Heroes without a Cause: The Allure of Avernum
Today I saw that Avernum: Escape from the Pit was on sale on Steam for under $4. This is a steal for one of the landmark pre-millennial indie role-playing games. (Avernum is a re-remake of Exile: Escape from the Pit, which was released 17 years ago.) Back then, I was a young wannabe roleplayer that had never finished a computer RPG before; Exile was my first. Older RPers cited Ultima 4, with its moral system and emphasis on being a paragon of virtue, as the game that changed how they looked at RPGs. The original Exile was my Ultima 4 for one simple reason: it didn’t have a goal.
Exile had three different endgame quests, but it didn’t have a goal, an overarching threat or plot you had to defeat to save the world. Avernum, the titular underground realm of exiles, was dangerous and under assault from multiple sides, but it never felt like it would crumble unless you did something. This world did not make demands, nor did it care if you died alone and forgotten in some bat cave. No, if you wanted recognition, you had to earn it yourself. But what did you want to be recognized for?
Escaping the inescapable prison?
Committing the most brazen act of revenge in the history of the Empire?
Any and all of the above were possible; finishing one did not prevent you from completing the others. When I was young, I just wanted to complete each one that I could. Now that I’ve grown up, I realize each combination of goals implied wildly diverse motivations. One group would slay a great threat to Avernum and stay as heroes. Another would find a way to the surface, but stay long enough to eliminate that threat for a people they barely know. A more mercenary party would just flee and leave Avernum to its own devices, while a darker team would exact revenge before escaping, leaving Avernum at the mercy of the Empire’s retaliation. An obsessive-compulsive group might finish all three, leaving the citizens utterly confused about what they were trying to do.
These pick-and-choose goals gave Exile’s generic adventuring party more personality than most RPG protagonists. Most RPGs nowadays usually confine them to a single main goal with Good vs Evil choices that tests their ethics: “How do you want to do this?” Exile, by giving them an array of goals, tests their motivations: “What do you want to do?” This is more realistic and easier to relate to; few of us decide to be an utter ass to as many people as possible, but all of us have argued about what is most important in life. Tense morality decisions tell you something about a character, but conflicts & compromises about what they should pursue fleshes them out into people you want to root for.
Skyrim is a great example of a game where people try to establish their characters’ motivations in this way, even when it conflicts with the main quest itself. When people talk about their Skyrim characters, do they mention being the Dovahkiin and saving the world from Alduin? No. They talk about the guilds they lead, the skills they maxed out, the peasants they slaughtered, and the houses they filled with cheese. The only time the main quest is mentioned is to say they refused it. “Slay dragons? Burkely Twiddlefeet would rather explore ruins than slay dragons!” Slaying dragons to save the world appeals to the most common goal: survival. “I want to survive” tells us nothing a character. “I want to become an archmage while moonlighting as an assassin” does.
Bethesda, in its pursuit of the epic plotline, has overlooked a vital point about their setting: it doesn’t need a single epic plot to be interesting. All it needs are the guilds: divergent endgame goals the player can pick & choose as he pleases. Imagine if they took all the effort put into their main quest and used it to expand the guild quest lines? Wouldn’t you rather play that game instead? But it’s tough for developers to give up that epic main plot and trust in the “side quests” to support the game instead.
That is the revelation, and the risk, that Exile embraced: an RPG can be more interesting without a main plot. All you need to do is give the player enough potential goals to pursue and they will follow their own motivations, weave their own story instead of yours. It is tough to do (all of the other games I’ve played in the Exile/Avernum series, aside from the remakes of the first one, had main quests), but if you can pull it off, you give players a freedom of choice they’ll still be talking about decades from now.