Too Many Choices Of The Past Gaming Era Weren’t Choices At All

Too Many Choices Of The Past Gaming Era Weren’t Choices At All

Great characters are usually at their best when they’re surprising us. A villain who is purely evil is never as interesting as a villain who sometimes expresses kindness. A killer with a code; a monster with a soft spot for kittens. Yet some video games this past generation just didn’t seem to get that — they pushed us to play purely evil or purely good.

[Heads up: This article contains spoilers for the endings of Mass Effect, Mass Effect 3, BioShock, GTA IV and Return of the Jedi.]

Video game morality systems became very popular over the last gaming generation, and with good reason. They’re an often fun way to turn the non-game parts of a game — dialogue, and the other bits in between combat — into more of a game. Suddenly, the way you treat that shopkeeper has some consequence. You were a jerk to him! That might come back to bite you.

While some games handled morality in interesting ways, others could often be awfully hamfisted about it. In retrospect, the hammiest fist of all belongs to the binary morality systems exemplified by Mass Effect‘s paragon/renegade system.

Imagine: At the end of Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader decides to surprise us all. He stands up behind the Emperor, ready to kill him and save his son Luke Skywalker. Oh, but nope, sorry! He actually can’t do that. After a lifetime of evil, Mr. Vader doesn’t have the paragon points necessary to do such a thing. He’s been evil so long that he can only let his son die, then do whiskey shots with Palpatine while kicking the smouldering corpse.

That’s how the ending of Jedi would’ve played out in the Mass Effect universe. In that series, players would score paragon or renegade points by acting virtuously or villainously. The more points they had, the higher their ranking would be. That, it seemed, was all well and good, and a fun way to track your character growth and assign him or her an identity. “I like my paragon infiltrator, but not as much as my renegade vanguard.”

But for the majority of its run (though not, notably, in its grand finale) Mass Effect locked off some high-level paragon and renegade dialogue options unless you’d gotten your character to a certain level of goodness or badness. For example, at the end of the first game, a character with a high enough paragon score can talk the villain Saren into killing himself, negating one of the final boss battles. That kind of thing occurred throughout — I was never more frustrated than when my renegade character would find a blocked-off red dialogue option, telling me that Blade Shepard — who was a badass, reporter-punching renegade! — still wasn’t badass enough to pursue this particular path.

Each time you made a decision that was “out of character,” you’d be costing yourself points in your chosen moral specialisation and potentially locking yourself out of future conversation options.

What was no doubt intended as a way to reward focused players became, over the run of the trilogy, a restrictive set of moral shackles that trained players to role-play a single way. The morality system was telling you that in order to see everything and play the game “right,” you would have to role-play your Mass Effect character without any nuance. Each time you made a decision that was out of character, you’d be costing yourself points in your chosen moral specialisation and potentially locking yourself out of future content.

Mass Effect‘s morality problem runs through the core of the entire game. Just last week, Stephen lauded the conflict with Wrex as “The toughest life or death choice in the gaming universe.” And I totally agree with him; for most players, it was a really tough choice. It was a bold bit of storytelling, and easily one of the most memorable gaming moments of the last eight years. Yet the first time I played, thanks to BioWare’s flawed morality system, it wasn’t actually a choice. I had been playing down the moral middle, and as a result didn’t have a high enough paragon or renegade score to talk Wrex down. He died, and I didn’t even have a chance to save him. I know now that had I completed Wrex’s sidequest, there would’ve been a third way to talk him down, but the fact remains that in Mass Effect, that kind of weird situation happens all the time; the conflict with Wrex is just a particularly memorable example.

BioShock was another offender in the morality wars of the last generation. The 2007 game made a big show of giving players choice, and not just any choice: The choice to save or kill a bunch of little girls. On the surface, it was a daring, provocative move. But thanks to the way the game was written and designed, it ran into a couple of problems.

First of all, as pointed out by game designer Clint Hocking in his now-canonical 2007 critique “Ludonarrative Dissonance in BioShock,” there was a conflict between the harvest/save choice and the rest of the game’s story. Hocking says that when he first started playing, he felt that the “bad” option — harvest the Little Sisters to gain more power! — was in line with Rapture’s self-interested Objectivist philosophy. However, the initial thrust of the narrative — save Atlas’ family! — wasn’t. He could accept the lack of choice in that second matter as a limitation of the medium, Hocking said, but when the game revealed that the player was under the power of mind control and that even their illusory choice wasn’t a choice at all, it wasn’t fair play.

