Task resolution systems. Oh, good heavens.
In many modern tabletop games, you have a core mechanic that resolves most game situations. Whether combat, occult research, technological repair, or fast-talking the security guards into beliving you’re supposed to be here, there’s a common system to it all. It might be a d20-based system, or perhaps it uses the storytelling rules, or perhaps it’s the One Roll Engine or the Coinematic Unisystem. It might be damned simple or it might have graduating complexity. Combat is probably more specific and complicated than the other situational resolutions. Tabletop RPGs do have their roots in wargames, after all.
Most importantly, though, tabletop roleplaying games have a GM: real, live, thinking (in most cases) rules arbiter and narrative director who can interpret dice rolls, take the role of non-player characters, and improvise situational results.
In most cases, you don’t have that in a video game. You don’t have a guy there who can, through informational relay and creative interpretation, change the results.
In most cases, that’s fine. Most games are designed to do one thing well, so the fact that there is no “hacking” resolution mechanic in Starcraft II doesn’t matter. Lara Croft doesn’t have a portrait-painting minigame. Minecraft isn’t “missing” cryptography.
In most cases, though, the gameplay designed for non-combat contested tasks is just the combat system with anemic set dressing and a whitewash vaguely suggestive of what you wanted to do. The vast majority of computer roleplaying games are designed with combat first and foremost. “Roleplaying” in a computer game context really means “advancement,” not “you take on the persona,” and as such, fighting stuff to level is your primary gameplay.
Fast-talking or seducing an NPC with a social character in a computer RPG is usually just reskinned combat. You’re clicking the social attack button and subtracting that social attack value from whatever social defense value belongs to the NPC. You click your numbers at its numbers and eventually something happens, which is probably a text dump. It’s exactly the combat resolution system, except that combat has all sorts of nifty particle effects and fancy animated maneuvers and yomi-based move-and-countermove. Social interaction challenges maybe have some facial expression changes and your reward is READ THIS, FUCKER.
Combat has open-ended results, but when dealing with a computer-controlled NPC, the social interaction reward is either the linear plotline that you would have been on anyway regardless of your conversation, or it’s an extra handful of clicks through a dialogue tree (which is actually probably a dialogue diamond that’s going to likewise direct you back into the linear plotline that you would have been on anyway regardless of your conversation).
My big two offenders, largely because of their profile rather than doing it any worse than any other game, are Fallout III and Dragon Age. Both of these are basically combat engines with varying amounts of text piled into the interstices between combats. In Dragon Age, you can have extra cut scenes or dialogue options as a social character, but eventually, you’re going to do that goddamn quest or the game isn’t going to move forward. Fallout III lets you choose a flavor of additional dialogue text, but in no way does its claim that you can make any sort of character you want change the fact that you’re going to be firing that hunting rifle at mutants’ heads way more than you’re going to be Diplomacying the world into revitalization.
These are not “social interactions.” These are more obstacles to click through to get to the big fight at the end that you’re going to have to have anyway. At the best — at the very apex of what they can achieve — they’re lore-delivery vehicles. To paraphrase one of my recent favorite observations, an NPC is just an object you click to get text.
For true “social interaction” or investigation in a video game (to distinguish it from a tabletop RPG with a GM), the gameplay has to be different from the combat engine. If the combat engine requires me to select a target and then spam the hell out of the special attack buttons, then a social interaction engine that requires me to select a target and click the hell out of the “fast talk” and “devastating repartee” buttons is no different from that combat engine.
Further, when you put “social interaction” in a multiplayer game, and all it requires of the player is to click on some predefined sequences with an NPC, the designer is spitting in the player’s eye and insulting his family for three generations, at the very least. Social interactions are for interactions between players, not the limited-output constructs of the game. Whispering filthy innuendo to your PSP isn’t social interaction, either, so stop trying to tell a player that talking to an inanimate object is. This is a simulation of social interaction, just like videogame combat is a simulation of actual physical violence. Capcom doesn’t tell me I’m really engaging in some badass karate maneuvers when I’m playing Street Fighter.
Like I said, good heavens.