Top 10 Moral Choices in Games - Life, Death, Love, and Betrayal
This was a pretty good year for player choice in games. Even the biggest, Wal-Mart door-busting, mainstream blockbuster, annual release of the year, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 had a branching story full of choices. The game being pegged by many as the obvious choice for GOTY 2012 is The Walking Dead, a game that's barely a game without the decisions you have to make. We even saw the epic Mass Effect trilogy come to a close with an entry that became notorious for its ending but actually featured some fascinating examples of moral choices and wildly branching paths.
Agency and choice is one of the most important fundamental aspects of modern games. The key to good storytelling in games may actually be player choice. Giving players an opportunity, however small, to participate in the story creates an interaction between the player and the creators. It gives validity to the art of storytelling in a video game. Without a way to influence the story or participate, you may as well be watching a movie.
For a while the feeling that you may as well watch a movie was a big sticking point. Long cutscenes were born out of a desire to tell a tale, but they also caused a rift. Story and gameplay were segregated to the point that some people questioned why there are stories in video games at all. Now we have an answer. Games like Mass Effect and The Walking Dead have woven story and gameplay so tightly that the "just go watch a movie" argument is moot.
From here on out player choice in games may become a forgone conclusion. It's an exciting time to play games and I'd like to celebrate it by highlighting some of my favorite choices I've ever made. By no means is this a definitive list, but it should give you a good idea of the wildly different ways that games can challenge players with tough decisions.
Warning: There will be some spoilers ahead.
Spec Ops: The Line - Damned if You Do/ Damned if You Don't
Even the best examples of choices in games are usually binary menu options. You typically select what you want your character to say and they say it. That's what made so many of the choices in Spec Ops: The Line so exciting. One scene in particular should paint a picture for you: The player is given the choice to shoot one of two prisoners. One stole water (a death sentence in the desert), and the other was sent to capture the thief and ended up killing his innocent family instead. Snipers are present to ensure you make a choice between the two criminals.
While you're still making a binary choice you do it using the same shooting mechanics that make up the typical combat. The extra freedom to move around and shoot not only feels more intuitive but it allows you to think outside of the box. Start playing with your options and you'll quickly realize there's actually much more to this sequence than a binary choice. This is only one of the early choices, and the game just gets darker from there.
Streets of Rage - Betray Your Co-op Buddy
Game design may have humble beginnings, but tucked away in the 16-bit era is quite possibly the most biting moral choice of all time. Most games place the consequences of your choices on the fates of in-game characters. Streets of Rage, on the other hand, gave you the chance to right or wrong the friend sitting on the couch right next to you. Players would brawl their way through all the games' stages before the final boss gave them each a choice. They could stand together and die, or fight to the death and become the boss's right-hand man.
Maybe your buddy punched you a few too many times "on accident", or maybe he had it coming for some personal reason. Either way the game gave you the ability to sabotage everything you'd been working towards and royally piss off your friend. The game even goes one step further if you both betray each other by knocking you down to the previous level. It's almost like friendship counseling in video game form.
Bioshock - Save or Harvest Little Sisters?
In a game that was ultimately about how little choice your character had, there was one choice Bioshock players will never forget. The Little Sisters were either innocent child slaves or mutant piggy banks of XP depending on how you looked at them. This choice went right for the gut, and for some people it wasn't even a choice. Those that took the greedy option would often immediately regret it and reload their save as this adorable little girl was harvested for the disgusting slug inside.
In terms of art direction, this choice was brilliantly executed. But in terms of gameplay it revealed some of the pitfalls of creating binary choices. Players who chose to save the Little Sisters were promptly rewarded for their good deed, keeping the playing field even but also negating the difficulty of the decision. After all, why kill them if there wasn't a substantial benefit to it? In the end you'd have all the skills and abilities whether you were a saint or a sinner. Between that flaw and the punishingly binary good/bad ending, Bioshock managed to teach some lessons to future player choice designers while being a pretty amazing game otherwise.
GTA IV - Kill Dwayne or Playboy X?
For a series credited for its general lack of morality, GTAIV still managed to offer players a couple tricky moral choices. Sure it may have overstayed its welcome, and Nico isn't always the likable anti-hero he starts off as, but the first half of GTAIV was phenomenal, and this decision is one of the focal points. Dwayne is fresh out of jail, a little off-kilter, but he seems honest. Playboy X is a charmer with a penthouse and some genuine goals to give back to the community, but you get the impression he'll never get around to it. Eventually the two are at each other's throats with Nico caught in the middle.
Their fates are left to you, and the consequences of your decision aren't clear until after the kill is made. My decision left Nico without either friend. Playboy X, seemingly repulsed by Nico's actions, no longer wants to speak with him. A missed voice mail from the now-deceased Dwayne made the decision even harder to swallow. Rockstar made me care about the personal relationships and lives of low-life criminals, and that's pretty damn impressive.