A Series Of Interesting Choices

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.


Comments

    Now, wasn't there a study saying that the more closely a game resembles real life, the less interest that players have in them?

    As of present, I'd say the majority of players enjoy a game with a more relaxing mindset. Is it a good idea to then challenge players with moral dilemmas knowing that will break the relaxing mindset and force the player to really think and consider all the impacts and consequences?

      Sure, there's a risk, if you only want to cater to philistines.

      That's equivalent to saying all novels should be easy to read and movies shouldn't be too exciting.

    There was a rather interesting moment in Fable 2, where the character gets punished (albeit quite lightly) for choosing the 'moral' path. It was a step in the right direction, and really got me thinking about pretty much this thing, but it could have been more.

    I agree with Adam - I would love to see a 'third type' of game with an unbalanced reward system, where it's harder to succeed as a purely moral character.

    Imagine, for example, a Star Wars game where a Light Side Jedi actually COULD NOT ACCESS any offensive Dark Side Force powers at all, and could only use the Force for healing and defence... 'never for attack'.

    Great article.

      +1

      Fable comes so close in so many areas, and is yet sooooo far. It makes me sad :(

    Something that has always bugged me is that games that offer choices tend to either separate them from gameplay (narrative only choices like ME) or they are horribly balanced so that there is only one true option anyone would want to take.

    There needs to be a balance struck between having the choices have an impact on the game and having the player being freely able to chose what best suits them without it being detrimental to their enjoyment.

    Gameplay and story segregation must stop! Soon we'll be seeing signs on water fountains in games saying "plot related actions only!" and I can't be having with that nonsense.

      I think I agree with you here, mostly except I don't believe we're anywhere near being able to predict accurately the range of experiences that everyone will find 'enjoyable.' It doesn't make a lot of sense for us to 'enjoy' the story of Romeo and Juliet, and yet it is one of the most enduring of all time.

      People are funny little monkeys that way.

        I'm thinking more along the lines of content.

        If choices had a bigger impact on gameplay, then making specific choices will alter the content available to you. If you know ahead of time that killing a dude will mean you can't access a town and whatnot, odds are you won't kill the dude so that you can access a town and whatnot.

        Basically, people don't enjoy missing out. Which means that the choices given typically don't impact the content that is available to you (or the stuff you can't access is very limited).

          Fair enough. But I think the solution to that is to make both options equally 'satisfying' or 'compelling' (I spend lots of time coming up with words other than fun and enjoy!).

          We could get involved in discussions of things like dramatic unity here, and that might be useful. But overall, life is about making choices where yeah, you do miss out. If you become a doctor you aren't also a fight pilot yeah? If you break up with the girl you don't also get to stay with her... I think that's a valuable theme/experience to put into an artform that can foreground the fact that its YOUR FAULT in a way other media can't.

            I've been rather slack on my phrasing and just hoped that my point was made, even if it wasn't as articulate as it could be.

            If the choices in games were equally valid, in terms of content the player consumes as a result of the choice, that would go a long way in making the choices in games a lot more than merely cosmetic.

            If you have to make someone choose to do P at the cost being being able to do Q, the two choices should be reasonably balanced. If one offers a greater advantage to the player, odds are that is the one taken. Developers are most likely aware of that, which is why so many of the choices are cosmetic.

            Of course, balanced options make sense when it is an informed decision. If the player is making an uninformed decision (for example the decision at the start of Fable 3, which had startling little impact as far as I'm aware), should be able to have imbalanced options. A player could do something that seems appropriate at the time and then discover that it backfires on them, which would be a good representation of asymmetrical information because once they gain more information on the situation they might make a different initial decision which has different consequences.

    I saved the little sisters and anyone who didn't needs to be medicated!!! I tried to kill them during my second play through but I could not do it. I just wanted to pick them all up and take them with me just to make sure they were OK, then again maybe I'm just getting soft in my old age.

    poor little girls

      I think the reward for not harvesting the Little Sisters actually worked out to be better. You received less Adam initially, but were given bonus Adam after saving certain amounts and were also given the special plasmids.

      If you were making any effort to find those girls, saving them was the only real option. If you were merely dealing with them as you ran into them by mere chance, harvesting was acceptable, if a little creepy.

      Why would they need medicated? Maybe they can just separate fiction from real life.

        Which kinda implies the reverse needs medication...

        That said, I couldn't bring myself to harvest little sisters.

    I find it odd that everyone seems to be thinking that in a game with unbalanced moral rewards it's going to be the good guy who suffers.

    I'd like to see a game where it seems like the evil choice is going to get you more power but then your ass gets hauled off to jail or something.

