Choice: What it means for games and why you will never truly see it in them

WARNING: The following rant has rampant spoilers for Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2, the Ultima series and various other RPGs.

We have all heard the cries before: “We want choices that actually mean something!”, “We want choices we make in games to matter!” etc.  These calls have been yelled at almost every RPG that touts “choice” as an important part of the gameplay and storytelling, however when you actually play the game all choices you make have very minor effects such as small text changes, missing NPCs or other such small details and any large story twists and reveals feel railed and somehow clunky for a game touting choice. Yet these games still sell extremely well and generally have several sequels. You wonder why a game that clearly has not delivered on its promises is doing so well and how there is even a sequel? It is very simple. Sadly, the people who actually MEAN these things are in a vast minority. Players who want REAL choice in their games are very rare. What most people are saying is “We want more choices that lead to us winning!”, “We want choices that determine which good ending we get!”.

In this short rant I would like to present my view on what real choices are in games, how they affect the medium and why choices that actually matter will never appear in them.

 

Cause and Causality

There are two types of choices that a game can have which can be defined as “meaningful”: The type that affects the gameplay and the type that affect the actual player.

Let us first discuss choices that affect the gameflow directly. These choices determine how the events further down the plot will unfold and how the world changes with your actions. These are the choices that determine which companions will live or die, what will happen once the adventure is over and are generally fairly numerous throughout modern RPGs.

Now let us talk about choices that affect the player rather than the gameplay directly. These choices make the player feel the difficulty of doing what they do and make them either feel uneasy, unhappy or happy about the result of whatever they have just done.

The best choices are those that combine both.

Storytelling and the investment in characters have a very big impact on how we perceive a decision and how we make choices.  If the story is told well, the players will generally like some characters and dislike others for their traits, be they mentality, personality or actions. If a player is invested in the story and feels well connected with the world around him the choices he makes will feel much heavier and much harder to make.

Let us take Fallout 3 and Mass Effect 2 as an example for this. In the beginning of Fallout 3 you enter the small town of Megaton, aptly named for the HUGE FUCKING NUKE in the middle of it. You get your quests from the people in the town, do them, get your experience and phat lewt then before you move on, you meet a man in a snazzy suit and a bitchin’ fedora who will ask you to blow up the city for a very good price. Afterward you will meet the sheriff who will ask you to disarm the bomb, for a pittance of a reward compared to what you would receive if you blew it up. I know of very few people that actually saved the town. Why? Because they saw it as nothing more than a quest hub. Blowing it up was squeezing the last few drops of XP and money out of it before moving on. But you just detonated a bomb. Killing dozens of people and children for money. Yet it just felt… meh. Not only that, but there is no real effect to this. You don’t have access to the vendors and NPCs inside anymore and you have a nice negative karma (I’ll get to this absurdity later) however no other city in the world has apparently heard of your actions or actually condemns you for them directly. How can you miss a nuke exploding? This should be at least known around the other cities, rumors going around and certain people behaving differently because of it. Yet nothing happens. The point is, after you blow it up, there is no direct result from it, only secondary effects as I will discuss later.

Now let us compare this to a moment in ME2. The infamous choice whether to kill or re-program the Geth. You have fought the Geth throughout ME1 and ME2. You have seen them raze colonies and kill people. You know of their past, or so you thought. When Legion reveals the actual internal workings and conflicts that the Geth are having among themselves, they suddenly become much more than a simple enemy. These are intelligent beings, a new civilization that is discovering itself and the various problems that come with that. They are in a war over faith and have split into two factions. You have only been fighting one of these factions. You have in fact never seen the peaceful Geth. The faction you have fought is now in front of you, in its entirety. Helpless. You have the choice, kill them all for the murders and various other atrocities they have committed or reprogram them to serve your cause. How many of you just looked at  the choice screen, put down the controller or simply sat back in your chair in front of your PC and just looked at it? The little cogs in your head turning? It is a very hard choice to make, although it logically should not be. Brainwash them and gain more soldiers for your battle against the Reapers. Yet it is not that easy. Should you choose to kill them, you will have removed a large menace from the universe, however you have just committed genocide. While synthetic, these beings were in fact sentient. You just killed hundreds of thousands if not millions of intelligent beings because of your own agenda towards them. What if you decided to reprogram them? You just played God by removing their free will. They CHOSE the path of confrontation, yet you have now changed them, without them knowing. Regardless of which choice you make, few players feel good about either and therein lies the greatness of it. Nobody outside of your party will know what you did either way. The only one who has to live with his decision is you, for now. However, this choice has NO EFFECT in the game at all, along with several others such as the killing of the Rachni queen. I am however not going to damn the ME franchise just yet, because I expect these actions to have an effect in the conclusion in ME3. If not, brace for an epic ragestorm.