As Hocking put it:

Yet in the game’s fiction on the other hand, I do not have that freedom to choose between helping Atlas or not. Under the ludic contract, if I accept to adopt an Objectivist approach, I can harvest Little Sisters. If I reject that approach, I can rescue them. Under the story, if I reject an Objectivist approach, I can help Atlas and oppose Ryan, and if I choose to adopt an Objectivist approach — well too bad… I can stop playing the game, but that’s about it.

That’s the dissonance I am talking about, and it is disturbing. Now, disturbing is one thing, but let’s just accept for a moment that we forgive that. Let’s imagine that we say ‘well, it’s a game, and the mechanics are great, so I will overlook the fact that the story is kind of forcing me to do something out of character…’. That’s far from the end of the world. Many games impose a narrative on the player. But when it is revealed that the rationale for why the player helps Atlas is not a ludic constraint that we graciously accept in order to enjoy the game, but rather is a narrative one that is dictated to us, what was once disturbing becomes insulting. The game openly mocks us for having willingly suspended our disbelief in order to enjoy it.

BioShock‘s manipulation may not have bothered some players as much as it did Hocking, but the fact remains that the game didn’t neatly fold itself around the idea of player agency. For the focus of this article, let’s put aside Hocking’s larger critique. Even if we only focus on the harvest/save choice, BioShock fell into the same kind of rigidity trap as Mass Effect, largely because it offered two very different endings based on the choices you made throughout the game. If you wanted your story to end with a “good” ending, you had to commit to saving the Little Sisters early on. It was possible to harvest them at first, then have a change of heart, perhaps after listening to Tenenbaum’s reasoning and getting a fuller picture of what was going on in Rapture. But if you came to the realisation too late, sorry, you were pure evil all along, and you wind up being the bringer of the nuclear apocalypse. If only you’d changed your mind a bit earlier!

For all the problems Mass Effect 3‘s ending may have had, I actually liked that it eschewed the binary rigidity of the morality system that had preceded it. For once, I had a choice unrestricted by the choices I had made leading up to it. My renegade character was free to choose the more self-sacrificing option, or vice-versa. While many felt that the ending betrayed the three games that had preceded it, I actually didn’t mind this particular bit of divergence. The inflexible paragon/renegade morality system had, by then, become one of my least favourite aspects of the series, and if the ending was going to shrug off one of the series’ traditions, I was ok with it being that one.

I’m picking on Mass Effect a lot here, but much of the last generation has been spent watching game developers wrestle with in-game morality. Fallout 3 did an interesting turn with the series’ karma system, assigning positive and negative karma points to all sorts of in-game actions, from mass murder to petty larceny. It wasn’t always the most nuanced system (maybe I’m stealing that water to give to a dying man on the wastes!) but it also wasn’t all that consequential, when it came down to it. Fortunately, many of the game’s big decisions didn’t hinge on your karma rating — you were free to make them as you wished.

Sucker Punch’s PS3 superhero game Infamous, and in particular its sequel Infamous 2, made some bold storytelling choices. By the end of the second game, Cole McGrath was either pure Electric Jesus or history’s greatest monster. But while the wildly divergent storylines were confident and interesting, I always found it a bit annoying how the game tied high-level powers to Cole’s morality.

That approach encouraged a second playthrough, but I’ll never quite forgive the second game for tying the best locomotive power — the ability to launch yourself into the air with a blast of ice — to the “good” path. I’m still halfway through my evil playthrough and I just can’t get that psyched to fly around because I don’t have the ability to joyously leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Red Dead Redemption took a successful if somewhat less ambitious path by making its morality system apply to the game’s open world but not to its story. If John Marston behaved like an outlaw, he’d gain notoriety and eventually attract deadly posses of lawmakers who would gun him down. But if he behaved as a saintly do-gooder, he’d be heralded as a hero all across the frontier. Neither approach had any affect on Marston’s pre-authored story, which left players free to toy around with it. It definitely could cause the sorts of calm-cutscene-vs.-open-world-mayhem dissonance that Grand Theft Auto players have grown used to, but I enjoyed how RDR made the player’s actions feel consequential without needing to rewrite its own story.

The cyberpunk RPG Deus Ex: Human Revolution tied various rewards and penalties to your in-game actions, but those interesting conversational boss fights — where you’d try to reason with or negotiate a hostile or guarded character into compliance — never changed based on your character’s past choices. And Grand Theft Auto IV, as it happens, contained several of my favourite choices of the last gaming generation. Some of them had a dramatic impact on the story, while others were simply left for players to interpret. My favourite of the latter type came near the end of the game, when Niko was given the option to kill or spare Darco Brevic, a man who had gravely betrayed him in another life. Kill him or let him go: The choice had no practical consequence on Niko’s story, but it was of immense consequence to Niko himself.

