“Kate Greatly Disapproves”
I’ve been playing Dragon Age Inquisition, and a thing occurred to me: I don’t really like character approval ratings.
Or at least not how they’re generally put into practice. I like the idea of befriending your partymembers and of building that friendship and being rewarded for doing so, and of making it into a gameplay mechanic, but I feel like how most games implement this is weird, frustrating and even a little unhealthy.
There are a few major issues with character approval ratings:
1. Not attempting to get everybody’s approval maxed (or your love interest’s in a Ren’ai) is sub-optimal in gameplay terms. It may lead to missing out on useful abilities, equipment and XP from special quests, put you on course for a bad ending or cause you to lose partymembers.
2. Most characters react well to being agreed with and told what they want to hear.
3. Most of these decisions take place in a case-by-case vacuum ignoring previous scenarios usually with only rare exceptional events where telling a person one thing then doing something else or saying a different thing to somebody else leads to a greater loss of approval than saying something they disagree with then doing so.
This of course leaves us a scenario where the best way to win the game is to be a manipulative, insincere and maybe even stalkery bastard who works out what people want to hear and says exactly that to them in private and doesn’t call them out on unhealthy behaviour but lets them learn the hard way in their personal quests later when it inevitably bites them in the arse, and who chooses who to take on a mission based on guessing what kind of decisions will need to be made and who will approve of them.
This is obviously an unhealthy way to approach relationships. It also limits your viable roleplaying options if you care about both playing the role you want and also being able to complete the game. The game provides you with all these flawed interesting characters to interact with and tells you to deal with those flaws andlove them anyway, but makes them never extend the same courtesy to you. The party, who are usually supposed to be dependable adults, act like total divas and there’s this looming threat of them flouncing off if you don’t agree that yes, bringing back somebody from the dead is a great idea, or of course, the world is absolutely divided into black and white morality, or yeah, killing that person was totally justified!
At this point, somebody will be thinking “ah but she hasn’t talked about Dragon Age Two!” already readying their keyboard. Okay, so DA2 tried the interesting idea of having Friendship vs. Rivalry. If you say or do something a partymember doesn’t like, instead of shifting down into negative friendship with the likely outcome of desertion or no special extras, the bar shifted towards rivalry, an equal, but different relationship state with similar but different benefits and some changes to dialogue. It was a nice effort. Unfortunately there’s a couple of flaws with it: What characters like and dislike still runs on a case-by-case line, and it doesn’t allow for the difference between liking a person and agreeing with them, and also it is disadvantageous to be in the middle. Yes, it is better for a character in DA2 to feel outright antagonistic towards the protagonist than to just be kinda okay with them. So I lost a partymember when I played because I wasn’t deliberately mean to them. Characters like Merill can be a nightmare, because she likes you being nice to her, but she dislikes being told anything negative about demons or blood magic, even when there’s an obvious bad situation caused by those things, but doesn’t give nuanced enough conversation options to tiptoe around her feelings “well, SOME demons are bad. Not all demons…. I know the ones YOU deal with are probably okay because you’re obviously not problematic at all and a good person!” and she’s not apparently emotionally mature or insightful enough to realise you’re saying things to be diplomatic and appease NPCs or to maybe consider that you might be right.
I’d love to talk about Knights of the Old Republic 2 here as well, but that game is a whole post of its own and also I’m not 100% sure how it works under the hood without some research. But look it up! The approval system is really interesting because your influence over partymembers actually changes their moral alignment and what they value, which changes what they like and how they act.
I feel like systems where a game could differentiate between liking a person and agreeing with them and also which took into account the integrity and consistency of a player’s decisions would be pretty cool. But of course, that’s a complex system to put into a game! With Vacant Sky, we assumed that if somebody really hated Dakura and opposed his goals, or at least if being with him wasn’t convenient for them, they wouldn’t be working with him, so we made it more so following Dakura was the absolute baseline for the relationship, and from there it can only go up and become more intense, and does so by putting particular effort into interacting with that character. How you interact with them influences various parts of their personality; always agreeing with their world view will make them stubbornly believe in that worldview more, for better or worse, while challenging their ideas all the time will make them more open and questioning, but also maybe less sure of themselves and less driven. There’s no loss condition for it, and the abilities you gain aren’t better or worse; just different. You’ll also sometimes notice events play out in subtly different ways if you’ve been encouraging Sarian to be cautious and pragmatic or bold and unyielding. It’s an extremely complex system that feels very organic, but obviously took a lot of work to make!
I’ll be interested to see people play it and see what the feedback is like so we can do further work on making games with really interesting character interaction.