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Every Pill is Red: The Futility of Choice


In 1987, at the height of its popularity, the famous movie series Rambo got a video game adaptation. The game itself wasn’t anything memorable, with the exception of a design choice made at the very beginning of the game. Upon being briefed on a possible mission, the player (Rambo) is given the option to accept the mission (yes) or decline it (no). Saying “yes” would continue the game as it was the desired result. However, if the player was a bit adventurous or perhaps overjoyed by the thought he could control whether the mission would exist or not, they could press “no.” Unfortunately, saying “no” prompted this response from the Colonel.

At the time it was a funny gag that was continued in countless other titles afterward. It worked because back then games were limited in their ability, the idea of being able to choose anything was a fantasy that even games couldn’t conceive. The good part about this story is that games are not longer limited to 8-bit graphics or memory limit sizes. Developers can create whatever their mind thinks of. The sad part is despite years of innovation no one has figured out the fundamental uniqueness that games have: the ability to do things differently.

“BUT WAIT, I PLAYED A _______ (BioWare, Bethesda, Obsidian, Irrational) VIDEO GAME! AND I CHOSE A BUNCH OF STUFF IN THAT!” is the likely response that should be generated right now. Yes games have had some sort of player-interaction ever since you could change your main character’s name in Final Fantasy, but that’s not what I’m talking about. When you pick an action in real life, it has its ramifications. Games have yet to really tap into what that means, and if you don’t believe me I’ll break down the biggest examples.

Let’s start with the examples that prove my point, because it makes me feel better about myself. InFamous was released around this time last year and one of the core mechanics was the player’s ability to pick the main character Cole’s morality. Either becoming Famous and praised by the people or Infamous and feared by them. Sounds awesome, but what it resulted to was very obvious decisions that weren’t so much “decisions” as they were incremental “are you sure?” notifications after answering the question of “Do you want to be an asshole?”

For example… and this is a real “decision” in the game. You come across a locked door with a man standing behind it. Cole’s internal monologue begins and weighs the options of asking the man to nicely open the door, or blast it down with electricity and kill him. This is the most ridiculous scenario I’ve ever come across in any game ever. Neither option has any more benefit or efficiency than the other, the only difference being what kind of person you want Cole to be. Add on a few gameplay mechanics that make it pointless to choose anything but the same type of answer the entire game and you begin to wonder why these scenarios were even programmed in the first place.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have games that present two different approaches, but there’s only one “right” answer. Bioshock is the best example of this. You’re supposed to be torn over the idea of killing the little sisters for your own self-benefit and preservation, or maybe preserve what little humanity is still left inside you and save them. The problem being that the moral high road also ends up being the more beneficial road. So I ask the question: Why would anyone choose to handicap themselves, and be considered a “villain.” There’s no benefit, so the supposed dilemma is degraded into simply pressing a button.

In addition to these two examples there are literally dozens of games that fall into the same problems (Fable, Knights of the Old Republic, etc.). So you may be wondering what I’m expecting from choices in video games if these examples don’t fit my criteria. In order to explain, I’m going to have to get real psychological on you.

Anyone who’s taken a Psychology course should know the name Kohlberg: A famous psychologist who studied and presented a steady chart progression of morality in human beings from birth to death. Not everyone masters the entire chart, and many people are left on the lower end, you know them as “selfish jackasses.” One particular way of analyzing where you are on the morality line is the Heinz Dilemma:

“A woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to produce. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman's husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $ 1,000, which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said, "No, I discovered the drug and I'm going to make money from it." So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man's store to steal the drug for his wife. Should Heinz have broken into the laboratory to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not?”

Take a moment and think about it.

So was Heinz right? As it turns out, which side you picked doesn’t actually matter. Instead the reasoning why either party was in the right is what decides your morality. For example saying “Heinz should’ve taken it because he needed it” would fall under stage two morality (out of six). Similarly, saying “Heinz should not have taken it because stealing is bad” would be stage one (feel free to check out the wikipdia article explanation to see if you’re a bad person or not). This dilemma is used to accurately judge a person’s morality thinking, but it also doubles as an explanation that nothing in life is simple and shouldn’t be presented that way.

Let’s take an example of how games have failed to present that. In the original Mass Effect, players come across a thought to be extinct race called the Rachini. This insectoid species were directly tied into galaxy-wide warfare, and generated multiple other problems including the Krogan Rebellions and in turn, the Genophage. If you didn’t play Mass Effect, the simplified version is: their entire existence has harmed the rest of the universe and almost brought extinction to other races through violence and slaughter. These guys don’t have a good reputation.

So players come across a surviving queen of the Rachini, but this one can communicate. The queen speaks to you and pleads for a second chance, promises not to cause more warfare and bloodshed as long as it got to live free. At this point the choice is given to let the queen go, or kill it. Now if the queen is let go, everyone is down on your opinion at first… but show optimism in the species’ future and ultimately decide you did the right thing. On the other hand killing the queen gives you the label of “mass-murderer,” the council asks what it’s like to commit genocide, and no one agrees with your choice. After all, you did just murder an entire race… right?

But wait. I chose to kill the queen because in my mind letting her live meant the death of millions more (and probably a really lame side quest in the future). How come that line of thought was never brought to focus? I can only be Jesus or Lucifer himself? That seems very narrow-minded.

The Dungeon’s and Dragon’s alignment system is the best representation of how players can do good or evil actions for different reasons. I won’t go into full detail, but the jist is there are different degrees of good and bad. Certain types of evils conduct their villainy in more/less subtle ways. Darth Vader and Jigsaw are both evil people, but in different kinds of ways. There’s a lot of depth and thought-process behind these more complex decisions that seem to be neglected in any game that tries to represent them. Let’s try to think smaller.

