“Life and death matters, yes. And the question of how to behave in
this world, how to go in the face of everything.”
– Raymond Carver
Gaming as a form of entertainment and story telling has evolved in a significantly short space of time. As technology has progressed between generations the choices we face as gamers has evolved from whether to jump on the mushroom to whether to save a town or a best friends life. We reached a point on the development curve in the recent cross generational jump where the focus was pushed less on graphics and ‘power!’ and more onto story telling and choices. Often this can be born from a video game writer’s frustration at the restrictions of the medium, perhaps wanting to delve more into the cinematographic art form as opposed to the gaming genre. This has seen a push or rise in the so called ‘indie generation’, titles without the power house developers behind them, lacking some of the spit and polish of big budget titles, but pushing more into the interactive gaming experience that can truly elicit choices that give pause for thought.
Recently however with the development of these more story led gaming experiences there have been several times in games that have given me genuine pause for thought, where I’ve sat weighing all the decisions and consequences of my actions before making that final choice. I would surmise at its strongest gaming is just as an effective story medium as novels or film.
Life Is Strange (Final choice)
“I changed fate and destiny so much that… I actually did alter the course of everything. And all I really created was just death and destruction!”
– Max Caulfield
Life Is Strange is one of the first so called Episodic games I experienced, also one of the first so called ‘indie’titles I paid for based on recommendation from my peers. Without going into a detailed description of the plot the final choice is ultimately a basic choice between sacrificing your friend or the town you inhabit. Neither are portrayed as the correct or fundamentally ‘right’ choice to make. Chloe is not a ‘nice person’ but neither really are the citizens of the town you live in, all giving Max reasons really to sacrifice their lives for the greater good. It felt like a slight push at times against the ‘Bioware’ methodology of creating paragon and renegade actions and effectively holding your hand towards the right answer. Fundamentally however the game in my opinion succeeded in creating a fleshed out friend, one you would give your life for in game and then forcing you to decide, to make the choice would you give that person up to save the greater good, to save ‘the many’. And genuinely neither option gives a ‘happy ending’ in the traditional video game sense with the hero music to justify your choice. You sacrifice the town and you drive out in almost a drug induced state with your friend seeing the dead bodies of the towns inhabitants. You give up your friend and the final video takes place at her funeral.
The reason I ‘enjoyed’ this choice at the end of the game was that as said there was no right or correct answer and my choices differed from my close friends decisions. My decision was to sacrifice the town, to save Chloe. I had chosen through out the game on numerous occasions and followed the path of saving Chloe ensuring her well being came above my own, perhaps as implied in the game as a result of guilt for leaving her for a better life a few years previously. In the end I knew the choice that ‘Charles’ wanted to make, the greater good at the sacrifice of your friend but as ‘Max’ and her actions and decisions during that time it made sense that I would save Chloe. That the game effectively had you almost withdrawn into yourself as you witnessed the consequences of your actions really emphasised how far the game has come as a story telling device.
Mass Effect (Sacrificing Ash or Kaiden)
“We impose order on the chaos of organic evolution. You exist because we allow it, and you will end because we demand it”
When I first reached this decision in the first Mass Effect game it was one of the first times I genuinely just sat there staring at the TV screen trying to work out just what I had to do to achieve the ‘happy’ ending, where I could beat the no win scenario and save the crew I had led through a campaign to save the galaxy. The game sits in a loop almost, slightly breaking the credibility of the moment as Shephard just stands there reflecting I guess my own indecisiveness at not being able to make the tough decision as the world burns around me. And it will just wait, the game wont progress until you decide who lives and who dies unless your game ends there and you turn the console off. Its a crutch of modern gaming that you will always be able to achieve the happy ending, to save the proverbial princess and go into the sunset. But as gaming matured into a story telling medium so choices such as these began to bleed into the narrative.
For me the decision came down to who I saw as the more effective team mate to save the galaxy against the threat of the reapers, I had a stronger biotic on my team and needed the muscle of Ashley to take on Sovereign and Saren on the Citadel. Whilst Ashley does represent a ‘romance option’ in game if you play as the male version of Shepard in my first play through I had actively pursued a romance with Liara so the decision came down to tactics. Ashley was the stronger and more practical choice, but it needed a few moments of deliberating to come to that decision.
