Kaiden or Ashley? Rescue or Harvest? How do you make decisions in video games? Video games were described by Sid Meier as ‘a series of interesting choices.’ Indeed, many good video games today involve choices that go beyond which gun to use or how fast to run through a room. Many involve decisions between two general strategies, or like the above examples between two characters or responses that affect the rest of the game. The question here is, how do those choices matter?
I want to suggest that there are two different types of choices available in video games, and wish that there was a third. The first I will call a ‘mechanical choice.’ These are the kind that may not even seem like choices to experienced gamers, as they are built into the mechanics of the game. These are the ‘choice’ to grab a Mushroom in Mario, or to pick up a sniper rifle in Call of Duty while standing on a rooftop. Do you upgrade your sword and armour or not? Of course you do these things, because they help you to beat the game. Mechanical choices are economic: they make the player-character (or his allies) more powerful.
The second kind of choice is a ‘narrative choice.’ These are the kinds of decisions that affect the fiction/story of the game, but not the relative power of the player-character. By rescuing either Kaiden Alenko or Ashley Williams in Mass Effect, the strength of the overall party isn’t affected, since the two characters are more or less interchangeable given the right balance of the other party members. We do not have the option to rescue both, so a loss is inevitable. The only difference is which personality you lose. Playing as a good or evil Cole in inFamous is a general strategy (like any other good/bad split we see so often these days), but doesn’t affect the strength of the hero either way. Each power is balanced against its opposite, so in the end, a Cole of either alignment has equivalent firepower.
In Bioshock, we can either harvest or rescue Little Sisters. Does it matter, in the end, which we choose? Jack gains more ADAM initially by harvesting them, but then ends up with more than he needs anyway. A saviour gains the extra plasmid ability that balances out the lack of ADAM in the critical battles against Big Daddies later on. FarCry 2 designer Clint Hocking explores in detail the reasons he feels the game is a betrayal to the player, and the mechanical weakness of the Little Sister choice is part of it.
The problem though, is this: if you were made genuinely, significantly weaker by choosing to save the Little Sisters, would you do it? Videogames are almost entirely about seeking to increase one’s power, in order to overcome dangerous obstacles. What kind of videogame player would seek to make himself weaker, and thus in danger of not being able to finish the game? Yet this is exactly the kind of problem any altruist finds himself in. The choice to save Little Sisters (in a real world) would be meaningful because of the self-sacrifice on Jack’s part. He sacrifices power in order to preserve the life of a little girl, the ethically noble option. By then rewarding the player with a new power, the videogame essentially takes away the meaning of that initial choice.
In a world where we create videogames with different difficulty settings, can we not incorporate that into the fiction? Why shouldn’t Bioshock be harder to finish playing as a good guy? (Or inFamous, Mass Effect, Fable or Fallout 3 for that matter.) Our ethical frameworks in the real world often will tell us that the ‘right’ thing to do is often not the ‘easy’ option. Why don’t our games reflect this?
Take the Mass Effect example again, and combine it with the romance arc. Let’s re-imagine the mechanics a little, and for example use a male Shepard who has pursued Ashley in the romance. Having gotten to the end stage of the romance arc, Kaiden (not Ashley) will be granted some extra mechanical combat strength, whether a new weapon or armour or ability, making him clearly more powerful than Ashley. Then, when the vital decision must be made, the player asks himself: Do I save Ashley whom my Shepard loves, or Kaiden, whom my player-brain tells me is the more valuable game piece? This asks the player to think about the party members as characters, rather than only pieces of gear to be wielded in a fight. It asks the same of the designers, of course. (Reverse all this for a femShep, for a similar effect, and just do the math if you want to include Liara—she’d have to be put in a similar life-threatening situation for it to work though.)
It’s simply too easy to ignore the fiction, in our medium, and hide behind economics. There are too many ways to fail, and not enough ways to bring the story to an end. Mass Effect 2 goes some way to explore this by providing many different ending scenarios, not all of which are victorious at all. Heavy Rain does the same by providing several different endings, and not forcing the player to go back and play the last level over again if someone dies. So you might have ‘beaten’ the game, but you certainly haven’t won. But it’s not just the end of the game that matters, it’s how we get there, and why we make the decisions along the way.
So the third type of choice I imagine is the kind that actually breaks some game design rules, and unbalances the game—if it should. Life isn’t a game, and it certainly isn’t always fair. If we want to explore more realistic human experiences, game designers will have to confront this fact eventually. Naturally, we can’t guarantee all players will respond to and think about the context of these choices. Many will continue to ignore them in favour of whatever the most economical decision is. But how many interesting, compromising, uncomfortable and increasingly horrifying choices can a designer compel a player to make, with the promise of greater power? I’m not arguing here for games to be impossible to ‘beat’ if you make the good choices instead of the bad ones (not all games anyway…) but that you’ll have to be more careful, work out a better strategy, or do more preparation work like Mass Effect 2 makes you do in the lead up to the Omega Relay jump. All that time you can savour the knowledge that you’ve done the right thing. Or not, and enjoy playing a psychopath for a bit.