Truths and Consequences
Developers love talking about making their games full of moral choices with consequences, but that’s a crock of shit: no one makes games with consequences. I’d even say moral choice is an illusion, like a linear world designed to feel open: most moral choices are choosing between being a petulant child and being a noble savior, and even if they open different branches of plot, they do not effect real change, or real emotional depth.
The fact is, in the environment gaming is now, there is no such thing as a moral choice. They cannot exist. Video games of the moment place morality on that superficial spectrum and ask, Are you a paragon, or are you a renegade? It doesn’t matter which one you choose, so long as you choose one: there will be no major changes, regardless of what you choose.
This is the realization I get as I replay Mass Effect 2: nothing matters. You have a number of options, but there is no reason to think about them. They are superficial, meaningless choices designed to make the player feel good about themselves regardless of whether they are good or evil rather than insightful plot branches. Being evil is never the wrong choice, and being good is never the right choice: they are just paper thin moralities for the player to cling to in an attempt to streamline character development.
Patricia wrote about Don’t Take It Personally, Babe a few days ago, and I wanted to take that game’s concept of choice and run with it. Specifically, the choice of whether or not the player gets with Arianna. It’s possibly the moral choice I spent the most amount of time thinking about ever, and this got me to thinking (once I chose to begin a relationship with her): why was it? What did it have that the litany of choices in Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Bioshock, inFamous, and countless others lacked?
And there’s something. There’s definitely something.
Nowadays, choices don’t even have to do that. Save the little sisters in Bioshock or kill them, and you’ll have exactly the same amount of materials to play the game with. Be good or evil in inFamous, and very little changes, because the only people effected by the murders you will commit are extras. Some allies will look on you with scorn for being evil, but who cares? They certainly can’t help themselves. In Mass Effect 2, being renegade or paragon has no effect on the plot besides making you interact with people differently and the former making you unattractive.
Dragon Age: Origins had some decent choices, but they were all intimately tied to the plot. I struggled with whether to make Alistair king or not at the end, but no other choice was particularly difficult. Connor’s possession was the major missed opportunity: there was no benefit, whatsoever, to killing him. It suffered from the major flaw of video game decisions: anyone without immense self-control is not going to just pick an option and let it ride. They’re going to save, do the good option, and see if it produces good results.
That’s the issue with plot based choices: reloading. Moral choices need to be given weight in both directions to give the player reason to do either. If being evil just makes you a dick, why would anyone who isn’t petty or a completionist pick evil? Hell, usually being good gets you more in the way of reward than being evil, so there isn’t even a seductiveness to the evil option that is what makes evil thrive in the real world.
It’s especially interesting to look at this lack of reward for evil in terms of gameplay choices. Generally, if evil is rewarded, it is in the Knights of the Old Republic kind of way: are you light side, or are you dark side and ask for money for being a good guy? Whereas in situations where good is rewarded, good gets something really awesome while being evil gets you attacked. In most situations, though, it’s a null sum for both sides: be evil, and you get nothing. Be good, and you get similar amounts of nothing.
Never does the status quo change. Make whatever choices you want in Dragon Age 2, and it won’t matter because Kirkwall will be the same city; make major choices in Mass Effect, and Mass Effect 2 will translate them into cheery emails instead of major, important events. It is a system where we make choices to get more or less money with no consequences, and we pick less because we want to be “good”, and because being “good” doesn’t cost us anything.
And Christine Love’s choice in Don’t Take It Personally, with Arianna, is the perfect example of this paradigm being broken. Both sides have their major pluses and minuses, but being evil has that extra little bit. If you’re evil, then John Rook has a relationship with an attractive lolita; if you are good, then it’s very likely she could turn you in, make up a story, and ruin your reputation as a teacher. Evil has some potential long term consequences, but is the much safer choice in the short term; the only thing holding it back is a sense that it is the morally reprehensible thing to do. Being good will get you in more trouble, but is the high road.
The format lends a credence to this. In most other games, consequences would mean a battle with some enemies you could destroy, but in a visual novel, there’s no press X to kill your consequences button. Consequences are bad enough that you could be dissuaded from doing something. For instance, I picked a relationship with her primarily because I thought if I didn’t, she’d turn me in. It’s motivation and, especially in a non-static world, it is compelling.
Consequences are the weight behind moral choices. A lack of reward is a consequence, but when you do not need that reward to beat the game (where you will probably just throw that reward away buying a bunch of +5 short swords for meaningless characters), what sort of consequence is not getting a little bit of money? What sort of reward, even, is getting a slightly bigger sword?
Now, if the situation you are in is completely dire, however, then it might be more worthwhile. My favorite almost example of this is the end of Act 1 of Dragon Age 2. Here’s the scene: you’re trapped in the Deep Roads, surrounded by hostiles that can do a pretty good deal of damage to you. You can’t buy any potions, and your stocks are potentially running out. After a particularly tense battle, you find a demon, which offers you a choice: if you kill a monster at the end, he’ll let you out. If you don’t, you’ll have a number of more encounters and still have to fight that monster.
Now, on normal, this is the easiest choice in the world. You’ve got lots of potions still, and you can cut through enemies like a knife through butter. There is no reason to make this choice, because being evil only has the potential to fuck you over. But think about it on hard, on nightmare. On those difficulties, your resources are probably tapped by that point. Three fewer encounters could mean the difference between victory and death. It might not, but you don’t know precisely what you’re going to be up against.
In this light, it becomes a legitimate choice. Avoiding those encounters is legitimately evil and has tangible long term consequences, but in the short term it might let you not have to try to replay two hours of game to use fewer potions and give yourself a chance at survival. Killing the demon will potentially push you to your limit, but it is what you should do.
It’s a fantastic choice, in that light. It goes from being throwaway to being a major, difficult decision, and not just because certain characters will like or dislike you for it. Both sides have cases, and that is what makes a good choice: each and every option making sense in the moment. On normal, the evil option makes no sense, but if you’re struggling, then it does. Then evil becomes seductive, and that is what it needs to be a viable choice.
Of course, there’s an elephant in this room: what if people don’t want moral choices? I’d say those people are stupid, and that anything that makes you think is a worthwhile endeavor, but there’s also a large, vocal portion of gamers who just want good, mindless fun. They want to be the hero, they want good to be rewarded and evil to be punished or, at worst, not negatively impacted because they want to be a dick to everyone because their girlfriend just left them. This is, to me, a depressing thought: we would deprive video games of asking actually interesting choices because it would get in the way of wish fulfillment? It’s not like it would be stealing headshots from the depressed hands of teenagers, or anything: rather, it would be offering interesting content to those who want to be something besides a paragon of virtue.
And besides, isn’t good supposed to be its own reward?