In a recent interview, Ken Levine commented on the story aspect of Bioshock. He said the story was there for those who wanted to follow it, and could equally be ignored by anyone who wanted to just “play the game”, so to speak.

Of course, in Bioshock the story is really background; you’re digging in to what happened in the past while living through the results. Yet the same approach can be taken with RPGs.

Avernum 5 is a case in point. You can treat it like a typical shallow-plot RPG: concentrate on bringing up your team, do all the little errands, look for ways to game the system to your best advantage, and pay no attention to what’s going on in the world.

So what if you get the giants to attack Muck? It’s worth doing for the reward from Highground. You even get a treat from the Vahnatai, who have their own plans for taking back the Azure Gallery area, which they consider to be their land. After all, they were here first.

On the other hand, you can think over some of the jobs, and decide not to do them, because of the results that would ensue. That is, you treat Avernum and its various squabbling factions as a real world, because the story is an ongoing one.

Since there is no silly alignment business, you are left to decide which actions to take, what are the good or bad things to do. Accepting a job doesn’t mean you have to complete it, unless you’re crazy enough to take Gladwell’s geas. In that case, you’re stuck, though there is a way around it, not easy to do.

Naturally, there are some tasks you have to perform to move forward, but those are surprisingly few. Only four are actually required; with the Vahantai, you can do their job and leave easy, or decline and sneak out the hard way.

In thinking this over, I consider it a good design, because it can satisfy both camps. The story is there for those who want it, and want to roleplay through the game. And for the players who’d rather just go for “frag and grab”, AV5 allows that, too.

Now, it can’t be easy to design this way. Yet, Spiderweb is really a one-man show, and if Jeff Vogel can do this, why can’t the big-budget productions (when they show up) do it, too?

And keep in mind that Avernum 5 isn’t about “saving the world” in the usual sense. It’s about politics: who will ascend the throne, who will rule the Empire?

Ys, there are some “Ancient Evils” around, but they’re optional fights. I forgot to mention that in my review (mea culpa, mea maxima culpa). Anyway, it seems that if we’re to get anything even a little different, we have to look to the independent developers.

That’s not a bad thing, of course. But it would be nice to see some of the “bigger” design studios take note of this, and provide us with some better products.