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Crossing The Line: How Spec Ops Makes Your Choices Matter


Youíve 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 donít really go in any different directions.

Spec Ops: The Line is different, though not in the way youíd expect. In truth, many of the gameís choices donít have long-term repercussions (though a few do), yet Spec Ops manages to have the most engaging set of decisions Iíve 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 havenít 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 youíve 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 doesnít 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 ďplannedĒ 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 couldíve 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. Youíre 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.

Youíre getting close, but so are the soldiers. Over the radio, Lugo says he sees a refugee camp, and that heíll 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 someoneósome groupóto leave him alone, and keep away.

You start running.

By the time you get inside, itís 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 itís no use. Lugo is dead. Killed by the very people you came to save, the very people who now hate you for the atrocities youíve 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 meÖ

Iím 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 wasnít FORCED to shoot them. The game simply gave me control, it did not tell me to do anything. Not until Iíd finished the game and began looking at message boards did I find out that you donít have to kill the civilians.

I had several actions I couldíve taken, but because the game didnít reveal them to me, I simply did what seemed ďrightĒ, no matter how twisted it mightíve been. Thatís how far gone I was. I didnít 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.

Thatís part of the power of masking choicesóyou allow the player to react as he truly would, and in that moment, I truly wouldíve shot them down. I guarantee at the end of the year, when Iím tallying up the best games I played, that moment is going to stick with me long past the rest of this yearís AAA releases. And Iím sure I wonít be the only one.

Choices are an important, effective tool, but developers should not underestimate the value of hiding a playerís 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.

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About silent1234hillone of us since 12:55 PM on 06.17.2012

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.