The examples go on and on, far too numerous to list here. And I’m leaving out the much more electric, human morality of online games like the zombie survival sim DayZ. That game put players into something of a real-life psychological experiment, often with fascinating results. Will any single-player game manage to capture the unpredictable human darkness of a DayZ? I’m doubtful. But it’s been fun to watch them try.

A lot of video-game morality systems are drawn from pen-and-paper RPGs of old, where stats were assigned to all manner of conversational option, and the ability to charm and intimidate NPCs functioned as a reward for players who invested in their charisma or strength rating. There’s an important difference between charm bonuses and narrative moral choices, if only in terms of believability. While a stat-boost in conversation is clumsy, I’ll go with it to a point… but only to a point. I understand why my charismatic rogue might be able to talk down a shopkeeper’s prices, but why wouldn’t he be able to behave like a jerk anytime he wanted to? What do stats have to do with that?

I understand why my charismatic rogue might be able to talk down a shopkeeper’s prices, but why wouldn’t he be able to behave like a jerk anytime he wanted to?

While previous BioWare games — Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire — have also hewn to Mass Effect‘s “pick one morality and stick with it” way of doing things, this past generation the studio also crafted a notable exception: Dragon Age. I’ve always found the morality of Dragon Age‘s dark fantasy universe to be more compelling than that of Mass Effect, and I don’t doubt that’s in large part because it doesn’t concern itself with giving your character “points” for goodness and badness. Some stats do allow your character to unlock unique conversation options, but they exist independently of one another — you can be charming and be intelligent, should you choose to be, and usage doesn’t cause the stat to increase.

In Dragon Age, as in other successful choice-based games like Telltale’s The Walking Dead and CDProjekt’s The Witcher series, you’d be placed in a series of difficult moral quandaries and often must choose between the lesser of two evils to proceed.

Dragon Age: Origins did trip on itself in how it gamified party approval — your choices would often be met with approval by some and disapproval by others, but it was pretty easy to “gift” your way back into the good graces of even the most pissed-off follower. Fortunately, while other characters would sometimes make their own decisions based on your past actions, the game never really restricted your character based on his or her stats — no matter your past choices, you were given a full range of options.

Speaking of The Witcher, that role-playing series perhaps best exemplifies non-stat-based choices. In Witcher games, the only consequences are logical ones: You may kill a character, but if you do that, she won’t be there to help you later. You may save a character, and he may tell you how to find a useful item. Or you may anger a character, who will then be unwilling to help you in the future. Your protagonist Geralt isn’t given colour-coded moral stats, and you’ll never be unable to make a crucial choice simply because you didn’t have a high enough ranking. If you want to choose to kill that guy, you can kill that guy. You’ve got a sword, and he’s right there. Your call.

Here’s hoping that in the generation to come, game developers continue to experiment with flexible worlds that react to players believably, giving us choices that run the gamut from red to blue to all the shades of grey in between.

Last-Gen Heroes is Kotaku’s look back at the seventh generation of console gaming. In the weeks leading up to the launch of the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One, we’ll be celebrating the Heroes — and the Zeroes — of the last eight years of console video gaming. More details can be found here; follow along with the series here.

To contact the author of this post, write to [email protected] or find him on Twitter @kirkhamilton.

Top image by limis, DeviantART


  • I think the Witcher 2 is my favourite game this gen. It really nailed multiple path narrative in a way that Bioware couldn’t, even though they often got close.

  • I’m surprised there was no mention of the fable games. At the end of fable 3 I remember I bought the property and charged heaps of rent and everyone hated me but then I used that money to make the good decisions etc and so people ended up seeing me as a hero when previously everybody hated me. I thought that was a fun way of doing it.

  • He’s been evil so long that he can only let his son die, then do whiskey shots with Palpatine while kicking the smouldering corpse.

    That would have been the greatest ending to any movie ever.

  • Its only started getting popular this last gen consoles. Have these kinds of systems been used before? I’m sure in future it will be more flexible and more complicated. At the moment even for binary they need to create more content than necessary to tell a story. Allowing the player to experience the story differently comes as a separate part.

    • Fallout always had karma, even way back in the 90’s 😛 Heck, even the SW Jedi Knight: Dark Forces 2 gave you different endings based on good/bad choices in game. KoToR the same…

      It’s only really become popular this gen because they’ve been able to add it into places like Bioshock and GTA whereas before, there wasn’t the choice. Could you imagine if Gordon Freeman had a choice ?

