I recently picked up a discounted copy of Alpha Protocol, an “Espionage RPG” by Obsidian. I waited for it to go on discount because it generally got moderate-to-terrible reviews. (I saw a fan in an Alpha Protocol forum defending the game by exclaiming, “Alpha Protocol isn’t BAD, it’s MEDIOCRE!”) Apparently enough other players also waited for the discount to kick in before buying, as sales have been so low that Obsidian isn’t even planning to make a sequel. This disappoints me terribly, as Alpha Protocol had the potential to be one of the most important RPG series in the development of narrative gaming.
To be fair, critics’ complaints with the game are not unfounded. The game is indeed a transparent rip-off of Mass Effect, but was stuck in development for so long that it looks and feels dated now. Released months after the supremely polished Mass Effect 2, Alpha Protocol has the graphical fidelity of the first Mass Effect, but without the eerie and expansive alien worlds. The run-and-gun combat also feels like the first hour of Mass Effect‘s, in which weapons are so wildly inaccurate that it feels like firing blind. You can instead focus on putting points into “stealth builds” with little or no focus on gunplay, instead focusing on a pared-down sneaking mechanic reminiscent of the Splinter Cell series. This is a recipe for frustration, however, thanks to extremely challenging boss fights in rooms where you have nowhere to hide. And, though I haven’t seen others mention this much (perhaps because some reviews I’ve read seem to find the plot confusing), the game has occasional serious issues with keeping its story straight, such as when my protagonist seems surprised during one mission to discover intel that I (the player) already paid for and read in-game before the mission even started.
All of that said, Alpha Protocol does two things that blow most of its contemporaries out of the water in terms of narrative game design. I hope Obsidian reuses these design decisions in its later games, and that others find some influence in them.
The first of the two things Alpha Protocol does right is a focus on dialog as game. I don’t just mean allowing you to choose your own things to say in dialog scenes. What I mean is that conversations become a mini-game of their own, in a way. Dialog isn’t just flavor to pad the space between “action” scenesâ€”it is a kind of action. In the very beginning of the game, the protagonist is told that he was recruited for this operation because of his ability to manipulate people, making it clear that whatever your choice of skills, whatever your imagined attitude, you’ll get rewarded for reading other people and speaking to them accordingly. And then the game delivers: During a conversation, the game (relatively unobtrusively) tells you when a conversation partner begins to like or dislike you more based on your responses.
There are benefits both to being liked and being disliked, depending on the character and the situation. Sometimes you need to weigh what’s most valuable to you as a player and as a spectator. Would you rather personally impress a certain mob boss, or would you rather blackmail him, now that you’ve discovered he lied to you and nearly got you killed? Would you rather have a handler who hates your guts, knowing that this will make you a better fighter just to spite them? Do you really want a coked-up, murdering mobster to consider you a pal?
To consider a contrast, recall that in Mass Effect a great many dialog prompts turn out the same way no matter what you respond (which becomes disappointingly apparent when you replay using a different kind of character). In both Mass Effect and Fallout 3 (and even more so in Mass Effect 2), conversation options are pretty cleanly split between “thing I need to say to keep things moving” and “better thing to say, unlocked by progress of a conversation-related skill.” If you’ve got a high enough Speech skill or Charm/Intimidate skill, it’s just about never worthwhile to say anything but the special “unlocked” dialog option. This can be fun, but it also feels rather unlike actual conversation, especially as many of the “locked” dialog options are extremely obvious to anyone who’s ever been in a real conversation before (which hopefully includes all of us). Dialog then becomes a reward for the point-allocation portion of the game, rather than a game in itself.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Alpha Protocol‘s approach, meanwhile, is that all of these conversation optionsâ€”and other choices you make along the wayâ€”seem to actually matter, even if only in tiny but observable ways. This brings me to my second point about what Alpha Protocol does so impressively: making character choices feel truly relevant in how stories unfold. I realize even as I type this that it doesn’t sound very different from what earlier RPGs have accomplished, but the difference here, I think, is in the details, in how far the developers were willing to take this concept to make replays feel genuinely different. Bioware has made a big deal about how many thousands of variables it tracks between Mass Effect installmentsâ€”but as players point out, the actual effect of your actions in Mass Effect 1 tended to be no more than a brief email message in the sequel.
Having played and replayed Alpha Protocol multiple times now (it’s very quick to get through once you know what you’re doing), I can attest that dialog, challenges, and rewards can change quite dramatically depending on various choices you make. Acting suave, professional, or aggressive to any given character changes how they regard you, what information they give you, and what information they share about you with others. This means that the order in which you do your missions is quite relevant, as your reputation can precede you as you get later in the game. Characters address you differently depending on how you’ve treated other characters, whether you approach missions with stealth or rushing in with guns-a-blazing, and what kind of clothing you happen to be wearing. And, of course, the game offers the kind of major lynchpin choice moments that you see in other games, and more of them than you tend to encounter elsewhereâ€”multiple moments of deciding who lives or who dies, whether to prioritize a mission over a friend, and so on.
Your choices are further chronicled by minor “perks” you get awarded along the way: A couple extra skill points, a bonus to Endurance, or a discount on intel prices to mark noteworthy accomplishments, like that time you snuck past those guards, made a friend with an informant, or finally got 100 critical hits. In general, you get rewarded one way or another, regardless of what you do, but the point here is that the game lets the player know in a concrete way (even if you don’t play the game repeatedly like I did) that there was more than one way to do things, with more than one possible result.
The reason why I say that Alpha Protocol has the potential to be so important is that the two things it excels atâ€”dialog and choiceâ€”represent the union of a traditionally “narrative” element with a traditionally “gamelike” element. In this way, it’s kind of trying to do the same thing as Heavy Rain, despite how dissimilar they seem to be on the surface. Personally, I believe these games are on to something, even if they haven’t quite gotten it yet. Both are trying to find a way to tell a story with “action” that isn’t just a series of fight scenes. (Heavy Rain has few fights at all, and Alpha Protocol usually rewards you much better for remaining completely unseen than for winning fights.) I think the major failing of both games is more one of plot than of gameplay: If you’re going to develop a game system tailored to telling a story, it needs to have a story worth telling. Plot holes and inconsistencies are bad enough, but both games also offer so many choices that they fail basic storytelling tests like following up on their own foreshadowing (unless you choose very specific options along the way).
If we’re ever going to see a game that has any kind of narrative purpose besides “an action movie you get to control,” we need games that can handle dialog and protagonist choice in interesting ways. It’s not enough just to make us watch a conversation, and I’m starting to wonder whether the illusions of choice we’ve gotten so far will continue to satisfy in the future. Alpha Protocol is not the long-promised game that will prove to everyone that “games can be art,” but it’s potentially a bigger step than critics give it credit for, and we could do worse than to look to it as an influence.