Now, why are decisions such as this extremely rare in games? Two reasons. On one side choices like this are highly dependent on the storytelling up to this point and creating a world where choices like this matter is extremely difficult and time consuming to do. If the situation is even a tiny bit off, the choice will have highly decreased effect to the point where it could seem shoehorned in and inorganic when considered within the storyline. This means longer release schedules due to having to craft a well developed story and less $$$ for the developers if they are even a tiny bit off they would have wasted a great amount of resources and manpower in setting up the player choice section only to have it essentially fail, which they could have used in other areas of development. The second reason is much more potent however. These choices are HARD TO MAKE. The player is presented with a situation in which they dislike all possible options. While it was handled great in ME2, imagine this put into a darker, realistic (the ME universe is not realistic get over yourselves) setting where the player choice could have grave consequences for the people around him. Many players do NOT want to make such choices. They would not abandon the game because of it, but it would diminish their fun, which is bad.

There are many, MANY choices throughout RPGs that fall into neither of these categories, essentially providing no benefit at all but are added in order to make the game feel like it is offering you options while it really does almost nothing. A lot of Peter Molyneux games come to mind…

The Asshole Meter

I refuse to call it the “Morality Meter” because that is a lie. Morality is relative to the person and a choice that seems evil to some may be considered necessary by others. No, what we have here is an Asshole Meter. Why? Because most actions, and choices, fall within three options on it:

1. Goody Two Shoes: “Why yes, I will go out of my way of saving the world to gather these cakes for you!”

2. The Gray Jedi: “I am sorry, I cannot spare the time.”

3. Asshole: “I AM GONNA EAT ALL YOUR CAKES, FUCK YOU, YOUR DAUGHTER AND YOUR DOG, PILLAGE YOUR HOUSE AND YOU WILL STILL THANK ME IN THE END CAUSE I AM SAVING THE WORLD!”

Out of these three choices, which seems to be the most reasonable one? The second one, by far, however it is never chosen by players. Why? Because option 1&3 usually enjoy more content and more importantly, get points toward either good or evil. And in most games, being all good or all evil gives you massive bonuses however staying in the “gray” zone usually deprives you of almost all of them as well as the unique dialogue options both of the extremes provide. What does this mean? It means that even if a player himself would chose a “neutral” option in a dialogue or a conflict or any other large choice, he will not. He would use one of the extremes to get the bonuses that come with the added karma/force alignment/whatever as well as better loot and the fact that neutral choices generally have much weaker dialogue connected with them.

Not only this, but neutral choices very rarely have unique and interesting situations happen while both extremes do. Neutral choices also almost never have any unique actions associated with them. For example in ME2 you have the option to perform Sugary Goodness and Asshole Supreme acts during cutscenes, both of which have unique effects as well as dialogue and effects on the unfolding situation. You could technically argue that not taking either is neutral and the result is unique, but it still puts the player at a disadvantage as well as the feeling that taking no action is not really a choice. This causes a HUGE problem for game designers as this idea for a “Morality Meter” has been hammered into a lot of the newer RPGs. Originally part of KOTOR, where it actually made sense due to the way the Force was developed in the fluff, however it still suffered from the aforementioned problems of railroading players into either being completely selfless or complete assholes.

Basically a player will do what brings the most benefit to his character and a lot of choices that he would normally make are ignored in lieu of ones that bring more benefits. The obvious solution to this is to make all choices DO something have meaningful effects and make the player feel like they changed something with their actions, however this would require much more work than feasible because it would take way too long and make release schedules a nightmare.

 

The shit hath hitteh the hyperdrive sire!

A lot of people simply do not understand what true, powerful choices do. What do they do? Shit goes unexpectedly wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong. What does this mean? It means that a lot of choices that a player makes can have massive negative consequences. And most importantly, this can happen much later in the plotline than you would expect. A good example of this is the Ultima series where simple choices could have grievous consequences like having your companions tortured and killed by the villain to get information from you. There is very little of this kind of result from choices however, as most “bad” choices usually count towards getting a “bad” ending with the right combination. This means that individual choices have little to no impact but instead count towards a tally that determines how “well” you did at the end. A good example of this is King’s Quest 6. You are supposed to save a princess in a tower and solve a bunch of mysteries and sidequests along the way. You don’t HAVE to do them, and chosing not to will get you the “bad” ending. What is the bad ending? You still defeat the bad guy, marry the princess and rule a whole land. You miss out on a lot of swag but technically you did not lose. This exemplifies the issue with bad choices, since they don’t really have much impact anymore.