      Interesting point. In Elder Scrolls games, once you've pissed off the constabulary, you're at a disadvantage.

      In most RL situations though, total dickheads win out every time. First they get the women, then they get the power, then they get the money...

      Baldur's Gate was much more annoying to play evilly. Especially early on...

    an interesting piece. It's been a while since I played inFamous but I seem to remember the Evil Coles powers had a significant increase in offensive powers compared to those of Hero Cole. The Evil powers would do more damage (killing bad guys) explode and take out near by cars as well. Hero powers made it easier to restrain bad guys. Handy, yes. But ultimately useless in the boss battles. Like I said, been a while since I played it so I might be wrong.

      If I remember correctly being good in infamous gave you a zoom and a slo-mo type thing, which could be pretty handy.

      The idea being that evil powers were all huge and explosion-y because your character and total disregard to his surroundings, but the good powers were all precision based, so you could zap that duster in the head and not harm his hostage.

    games need moral choices based more in reality, IRL if your nice and always helpful u get treated like crap and taken advantage of.

    But if your an arrogant, selfish prick, life is way better.

    Thanks Mark, I don't think enough games really test players rection or provide a real cost to contrast rewards.
    I think part of the reason we don't see rewards for negative actions and penalties for taking the higher road is devfelopers are worried about the stigma such a game may create.
    It's one thing to offer both (inFamous), or even an excuse to rip someone's head off (mortal kombat) but to be seen as encouraging people to choose "bad" actions would have people jumping on soapboxes.
    I'd like to see a game which made it hard to choose a side and stick to it.
    Take an example like KOTOR, where the better morality resuls in cheaper costs for light side powers, same for dark side, but what if, as you took one path, the game offered you, at various stages, greater rewards for turning your back on your former allignment?

    It's been a while since I played it but I'm pretty sure that Overlord had that kind of effect you're talking about. Being evil gave you access to greater powers whilst doing the morally good option gave you nothing but a warm fuzzy feeling. Which seems kind of pointless for an undead horror from the abyss.

    One interesting experiment would be to change the style of gameplay depending on early choices and morality.
    If you're a vicious dictator, it becomes an RTS; an inspirational leader plays a squad-based FPS; an undergroud rebel plays an RPG; an amoral assasin plays a third-person stealth-em-up, with oportunities to change your style at various stages of the game.

    Always choose to nuke Ashley, always....

      That's easy for you to say - we never had to choose whether or not to kill Tali!

      But yeah, Ashley needs to die some more.

    Interesting points, Adam.

    Extending the Mass Effect example, Bioware have said that while the endings of ME3 will be heavily affected by decisions made in the previous games, especially paragon and renegade stuff, the gameplay wil not 'punish' players for choosing the noble, or the expedient, option.

    I agree on the need for unbalanced choices, but it would be a brave developer that risked a backlash for providing genuinely uncomfortable, risky options for effects on gameplay.

      Gah. I wish we had an edit button. Phone entered comment before I'd finished.

      Was going to add, on a related topic I'd love to read your thoughts on Bioware's announced changes to romance options for ME3. It would be great to get an academic perspective on canon in an undefined universe, especially given that so much of the criticism of the decision comes from am arguably mistaken interpretation of continuity and canon.

        I've been thinking about the sexuality options in Mass Effect for a long time, though not from the perspective of canon. What makes you say that the ME Universe is 'undefined' though?

        There's a pretty good book called "Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives" that I refer to a bit regarding this kind of lore in long running series like Doctor Who, and games like WoW. Check it out if you want to read real academic stuff on the topic.

          I should've been clearer - undefined in terms of sexuality. As far as I know the only opportunity for players to define Shepard's preferences comes in a conversation with Liara, where fem Shep can express an interest only in men.Before the content was cut from the game, male Shepards could say the same line.

          If players don't emgage ib this dialogue, sexuality as nominated by the player remains ambiguous, aside from the obvious example of engaging on romance with another character. The notion og Shepard being a 'pre-defined character', as Ray Muzayka tried to claim, doesn't hold up with the manner ib which other features of the character - gender, appearance, morality, personality, service history and so on - were presented, as player choices.

          Typing on my phone is awful, but hopefully my point is sorta clear. Shep's orientation is ambiguous, whereas so much of the criticism of Bioware's recent decision centered around the arguably false dichotomy of the character - especially male Shep, given he's the locus of outrage - falling neatly into divides of sexuality.

