I don’t know if this makes thinking about the story for SS3 any easier, but I would like the new game to fire with high synchronization on all cylinders:
Aesthetics and narrative
World-dynamics and capabilities
Mechanics and the core gameplay loop
Kinesthetics – sensations and excitement
In other words, the specific story is negotiable for me as long as it’s consciously designed to be a satisfying fit for the other aspects of a System Shock game. It’s fun to knock specific ideas around – I favor SHODAN getting to the Moon and offering all humans on Earth cybernetic immortality (for the price of becoming her playthings forever) – but mostly I’d like the story to support the kind of gameplay that OtherSide is capable of building today, and vice versa.
So my question isn’t just, “What should the story be?” but “What’s the best story to match the kind of gameplay and dynamics and kinesthetics that a System Shock 3 ought to have?”
With respect to choice… Warren has written some things about that recently. As he put it: “Simply put, games aren’t, and shouldn’t be, about choice.” If I may paraphrase him (badly), he’s not a fan of “choice” when that just means options that don’t really matter. What really matter are the results of making choices: consequences.
The ending of Deus Ex was one way of expressing that idea as gameplay. Cyber’s suggestion – “player character destroys SHODAN” versus “player character joins SHODAN” – is another example of choices leading to real, meaningful consequences in the world of the game.
But I think even that isn’t really enough for Warren, especially these days. (I don’t know him; I’m just guessing here.) My impression is that it’s barely tolerable for there to be meaningful consequences for the player character within the world of a game… but what about the real person playing that game? Couldn’t – shouldn’t – games be experiences that deepen the understanding of the human condition for some of its participants in the way that a great novel or film can, even though those are creator-dictated experiences with no interactivity?
I’m personally really conflicted about that. I support strongly the idea that games can, and some ought to try to, say something of real meaning. It’s the expression of that idea that concerns me, because there’s a risk of confusing one’s parochial beliefs (often political) with an understanding of and appreciation for people in general.
In other words, is it really “saying something” useful if that something is just the same thing being shouted at people all the time these days?
Between System Shock 1 and 2, and TriOptimum and the UNN, it’s established in this narrative universe that at least some corporations and governments pretty much suck. That’s in line with the simplest aspects of anti-authoritarianism in cyberpunk. I won’t be surprised or disappointed if that aesthetic is carried through to some extent in a System Shock 3.
But what I hope doesn’t happen is that a heavy-handed, Krugmanesque, “all corporations are evil incarnate” belief system takes over SS3 and becomes The Message of the game around which the story and everything else is wrapped. System Shock 3: This Happened Because You Didn’t Elect Bernie would certainly be saying something. But I don’t think a developer building a game around that belief would be as interesting as building a gameworld that lets players make their own choices – and experience plausible, multi-faceted consequences – about a hard question of what it means to live as a human being, even if not all players choose what the designers and writers themselves would choose.
I think Deus Ex proved that this is possible. I hope the story of SS3, and its mechanics and dynamics and kinesthetics, will be equally respectful of its players and encourage thoughtfulness in all of them (beyond blowing up lot of robots, of course).
I’m hoping for a story that lets players explore a theme broad enough that it doesn’t have one simple Right Answer. I see the theme of Deus Ex as “liberty versus security,” for example – that was a fantastic choice because reasonable people could argue intelligently on behalf of both of those alternatives, and the consequences of those choices could be dramatized through interactive gameplay so that even the players of the game could get something useful out of it.
What theme would similarly feel right for System Shock 3, would ask a question on which reasonable people might come to different conclusions, and would be fun to interact with as gameplay?