The Inherent Invisibility of Choices and Consequences
Being Commander Shepard, fated to be the savior of all in the galaxy and the leader of small group of elite troops hailing from several species in the galaxy, I must make a crucial decision. After we’ve entered a Collector base and encounter resistance, it is determined that we should split up, but who shall lead the other team? In a show of extraordinary ineptitude, I choose Thane Krios, an assassin whom I had recently reunited with his long lost son. Moments later, I’m sitting next to him, listening to his last words. Had I instead chosen someone more competent to lead the team he would have lived, and we could all have celebrated after the victory. Despite this not being a moral choice, the impact of it is in no way diminished. The focus on choices in games is often centered around those of a moral or ethical character, even though the majority of the essential and life-changing choices we make in life are not moral nor ethical in nature, such as choice of studies and career which affect the course of your life dramatically.
Despite my criticism of Mass Effect 2, it still does remarkably better at creating effective choices and consequences than, say, Fallout 3. And why? Because Fallout 3’s morality choices come with instant consequences that are easy to predict. For instance, if you were to blow up some innocent wastelanders, there would instantly appear a little You’ve lost karma in the upper left corner of the screen, instantly letting the player know that what they did was bad. Of course, you could claim that ultimately the players’ actions in the Wasteland has an impact on the ending, which is true, but instantly manifesting the players’ actions with an arbitrary numerical score only allows the players to essentially choose which ending they desire. The players can then calculate how many bad and good deeds they need to make to get the desired ending, especially when the game has been marketed as having multiple endings! I’m not advocating that future projects necessarily should scrap the numerical system for creating consequences, but at the very least hide it.
Although a favored target for scorn, the Call of Duty series has actually used invisible choices effectively, though it appears that it was only for a single installment. The installment subtitled World At War”, where the player at several instances unwittingly makes choices. For example, in the Pacific campaign in the final battle, the player must choose between either his mentor Sgt. Roebuck or his squad mate Polonsky who are both being assailed by Japanese soldiers. The emotional weight of the choice comes in as the player can never, no matter how many times he tries to reload the last save, save both of them. If this had been presented clearly as a choice, it would have fallen depressingly close to the “choose between two radically different options”, and appeared as a quite tacky addition to the game. In the Eastern Front campaign, the use of invisible choices is even more evident and widely used, as the player on several occasions witnesses executions of German soldiers, and for instance must choose between shooting some unarmed prisoners and granting them a swift death, or allowing the other soldiers to shower them with molotov cocktails prolonging their suffering. The player’s actions in these sections define which depiction your squad mate Chernov’s diary (the quotes can be find at the bottom of the page) gives of you depending on your actions, falling into the predictable good, evil, but also neutral or “ambiguous” terms.
A similar approach to choices and consequences can be observed in the flawed gem from 2010, Metro 2033, which managed to craft such invisible choices with excellence. To truly show this, let’s once again fast-forward to the ending. In the very last chapter, the player encounters a Dark One, the peripheral antagonists of the game, and is faced with a choice, though it is not as evident as in the other mentioned games. Artyom, the character the player controls, stands at the top of a tower amidst of the nuked ruins of Moscow, holding a pistol in his hands. He recalls the words uttered by one of his companions: If its hostile you kill it, spurring the player to do so, despite several instances have hinted that the Dark Ones may not be as hostile as they initially appear. Following the encounter with the Dark One, the player is once again confronted with a choice. Does the player guide the missiles that have been fired onto the area that the Dark Ones inhabit or not? If the player has chosen not to fire at the Dark One he will know their intents are not hostile. At no point does the game give you a clear good or evil decision to make. Those deliberations are made solely in the minds of the players.
Although no game really has fully captured the concept of invisible choices and consequences into them, it still makes me hopeful for a future where choices are no longer solely quantitative deliberations in the mind of the player, and serve only to create “replay value”. Making choices are essential to this medium, and is the key difference that separates it from film. Why should I bother sitting with a controller in my hands or a keyboard & mouse if I have no impact on the happenings in the game? Interactivity is central, and all interactivity really is, is choices, but as long as all their consequences are immediately predictable to the player they will not leave the same lasting impact, as predictability leads to foresight.