Choice. It’s an idea that has been greatly emphasized this generation in RPGs, and has somehow made its way into various other genres. The enticing idea that enables one to have various paths to take or select one option over the other gives him a sense of empowerment. It also gives one the sense of ownership as the character in the game is a medium that carries out one’s wishes. It’s a fascinating idea both on paper and in terms of execution within a game. However, the idea of choice rarely ever feels like something that makes a great difference in games.
A series such as Mass Effect hinges on the idea of choice. Spanning across three games, the choices that you make in the first game can have lasting effects that will follow you all the way to Mass Effect 3. These choices are no light ones as some can lead to the death of your beloved companions. If they die, these characters are gone and all of the interactions that could possibly arise in future titles disappear along with them. The sense of finality then is heightened as a result. If you made a wrong choice and have one of your favorite squadmates die, you’ll be sad. On the flipside, if you choose to send off someone you absolutely hated to die then you will probably not care that he or she – or even it – won’t appear in the future.
Despite how drastic choices can be, it doesn’t affect the gameplay all that much. Much of the choices in Mass Effect don’t translate well into gameplay. The severity of the decisions you make just don’t feel that way. It’s a means to an end. Even the choices that lead to character’s dying, the death of a character doesn’t mean all that much from a gameplay perspective. Sure you won’t have that character available to use as a squadmate in future missions, but other than that, it feels as if the game has just moved on – in ways invalidating the character’s existence.
From a narrative perspective it’s a big deal. Let’s use Mass Effect 3 for example. If Jack wasn’t alive by the end of Mass Effect 2, when you visit a biotic facility in its sequel you won’t be greeted by Jack but instead a stranger. While the core narrative of progressing through the facility hasn’t changed, your encounter with Jack and interactions with her as drastically altered the narrative. In this sense, Mass Effect 3’s choices have a great deal of impact.
I believe that in a game, choices you make shouldn’t just be limited to a narrative result. Rather, the choices you make should have gameplay consequences. After all, a game is about interacting with the environment around you, something that isn’t possible in any other entertainment mediums. If the choices you make only affect the story, that’s not a very good implementation of choice.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is another game that falls victim to a limited implementation of choice. Throughout various parts of the game a section called Live Trigger will pop up giving you the ability to answer a question or respond to a piece of dialogue in two or more ways. It’s the same as Mass Effect in that it gives a sense of attachment to the characters in the game, however, it doesn’t mean much. The choices all lead to the same result essentially. The only thing that is different amongst the choices is the lines the characters will say following the selection. It’s a shallow way of connecting a player to the game and it’s an even more shallow way of trying to depict depth in a game.
So what’s a good example of choice? Firstly, choice doesn’t have to be something explicit. Games such as Mass Effect and Final Fantasy XIII-2 have obvious moments where it offers you the ability to choose one piece of dialogue over the others. This isn’t to say that choice needs to be implicit, rather the choices shouldn’t be confined to either explicit or implicit choices. Secondly, choices aren’t limited to dialogue but should be evident in every facet of the game. How we choose to encounter certain situations and what strategies we use are the little things that distinctly separate games from other mediums.
Having made clear of these points, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a fine example of choice implemented well – a game I often reference I know. Many of the choices that the game offers you aren’t explicitly stated and rather than being asked question by the game itself, they are questions the player himself creates. By choosing what augmentations you want first, you’re making a conscious decision of what style of play you want to adopt. This has lasting consequences as you are now limited to that type of style for the time being. Additionally, the augmentations that you choose also allow you to access certain areas that other augmentations would normally block you out from.
Choice is something that is clearly implemented well in Deus Ex and there is no other moment that I would love to reference than the infamous boss fight with Jaron Namir. Prior to fighting this boss there was a choice offered whether you wanted to update some augmentation software. Little did you know, this would impair your ability to combat Namir greatly making the boss fight effectively harder. You pay greatly for having misjudged the software upgrade and it translates into gameplay.
Gameplay choices should effectively impact gameplay greatly. There are many games out there where choices do matter, but so little is spent on delivering an entirely different experience taking gameplay to a whole different style of play. Sometimes they’re cosmetic or they affect the little things such as your moral compass. I feel that choices should move beyond that and affect a player and the playground in revolutionary ways.