Let's Talk About: Choices

Life is full of choices. Some are small decisions, like which DLC to buy or whether or not you should buy a Wii Motion Plus (Spoiler Alert: No). Some are huge decisions, like which wire to cut or whether or not to save that bus from going over the cliff. Either way, those choices come together to make us who we are today.

Choices are so common in everyday life, that often times we make choices without even realizing it. We decide what to wear in the morning, what to have for breakfast, if we want to bring a drink along for our commute to work, and whether or not that yellow light really means "slow down".

While video games are mainly an excuse to escape reality, many times, a game attempts to emulate, or even simulate reality. While they are sometimes successful, many times they fail. The main reason that they fail is that life is too complicated to fit onto one disc. One element that has been constantly absent, however, is the permanence in choice.

When I was younger, I envisioned a game that operated much like life. You played through the game, making realistic choices (i.e. not joining the army and trying to fight the country of Iraq by yourself). No matter what happened, though, players will want to try to make the unrealistic occur, because if they mess up and die, they can just restart at the last checkpoint. I finally came to the conclusion that the only way to force players to act in a realistic manner, would be to make their choices permanent. The best way around this was having players develop these characters from birth and if they made a bad decision, it could affect their gaming experience in this game negatively, or could actually give a real "game over", by making the game end.

Without this permanence, playing as one of the most immoral people on the face of the earth (i.e. every play-through of any Grand Theft Auto game ever), is no longer seen as transgressive, as it is in real life, but instead is seen as fun. Cop killing isn't looked down upon in the video game realm (unless your Jack Thompson, but we won't get into that here), it's looked upon as a fun way to blow off some steam after a hard day of work. What's the worst that can happen? You fall asleep after being shot 50 times in the head and you wake up outside of the hospital. If GTA wanted to emulate real life, what would happen is that after the killing-spree that left 75 dead was finally ended, the player would have to sit and endure the 50 years in prison that Niko would be serving, or the player would just outright have to start the game over. Obviously, that would be no fun, so RockStar took the better way out of that one.

While that concept might be a bit too much to handle for many gamers today, some games are inching towards that. With moral choice systems that are in place in games like Fable and InFamous, gamers are getting a glimpse as to what I'm talking about. Unfortunately, with those games, not many of the choices are really in the gray area. I specifically remember in Fable 2 where pretty much every decision was black or white, which doesn't represent real-life whatsoever.

Then, the idea of permanence of choice came into play with titles like Mass Effect and Heavy Rain. In Mass Effect, you made hundreds of choices as you played through your quest to save the galaxy. With those choices, you had decide everything from who to sleep with to who to save. With Mass Effect 2, those choices were shown through many little nuances that happen in the game. With Mass Effect 3, those same choices, along with the choices from Mass Effect 2 will work to provide a very different and unique experience for each player, which is what every game that focuses on moral choices should strive for.

Another game that has recently implemented a successful decision engine, and may have done the best job to this date, is Heavy Rain. The title, which is a PS3 exclusive, plays more like a movie than a game with cutscenes that are littered with Quick-Time-Events. The game has you do everything from decide what order to do things when you first wake up, to deciding if you want to sacrifice your own safety for the safety of others. The game does an excellent job of taking what you decide in key moments and making them count. The decision could even be life or death for another character. If another main character dies, the screen doesn't go black and tell you to start the scene over, it moves on, as we do in real life.

What really sets the game apart in this department, was a scene that sticks out where the player legitimately questions whether all the sacrifices being made are worth it. Without spoiling much, you are asked to do a daunting task with a reward that will make or break the ending that you've been working for the whole game. I literally sat there and contemplated the consequences of my actions for a good ten minutes before deciding that I could probably do things another way and get the same result. I was somewhat right in this assumption, which proved that the game was successful in allowing me to make that choice, rather than forcing my hand one way or the other.

It's refreshing and very exciting to see the way that games like this are taking us. Heavy Rain and Mass Effect stand head and shoulders above other games that attempt to instill a sense of moral choice mainly due to one word: consequence. Without consequences, moral choices don't mean anything. Sure, in Fable your face changes or your property value goes down, but that's about it. In Mass Effect 2 or Heavy Rain, a character that you've grown attached to may die due to your choice. What it all boils down to is the fact that those games have their choices carry heavier (and more realistic) consequences, which make the player more carefully and strategically choose his/her moves, which really leads to a more engrossing and immersing experience.