Here’s the thing: I read Goosebumps books in my youth. Like most kids born in the 1980s, I was drawn to the semi-terrifying idea that something terrifying (and non-ordinary) could happen to everyday kids. That one day there could be an evil sponge living under my sink or that my parent’s lawn gnomes came to life at night or that my next door neighbors were vampires. A few variations of these books had the choose-your-own-adventure gimmick where at the end of a page you could make two choices…one sent you to page 59 and the other had you flipping to page 113. This non-linear style had you jumping all around the book and forced you to make choices. You got to CHOOSE what the character would do, which was fascinating as a kid (the key was to leave your finger as a bookmark when you flipped to the page of your choice, cause more often than not one of the choices meant death. So in reality you didn’t really get to choose most of the time, you were forced into an option. But the illusion of choice was there. Sound familiar?) But therein lies the problem, I’m not a kid anymore and the idea of a choose-your-own-adventure story sounds as about appealing as paying bills.
So why is there a flood of videogame developers throwing the idea of “moral choice” into videogames. Especially when so often this concept falls flat. One only has to look at the outcry at the ending of Mass Effect 3. “Choice,” fans cried, “we were promised choice.” Commonly, the choice given in videogames is whether or not you will allow a character to live, but routinely these games are so filled with killing and violence that the morality of it is minor. Take Infamous, for example, where several choices have lasting effects. You can give people aid and supplies or you can keep them for yourself. Being good grants you certain powers; being bad offers a different set. Sure your ex-girlfriend might scold you for making a selfish decision and your best friend might chide you about making a selfless one, but who cares? Either way you’re still playing the same game. The filler in between might matter to some people but for most it’s larger plot points that they pay attention to. And largely those remain the same.
We don’t get choice in novels. We don’t get choice in movies. We don’t get choice in music. Art is created with a direction in mind and the consumer doesn’t have a say in it. I realize that all media is different and videogames have their own set of guidelines and understanding of how they’re consumed, but giving a false sense of choice is just bothersome. And saying that because videogames are interactive they lend themselves to giving choice to the player is like saying because a book is in first-person I will interpret the character as myself. You can have choice in videogames, but they have to be committed to it. FULLY committed. The choice has to matter and have long-standing repercussions on how the game is digested. The decisions of morality made have to vary wildly from the opposite choice, making so that the next decision we encounter could never have been presented had we gone the other direction with that first choice. There has to be consequential impact, just like there is in real life (forked road, yellow wood, all that). Essentially, developers would have to create more than one story thread, not just have one story and bend the decisions players make around it, tweaking things slightly here and there. Games like Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead are examples that attempted to tell a story and give the player actual moral choice, but they fell flat. What feels powerful at first ends up feeling like a ploy, as the sum of your choices generally leads to the same conclusions as a different set of choices. Different 20-second cutscenes feel tact on, not like a reward.
Too often moral choice is used as a device to give the player a sense of power, when it really should be used to give them a sense of powerlessness. They should second-guess and regret decisions, not forget about them moments after they’re made or make them knowing that they don't really matter, as the story will trudge forward the same way despite their input. I need to know there is no turning back; that no two decisions can lead to the same conclusion. Otherwise, I'm still just keeping my finger on the page.