My name's Nick and I'm a recently graduated, semi-employed bum (writer), living in New York City. My eventual dream goal is to work as a narrative designer, but in the meantime I'll have to settle on playing through ( read: jerking off on my copies of) Silent Hill 2 and Deus Ex for the eleventh time.
You’ve seen it all before. Multiple endings. Branching paths. Or (god forbid) a good vs. evil morality system.
Choice in games is all the rage these days, and AAA titles are lining up to either shoehorn morally ridiculous decisions (do I save the orphanage, or burn it to the ground?) or branching paths that don’t really go in any different directions.
Spec Ops: The Line is different, though not in the way you’d expect. In truth, many of the game’s choices don’t have long-term repercussions (though a few do), yet Spec Ops manages to have the most engaging set of decisions I’ve seen in a long time. Why? Two reasons. For starters, there is no good or evil. Hell, there isn't even a lesser of two evils. Each choice, and each possible consequence, are equally terrible. Your decision merely reflects the type of person you are, or (more likely) the type of monster you will turn out to be. But the other (and FAR more important) part to this equation is the way it the game frames your options. In fact, I haven’t seen player choice handled like this since the original Deus Ex.
To this day, the original Deus Ex is still (in my opinion) the best game to ever deal with narrative and gameplay choice. Part of it has to do with the fact that even small decisions you’ve made at the beginning still have repercussions as you reach the end of your 40 hour journey, but the other is simpler.
For the most part, Deus Ex does not tell you the options you have.
It might sound strange, but nearly every game ever CLEARLY outlines the available options. You can kill this guy, interrogate him, knock him out, etc. You may not know the consequences of your actions, but you always know the options. Deus Ex doesn’t even given you those, and part of the reason I still love playing through it is that each time I find a different way to get past a situation than the one before it. How many people realized in a second playthrough that Anna Navarre could be killed off hours before the “planned” final encounter with her? Or found a completely different way to infiltrate a building? Or stumbled on a completely new chain of events thanks to earlier actions? In fact, this was one of the main issues I had with Human Revolution, as I thought the game pointed out the various approaches you had too often.
Most modern games have forgotten that one of the best things about having the power of choice is DISCOVERING the choices you have, something that Spec Ops brings back and uses to a haunting effect. The most interesting and powerful moment in the game occurred when I made a terrible decision without even realizing I could’ve done things differently.
Here ye, here ye: SPOILER WARNING!!!
Towards the end of the game, you and Adams are stranded in (what used to be) a deserted boatyard. Lugo is about a mile away with a broken arm, hiding from soldiers that are trying to kill him. You’re worn out, and the cool heads of the beginning of the game have eroded into hoarse barks and pained shrieks as you and Adams fight across the area, trying to save your only other friend in this god-forsaken city.
You’re getting close, but so are the soldiers. Over the radio, Lugo says he sees a refugee camp, and that he’ll go hide there to buy a little more time. You gun down another swarm of soldiers, and nearing the camp, hear Lugo screaming over the radio for someone—some group—to leave him alone, and keep away.
You start running.
By the time you get inside, it’s too late. Lugo is in the middle of the camp, hung from the telephone wires, a crowd of refugees cheering and throwing rocks at his corpse.
You shoot the rope and his body falls. Adams starts screaming and waving his machine gun at the crowd, who shout back and begin to encircle you.
You check his breathing, but it’s no use. Lugo is dead. Killed by the very people you came to save, the very people who now hate you for the atrocities you’ve committed throughout the game.
The mob approaches. The shouts are deafening. The game gives me control.
I start shooting.
A mother and her child go down first. The rest of the crowd scatters, screaming, running from you and your crazed partner Adams, both of you firing wildly, leaving a mass of bodies in your wake.
After a minute, silence. The refugees are gone, each and every family slumped onto the ground and bleeding out. I take a look at the carnage before me, and it hits me…
I’m a monster.
How many games have tried to give your actions justification, only to fail? Plenty. What makes this moment work? Well, apart from the fantastic writing that helped set this moment up, it was the simple fact that I wasn’t FORCED to shoot them. The game simply gave me control, it did not tell me to do anything. Not until I’d finished the game and began looking at message boards did I find out that you don’t have to kill the civilians.
I had several actions I could’ve taken, but because the game didn’t reveal them to me, I simply did what seemed “right”, no matter how twisted it might’ve been. That’s how far gone I was. I didn’t even consider not shooting them. Not for a second.
On a pure visceral level, few games have ever given me pause over my own instinct.
That’s part of the power of masking choices—you allow the player to react as he truly would, and in that moment, I truly would’ve shot them down. I guarantee at the end of the year, when I’m tallying up the best games I played, that moment is going to stick with me long past the rest of this year’s AAA releases. And I’m sure I won’t be the only one.
Choices are an important, effective tool, but developers should not underestimate the value of hiding a player’s options. To the developer, it creates a more compelling game destined to be played through again and again. To the player, well, the player just might find out more about themselves than they ever wished to know.