Choice in Games

I’ve been spending quite a bit of time on the official Mass Effect 3 forums (primarily because I hate myself) and observing the general opinions people have regarding the series. Also seeing a lot a bile directed towards both ME2 and ME3 because the series has been ruined forever by plot/character/romances/ammo/retcons/cover/mining/cutscenes/marketing/Dragon Age 2/lack of impact from choices/Paragon treatment/Renegade treatment/Cerberus- well, you get the idea. Name something and it has probably been accused of ruining the game.

One of these elements that really caught my eye, however, revolved around the question of how much individual choices made throughout ME1/ME2 are going to impact the third game. According to people who have read the leaked script, there have been a lot of moans of “No.”

I can’t comment on this directly as I’ve been avoiding the leaked script.

But it got me to wondering. I know a lot of people whined about the differences ME1 choices made in ME2 (usually little atmospheric of background changes: news reports, e-mails, etc). The question to me, though, is how much can you actually have choice impact the game?

Assuming we are talking about real game designers with real amounts of money and a real publisher, adding the freedom of choice is going to inherently limit a lot of what you can do with a story. The simple fact of the matter is that you have to create a framework in which the choices you give players to make can coexist. Functionally speaking, you couldn’t (or at least not without some serious strain) make a version of Mass Effect where you have both a heroic Shepard who kicks the Reapers in the face while serving the council and one where he teams up with the Illusive Man and bring in the Reapers and make them slaves to humanity while wiping out the rest of sapient life in the universe.

I mean, you can make an ending where that happens with a big moral choice or something, I guess, but you can’t really make a game that let’s you REALLY play out those two stories. Because, honestly, those are two completely different games. They deserve completely different mission sets. They deserve complete different NPCs. They deserve two different games. The themes and concepts you have running in one can’t really work with the themes and concepts you have running through the other.

As a “writer,” this has actually proven to be a really obnoxious thorn in my side whenever I’ve tried to think about writing for games with choice. There was a while back when I was working with another people to do a docket for a game (a fun project, nothing serious) and we were discussing the matter of implementing choice. People had some excellent suggestions for big, crux decisions in the game… and I always found them a little hard to get my head around since they either necessitated going in a different direction from the development beforehand (if trying to write solid arcs) or keeping the development beforehand relatively wishy-washy so as to easily accommodate whatever the player chose. And, to varying degrees, both choices kind of suck.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that it is impossible to do choices in games. I’m just saying that, generally speaking, it feels like you have to compromise something to make it work. You have to compromise the way a character develops, or a solid plotline, the degree of choice you can make or something else to make it work in the current model of gaming.

Honestly, the only area I’ve really seen choice work with minimal compromise is in VN style games, and that’s because… well. They ARE making different stories. Straight up divergent plots which work out because they can just go ahead and say “To hell with the other paths” and focus on the one they are working on.

Honestly, I think the VN model (at least as portrayed as in Tsukihime) is probably the model you’d have to consider for making a game with legitimate choices that don’t particularly compromise anything. Numerous branching paths that are completely separate from the other paths, allowing you to make narrower and narrower branches to assist with consistency.

Or something. Started rambling a little there.

Anyhow, I guess the gist of the point is that choice is inherently hard to write into stories, because, if you’re telling a story, you have something you want to say. You build towards what you want to say. Choice inherently undercuts that, because you have to purposefully write a more ambiguous work to account for the possibility of the player choosing whatever path they choose.

I’ll start working a little more on theory stuff, but in the meanwhile, expect some more board game reviews coming up (Dungeon Petz, another look at Discworld: Ankh-Morpork, 7 Wonders) as well as a bit of talk about Blood Bowl, wherein I contradict my very post about randomness!

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