The problem with choice in video games

The Good Shepard?
If you follow me on Twitter you’ll know that I have recently consumed Mass Effect 2 and Bioshock 2 in quick succession and I’m now devouring Dragon Age: Origins. Whilst it was a joy to have the free time to play through these lovely games entirely I find myself having a recurring problem. Choice…what to do, what to do?

There has been a theme of late in western RPGs to move away from linear based gameplay towards offering the player an endless amount of choice, and not just in the order the events of the game unfolds. These games allow you to make a moral choice as to how you want to play. In Mass Effect and Dragon Age (both Bioware games) endless dialogue options let you to fine hone your character from an upstanding bastion of truth, light and justice to an utter dickhead who makes Darth Vader seem cute and cuddly.

In Bioshock 2 the moral choice is pretty black and white, you either kill little girls or you don’t, in Mass Effect 2 every conversation seems to have an impact on gameplay which pretty much paralyses me with indecision. I personally like to play my video games as a nice person so when the choices are black and white it’s easy to pootle along quite happily knowing which dialogue options will get me the “good” outcome, now the moral elements at play can make that choice much more difficult. Sometimes I would actually like to be a bit of a smart arse when talking to someone in Mass Effect 2 but the consequence of receiving “bad” points for it always stops me. I just can’t seem to get my head around the fact that the game doesn’t judge either outcome as good or bad, its me doing that all by myself, which is why I always see bad outcomes as a punishment.

You would think I really would have grasped this concept by now since, as a rational person, I realise that whether I play as good or bad the ending of the game will be the same. I will have reached my objective, defeated the antagonist, the only different thing I’m getting in the end is likely to be a closing cut scene. So why, if the choices I make don’t really matter in the bigger picture of the plot, do I keep agonising over these silly little choices?

The answer is clearly that I associate “righteous” choices with a better ending and the problem comes from the inner conflict I have between making the moral choice that I would like to make and the one that I know will give me the ending I want. I recently read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell (really fantastic book btw, I recommend it highly) which was all about split decision making. I can see now that I would probably enjoy these games a lot more if I followed the processes he discussed and just made a snap judgement instead of reading so much in to my choice. It’s something to consider and I’ll definitely give it a go the next time a “moral choice” game is released. After all this choice I’m now really looking forward to playing Final Fantasy XIII so I can play an RPG in a totally linear fashion for a change, my poor moral compass could really do with a break.

Does anyone else play in this bizarre way or just me adding a few extra hours to my gameplay trying to get the “good” endings?

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One thought on “The problem with choice in video games

  1. This was an interesting read. The idea of “choice” in games is on the mind of just about everyone who plays games right now because it’s so prevalent.

    I definitely don’t struggle with these decisions the way you do, although I understand the plight. I basically just do the impulsive thing you mentioned. My problem is that immediately afterward, I want to know what the other choices would have yielded. I’m fine with “living” with the choice, but I want to know what else is out there.

    The whole idea of “choice” seems to be THE fad in games right now, and I think it’s starting to wear out its welcome. Much the same way that, for a while, everything was an open world game, now it’s all about choosing your path. It seems we’re at the high-water mark for this right now, and I believe it will start to wane in the next few years.

    Making these choices and crafting your character can be fun, but sometimes it’s nicer to know you are playing the ONE story that the designers intended for you to play. Recently I’ve been happier playing linear games.

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