Who do you want to be? Any player who sits down in front of a game will ask themselves this within the first few minutes of starting. Some types of games will dictate this to the player. "Well, for the next several hours, you’re a kickass soldier who lets nothing stand in his way”, and whether this resonates with the player or not is going to determine, to some degree, if the player is going to become immersed in the narrative of the game. Other games may offer a player a choice that will give the player some agency in what their experience is. "Here, you can be a fighter, a thief, or a magic user, what do you like most?” We usually call these role-playing games, but the role the player has, beyond the way they approach the designed gameplay challenges, is usually not considered. Those that do, that ask the player, "what do you really want your role to be in this story", too often reduce the choice down to a binary good vs evil delineation that just doesn’t ring true with the choices people really make. Much was said about Bioshock’s moral choice system prior to its release, about how the decision to save or harvest the defenseless Little Sisters for their precious Adam would resonate with a player’s ability to choose selfishness or selflessness, but in the end, it was presented as an A or B button prompt that was only disturbing the first time you saw the canned animation and had no lasting impression. Games that can give a player a choice that feels meaningful, even outside the context of the game, are extremely rare, and when they successfully immerse a player in the decisions they ask them to make, will be the things the player talks about when they remember the experience of playing that game.
I’m going to talk about two games that had this effect on me and how they were successful, and two others that stumbled for me in trying. I’ll try to keep to the topic, but truthfully, I could talk endlessly about these games and I fear that I still won’t communicate the impression I had of playing them and why I wish there were more games that could affect players in the way these did. But here goes, anyway.
"Being a soldier isn't just following orders, it's following those orders in the service of a higher cause. When that cause is betrayed, we're not soldiers anymore, just pieces on a chess board dying for the wrong reason.” - Sam Carter, Deus Ex
Deus Ex is a shooter-RPG hybrid that was released for PC in 2000. It is fondly remembered as an early and extremely successful marriage of the two genres with minor flaws in the combat systems, deadpan voice acting, and confusing design of some of the early levels. For quite a few players who heard the high praise that the game received, meeting the challenge of its unusual first level structure head-on was enough to sour them on the rest of the experience. However, for me, the first level was the introduction to an entirely new and wonderful idea of what games could mean. As a cybernetically augmented agent for a counter-terrorism organization, like a future Jack Bauer, I was tasked with eliminating hostiles who had taken over the game’s expansive re-creation of New York City’s Liberty Isle, with the terrorist leader holding hostages at the top of the Statue of Liberty. Old hat, for an experienced shooter player. After being briefed by the main character’s brother and having three suggested approaches - one using a sniper rifle to kill enemies from afar, one using a rocket launcher to eliminate any heavy resistance, and one using a fiddly crossbow with tranquilizer darts - I opted for a trusty rocket launcher and let nothing stand between me and my target. Having accomplished my mission with the maximum number of hostile deaths, I found most of my fellow agents were happy to commend me on my bravado. However, the doddering old war veteran who ran the armory had a different idea. When I came to ask for some firepower for my next mission, he instead lectured me that "In my day international peacekeepers were citizens first and soldiers second.” and I left empty-handed and confused. Furthermore, my brother expressed disappointment with how I handled my first mission. For the first time in a game, I considered the targets on screen as people in the world my character inhabited and not a means toward a high score. Maybe the terrorists I had to fight deserved due process more than a bullet in the head. I ran through the level again. I thought of myself as a peacekeeper and a human being and used the non-lethal means that the game presented me. This time, my soldier co-workers were less impressed with my take-no-prisoners methods, but the respect from my betters was consolation enough. The game itself was agnostic about the approach, I had completed the mission either way and there wasn’t a substantial reward one way or another, but I felt like the game had considered that I may have an opinion in how my character would view the people he was asked to kill and, upon consideration, I was able to let the game know how I felt about it, and that was reward enough.
Spec Ops: The Line is a more recent shooter that received high praise for changing the formula and presenting a world with blurred morality lines. As a lone special forces soldier thrust into a battle between a rogue U.S. military battalion and the civilian resistance force in an imagined battleground version of Dubai, the game immediately sets out to make the point that there are no good or evil sides in war. At a pivotal moment in the game, the player is instructed that the only way through a firefight in the middle of the city is by deploying white phosphorous on both sides of the conflict, with disastrous unintended consequences. Prior to the button prompt that continues the sequence, the main character’s squad mates remark on their role as soldiers in a morally questionable war, telling you, “there’s always a choice," and the player character’s voice responds, “no, there’s really not”. The scene is the most talked-about part of the game because it presents a grizzly depiction of the truth about war, but it also tries to make a point. The game cannot continue without this scene playing out, exactly like this, for every player. As a player in that situation, I did not want to make the choice that my character felt there was no choice but to make. While this was successful in allowing the game to make its greater point about war, I felt robbed of the opportunity to learn that on my own, by being rail-roaded into what the game wanted me to feel. It was off-putting. I stopped playing the game for a while after that.
