Games have always been forcing us to make choices. Some we make without thinking, like whether to take on an armored tank with a crowbar or a rocket launcher. Some require more thought and sometimes even research, like where to put the next talent point when you level up. However, in the last couple of years we’ve been seeing a different kind of choice appear in games: choices that affect the storyline and make the gamer consider the decision they’ve made.
When I first started gaming, almost 20 years ago, the toughest choice I ever faced was which character to pick in Street Fighter II. If I picked Ken and then realized I preferred Ryu’s white outfit or Blanka’s Electric Thunder, I could just change my mind. No harm done and, more importantly, no progress lost. As the industry has evolved and story-based games have become more popular, the amount of choices we make in-game has increased. In the beginning, the choices were of little to no significance and they didn’t change the outcome of a game. However, they did provide gamers with a feeling that we were more involved in the telling of the story.
Nonlinear RPGs, such as Skyrim and Mass Effect had branching storylines where the choices we make impact the gameplay. In Skyrim I could side with different factions and get different quests and rewards as a result. Or, if I wanted, I could side with no one and just skip right past that part of the game. Mass Effect tracked my good and bad deeds and people reacted to me differently depending on how good or bad I was. The freedom to shape a playable character to whatever we want him or her to be is fantastic, and it has dramatically changed storytelling in games. Imagine if you could choose not to rescue the princess in Super Mario Bros, or if you could team up with Ganondorf to get the Triforce and conquer Hyrule. With this new sense of freedom, gamers were able to play the game the way we wanted to, but there was no moral driving force urging us to “do the right thing”.
Warning: Mild spoilers to follow about the Spec Ops and BioShock series.
Spec Ops: The Line took choices to a whole new, more emotional level in 2012. Throughout the game you’re forced into situations where you have to make a choice, and usually someone’s life is at stake. Your two companions (Adams and Lugo) act as the devil and angel on your shoulders, constantly telling you what they think you should do, which makes every decision extra stressful. The choices you make don’t change where you end up, but they will stay with you as a person. Those of you who played Spec Ops: The Line will remember a certain point in the game where your decision had huge ramifications. In order to get past a whole battalion of enemy troops, you order air strikes of white phosphorus down on them, causing them all to die pretty gruesome deaths. As I was marking the location of air strikes using a video remote, I caught my character’s reflection in the screen and became painfully aware that I was the one slaughtering all those people. It was a pretty chilling experience, especially considering the discovery I made in the aftermath.
The BioShock series has put an increasing level of importance on choices with each new installment. If you rescue the little sisters, you get a good ending. Choose to harvest them and you’ll end up with the “evil ending”, but much more ADAM to spend on abilities. It went a step further in BioShock 2 when, towards the end, you realize your “daughter” was observing your actions all along and she wants to follow in your footsteps. People are different and react differently to things, but I found it hard to watch someone who calls me “father” take the lives of several little sisters, all because that’s what I had taught her. We live in a time where video games are being blamed for increased gun violence, particularly among kids, and I think game developers have responded by taking a step towards more conscientious gaming. More and more I see pauses in the action where the main character will reflect over an action they’ve taken or a choice they’ve made. In BioShock Infinite, Elizabeth reacted with horror and contempt the first time she saw me kill someone and I quite enjoyed the following scene where Booker tries to justify it.
So, is this a good thing or not? Personally, I like the added sense of realism that morality provides in games. The only experience I’ve had with guns is in video games and while I know that playing Battlefield or Call of Duty won’t make me want to shoot someone, studies have shown that playing violent games can be desensitizing. As gamers, we’re always looking for increased realism, both in graphics and in gameplay, and this is an extension of that. On the other hand, when I play video games I don’t want to worry about the troubles of real life. There’s a fine line between the realism we look for in a game and when things get too real, to the point where it takes the enjoyment out of playing.
I like to think of myself as a good guy, so I usually try to make the “right” choices in games. However, that’s not so simple when there’s no information provided about the choice I need to make. For instance, early on in BioShock Infinite, Elizabeth makes you choose between two pins: one with a cage and one with a bird. Five years ago I wouldn’t have given it much thought. I have no interest in jewelry; they look about the same, so who cares, right? I actually paused the game in order to consider what sort of consequences my decision would have. Elizabeth had been locked up her whole life so would she hate me if I chose the cage? The bird looks like a dove, the symbol of peace, which could mean choosing that would make the game more peaceful and easier. So many thoughts were racing through my head and I had just wanted to sit down, relax and play the game. Playing these types of games over the last few years has conditioned me to think of every in-game choice as a matter of life and death. Obviously there are plenty of games that don’t require me to think, but I will always prefer games with a story and characters that make me care.
I’m happy with the current state of moral choices in games as I don’t mind being challenged to think beyond just pressing a button. Games are always evolving, though, and who knows what kind of choices we’ll be making in another five years’ time.