I’ve just finished Dragon Age: Inquisition and it was, for me, the game of 2014 by a considerable margin. Bioware are at their best in terms of world-building and characters but it’s some of the choices that really make it. This got me thinking about games that offer choice to differing extents which offers a degree of personalisation to a game.
You have moral choices, choices that affect the storyline to a certain level, in your sandbox games there are choices as to the order you do things in, choices on how you develop your character and even choices as to whether to play certain levels in some circumstances. I’m going to talk a little about some of these choices, which obviously may touch on certain plot points of the games discussed.
Dragon Age: Inquisition takes a slightly different approach to previous games in the series, and also the Mass Effect series, in that a lot of the choices seem to be far less black or white and more grey. There’s a sense that with each decision there is no definitively good or bad decision.
Take, as an example, early on in the game where there is a decision to side with the Templars or Mages – The Templars were once a just group to protect Mages but have been corrupted by its leaders and turned into an oppressive regime with anyone opposing from within being magically transformed, whereas the Mages, in the face of their oppression have turned to forbidden blood magic and summoning demons, meeting wrongs with further wrongs. There were various points in the game where I had to genuinely take my time and weigh up the pros and cons of my decision and that was a pleasant surprise as it definitely felt more grounded.
In terms of moral choices I very rarely take the more evil route, I always want to be the best person I can be so I tend to make the choices that fit in best with that. There have been exceptions in the Mass Effect series where I have picked the bastard option, this tends to be throwing bad guys out of windows or avenging a friend’s death though so while not exactly upstanding behaviour it does fit in with how I see the character I’m portraying.
In terms of the best moral choice in a game though that has to be Fallout 3, where one of the first towns you come is built around an unexploded nuclear bomb and you have the option to disarm or detonate it. I always disarmed it but I’ve seen the videos of the detonation and it’s visually stunning but has the downside of closing off a hefty chunk of content available to you as the town in question is something of a hub early on.
A slightly different approach to choice is provided by Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. You actually have the option of playing a level or not. This is due to the content of the level and the outcry that followed it shortly after the game’s release. In the level, you play as an undercover agent in a terrorist group and the aim is to slaughter the people in a Russian airport, the vast majority of these people are unarmed civilians.
I personally found this level intensely uncomfortable however it’s actually a key point in the plot as the terrorist know you’re undercover and at the end of the level shoot you dead, leaving America to be held responsible for the act and Russia subsequently declare war on them. There is definitely an element of the choice being more a case of being reactionary to a media backlash but it doesn’t change the fact that there is the option to play the level, and if slaughtering hordes of unarmed people are something you’re not comfortable with then at least it’s optional.
There are games the take the concept of choice and turn it on its head in service of the story, case in point being Bioshock. Bioshock gives you the impression that you’re free to do what you want for a large portion of the game however you get to a point in the story where it’s revealed you’re actually being controlled. Someone you thought was helping you, up to this point, is revealed to actually be the main villain of the game. He uses a trigger phrase (Would you kindly…) and orders you to beat the head of Rapture to death. It’s shocking for its violence but also hugely so for the implications it gives to your actions over the course of the game up to this point as you realise you actually had no choices, it’s a remarkable sequence and the highlight of an exceptional game.
Of course, sometimes this goes horribly, horribly wrong. A case in point for this is the ending for Mass Effect 3 – I know, I know, I bang on about it constantly. It took a series that was full of choices, with genuine weight to them, and basically invalidated them all with a finale which boiled down to what coloured explosion you got.
The choices didn’t feel organic, more of a Deus ex machina but were compounded by the fact there was no epilogue and as a result, there is no closure at all. This was remedied to an extent by free DLC brought about by fans of the series basically collectively asking “is that it” though obviously with far more vitriol. And therein lies the crux of the issue, fill your game with interesting and intelligent choices and people will notice if you crap out at the end.
So overall choices can be a good thing if done correctly and intelligently, it gives the player the opportunity to personalise their experience. It also makes for interesting discussions on the basis that people have experienced different things which may then inspire you to play a game differently next time around. Alternatively be me and stick fairly rigidly to the fact that you make certain choices in certain situations regardless.