Why videogames haven’t grown up yet: Choice

Harry continues his look at the growth of videogames with a look at how moral and narrative choices affect the games we play…

Over the past few weeks, we’ve looked at the way videogames deal with certain issues and actions in comparison with other media. We’ve seen how the problems videogames have to deal with stem, although not exclusively, from their interactivity. Games come in for more stick when they’re violent because their dissenters claim, in a simplified and incorrect way, that it’s you, the gamer, who’s performing the violent act.

Gaming stands at an awkward crossroads right now. The paths that it has to choose are many, varied and not a single one of them is mutually exclusive. Videogames, like all other visual media, need to diversify their output. But the diversification of videogames is far more complicated than the diversification of television and film.

You’re not interacting with your television when you’re watching it. For want of a better term, you’re a passive observer, allowing whichever story is playing out in front of you to wash over you. In videogames, that isn’t possible – you become an intrinsic part of the game as soon as you pick up the controller, making decisions and choices that effect the outcome of the story.

Which brings us to the final part of our jaunt through the adolescence of videogames – choice. This is perhaps the most important of the four examples we’ve looked at, which is why it’s been saved until last. Always bring out your big guns on the final level.

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There are two types of choice I’m going to look at in this piece, and they each offer a radically different interpretation of the word – narrative choice and moral choice. Let’s look at the most contentious of those first: moral choice.

Morality systems in games are relatively new inventions, but they’ve become ubiquitous of late, finding their way into a host of triple-A titles in the last couple of years. Take Dante’s Inferno for example. Leaving aside the unrelenting gloom of the game, the way it deals with the so-called moral choices you’re offered is indicative of the problems of videogames in general.

Upon snaring enemies with your scythe, you’re given the option to either absolve or punish your flailing, demonic victim. If you chose the light path and absolve, the demon explodes in agony, while if you chose the dark path and punish, the demon is dismembered agonisingly. The choice on offer isn’t really moral one at all, it’s just dressed up like one.

What you’re actually choosing is which skills you’d like to get better at, with the light path and the dark path offering different ways of maiming and disembowelling. Most games that purport to offer an ethical dimension are doing exactly the same thing – if you’re good you get this power, if you’re bad you get this power. There’s no grey area whatsoever.

That shouldn’t be read as a suggestion for a third power pool, one which gives you special moves because you decided that, rather than punching the kitten or stroking the kitten, you leave the kitten alone. It’s a recommendation that we stop describing something in terms that don’t apply to it.

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Morality isn’t a series of rewards for specific actions, nor is it as black and white (or in the case of Dante’s Inferno, light blue and red) as most games suggest. Decisions involve complex, individual reasoning, and minuscule choices can change events far off in the future.

A second approach to morality comes courtesy of BioWare. In its two flagship franchises, Mass Effect and Dragon Age, BioWare has implemented a morality system that relies not just on your actions, but the way other characters perceive those actions.

For example, you might intervene in a dispute between two NPCs. Handle it diplomatically and one of the characters in your party will respect you more. Handle it with a sword or a gun, and the same character will lose respect for you. Being a vile brute or a saint opens up different dialogue options, allowing you to sway characters’ decisions in your favour, or enrage them with your views on life.

It’s certainly a more grown up approach to the morality question, and a step in the right direction, but it still falls down on one, particularly difficult, stumbling block – your options are finite. In Mass Effect you might be given six conversation options, three of which will have no effect on your moral standing.

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That leaves you with three options – positive, negative or neutral. It’s the same basic problem that blights other games that claim they have morality systems. How do you make a player choose what to do, whilst keeping the action flowing? We’ll come back to this later, but now let’s have a look at the second of our two choice systems, narrative choice.

Narrative choice is choice on a grander scale than moral choice. It’s the ability to play a game in whatever order you see fit. Videogames are getting larger and larger, and more and more of them are offering what’s called ‘sandbox’ gaming. In essence, you’re allowed to do whatever you want.

The story has a beginning, a middle and an end, like stories are supposed to, but apart from those milestones, you can work your way through the rest of the game in whatever order you choose. This is one thing that other visual media simply cannot do. You watch a film in the order it’s presented to you, you watch a TV series, barring any mishaps with the recorder, in the order it comes. Videogames don’t have to do that.

There can be a variety of set pieces spread out around the game world, and you tackle them in whatever order you see fit. The GTA series is a fine example of this. You get phone calls to tell you where the missions are and what’s happening, but you can choose which to do first. The same is true of Mass Effect. An event might be triggered on the completion of your fifteenth mission, but what that fifteenth mission is, and where you are at the end of it, is entirely your call.

To further the success of the sandbox way of storytelling, videogames need to stop being afraid of us missing out on portions of games, in favour of an approach that creates a narrative based on our actions. Maybe in my first play through of a game, I’m going to miss out on an incredible set piece because I’ve been captured, or because I’m at the wrong side of the universe when it happens. If it’s my fault, then I’m okay with that.

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Of all the examples in this series, the choices that we make are the most important. The way games deal with sex, drugs and violence, is really a consequence of the way games deal with our in game actions. It’s good to see then, that of all the problems I’ve highlighted, videogames are moving quicker in the right direction with choice.

What’s needed now is a blending of the two different types of choice on display here. If the choices you make in the narrative – heading out to protect some colonists; robbing one bank instead of another – begin to have moral consequences – you save those colonists, but some others die; you get more money than you would have but have to shoot someone in the process – then videogames will start to move into territory that television and film can only dream of.

Choice lies at the very heart of every videogame we experience, and as more developers start to play with the idea, from experimenting with the concept of free will in BioShock, to throwing you headfirst into a universe in Mass Effect, the more impressive our gaming future is going to be.

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