Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Choices - I choose you!

at 1:57 PM
Here's something for you to skim before moving on, as it kicked off my thought process here.

Moral choices in games are a tough nut to crack. On one hand, the notion is inherently compelling and should provide fodder for uniquely interactive experiences, allowing us to explore our own existential depths. In practice, they're fodder indeed; vapid, predictable, and a dime a dozen. Games like Mass Effect and The Elder Scrolls elicit terribly little emotion and rarely drive one to self-examination in anticipation of a game-changing decision.

Here's the first reason. There's no such thing as a permanent game-changing decision. Games are discontinuous narratives, as mentioned here long ago. See, like death, the weight of morality is lost when the player can always go back and overwrite his choices. How is the extinction of some alien race supposed to carry any impact when the main character himself perishes every ten minutes? There's a fallibility to the narrative, a clear understanding that what happens may not necessarily be what was supposed to happen; this undermines the validity of every supposed "choice" and turns it into acceptable collateral damage. Christ, if XCOM: Enemy Unknown (included on their list!) doesn't demonstrate this perfectly.... It's a game where you can let Europe die if you don't feel like ANOTHER GODDAMN TERROR MISSION?
Why isn't there an option to say "Jenkies meant everything to me."
There's always a simple fork (or stack of forks, for you "but it lasted THREE GAMES!" Mass Effecters) to remember as responsible for the ongoing state of the world. The player has too much immediate control for anything to seem organic - as a matter of fact, these worlds aren't interactive at all. They don't take up a life of their own and respond to the player, they simply cave and fold as he pushes and prods. When you KNOW you're responsible for the way every piece falls into place, all that's left is a narcissistic fantasy. Even then, it's still a limited one that conforms to one of X stories that the developers wrote, so really you're just sacrificing unique character-defining moments in exchange for masturbation (see sidebar on StarCraft II*). Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts? Hot ashes for trees? Hot air for a cool breeze? Cold comfort for change?

There are branching narratives that I find effective. As much as I hate to reduce it to a single "trick", it seems the key is keeping the system behind the scenes, outside the player's immediate attention. In this situation, moral impact is discovered, not mechanically constructed. The player may be surprised by how the world reacts and forced to re-evaluate ALL of his past actions, questioning where he went wrong. Ambiguous morality can't be achieved simply by investing each choice with a sprinkle of good and a dash of evil - all that creates is a checkerboard. The choices themselves need to be hidden. See Ogre Battle 64 (or any of Quest/Matsuno's numerous games), the original XCOM: UFO Defense, probably need another example here.

If you think morality-choices as currently popular are anything but a shallow gimmick, let me ask you this: when was the last time you picked up a Choose Your Own Adventure paperback instead of a novel?

Who am I fucking kidding, no one reads.

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