Minor spoilers for Bioshock, Mass Effect 2 and The Last Express.
For an interactive medium, video games are remarkably picky when it comes to choices. Many games are bipolar in this sense; offering a billion weapons to help you carve your path, but it must be on this path. Take the pinnacle of the modern FPS – CODBLOPS, or Call of Duty: Black Ops. Here, the choices made by the player are combat choices — Which gun do I use? When should I use my grenades? Where should I be aiming my gun at any moment? Yet, essentially, you are locked onto rails, a puppet sent hurtling down whatever wacky adventures have been set up for you to survive. I say survive, because failure in games pretty much lacks any meaning. You can always restart.
The illusion of choice makes a frequent appearance – you can go here and kill dudes, or go here and kill dudes, but not both. Unfortunately, it doesnt really matter which dudes you kill — the game will end the same way, and you will probably replay it anyway to “experience it differently”.
Then there’s the Bioshock/Fable/Infamous system of good vs evil. This essentially splits the track off into two seperate endings, with some minimal gameplay changes
depending what you choose. The problem with this system is that you are usually locked into one path or the other — you’re either a paragon of virtue or a high-threat sex offender. Both of these options feel ridiculous and extremely videogamey. By giving you a bar to fill with good/bad deeds, players begin to stop caring about what they’re actually doing; these interactions are just there to fill this bar. If developers expect us to care for this interaction, then we must stop relying on numbers and pursue other methods of immersion.
Which leads me to Mass Effect 2, which I have now completed, but maybe not finished. In general, it’s a weird game. Not only did I basically start the series in Act II, it basically is a game composed entirely of Act II. In the first 2 minutes of the game, you die. Two game-years later, you’re revived to work for a shady organisiation to destroy a race of aliens working for the Galactic Harbingers of Doom ™. From talking to other people, it seems this is pretty much what you did
in the first game, except now the alien race in question has changed.You set off and spend most of your time gathering homies and upgrading your ship before the ultimate suicide mission. This “suicide mission” is basically the Serenity to the rest of the game’s Firefly. Many choices and precautions taken previously cumulate at the end. Everytime you make a decision, you know that you could very well be sending these people, whom you have spent nearly 35 hours grouping, to their death. In the end, you are left to deal with the consequences of your actions. Your favourite teammate died? Your fault. You didn’t reach your crew fast enough? Your fault. You die? Your fault.
Yet even this attempt at choice was pretty heavy handed. Everything was brought together in the end, but you don’t really have an effect up until then. Another game I played recently, Jordan Mechner’s The Last Express, represents the tragic demise of consequence in games. In this wonderfully animated adventure game, you play as Robert Cath — an American doctor on the run. You join your best bud on a trip across Europe in 1914 on The Orient Express. You walk in to find your bro murdered, and the game basically unfolds like an interactive Cluedo — in real time. Every person on the train has a timetable. You miss that guy at dinner? Well he might knock on your cabin later, or else you’ll have to track him down.
Groups have conversations — even when you’re not there. It’s weird, in a generation of “press X to start dialogue tree” to walk into a room and only be able to eavesdrop on half of a conversation. Yet all of this represents the vast amount of choices possible. You could just sit in the dinner cabin all day, listening to the
amazing voice actors chat away in Frence or Russian. Or, you could wait for the Inspector to leave his post and sneak past to scout the baggage car. Regardless of how you spend those few hours, you will get an ending. It may not be the ending you hoped for though, but you reap what you sow. If you don’t investigate that ticking sound and then discover and disarm a bomb, then damn right the game should end with you as a charred heap on the burnt ground.
Unfortunately, The Last Express was a flop, as the movie industry would put it. One of the most expensive games ever, back in 1999, and these poor sales did not help the adventure game genre’s reputation. So few people finish games that developers realised that by making games more scripted, they became more successful. Which may be ok when the main focus of the game is purely combat, but surely video games, as a medium, has to move past that? Even RPGs like Final Fantasy, which are dialogue heavy to say the last, offer no sense failure or reward for your efforts. You kill the monsters, then the shiny cut scene will do the rest. In the end you say “Well, that was nice for them”. When we finish a game, we should be saying “Well, that was nice for me.”. By numbing any sense of self-induced failure, you numb any sense of self-induced achievment. I know it’s a scary thought developers, but let your players burn their bridges. Let your players have the opportunity to burn their bridges.