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If You Choose Not to Decide: Choices, and Their Impact

While perusing the recaps of yesterday's blogs (brought to you by the always awesome cblogrecaps who are awesome and no I am not just saying that because they topsauced me yesterday), I came across this entry by Om Nom On Souls. First off, while I don't venture too far outside of this here blog very often (except for my frequent presence on Destructoid's IRC channel), I do know that ONOS is particularly awesome, and you should click that link and read that entry. It's good.

Also, as you can probably guess, it got me to thinking. Not directly about good and evil, mind you, but choice in a more general sense. Choice is one of those things that has compelled people for almost as long as people have walked this planet. Do we have free will, able to create our own path as we see fit, or has it been written in stone for eternity that I'd be typing these words right now? Was Oceanic 815 always destined to crash, or did changeable events lead to this happening? It's definitely unnerving (to me, anyway) to imagine a situation where everything in my life has already been predetermined.

I don't want to get more philosophical than I need to for this, but it's unavoidable to some extent. Choice is one of those things that comes up time and time again when discussing storytelling through video games, and I'm sure it'll remain a topic long after I hit the giant button underneath this text box. Usually, choices are represented in a binary fashion of good/evil, and in the past, it was taken to extreme. I can save that burning bus full of orphans, or I can slow down the rate at which those orphans die the most agonizing death possible - stuff like that.

Some developers (like the perennially-mentioned-in-this-blog Bioware) have pushed the envelope a bit further in that regard, making sure that even the most altruistic action you think you can take can lead to negative consequence (in my opinion, I think Mass Effect has taken this a bit too far, but that's a topic for another time). On the opposite side of this, many games have tried to add incentives if you choose be Jim Badguy. Generally, this comes through increased stats, items, abilities, etc. Whatever makes your life easier, at least in the short term. (As I'm sure many of you know, harvesting the little sisters in Bioshock actually was a net negative compared to saving them in the long run, and yes, I did just mention Bioshock again. Is it the fall yet?)

I'm trying to stay in the habit of throwing images with relevant quotes into these essays just to break up the monotiniy of the WALL OF TEXT, but I'm having trouble coming up with related images that aren't just from the same references that I always use. So here, have a Rush song.

Of course, there's a lot more to choice than good and evil. Dragon Age presents a variety of choices that have no clear "this is the real good, and this is the real bad path," and it opens up a bit more to the interpretation of the player. I've heard stories from friends about how they played through the game while developing a role for their character, similar to how they might make a character in Dungeons and Dragons (or anything else that involves roleplaying).

This is interesting, but I hold the belief that the game should present all of the challenge without me creating my own rules outside of the program I'm currently running. Most of the choices I made in Dragon Age were the ones that either gave me the most benefit, the "best" possible ending, or were simply the most difficult choices to make (for example, if there was a choice I could make only if I had a good enough persuasion, that was always my first choice. As an added bonus, that usually tied into my first qualifier anyway).

The other issue is that these decisions usually don't have any significant impact on the game, as I griped about yesterday. Say you choose to kill the Rachini queen in the first Mass Effect. After that happens and you return to the Normandy, you get chastised by the Council, and then you continue your mission. If you choose to save it? You get chastised by the Council, and then you continue your mission. Either way, it has no impact on the rest of the game, and only serves to change a few lines of speech in its sequel. Naturally, this could change in the next game, but I can't speculate on something that doesn't really exist yet.

This is all too common in games, especially ones that are "all about the choices you make." This does make Bioware the main offender (and it's worth noting, the only reason I talk about Bioware so much is because I really do love the games they make), as the choices you make are mostly pointless. For the most part, all of these choices have cosmetic effect over a few lines of speech here or there, but the lasting effect - the impact - is rarely there.

Sure, you have to choose whether Ashley or Kaidan dies, but why do I care? This particular point ties back into what I discussed yesterday - in that I don't care about these characters at all - but it also became even sillier when Mass Effect 2 was released and neither of them are playable anyway. Granted, I haven't played through the game where Kaidan is alive, but I'm going to make the safe assumption that he shows up in the same place that Ashley does, and serves more or less the same role that Ashley does in that context. If I'm wrong, feel free to correct me.

Choosing for the sake of making a choice isn't the correct way of going about this. Adding meaning to these decisions is vital. Given the nature of developing a video game, a narrative-heavy game will never fully be able to escape a limited set of paths you can take. I don't consider binary options to necessarily be the kiss of death for making decisions, although it may not be the best way of going about it.

And honestly, just creating an impressive back story for these decisions isn't enough. Sure, that's a benefit (and one I would never belittle), but it's not the whole story. I guess I could put it like this: make me scared to choose the other option. This isn't necessarily the only way you can succeed at creating impact, but it is probably one of the simpler methods. I wasn't scared about killing the Council instead of a massive amount of innocent people in Mass Effect, since they were replaceable, and they were all jerks anyway. Oh, you mean I can cause the demise of these intergalactic, xenophobic leaders who don't seem to realize that I'm saving their asses? Nah, let me kill all these innocent people instead. Impact, not cosmetics.

And please, don't make me wait two years (or longer) for a sequel where this impact presents itself. Have I ever mentioned the Shenmue blue-balling in this blog?
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About Alakaiserone of us since 1:32 PM on 03.15.2010

The name's Tom. I used to work as an industry guy, and am currently on the hunt for my next paying gig. In the meantime, I'm working on a bunch of different projects that don't help me pay my bills. I write a lot. I'm a musician, although certainly not of the professional variety. I like trying new things and meeting new people. I'm still somewhat new around Destructoid, so sorry in advance if I don't know something I probably should.

About my blog:

I update daily (not really, but I like to pretend). Generally, my updates get pretty long-winded, but hopefully not to the point where they're unreadable. I'll wax poetic about whatever's on my mind, like current events in my life, things that are happening in the video games I like, or whatever happens to pop in my head that day. With a few exceptions, I write my entries the same day I publish them, so they're pretty fresh content-wise. It also might help explain the occasional typos. I do my best to avoid any errors, though.

About my work:

I worked at Harmonix Music Systems as a tester on a year's worth of DLC, The Beatles: Rock Band, Lego Rock Band, and Rock Band Network. Feel free to ask me questions about it, but remember: I'm still under NDA. Also, if you know of a job opening, please tell me about it. I'm flexible.

About my contact info:

Want to collaborate with me on something, big or small, related to the site or not? I'd love to. I like working on any project that I'm even remotely capable of working on, and would love to help you in whatever way I can. Feel free to PM me here, or otherwise send me an email at alakaiser(at)gmail(period)com. Even if you don't want to work with me on something, I'd love to just chat. I'm a pretty friendly guy!

What happened to that thing you did? You know, that one thing?:

I wrote an article that ended up getting promoted to the front page of the site, which is pretty damn cool. It removes it from my cblog archive, though, so I'm throwing a link in this here sidebar for the sake of an archive (and in case I lose the link myself).

The Great Escape: One Foot in Reality