Just as every action has a reaction, every choice has a consequence. No matter the magnitude of the choice, from whether or not to cross the street on a red light or joining the army. Unifying for these examples is that you cannot predict exactly what the consequence of your choice will be. The crossing of the street might be the deadlier one if you are unlucky. In the world of gaming today, it seems all the rage to include a morality or a choice & consequence system in video games (they can be said to merge at times). The players must make choices on practically every issue regarding the world they find themselves in as well as making romantic choices. However, these important decisions are too often boiled down into simple “Do good or do evil” choices, in which any rational being quickly can deduce which choice leads to which consequence. Choices need not be predictable and shallow experiences if the developers are conscient about how they construct their choices. Allow me to illustrate with a personal experience. Here’s a recount of one of the stupidest decisions I’ve ever made in a game, one that I continue to berate myself for even a year after having experienced it. 

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.

Mass Effect 2 by no means perfects the issue of choices and consequences, although it certainly embraced it by having over 700 choices made in the first game carry over into the second. The way that choice is made, its importance emphasized by my crew members and chosen through a menu in which I can only choose each character once during the mission (there are several such choices to make), all make it clear that this is a major decision, and that will have extreme impact on the near future. And considering that the game up to this point has constantly teased you with the fact that this is a suicide mission, it is easy to come to the conclusion that a simple click could result in the death of one of your crew members. Most importantly though, it would still be possible to reload an earlier save and know exactly what to do in order to get all your crew members to survive. This however, goes directly against one of the few principles I have, taken from the unlikeliest of places: Roger Ebert’s prattle against the artistic value of video games. In  he mentions in regards to Braid, that “You can go back in time and correct your mistakes. In Chess, this is known as taking back a move, and negates the whole discipline of the game.” I would gladly rage for hours over Ebert’s unwillingness at attempting to understand video games, but in this particular instance I must concede that he’s actually right. For choices to have lasting and true impact, they must be irrevocable. As in reality, we never get a second chance. 

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 innocentwastelanders, 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 of 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.

Also, Metro 2033 circumvents the danger of the player reloading earlier saves by only making the alternate ending available if the player has acquired enough moral points, which are evidently very similar to karma points seen in Fallout 3. However, in Metro 2033 the player only needs to acquire a very small amount of these to make the alternate ending possible, but the key to it all is not telling the player about it. As I was playing the game, I had no knowledge that such a system existed, and thus it was only after I had finished it that I actually learned about the alternate “good” ending, even though I had actually encountered some of these instances which grant you one of these points. For instance, somewhere in one of the scattered, ragtag settlements in the metro of Moscow a beggar sat, begging for some cartridges, the currency in this destroyed world. I gave him one, not because I desired some arbitrary score to increase, but because I felt genuine pity for the man. The game may have awarded me a point, but it was not the motivation for my choice. This is the closest to the idealized state of choices & consequences in games I have witnessed to date, as the choice is not dependent on wishes for an arbitrary reward, but rather makes it dependent on the morality of the player. 

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.

This article was previously posted at Nightmare Mode