          Then there's the boundless heteronormativity of this assumption, but my thumbs are sore.

    see this for an Aussie game developers view on the topic:
    http://www.doolwind.com/blog/choice-driven-design/

    This is one of the main reasons I'm looking forward to Star Wars: The Old Republic - their take on morality.

    There's a story from the developers that playing as a light side Sith is possible, but very difficult.

    For example, at the beginning of the game, you're given a compulsory quest to collect 4 pieces of an artifact from a tomb in order to learn about the story - which takes about 30 mins - 1 hour to complete.

    Upon leaving the tomb, you're jumped by a competitor. Upon winning, you can finish off the assailant, or, do the light side thing and give him your 4 pieces - before you are then told of course, that you have to go back and complete the WHOLE tomb again to get another 4 shards to artifact pieces to replace them.

    The designers find it hilarious that when testers complained about this, they asked "Why did you choose to give them the shards then?!?", to which they replied "I didn't think the game would let me".

      That's a pretty great example of what I'm talking about. But take it even farther, difficulty != repetitions/time. But wait we're talking about an MMO, so yes it does :P

    The only games I've really got experience of making such decisions are the Mass Effect games and I handled each one differently.

    In Mass Effect 1 there was a clear goal - the Reapers were coming. There was an urgency to the task so I did everything to ensure the quest was done as quickly as possible, even down to sacrificing the Council at the Citadel (no offence but there's a giant space squid trying to mate with the damn thing - saving you lot's not high on my priorities).

    In Mass Effect 2 there wasn't the urgency. For the most part we just had the Collectors, who everyone else knew about anyway. I did a few quests. But I did everything with "my" sense of morals. Which also included not sleeping with Tali as, to me, I hadn't been out of the loop long and what's-her-face (blue woman who evidently my character loves but has forgotten her name) was still around. I didn't want my character to be a sex-hound.

    It's interesting as it seems the overall story, and not just the ending, differs depending on your decisions in the Mass Effect games. I wonder what I'll do in the third game, considering the Reapers are back and there'll be more of a sense of urgency.

    The whole morality in computer games is actually one of the things I adore about playing games. I would love to see unbalanced choices in video games, though I have a bad habit of almost always choosing bad anyway. I'd love to see a game where this actually has lasting effects on who I can talk to and what quests are made available to me. Did I kill Joe Blogs earlier? The BFG11K has been deprived of it's inventor and isn't available to me.

      Actually, a perfect example that I just discussed with my partner was at the ending od the original fable. The choice between saving/killing your sister. It was a true moral choice. Save your sister, whom you will probably never see again anyway, or kill her and get the best weapon in the fame. The option just comes too late to make to much of a difference.

    The problem with choices in games for me comes down to them always being forks in the road and always being readable. You know if you go left, it's the dark path, if you go right it's the light and you know when you're making that choice.
    The game never tricks you. It never asks you to pick a path then gives you the opposite. It never decides for you based on how well you performed.
    For me this just kills any sort of emotional investment in the choice. They might as well just pause the game, break the fourth wall and ask you point blank how you want the story to progress.

    Maybe make it so I do the right thing and get screwed. I do the right thing and it turns out the bad guy was counting on it, and as a result something terrible happens.
    I also want choices that aren't always made at one single point in time. In Mass Effect I'm constantly talking to people, choosing my the way my character talks and handles himself. How about using that information to determine some of the outcomes and options I'm presented with. Move the 'am I evil?' prompts behind the scenes a bit more. You'd still be able to talk your way out of the really extreme stuff, but it would be a case of hitting the brakes not just picking a path.

    The best example how I can think of for how I want choices to work is Star Fox 64 (Lylatt Wars) stage paths. Depending on how you play the level you get a different next level. It's not obvious what you're doing or why, it's not always going to make your life easier, but you can just go in there, do your best, make the choices you want and the story flows pretty naturally.

      This is another good argument for bad game design. In 'game theory' or design manuals you're pretty unlikely to find a recommendation for making choices ambiguous. Games are 'supposed to be' straightforward so the player can predict what will happen, and use that information to strategize. So yeah, I agree with you. Subtlety is going to play a big part in making the experience more life-like, rather than more game-like.

    For all its faults, I think Heavy Rain actually did a pretty admirable job at creating choices that didn't have immediately obvious consequences. I remember a few times in which I (or my wife) weren't quick enough with a decision and they were made for us which was an irritating but fair punishment. We never remembered to pause to confer over our choices and there was a great sense of anxiety when you only had a few options and knew that the choice you made would have a pretty significant impact on the outcome of the game.

    Ben Abraham's Far Cry 2 permadeath project is an interesting way in which players can add gravity to choices the game offers by self imposing restrictions.

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