  • I played the middle ground throughout the whole ME series, and I am pretty certain there was enough points to make any of the paragon/renegade choices.
    When I say middle ground, I just made decisions based on what I would do, not so much making decisions so that a specific stat would go up. I felt pretty good about all of my choices.

  • Good Article. Mass Effect 2 particularly annoyed me at times with it’s morality system – especially towards the end where unless you had built up your paragon or renegade score fully, there were some options for keeping members loyal that weren’t available to you. That really, really sucked. I suppose they wanted it to reflect Shepard’s “skills” in negotiating in certain ways that he/she built up over the course of the game, but it was annoying how in ME1 and 2 you had to go FULLY down ONE path ALL the time.

    ME3 sort-of fixed that by combining a renegade and paragon bar into one reputation bar that would be filled up regardless of whether you were paragon or renegade. It still punished players who wanted to be ambivalent or indecisive.

    • My memory might be faulty here, but I’m pretty sure you could max out paragon AND renegade. I know I had a character that I decided was going to a bit more nuanced (ruthless towards combatants and extremely protective of civilians) that managed to fill up paragon and almost fill renegade. Perhaps you had to choose one morality if you didn’t go through all the sidequests and paragon moments…

      I kind of also object to the argument made in the article that you can’t roleplay and “win” the game. Surely these are contradictory goals anyway. Do you want to make the choices that you think your character would make? In this case Bioware tells you that you can’t make certain choices later, which I’m sure you can cook up some story based justification for. Did you want to min/max and get the best “value” out of every decision? Then you probably don’t care so much about forcing your character to take certain actions. I think there’s always been a fundamental divide between roleplaying and min/maxing. Very few games let you do both and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

    • I played neither paragon or renegade and never ran into this problem, I did what I thought was right regardless of moral implications and ended up almost dead even on both. all my characters stayed loyal to me.

    • It was better in ME1 when it was driven by a stat rather than the self-feeding and self-defeating method in ME2 that made no sense. ME1 had the right of it: your ability to be charming or intimidating was based on how charismatic or intimidating your character was on paper. ME2 too often restricted roleplaying with the whole “you can’t kill this guy until you’ve killed X babies first” approach, forcing you to go to either extreme to resolve the harder conflicts later because you often needed about 90% one or the other to resolve squaddie conflicts or get the Samara & Morinth choice. You couldn’t play characters like a mostly Paragon Shepard who hated batarians due to their background because it would restrict your ability to perform Renegade actions against batarians because you were mostly Paragon and didn’t have enough Renegade. It was a horrible system akin to saying “Winston Churchill can’t give this charismatic speech despite being a charismatic individual because he hasn’t given enough already.” Your personality should drive your decisions, not the other way around.

  • Original Deus Ex was a bit of an incomplete masterpiece in respect to moral choices, your decision to kill or non lethal take-down changed the flavour of dialogue later in the game.
    Playing your character as every man for himself or helping people survive events that could terminate the character would diverge the story line and give you access to those characters later in the game.
    One part of the game which doesn’t appear to have been either completed or picked up in QA relates a quest that will switch your allegiance to the other faction in the game.
    If you elect to fail that quest you seemed to be able to continue playing levels of the game without having switched faction; at the time among my circle of friends we all assumed there was a second story-line allowing to you play the compromised anti-terrorist organization that never made it to the final cut.

    There wasn’t another FPS game at the time I can think of with such a complex story.

  • In an article about meaningless choices, how is it that The Walking Dead only gets a passing mention?

    Not being able to save the teenage boy at the start (can’t remember his name), no matter what I did. He would have been much more useful than that stupid kid.

    I chose NOT to take the food from the abandoned car. The group still takes the food, and that assclown still follows and screws everything up. We barely made it as a group. How in the hell did he manage to follow, by himself, AND have time to spy on us constantly?

    Then later, I decided to amputate Lee’s arm to reduce the spread of the infection. Five minutes later, they task the one-armed man with a dangerous climb to the bell tower. Jerks.

  • Yep. Mass effect has always annoyed me in that to do the coolest stuff, you have to be really really boring and always be either completely evil, or completely good.

    My last Shepard was a badass. Anyone who crossed him died. But he was really good to his crew. They were his crew.

    I didn’t get to select any cool dialogue options in anything throughout the game. Even though I was playing it the most fun way I knew how, as a real character would act.

    Sucked. Still replayed 1 & 2 at least 4 times. And 3 twice. I’m done with Mass Effect now. Too many hours down the tube.

