A problem of persuasion

 

On the whole, video games tend to be a rather violent medium. Not that there is anything wrong that of course. Violence, as it turns out, makes for pretty fun gameplay.

However, the fact that most video games have you solve problems by either punching or shooting has an interesting, unintended side effect: it makes the times that you talk your way out a problem incredibly badass. Whether it be intimidating someone into giving you an extra item or getting the final boss to off himself for you, the art of persuasion can be more exciting that fighting a hundred armed enemies. Despite its awesomeness, however, persuasion is often one of the most mechanically simple things you can do in a game.

***Minor spoilers for older games ahead!***

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Take Fallout New Vegas, for example, a game revered for its use of peaceful solutions to many of its quests. In New Vegas, persuasion is simply a matter of having the right amount of points in the Speech skill. No actual thought or skill is required of the player. Now on the surface, this may seem to make sense. New Vegas is a number based game after all. Skill points and stats determine everything you do. However, persuasion is the only aspect of play that is solely numbers.

Combat requires either a player’s skill with aiming or tactical decisions if they use the game’s VATS system. Hacking a computer terminal and lockpicking both require having skill points, and the ability to perform a mini-game. Persuasion just requires points in the Speech skill. This can make the game feel rather anticlimactic in its final moments. In New Vegas, it’s possible to simply talk the game’s final boss into leaving without a fight. But since nothing is required of the player, other than having enough points allotted, it feels more like the player simply being tired of playing instead of a tense conversation.

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Another series lauded for its dialogue system is Mass Effect.  As far as games that make you feel like a badass for talking your way out of a problem, Mass Effect is one of the best. While the system has changed a bit over the series, the basics have remained the same. Persuasion falls into two one of two options: charm or intimidate. Your ability to perform one of these actions is determined by the game’s morality system, Paragon or Renegade. If you have enough Paragon or Renegade points, you can use either charm or intimidate. The morality score is based on decisions that you make throughout the game.

This works a little better than the Fallout system, as it is responding to your role playing, and not something that you are going to have to commit to in the beginning. In theory, it makes for a more natural experience. Except it is not without its problems. Mainly being that the system ends up railroading players into the two extremes. The system doesn’t really allow for you to be neutral. If you want the extra persuasion options, then you better be at one extreme or the other. Which really kind of defeats the purpose of role playing, if the choice you make is obvious.

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Now is there a game that lets you persuade people without skill checks or railroading in the morality. Yes, it’s the modern Deus Ex games. At several points throughout these games, you will come to a conversation boss battle. You will have to pick responses from one of four options to accomplish your goal. You don’t need any points spent in skills to win, nor do you need to play the game in a certain way. Of course, there are two problems. The first is that mechanically speaking, it’s super simple. It’s nothing more than a combination lock puzzle. You just need to pick the right responses. Thought is still required, but it makes replaying the game rather dull, as you will likely remember what you need to do.

The other issue is one that plagues both Fallout and Mass Effect as well. That is that each persuasion needs to be scripted out. You can only persuade people that the writers want you to persuade. It makes the game a little bit limited in that regard.

So then is there a game that allows you to persuade everyone, and doesn’t have skill checks or forced morality choices. Yes, Huniepop. Huniepop is a dating game that allows you to woo several different ladies over several different dates. It’s not quite persuasion, but it works for this discussion.

So how does the game have multiple dates with multiple women? Does is script them out? No, you play a match three game. You see, what Huniepop does is abstract out the dates to something simpler. Now it does add things to the game to make it more in line with what the game is about, but it doesn’t try to actually simulate a date.

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Now imagine if a role-playing game took a lesson from Huniepop. Suddenly, you could persuade everyone since no scripting would be required. Shopkeepers, guards, everyone. Not only that but it solves the problem that Fallout has where using speech checks to win fights makes it seem like there is just less of a game for nonviolent characters. Talking the final boss into leaving or killing himself would suddenly become super stressful as you had to play a challenging mini-game. And it doesn’t have to be a match three game. Any type of mini-game could work.

The truth is that games don’t need to be perfect simulations of the real word. We already abstract out health and inventory. Why not persuasion? At least until we can actually talk to game characters directly. But considering how hard it is to get games to just run at a decent frame rate, I think that’s a long way off.

 

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