Thursday, July 24, 2014

Choices in Games

Today's episode of Extra Credits got me thinking about games in which choices are a primary part of the experience. As they explain in the episode, choices are situations in which you are knowingly weighing your options, with no clear right or wrong answer.

An excellent example they gave in a previous episode was the part in Mass Effect 2, in which you have to decide to either destroy all of the enemy Geth or reprogram them to be friendly. It's a massive choice: to destroy them while letting them retain their free will or to strip them of their free will and let them live.

There are very few games I've played with choices like that, or major choices at all for that matter. I'll try to talk about any worth mentioning.

I'll start with the choice I had to make most recently: in Final Fantasy 7, Tifa or Aeris? Compared to the Geth scenario it's a comically frivolous choice, yet the paragraph I wrote about it a couple of months ago suggests that it was not a decision I made lightly. And although technically you can choose neither, the game presents you with some very pointed choices that force you to choose one or the other. If you get the flower after the first reactor bombing, for instance, do you give the flower to Tifa or Marlene? Or, more pointedly, when Marlene later tells you about how Aeris likes you, she asks you directly if you like Aeris back. (I tend to agree with the five-year-old's assessment, for what it's worth.) Regardless, picking sides in a conflict seems to be the most common form of choice.

For instance, in Skyrim you must choose between the Imperials and the Nordic separatists. Probably. More likely you'll get sucked into myriad other tasks and completely forget there's a civil war going on, what with all the dragons about, dungeons to loot, and guilds to take over. Still, it's a choice you have to make. In the end, though, I could care less about either side. They both had people I disliked and nobody I really cared about, so this was a choice I barely cared to make.

On the other hand, I cared a lot about the choice I needed to make in Radiata Stories. In that awesome yet relatively obscure game you slowly come to know the peoples of the land in and around the kingdom of Radiata. One of the primary mechanics of the game is making friends with the various people in town as well as the elves, dwarves, and so on outside of town. When they become friends you learn a lot about them and they become available to join your party. Then, suddenly, things go sour between the humans and the non-humans and you're faced with a choice: fight for the cause of civilization or fight for the cause of nature? There's no middle ground, and whichever side you choose you're going to have former friends on the other side. It was a tough choice. I played through the game at least twice to see the difference. Both endings are sad, but one is slightly less so.

Some games leave that important choice for the ending, which is nice since that means you can probably see both options pretty easily assuming you can save just beforehand. For instance, Mark of the Ninja provides that important choice at the end, as does Spec Ops: The Line and Bastion. I won't go into too much detail on those choices since they're pretty much pure spoiler territory, but suffice to say that the game leading up to that point doesn't make much of a difference in those cases. Except maybe Spec Ops, since that game is very big on choices and consequences.

I've also written about the consequences of a choice I made in The Old Republic a while back. Bioware is really good about presenting you with choices, and The Old Republic is filled with them in a way that I don't believe any other MMORPG can compare. Sometimes the choices are fairly obvious, often with very little moral ambiguity. Which is why the more ambiguous choices catch you off-guard, just as that Geth situation did in Mass Effect 2.

Anyway, those are the games that come to mind when I think about choices. It's a pretty short list, which makes me think I must be forgetting some important ones. On the other hand, maybe choice is a fairly new phenomenon in games? There are plenty of more recent games I want to play that I know have moral choices to make, such as that Walking Dead game I still haven't played. In any case, I'm excited to play more games with choice.


  1. What did you decide to do with the Geth?

    I was pretty paralyzed with what to do with them.

    1. Well, I played through the game three times, so I'm pretty sure I made both decisions at some point. When I play games like that I'm not usually thinking "What would I do?" so much as "What would this character do?"

      That said, I believe my own decision would be to destroy them. It's a rough decision, but in the end I value free will over life.

      The worst part to me, though, is that I am making that decision, yet it's not my life or free will at stake. So, to some degree, you're eliminating their free will either way. It's an awful situation, and that line of thought just now is making me rethink my decision. GAH!

    2. In the end, I was more comfortable with creating a "slave" race than committing genocide. I'd personally rather die than sacrifice my own autonomy, but I'd rather sacrifice someone else's autonomy than kill them. Highly weird that's the way the intuitions go.