’t make me feel bad. It made me feel like I’d been duped, a sensation that I really don’t appreciate.
Unfortunately, almost every RPG features at least one moment where the story and the medium are in conflict, and it’s always a little disappointing when it happens. I’ve started thinking about Dragonfall structurally rather than aesthetically because I know the wrong choice in hour 10 can cut off quests or content in hour 60 of an RPG. I find that I care less about spoilers than I do about unnecessary detours and missed opportunities. I’ll say ‘yes’ because that’s the only answer that leads to more.
That’s why I’ll keep playing RPGs with an FAQ on hand. In the case of Shadowrun: Dragonfall I’m glad I did. Knowing that there was no downside, I went back and made the decision my character would have made. I reloaded a previous autosave (an awesome feature, by the way) and ran through the mission again just so I could tell my employer to fuck off once I was done. I erased the consequences of my own actions, but that still felt more authentic because in a roleplay I’m not supposed to be the one dictating the narrative.
The conclusion was far more satisfying. My character wouldn’t let anyone play her like that, and I was proud that I was able to say the same.