The extreme of this area of choices are those that kill your character. They were the most common choice in ye olde RPGs from the buddling years of gaming. Clicked on a flower? Poison dust. Clicked on a river to drink? You get pulled under. Talk to raven? Be sucked into black hole etc. The issue with this choice is that it is very powerful. The reason is was so common in old games was to extend gameplay by forcing trial and error (fuck you Sierra Logic. Fuck you with a rusty spork) and as games progressed it became extinct. Why? If you make a stupid choice your character should die! It should not be as common as in the early years of RPGs, but it should not be impossible for your stupid choices to kill you! The most recent development for this has been ME2 when it announced that Shepard could die. It got a big discussion from the community with people flaming each other back and forth why this is a good or bad idea. Bioware was smart and didn’t tell the people WHEN Shepard could die, so they expected it throughout the whole game the first time around. This certainly changed how some people made choices, opting for things that didn’t sound completely suicidal. Now let us get to the ending. The final grand attack on the Collectors. This is where Shepard could die, at the VERY END of the game. However to achieve this, you needed to make so many mistakes that it was hard to do unless you were trying for it. Maybe it was just me, but it was fairly clear who to send where since the categories of companions was rather well developed. So yes, ME2 allowed for a true “BAD END” but you actually had to TRY to get it. If you didn’t mess up enough, a lot of your companions died which falls in the previous category of “varying degrees of winning”. The Collectors were still defeated. The only other time you can die from choice is when handling Morinth. However, again, to die from this you have to be fairly dense. Your companions warn you. They warn you again through your intercom while you are talking with Morinth. When you go back to her place for some hot alien mindfuck (literally) THE ENTIRE ROOM IS FILLED IN A DARK RED LIGHT. I doubt they could give you more warning signs without plastering the rooms with police tape and having Morinth wear a “I kill what I fuck” shirt.

I guess what shocked me the most about this is that some people were actually annoyed that the main character could die, yet yell at developers for choices that have deep impacts on the gameplay. It was also slightly annoying that this story got so big across so many news sites. A character that is trying to save the world against overwhelming odds should not always come out on top with everything being hunky dory. Being up against great odds should feel that way, and dying should not be ignored as a possibility. The issue here is how to provide such events without making the player feel like they could not do anything about it…

 

That was not supposed to happen!

How many times have you said these words when you clicked on a choice and something bad happened? And how many times have you decided that you did not like the outcome, reloaded your game and tried again? How many times have you quicksaved before conversations simply to see what the best way to get through it is? How many times have you looked up a FAQ that explains the “best” way to go through a game? Now how many people do you think do these things? A lot. Many players feel like they are playing the game wrong if they make a “bad” choice and wish to do everything right and be the best. This however defeats the point of choice in the RPGs. If you know what the results of your actions are beforehand and act according to this knowledge you are essentially nullifying a lot of what the devs worked for. A good example for this would be the various companion pickups throughout RPGs such as ME and KOTOR. I for one slaughtered Juhani. I didn’t even know she was a companion until I finished the game and read up on the various things to see what I missed. I did not save Sunry in his murder trial in KOTOR 2. Did this remove any from my gaming experience? No, because the choices I made were mine. Made with no other knowledge than what my character knew. This made a tailored experience for me, crafted by my own choices, which is what I believe is the point of RPGs that offer choice. I do not see how someone can achieve enjoyment out of the game by following a guide or following someone else’s choices to achieve the “best” possible combination of things. There are many RPGs that are linear, which so not a bad thing if done right, which sound more like the game these people should be playing rather than messing with the development of choice RPGs.

By avoiding or bypassing choices with knowledge from outside of the game you simply sidestep all the effort that the developers put into making them. There is little motivation for game developers to develop possible pitfalls and branching choices when gamers try to find ways to bypass them on purpose.

 

Never compromise! Not even in the face or Armageddon!

When you look at most RPGs you will notice that the story usually involves you saving the world from some Bigbad. Generally you start as a complete underdog and along the way you become powerful enough to take on the final evil. Along the way you will also acquire several companions to take along and you will also be faced with a lot of side quests and choices that should determine certain outcomes.  What is the problem with this? The fact that there is almost no compromise along the way. Almost all choices you make are definite and usually extreme (See Asshole Meter). There are almost no choices that force some compromise on the side of the player. Even if one exists, several others exist that end with better results that do NOT compromise. This makes the player feel like a special unique snowflake that can always do the right thing. No need to ever compromise unless it is in your favor somehow. Essentially this flaw creates a feeling that the world is created for your character to win in rather than a world where your characters lives in and has to use in order to achieve his final goal. This lapse simple makes a lot of worlds seem a lot less… real.

 

Conclusion

Well, what I hope you have taken away from this short rant is that since gaming has become much bigger than a decade ago it has also become a much larger business. Games cost millions upon millions of dollars for development. This means that games have to make much more profit than they did previously. This means that they need to appeal, and appease, a much larger audience than they previously did. Sadly the people they need to appease do not take loss and pretty much any deviation from the “I am the infallible hero that saves the world!” formula. This means that choices have to SEEM to matter, without actally having effect in order to appeal to the most players. Some games have managed to avert this (ME2 for example) however many, many games still suffer from moneyhungryitis.

 

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