Fable 2 (Wealth, Love or Sacrifice)
“Now it is your turn, make a wish but choose wisely for it will effect all of Albion”
Fable 2, a fore ray into the mind of a British developer at Lionhead Studio’s was a bold attempt at telling a narrative over the life of the character, starting with the hero’s youth into the choices as an adult then ultimately the sacrificial choice you have to make to conclude your adventure. The problem with the Fable series was often it could over reach in its ambition in what it wanted to be. The best way to approach the Fable games is with low expectations, perhaps the nearest comparison being to view it as a low budget English comedy with the fraction of a big budget Hollywood blockbuster. In this context you can forgive its weaknesses and accept it as an act of love if such a thing can exist in the video game world. The choice here was the final choice, again putting in your hands the choice of life, death or in a twist, wealth. I did appreciate this variation on the sacrifice of your happiness for the greater good with the twist you could shaft the world and your own dead family and just have a lot of money. It felt like a dark twist only an English writer could have thought would make a viable option, it wasn’t quite ‘renegade’ more a roguish choice that would be developed on in later games.
Some of the impact in comparison to other games was missing to an extent, the majority of characters you meet in the world around you are fundamentally obnoxious and rude. There purely as fodder for cheap jokes or if your that way inclined a sexual conquest to marry and have your child. As the game gives you freedom to have different children with different women in the world, effectively allowing your bigamist fantasies to come true there isn’t a deep connection to the family path. In short the game almost pushes you towards the rogue ending, to forget all these forgettable characters and choose money over sacrifice. My decision however was decided by a more basic consequence, your canine companion. In choosing to save your family you not only save your wife and child you save your dog companion. I like pet companions in games, so really this was an easy choice. But a choice again I appreciated I was given to make.
The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time (Removing the Sword)
“Now, go home, Link. Regain your lost time! Home… where you are supposed to be… the way you are supposed to be..”
Sometimes in a game you have to accept your fate and the consequences of your actions, that history and destiny will progress in a way you didn’t intend. When I first played this title I had no expectations or fore knowledge of what to expect, I had never played A link to the past so had no idea the consequence of removing the sword. At the time it seemed like a logical step, I needed a stronger blade having defeated the first dungeons but surely this would be a straight forward task, remove the blade and go engage with a man on the horse who posed no seemingly greater threat than a giant spider, rolling rock monster or water beast. However, all is not as it seems, the consequence of this action trapping you in a bubble that freezes you in time for a period of time. Whilst going forward in the game you have the option to move back and forth in time it never felt the same, the world was ever more tainted as a consequence of your actions.
As the game concluded you were returned to the past as a child, the end scene hinting at a reunion between two characters that had developed a bond in their adventure through time. But this was never carried forward, the next game beginning with the nameless protagonist riding into an alternate dimension. It was just a bitter sweet moment of not seeing the resolution between these two characters who had fought beside each other against the evil Gannon. Which brings me back to the decision of removing the sword, your progression is block until you take the sword, but genuinely, knowing the outcome of the game when I play the title there is just a little naivety and optimism in the world before you take the master sword. And genuinely, the world was a better place before I had to make that choice. But sometimes you just need to accept that a choice has to be made.
Gaming has progressed in the course of my generation, from simple 16 bit titles to the multi million pound behemoths we find ourselves with today. Sometimes decisions and choices force the world around you to pause, I was acutely aware when choosing for example Ashley or Kaiden’s fate that in reality the enemy force would have forced my hand and made the decision for me. Likewise with the final decision in Life Is Strange. In all cases though these were genuine moments that to me transgressed the divide between story and interactivity. When you read a book or watch a movie its a linear experience, one persons view that you’ll either share, believe in or dismiss as irrelevant. I don’t honestly think we are quite there yet with today’s hardware at the point we can have a truly interactive experience that is shaped on our decisions and goes off in branching storylines. Perhaps with the push in cloud computing these will become reality. But certainly if you compare the advance in technology and story telling to film or television, over the same time period gaming has dwarfed these as interactive medium. Its certainly an area I am excited going forward to see what other moral choices I will be faced with, how they will impact me and influence me.