  • Was just discussing the effective use of this modern design technique with a friend just the other day. It’s disheartening in some ways… But only if you realise what they’re doing in the first place.

  • As much as Iove mass effect it’s morality system was pathetic

    Good/evil is boring…give me something Interesting,

  • If you want your choices to matter and not be black and white:
    Fallout 1
    Fallout 2
    Vampire: Bloodlines
    The Witcher 1 and 2
    Planescape: Torment

    Not much from last gen though. Thanks to Bioware all choice systems are now black and white due to their games being acclaimed as the standard for ‘RPGs’.

  • Special mention for Obsidian’s Knights of the Old Republic II, where you get called for being too dark side or too light side. Adhering too much to either path meant other people had to pay for your glory, sometimes with their lives. It didn’t change the outcome much, but playing as a “paragon” got you a dressing down at the end just as much as playing as a “renegade”.

    Alpha Protocol had a similar – though less overt – morality system, where you could only make bad/morally compromised choices, but they could be selfless or selfish. Again, endings were similar: you could either beat the system, break the system, or become the system. The game implies that it doesn’t really make any difference, since former iterations of the organisation you encounter along the way each appear to have emerged from the different choices, and the world stays crap.

  • Mass Effect failed as a whole largely due to the third game and how rushed and lazy it was, and how BioWare no longer seemed to get their priorities right and were more concerned about creating another action game with unnecessary multiplayer rather than making a deep RPG where the previous choices mattered.

    With ME3, the writing as a whole was awful. Prior choices set up in the other games that should have mattered didn’t as they shoehorned you onto a single set of tracks rather than giving the player any narrative freedom and 90% of what you did played out to almost the same outcomes and consequences anyway. If characters from other games died it didn’t matter because some new NPC would just step in and do almost the exact same thing anyway, and actions you’d performed in the past didn’t matter as the result was almost identical due to horribly contrived plotting and too many moments of “X happens because the plot says it does” or “X happens because BioWare writers are adamant that it must” rather than for any logical, sensible reasoning.

    If you play through the game only once, especially if you’re mostly a Paragon-aligned Shepard, then you don’t really notice this so much beyond unavoidable moments of bad writing such as the Catalyst, Crucible and almost everything related to Cerberus, but as soon as you play with a different character you really do realize how lazy, half-assed and poorly BioWare handled the final entry to the series. After all this build up of the import system and telling us that choices we made would really shape the events in the final game, pretty much nothing matters, and far too much is just reduced to a meaningless, shallow number to add to the final tally rather than resulting in anything with any real depth. Choices that were really built up like the fate of the Rachni Queen, the original Council and the Collector Base are reduced to tiny throwaway moments of insignificance that doesn’t change a damn thing. The Rachni Queen is replaced by a clone in some of the weakest and cheapest of lazy cop-outs in game-writing history, the replacement Council are pretty much just clones of the original and don’t really change anything beyond a few lines and the Collector Base results only in about 10 seconds of extra dialogue towards the latter moments of the game and a slight variation in Galactic Readiness Points.

    Mass Effect 3 should have been a completely different experience based on the prior games. Instead it put you on the rails, reducing your choices to meaningless numbers and resulting in a game that was 90% the same even between full Paragons and full Renegades. And to make matters worse, you barely had any control over your avatar in ME3. While ME1 and ME2 had a plethora of dialogue choices and moments to express yourself, ME3 had Shepard too often on auto-pilot and sprouting nonsense without any player input, and on the rare occasions the game did give you some control, there were usually only two choices that were very transparent and extreme. Shepard stopped being a character players could define and control like an RPG character should be and just became another action hero that was pre-defined like Ezio Auditore, Nathan Drake, Marcus Fenix, etc. Instead of players being able to choose the personality and style of their Shepard, it was chosen for them.

    This went from a series where players could take their Shepard through their story and into one where they took BioWare’s Shepard through BioWare’s story. The fact that there was even a mode to turn off dialogue choices completely is a testament to where BioWare’s mindset is these days and where their priorities are. It’s evidence of how they don’t care about player agency anymore and don’t want to make RPGs with depth any more, but instead just want to make cinematic, story-driven action games. Ever since EA took over, they’ve been on a slippery slope of losing what once made them great and just falling into mediocrity by becoming like every other big cinematic action game studio and following the EA mantra. It’s all about pandering to the masses and getting as big an audience as possible, when it used to be about making quality games that leaned more towards the nerdier gamer rather than the CoD Blops Fratboys.

  • This is an interesting article about not being good enough in a game has ruined the game.

    I’d ask all shooty bits be removed but then I remember how terrible LA Noire became because I just stopped trying.

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