Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 14, 2011
As a gamer, we want deeply meaningful decisions that can change the whole course of the story, a la the old Choose Your Own Adventure books. We want big, dramatic decisions with big, dramatic consequences.
Unfortunately, reality dictates that we must usually settle for something less. Too often it’s a lot less, and we get stupid decisions that feel meaningless for all their overwrought set-up. Worse, these decisions are given all kinds of moral gravity – you are required to choose between goody-two-shoes, evil jerkwad psychopath, or Rhett Butler “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” responses that feel forced and doesn’t often match your (or your characters) interpretation of a situation. (Yeah, I’m picking on Bioware again a little here, but it’s not just them).
It’s like the designers want to give us these great big, dramatic decisions, but it ends up being all sound and fury signifying nothing. Or very little. We get the set-up, but not the payoff.
It doesn’t have to be a big story-changing deal. Way back in the early 1980s, the Ultima series provided some very basic, simple choices between good and evil, without comment. Note that I’m mainly talking Ultima III, as I didn’t play the first two. Back then, death was more than just a negligible inconvenience, and the game wasn’t scaled to make sure you weren’t overpowered by challenges. Just dealing with poison or starvation was enough to do you in. Your survival was always at stake, and many players felt that the games encouraged – or occasionally even forced – them to kill those not necessarily in need of killing, and to steal from the merchants when they weren’t looking. It wasn’t an explicit decision, it was simply something allowed by the game. And there were some consequences, generally requiring a quick escape from town to avoid a major beat-down. We could determine whether our characters would justify a little theft in the name of survival.
Later, Ultima IV gave us a very simple template for interesting, intelligent choices that were not at all the black-and-white – starting with the gypsy woman letting us choose our character class not by choosing good versus evil, but by choosing priorities of multiple virtues. These decisions were echoed, if sometimes clumsily, through regular choices that made us choose the greater of two goods. Do we show compassion for a fleeing enemy, or show valor by hunting them down and preventing them from doing evil to a less capable travellers?
The game didn’t make it explicit – you had to take regular trips to the castle to find out how your accumulated decisions were panning out. You also weren’t worried about being saddled with “negative rewards.” You didn’t worry about being given a point of Evil if you were trying to be Good. Yes, in a sense you “spent” points of one virtue to obtain points in another, but that felt okay. And most importantly, the constant flow of interesting – if small – choices, knowing they added up somehow to help you on you ultimate goal, really added to the game.
I think it was the last point that was key. You weren’t just seeing numbers accumulate in a faction or karma level which has an unknown effect on how the game plays out. You had a goal, and had to find a balance to get there. You could see how your choices were getting you closer – or further – from your goal.
More recently, in Fallout: New Vegas, I found myself feeling a bit of the ol’ Ultima III vibe with a decision which I’ll try and keep generic to avoid spoilage. Basically, you find yourself with an option to aid a townsperson to find – and take revenge on – a fellow townsperson who has done them wrong. You have a lot of choices here, including blaming the wrong individual. I chose to lead the guilty party to their summary execution. While it’s not something I’d do in real life, but considering the setting – and how I’d dispensed my own justice not always in self-defense out of the barrel of my own gun out in the wasteland – I felt it was something my character would do without much compunction. While non-hostile or threatening, I felt the guilty individual needed killing. Good enough, in my character’s book.
It was a small decision. It changed some things in the game world, and provided me with an extra option that I never took advantage of. It was a small thing, in the scope of the game world and what comes later. But it was meaningful. It was a good moment.
A totally different approach which I also enjoy is found in Soldak’s indie RPGs Depths of Peril and Din’s Curse. The consequences even for inaction in these games follow sometimes too swiftly, and build on each other to a degree. The game doesn’t dictate moral consequence on your character for whether you choose to rush to the aid of townsfolk under attack, or you instead focus on attacking the problem at the source before dealing with the symptom. But you have to live with the consequences of the choice. Townsfolk may die. In Din’s Curse, the entire town may be lost. These may happen regardless of your choice – it’s second-by-second decision making with ever-changing criteria. And as many gamers have noted, it can get somewhat stressful to be constantly juggling priorities. But it can also be a lot of fun.
And it’s always kind of cool to see long-term effects as well, as the Fallout games showed us. Even for the small things.
I guess what I’m saying is that while big, game-changing decisions with all kinds of dramatic gravity can be a lot of fun if handled correctly, I’m really more interested in having a plethora of small choices and their consequences. Sometimes, it’s the small choices that count. We should see small, relatively immediate, visible results, or a clear cumulative progression towards a particular goal. A few long-term effects won’t hurt either.
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