The conversation tree has pretty much become a staple of the American role playing game. Games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age are simply not content to let the player click on an NPC to see what that person has to say. Instead there is an assumption that interactivity is essential to immersion in the game world and that the player needs to have some choice in how he represents his character in the world.
The limitations of this kind of interaction are notable. Conversation trees can feel awkward with weird choices of dialogue that may seem unnatural and unlikely given that a variety of choices reflecting various personality types are needed to answer just one line of dialogue—sometimes they just don’t all seem “right.” Worse still, as far as immersion goes, is the sense that the player isn’t so much “taking part in a conversation” as the player is in “gaming the conversation.” In other words, choices are often selected contrary to narrative interests or authenticity of character (in other words, those things that allow the player to really assume a “role”) but instead because the player is aware that these choices have gameplay consequences and they really want to strategize a useful outcome (in gameplay terms) rather than effect an actual conversation.
The premise of Alpha Protocol, a game of political intrigue and espionage, is that conversation is a game. In other words, Alpha Protocol takes for granted that the player will attempt to “game” the conversation system. In fact, it encourages it.
Early in the game’s tutorial chapter, Alpha Protocol agent, Michael Thorton, is instructed not only in the use of guns, gadgets, and gizmos but most centrally to the premise of the game, the fine art of conversational rhetoric. Actually all of the combat and stealth related training can be skipped entirely in the tutorial but not this last element, the art of persuasion, as if to emphasize the absolute focus of the game on conversation.
While a game like Mass Effect may seem to wish to allow players to craft a character’s personality by representing that personality through the kinds of things that they say, Thorton’s boss, Yancy Westridge, explains that conversation for a spy like Thorton is about “playing” the target. In other words, the good agent will get to know the the needs and desires of the subject to figure out what needs to be said, rather than what one wants to say. It is as beneficial potentially to learn how to piss an adversary (or even an ally) off or scare them, as it is to please them. It depends on how you want to play this game. Thus, conversation in Alpha Protocol is seen as a game, but not merely because the player is playing a video game. Instead, the game is reflective of the gamesmanship of rhetoric as a tool in the political provocateur’s arsenal. The plot requires artificial and artful conversation, not personal expressiveness.
Unfortunately, as I reported earlier this week (“Slow Starters: Deadly Premonition, Assassin’s Creed II, Alpha Protocol”, PopMatters, 2 June 2010), this initially intriguing premise gets lost in some rather bland gameplay for a few hours. The promise of Westridge’s tutorial on “playing” those that you interact with seems immediately to not produce an experience much different than the ones that other RPGs offer in terms of the conversation tree. Plus, these segments are sparse as Thorton begins running some stealth-based or combat-based (depending on what skills you choose to specialize in as a spy: sneaking, tech-based skills, or guns and general toughness) missions that seem largely run of the mill “video game stuff.”
Playing with a stealth based assassin, I initially felt that Alpha Protocol was merely a poor man’s version of Metal Gear Solid and that overall it was a game masquerading as Deus Ex (offering a seeming multitude of choices in accomplishing each mission) and doing a bad job of it (given that there really are few reasonably balanced approaches to most situations in early levels – stealth works best in some situations, long ranged combat in others, etc.).
Alpha Protocol is indeed a slow starter, but it does begin to simmer then sizzle as the actions taken in various global hot spots (Moscow, Rome, and Taipei) begin to open up encounters that are based more heavily on interaction with NPCs because Thorton begins to develop friendships and antagonisms with various other espionage agents and other global movers and shakers.
I didn’t have much faith in the promise of the conversation tree having much actual effect on the game until I got to Rome and began seeing how choices that I had made in Moscow were beginning to both aid and hinder my investigation. By the time that I reached Taipei, I realized that I had gained some invaluable assistance from a rival agent named Albatross that had benefited me greatly over the course of the whole game, and I was haunted by a particularly poor choice that I had made way back in the opening Saudi Arabia levels. At this point, I really wanted to get through the game to the end, not because I wanted to get it over with but because I really wanted to begin a new playthrough, altering the order of the missions that I had taken and previous conversations to see how the game develops in new ways. In this sense, Alpha Protocol screams replayability, as narrative development thoughout the game really seem a result of sculpting the story through relationships, not merely through a few simple decisions.
At the close of Alpha Protocol, I sailed into the sunset with a red head. I had executed a major player in weapons manufacturing, seen a Taiwanese president through an assassination attempt while his country dissolved into riotous chaos, crippled a terrorist organization that unfortunately was, nevertheless, still operational, and managed to provoke an incident in Rome that caused more authoritarian legislation (something like the Patriot Act) to be passed through the U.S. Congress. It may seem like I am spoiling the conclusion of the game here, but given the amount of choices that Alpha Protocol offers as outcomes to Thorton’s missions, it is unlikely that your ending will be the same as mine, nor are these outcomes the real interest of the story. Instead, it is how they come about.
Indeed, I was both pleased and disconcerted by my results. Some of the outcomes were things that I had intended, while others were unintended consequences of my actions. The best thing about this mixed result, though, was that I understood why events had turned out as they had and that they were not simply the result of a few quick arbitrary choices made in some missions. All of these outcomes were the result of multiple decisions that I had made over the course of my experiences in the game through developing plot threads not just by making one smart aleck response at the wrong time or by saying just the right thing at a critical moment. Decisions are the result of a tapestry of choices. They are not banged out in a single button press.
In some sense, Alpha Protocol seems like the game that Heavy Rain wanted to be. However, the game is not just a web of choices, like a high tech reinvention of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. It also has some familiar gameplay elements like combat, stealth, and mini-games built on top of this more complicated narrative structure. While the game suffers at times from some balancing issues (boss fights are wickedly difficult at lower levels, then become laughably simple as Thorton grows in power), these elements become more enjoyable as new skills are added through the character development system and you begin getting a sense of the type of agent you are playing. Ultimately though, Alpha Protocol‘s strength is in its approach to conversation. As a simulation of artful political rhetoric and the complexities of the outcome of personal and political interaction, it feels truly fresh and innovative.
It also just makes sense. How does a single individual shape global politics? The way that the most powerful modern political agents always have: by talking.