I’ve played a lot of games that revolve around the idea of choice recently, and they have made me seriously consider how effective the medium is at having meaningful player choices. Oftentimes, moral choices in games are overly exaggerated to the point of worthlessness, if you present a moral dilemma of either: A. Smile at a baby, or B. Stab the baby in the face and throw it down a well; is that really even a moral dilemma? Really you are just choosing between being a regular human being and a sadistic asshole. Sure, that’s fun if you want to play as a sadistic asshole, but rarely do people go down that path. In fact, only 5% of gamers chose to go down the evil path on a one time play through. How much is it really adding to your game if almost no one chooses to go that path? Especially in games where that is the only really gimmick, AKA Fable. However, there are some games that have adjusted the moral choice formula in new and interesting ways. Fair warning, there are spoilers for all the games I am going to discuss.
Telltale Games has really pioneered a whole new approach to both game story telling and moral choices. What I like about their approach is that the dialogue trees are much more realistic than what I have seen in the past, as in the dialogue sounds way more like actual people talking than I have ever heard before in a game. The choices you make also have serious in-game consequences, you can change if a player lives or dies just by choosing to go to their apartment first or second. When playing, feeling like my choices actually mattered forced me to really think about some of the decisions I made. The fact that there was a timer on some of them, forcing you to make huge choices under pressure really added to the internal conflict I felt. However, there were some missteps in terms of having choices that were obviously “good” or “bad”. Like seriously, who is going to burn down the witch’s tree? If you have over 90% of players making one choice over another, I don’t think that adds much to the game. Most moral choices in real life exist in a gray area, and I think that Telltale understands this, as that’s really one of the most enjoyable parts of their game.
Stanley’s Parable is a unique game in that on one level, it’s really about gaming and the choices we make in-game. It asks the question of – can there ever be true choice in a video game? At the then of the day, all choices are there because the creator of the game put them there. We are only allowed to act within certain guidelines of the game world. That becomes utterly apparent when you, playing as Stanley, try and select to enter a door other than the one that the narrator tells you to. You are presented with the two doors again, only with the “correct” door having a big flashing sign telling you to go here. Eventually, you will just be given the “correct” door & the “wrong” choice will disappear. All the while, the narrator gets evermore frustrated at you for not following instructions. While playing I delighted in pissing the narrator off, attempting to thwart his instructions at every turn, but for what exactly? Other than to get him to insult me in more witty ways, there is no winning in Stanley’s Parable (aside from finding all the different endings I suppose), there is no right or wrong choice. It really got me to think about the idea of choices in gaming in a completely novel way.
I should say upfront, that this is one of my favorite games of all time. It’s one of the few games that has really stuck with me over the years and caused a true emotional response. However, I do want to forewarn any reader that it is a disturbing and horrific portrayal of the evilest parts of humanity. I can’t really talk about it fully without covering the “big moment” so beware of spoilers and feels below. Also if you haven’t played the game I highly suggest you skip this section. Just go play the game and come back.
In Spec Ops you play as Generic White American Solider TM in a generic country with lots of sand and brown people. The beginning opens with a cool helicopter fight, and the comic relief solider making a comment about their being sand in his testicular area. Basically, the whole thing is set up to feel like every other modern warfare shooter on the market. Except, it’s not. It’s loosely based off of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness if that tells you anything about the overall tone. While there are other choices leading up to this, the main focus is when arrive at “The Gate” which is a dense area of soldiers who you believe are renegade and are keeping civilians hostage up ahead. You need to get past the soldiers to continue the mission. You are severely outgunned, but are able to sneak into the area where you happen upon some white phosphorous. Technically you can choose to not use the Willie Pete, but you will be gunned down in the ensuing fire fight. One of your comrades objects to using it, even saying, “you always have a choice.” So, assuming you use it, you play the fun mini game where you shoot the white blobs on a little computer screen. Afterwards, you walk through the now cleared area only to find that it was full of civilians. And you just massacred them by burning them alive. There is even a lovely close up of a charred female skeleton clutching a dead child. I actually had to stop playing at that point and took about a week to come back and finish it because I was that torn up over it. The rest of the game doesn’t get any less emotionally difficult, and they even have sick messages during the loading screen such as, “This is all your fault.” “Do you feel like a hero now?” and “To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless.” So how does choice come into this? While on some hand you can rationalize and say that your hand was forced in committing an atrocity, you still made the decision to drop the white phosphorus, many (myself included) didn’t even think to try an alternative method first, and instead went to the most horrific option. On a whole other level, you still decided to play the game, no one forced you to, you could quit at any point, but instead you don’t. You play it through because you have to make it to the end, no matter how much (virtual) damage you cause along the way. No other game has forced me to think about myself as a person, and my choices in the way that Spec Ops did. It’s one that to this day I can’t get out of my head.
There you have it, those are my three games that really made an impact on me and my thoughts about video game choices. I hope you enjoyed. As always, if you think I missed something or you have a game you want me to talk about hit me up in the comments or on Twitter.