The best examples of choices in games are usually the more “fair” options. Let’s put BioWare in a positive light. Their late 2009 release of Dragon Age fulfilled many of my expectations and went above and beyond some design choices when it came to how much freedom we had to change things. Take for example Shale. Shale is a huge golem monster that was created by artificial means and has a pretty depressing history.

About three fourths of the way through the game the player is given the option to recreate multiple Shale-like beings. The people chosen would be volunteers and overall would create an army of unstoppable proportions, perfect for the prodigious task that awaited you at the end of the game.

However choosing to create these golems outrages Shale so much that she vows to strike you down if you commit such an indecent act. Regardless of your good intentions, there is an obvious cause and effect in this scenario. The dilemma being a stronger army for the last battle (which has only been referred to as an impossible task in addition to the entire game being extremely difficult) or keeping one of your party members.

It’s an interesting decision that many players had to face. The best part of this particular outcome is the removal of assumption. The game does not think you hated Shale, or wanted to create golems, or anything. It simply presented the sides, and applied the aforementioned consequences. Not only that, it added a bit of risk and worry to the action itself. Take this in comparison to Mass Effect 2, where every character will always be with you no matter what you do until the very end.

The best example of fair but interesting choices I’ve seen is from a little eastern-european game called The Witcher. The entire game is extremely interesting despite its somewhat poor quest structuring but the first major decision in the game is worth mentioning. After a few hours of playing the game players have to decide between helping an angry mob of townspeople kill a powerful witch who has claimed to doom the town and all of her rivals to misery, or protect the witch and suffer the fate of the townspeople’s wrath.

The important part of this choice is one vital and fundamental difference from any other game: there’s no combat. There’s no worrying about which side will be easier to fight, or anything like that. When you remove the difficulty factory you just think about what makes the most sense, and not which path will be more beneficial. The townspeople have a right to want to kill this witch who has been blamed for cursing the town and ruining many peoples’ lives (even killing some). At the same time the witch claims everything is just a big story and the people are just manic looking for someone to blame.

So the player has nothing to rely on by their gut and their wits. Who is more likely to lie? Even if they are lying are they worth siding with? What are the long term effects? Who could sway the game more? Each decision is a sound choice, and each consequence is obvious from even before you choose. Neither side is presented in a better or worse light, so there’s no “right” answer; it’s all a matter of how you want to play things out based off of your own thoughts.

So what does this all mean? As of right now almost every game with any type of ability to change the flow of circumstances or affect the story personally keeps it very “safe.” Every Mass Effect 2 character will always stick with you, whichever person you kill in GTA4 doesn’t have long-standing effects, and no matter what you do: the game will never allow you to dig yourself a hole. Many people agree with this way of thinking, but I find it absolutely boring.

I’d like to think that one of the reasons everyone loves Quentin Tarantino films is because of his unrelenting ability to go against conventions. He will kill John Travolta half-way through the movie. Robert DeNiro a bad ass? Psh let’s display him as the biggest scum bag ever and have him die for being an idiot. I’d like someone to take that approach and apply it to choices in games, because that’s really how it should be. Knowing that serious ramifications could occur if you act like an idiot makes you think about your choices more seriously.

Choices are in a mindset of constant invincibility right now. Nothing bad ever happens; try doing that with other games. Boot up Starcraft and put in the “power overwhelming” cheat and see how much fun it is. Or try beating GRAW with invulnerability. It isn’t fun, or even interesting. Developers don’t realize that without the ability to fail, the possibility of screwing everything up, the reward for succeeding isn’t there. Because no matter if you made planned and intelligent choices, the twelve year old kid hitting the “mean” option will make it through the game with just as much ease.

I’d like to think we’re a pretty smart group of human beings. I can’t be the only one who’s out-smarted the predefined choice-mechanics and chose a logical solution that was presented as something I did not intend. If anything thousands of gamers every day are revealing the mechanics to be simplified and rudimentary. So why not offer us with more difficult decisions and thought-provoking actions. I think we can handle it, do you?

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

-Artie Augustyn (DinosaurPizza)

ADD-ON: I changed all the pictures to be hosted by Dtoid (despite my loathing for its forced resizing that took an hour to work around) and formated them so it doesn't look so cluttered.
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About DinosaurPizzaone of us since 10:04 PM on 11.15.2009

My name is Artie Augustyn... and I'm an alcoholic. No I'm not, but I feel inclined to say that joke when given the opportunity no matter how predictable it has become. I started playing video games in 1997 when my parents bought me a Nintendo 64 and pleading for one for years. I was given Super Mario 64 and Goldeneye 64 on Christmas, and a year later on my Birthday I got Ocarina of the Time. I eventually moved up to a GameCube based on the brand recognition. I was soon persuaded into the world of Sony after playing Dynasty Warriors and Vice City at a friends house, and now I stand before you with an Xbox360, Playstation 3, Wii and PC.

For the most part many people have considered me a "late gamer." I never owned a NES, SNES, Sega Console, or Atari and I get a lot of flak for that. I've begun an initiative recently to go back and play older games that people hold to high praise and you can follow that on my podcast which I'm sure I'll mention a thousand times in this blog.

In terms of my views on gaming, I'd like to think that gaming will one day achieve a level of professionalism and seriousness such as movies or books. I think there are a few reasons that this goal has been kept back. Many gamers don't take the notion seriously, in addition to many leading voices not knowing what they're talking about, and in general everyone's disbelief that it's possible for games to be something more than what they already are. Although, I found Destructoid's views to make the most sense out of what I've seen so far, so I made an account on that sole reason.

I think that covers everything.
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