The Alpha Protocol Dialogues

I’m going to get the obvious out of the way. Alpha Protocol is not a great game. The combat is clunky and unintuitive. The story is far-fetched and overly complicated for a resolution that feels like it was not really worth the effort. And there is little to encourage actually using stealth. This is all easy to surmise from a short time with the game, and this isn’t a review. But there is something about Alpha Protocol that developers Obsidian did astoundingly well and kept me completely engrossed in what was happening. So much so, I would like to see the level of quality for this aspect of the game done in other games with important character interaction. The conversation mechanic and the effects of player’s decisions in this game are the absolute most fun I had with Alpha Protocol.

The main conceit is something you can see in games like Heavy Rain, or earlier seen in Indigo Prophecy. Conversations need answers, and the game is not going to wait while the player sits idly, thinking too hard about each consequence. A little progress bar quickly grows smaller, forcing split-second choices. These can range from getting another character to like you, or dislike you, to just flat-out executing a character if the player deems it fit. In other role-playing games like Mass Effect or Fallout: New Vegas, you can wait around for a while in a conversation; Alpha Protocol waits for no man.

In the setting, this mechanic is perfect. As a role-playing game about a super secret government agent gone rogue, quick thinking and smooth talking are all part of the job. The game was great at making me feel like I had to think on my feet when faced with difficult social situations. Should I shoot this guy right now? Is what he is saying the truth? How much information should I give away about myself? A lot of information can be thrown in your direction at once, and it becomes a huge part of the experience to have to piece it all together, fast.

At first, the conversations seem arbitrary and inconsequential. The player’s first taste is to just try and decipher some obvious character traits and either pander to or oppose them. Darcy likes a player who appeals to his joking and somewhat confident side. Parker admires a straightforward man who doesn’t play around. After a few missions, however, these conversations become something a bit more. Where you were just answering petty questions before, now you have to decide whether to believe a known terrorist faction leader about possible double crossings in your government. Will letting him live help you later in the game? Will killing him hurt you? Is it the other way around? You have two seconds to decide what to do, and what you decide can easily effect the rest of the game.

Most of the decisions are located in the grey of morality as well. There is usually never a good choice or bad choice, making the time limit all the more intimidating. You have to choose your allegiances and the best way to keep them. The choices the player is given is more of an emotional. The type of response you want to give. Some characters I purposefully tried to piss off and gave snarky or obtuse answers to everything they said. Others, I gave honest answers to and had nothing but respect for. It showed where my true allegiances lied and who had my back through the latter parts of the story.

Because there is a reputation with each character, they can come to your aid in various ways, from giving you extra intel in missions, to selling you black market items, to even coming in and fighting along side you, providing distractions while you sneak in for the objective. All of this because you knew how to talk and made quick decisions about your standing with them. There are some missions that are purely conversations, and depending on the outcome, change the face of what is to come. I met with a Triad gang leader and because I was cautious and polite, his gang eventually showed up in some warehouse to take on whoever was trying to stop me. Then he gave me valuable intel on a shady corporation and even sold me some weapons. I could have just shot him, and not bothered with any of that.

For a game to hook me in with its dialogue mechanic is a great feat. Especially for an action game. If other developers incorporated similar mechanics in their role-playing action games, they would be better for it.

Here is a bit more on the game’s conversation mechanic straight from the developers. http://blogs.sega.com/2008/09/04/alpha-protocol-round-table-discussion-part-1/