Throughout the rest of Deus Ex, as it unravels a plot about government and corporate overreach, unintended consequences of technology on society, and a textbook listing of conspiracy theories, the player has the opportunity to meet characters that allow the player to question his own motivations. Many of the defining speeches are far from the critical path, and in some cases, require the player to almost forget about the confines of traditional games to find. The game rewards players who delve deeper into finding those story nuggets not with arbitrary light side or dark side points, but with reactions from characters that feel human and pushes the player to further question his role in the story. By the end of the game, a player who has been paying attention has a wealth of information that informs his final choice: do you return to the status-quo, reset government and technology back to ground zero and give people a chance to try again, or try to build something different and greater to lead humanity to a different path. I strongly feel that the choice that a player makes by the end of the game is so deeply meaningful to them that it reflects their deepest societal and political beliefs. Someone essentially trustful of human decision-making probably would find the status-quo as the least bad outcome. Someone distrustful of government would probably love to give the power back to the people. As an optimist and technologist, I honestly see a future where computers ensure fairness and efficiency as the best outcome to our current problems, and I would argue that position with as much passion as any political topic. Having the game present me with that choice and it being considered just as valid an ending as the other two felt like a huge vindication and accomplishment as a way to end my journey.
"But I'd rather make the wrong call and know, than make the right call and not.” - Glenn, The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead is an adventure game released by Telltale Games in 2012 on just about every platform imaginable. It received universally critical acclaim and a number of major Game of the Year Awards, and was also pivotal in deciding the approach that Telltale took with future titles such as “The Wolf Among Us”. The Walking Dead set itself apart from Telltale’s previous games which attempted to bring traditional point-and-click puzzle solving adventure games in the vein of Tales of Money Island to modern audiences by minimizing the puzzle solving element and focusing on telling a story through interactive dialogue choices and branching story points. The game created an expectation in the player that any choice they made could change the story that they got, by deciding which person lived or died, who you trusted, or even what you choose to admit about your own past. In truth, only a few key moments in each episode would have reprocussions in later chapters, but every decision carried the possibility of weight that may decide who survives in the harsh zombie apocalypse. The game tips its hand at some of these points, where the player often has to choose how to respond to a question with an ambiguous outcome, and the game can tell you that the person you’re talking to will remember what you said, immediately making you wonder if you just made a friend or foe of someone who you may rely on to save your life later.
The impact of your decisions would carry far less weight if the game hadn’t succeeded on one other merit, the importance of the character’s relationships. Throughout the game, the main character, Lee, finds himself allied or opposed to a number of characters, but the game creates one consistent connection for him, a little girl named Clementine, who finds herself relying on Lee’s protection and care to survive in a harsh world. Throughout my experience of playing with Lee, I had to ask myself not just what a man would do to survive, but what would also set the best example to a child who was looking to them for guidance. Every decision had an additional moral weight, when I knew I’d be judged not just by the adults in my group, but by someone who I had come to care very deeply about. However, Clementine’s true purpose in the game was not just to make the player feel sympathy for another character, but to keep the player from ever feeling like it was a valid decision to walk away from the main story. Some players felt tricked to discover that no matter what choices they made, and how their consequences played out, the branching paths never split very far before returning the player to a point in the story where they had to push towards the same ending that everyone else ultimately had to face. The player was not in control of their destiny, but they had a large amount of impact on how they may feel about it when they got there based on what their unique path was.
When a decision carries a tremendous weight, players want to feel the outcome of those choices, right or wrong, expressed in the relationship between their character and the characters they meet, not in arbitrary gameplay mechanisms. One reason a large number of players felt dissatisfied with the conclusion of Bioware’s Mass Effect trilogy was because they felt that the conclusion of the story had negated the importance of their previous choices. If one race gets wiped out at the end, does it matter that you had solved all their problems just a few hours before? Why were those accomplishments not accounted for? Furthermore, the game relied more on exposed gameplay mechanisms such as completed side-missions to determine the outcome rather than the character relationships that players felt was more important. The ending of Mass Effect had to feel weighty, but to do so, it obliterated the weight of everything that came before it. However, what players still cared about in the series was the experience of their Commander Shepherd, not what happens to the universe after their final choice. The weight that those choices had is not diminished in the player’s memory by the game’s ending.
Games can be escapism or power fantasy, but we also want them to feel true to our experience as humans. Our desire for people to notice our deeds, good and bad, is more at the core of who we are than any other carrot that games employ to bring players into their world. No amount of loot, coins or princesses saved will be more satisfying than the impression that you did something and somebody really noticed. When a game gives a player the option to express how they feel about their place in the world, they will remember that.