Decision Points: A Reflection on 2010′s Hardest Gaming Choices

Ed: This article contains some very mild spoilers

Like a lot of other gamers, I take Mass Effect very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that I’m terrified of making a mistake — of doing something I’ll regret later. The genius of Bioware’s game design has always lain in its cleverly branching plots, quests, and dialogue trees, which in turn generate a dizzying array of overlapping ethical and ludic choices. In Mass Effect 2, the stakes are piled higher than ever, and each decision is fraught with peril — should I thwart this assassination attempt? What happens if I don’t? If I tell her to reconnect with her sister now, might she still sleep with me later in the game?  How can I assuage this character’s feelings of guilt without compromising my own goals?

In my review, I lauded the way that Mass Effect 2 returned me to a more primitive form of play: pen-and-paper gaming, which I had unconsciously adopted by grabbing the aforementioned and jotting out a chart, which enabled me to weigh my various options. By centering their game around the relationships you develop (or choose not to develop) with your team members, Bioware ensured that this painstaking process was a constant concern — your companions seem to have a knack for wallowing in moral quagmires and quandaries.

Much has been made of the game’s ending sequence, which, in a masterstroke of emotional manipulation, attempts to kill off key members of your carefully cultivated cohort. In theory, it’s a brilliant piece of game design — have the player spend 20-30 hours getting to know people, then let him decide whom he likes best. In practice, it’s slightly less compelling, due mostly to the fact that your companions can die early on because you forgot to upgrade various aspects of your starship. Upgrades are purchased with the game’s mineral currency, which in turn is harvested by probing and mining unsettled planets, a stultifying mechanic that the game’s designers should have eliminated altogether.

For a dedicated Mass Effect player, losing a character because you didn’t mine enough is downright painful. For a company with such long experience in crafting difficult decisions, Bioware should have known better. The situation exemplifies the crucial problem with choice-based game design: a lot of the time, you don’t know what you’re choosing between. When that Renegade hot-button pops-up during a cutscene, squeezing Left Trigger means taking a leap of faith –  accepting the designer’s vision of Commander’s Shepard’s brash behavior, and all the unforeseen consequences that come with it. Some people would argue that this uncertainty is part of the thrill, part of the reason we play games in the first place — to push a button and see what happens. Those people might well be right, but I’d be willing to bet they’ve also reloaded a save game or two, after making the wrong call.

Smart game designers and writers will continue to move forward, seeking to capitalize on our hunger for precisely this kind of carefully-crafted fiction. As they do, it would behoove them to recognize the kind of knuckle-gnawing uncertainty that results from such difficult choices, and to construct their games with a few more subtle safety measures for the obsessive deciders in the audience. A line of dialogue here, a chance to change your mind there — just enough to make a difference.

Like many of Bioware’s titles, the Fallout series has long belonged to the “shit happens” school of game design, basking with perverse glee in the fickle winds of post-apocalyptic death. For what it’s worth, Black Isle’s uncompromising design philosophy added to the ambiance, ratcheting up the tension and sense of risk. But by the tenth gorily-animated friendly-fire incident, the premise starts to wear a little thin.

Fallout 3 did its best to replicate the original developer’s dependence on difficult choices, with mixed results (in my first playthrough, I pissed off Mister Burke about an hour in and haphazardly gunned down the Sheriff of Megaton in the ensuing firefight, only to later encounter his orphaned son in a moment of procedurally-generated tear-jerking). It took the series’ original creative minds to really refurbish the difficult decisions common to the first two PC titles, and Fallout: New Vegas was a joy to play.

The game puts player choice on a pedestal few other titles can even approach. The plot centers around an internecine political battle to control the Mojave Wasteland, and each competing faction tries to win you to their cause. In general, I spend RPG’s trying to play all sides against the middle, harvesting a maximum of XP from as broad a variety of quest-givers as possible. New Vegas wasn’t having that. As you proceed down the game’s epic central quest chain, you’re eventually forced to decide where your allegiances lie — with the imperfect, bureaucratic NCR? With the enigmatic, technocratic Mr. House? With the bloodthirsty, autocratic Caesar’s Legion? Or with yourself alone?

When I arrived at the crucial moment, I was paralyzed with indecision. Which faction would best provide for the future of New Vegas? Which would furnish the most interesting end-game? Which would reward me with suitably phat lewt? As I pondered these weighty questions, I absent-mindedly started walking my character around the room. After five minutes of hard thinking and desultory joystick action, it suddenly hit me — I had been pacing! Back and forth, like a real person, making a real decision. Instead, however, I was making a game decision, and so I paced in-game.

Finally, my mind was made up. I screwed my courage to the sticking point and selected the appropriate options, ready to be rewarded, feted, congratulated for my forthrightness. “Quest Failed,” the game said dourly, enumerating the factions that I had just royally pissed off, and the remunerative tasks I had just punted on. In a game with mutually exclusive plot branches, such conflicts are a necessary evil. Still, I felt somehow cheated. Why was I bombarded with the language of failure? “Quest Failed” is for people who don’t kill the requisite number of mutated rats in the proscribed amount of time, not heavily-armed champions of retro-futuristic self-interest.

Once again, I had been engrossed by the possibility of choice, only to have the rug pulled out from under me by design aspects that seemed to ignore the very same emotional investment that they were hoping to create. I reloaded again and again, playing out various strings, trying to postpone the moment when the wine of my success would be debased by the water of failure. In the end, there was nothing to be done. I had to make my decision, and suffer the consequences, whatever they might be. Next thing you know, games will be as hard as real life!

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