I can’t say for sure where or when it started. Most of these sorts of things are born in PC gaming, but popularized in mainstream console gaming, so any attempt I make at citing the first occurrence will like be met with Nerd Rage and “No, that was first done on the PC 10 years earlier!”
Yeah, no one cares. PC gaming is for nerds, NERD!
The easiest way to explain it is to call it Morality Gaming. Developers write alternative dialogue options which allow your character to “make choices” and treat the world the way he wants to treat the world. Those quotation marks will be explained shortly …
The best early example in a console (nee PC) game is Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Bioware, maker of all morality games ever, allows the player to choose between Light Side and Dark Side actions as they journey to becoming a Jedi. In a universe built around this dichotomy and the major paradigm shifts that usually accompany such a swing, the SW universe was rife with opportunity to shape your world and to explore your character.
In theory anyway.
And for all its strengths, and including this system for its time, KOTOR suffered from the same limitations as all games in this genre – extreme choices. Given any scenario, Bioware was really only able to implement 2-3 choices. So let’s say an old man is being confronted by thugs. You approach in all your Jedi authority and see what’s happening. The game will give you 3 choices:
- Neutral – Leave the situation well enough alone.
- Light Side – Kill the bad guys and then give all of your worldly possessions to the old man to help him get back on his feet.
- Dark Side – Kill the thugs, then kill the man, but steal his ID and go to his house to sleep with his wife and daughters, then kill them, then burglarize the house, then steal his dog.
While comically extreme, none of these choices are what I would really do in the situation. The myth of choice exists, but the variations are completely limited. Further iterations of this game design have yielded many shades of gray in between, and characters can choose motivations rather than actions – for instance, if your character is greedy he might only help for a reward, or if he’s altruistic, he might lecture the old man on his drug habit that was the cause of the original altercation. But on the whole, the spectrum is very limited.
Still, we refer to this as “making choices” in games. Entire games are built around the concept of Good or Evil. But what choices are really being offered?
Typically a character is rewarded for delving fully into one side or the other, and will learn new abilities or powers for become 100% Evil or 100% Good. Story-lines will sometimes differ depending on choices made, such as whether to kill an NPC or save a colony about to be overrun. These sorts of games usually offer achievements for completing the game one way, then another for completing the game making the opposite sorts of choices – in Mass Effect, for instance, an achievement exists for saving a certain character, requiring the sacrifice of another. Conversely, the alternative achievement exists, mostly asking the player to repeat the game and, at the integral moment, make the opposite choice. Let me reiterate, requiring a second playthrough.
I understand, the developers are not requiring a second playthrough. In fact, games have become such long-term investments while simultaneously life has minimized free time as I have aged, making completion of a first playthrough mostly unlikely while a second playthrough is nigh impossible. This is simply not the way we game anymore. And while I certainly understand the intention of creating a dichotomous system, I would be more likely to fully explore this duality if it really were a choice.
Here’s why we’re willfully ignorant to the fact that “choices” are not actual choices in these games: story arc. Any morality game sets up a series of core plot elements that WILL be met. Imagine that every playthrough gets to point A. Point A lets you choose whether you will make a good choice, leading to Point X, or an evil choice, leading to Point Z. But regardless of what you choose, Point X and Point Z both inevitably lead you to Point B. Lets see this in action:
Point A: Your character gets to a house in the woods. A man outside the house appears to be pouring some kind of flammable liquid around the base oif the house, and you realize he’s going to light it on fire. You can:
- Stop the man, question him, end up having to fight him and kill him. You enter the house and find a family tied up. They are so thankful that the mother of the family gives you her heirloom necklace, a shiny emblem that looks like it might open a secret door …
- Ignore the man, and move on. When you are making camp that night you see giant flame lights in the distance. In the middle of the night that man attacks you. You have to kill him. When searching his body, you come across an heirloom necklace, a shiny emblem that looks like it might open a secret door …
Point B: You come across a giant palace, holy looking, with golden light shining from its windows. A giant golden gate bars passage, but there is a keyhole in the gate … that shape is oddly familiar …
It doesn’t matter what you’ve chosen – in fact, although the choices add flavor to the experience, on the whole there’s been no real change in the trajectory of the story. If there is no consequence, how can there have been any choice?
Gaming has always been a linear experience, even if allowing for minor wavelengths of options. The choices made by the player are more minuscule and less impacting than the illusion of choice as presented by modern gaming – as Mario, the player could always choose to jump wherever the fuck he wanted to jump. The impact seems ot be about the same – Level 1-3 is always going to follow level 1-2. Unless you use the warp pipe.
This is not to say that these games have not been enjoyable – the dialogue options in Mass Effect are a hoot, and watching the physical changes to your character in Fable has always been a treat. But to present these games in a light of “making choices” is rather dishonest, and I wonder to what degree the gamer is aware of that dishonesty.
Coming from a broader perspective, some games are allowing for broader freedom of choice. For example, Scribblenauts. Although I do not own the game, I have read nothing but rave reviews of this form of game, here called “emergent puzzle action.” The premise is simple: see a problem, identify a solution, write a word and the game will provide you with that item. Cat stuck in a tree? Write “dog” to have a dog come and scare the cat down. Or write “fireman” to have a fireman come and rescue the cat. Or write “mice” to have mice run across the screen and have the cat come down to chase them. There is no “correct” way to solve the problem, and the game attempts to give the player wide breadth in creative problem solving. The only real limitation here is the programmed content which, while very broad and expansive, is nonetheless a finite experience.
Similarly, Warioware DIY, the next iteration in the micro-game hyperactive spasm, will allow players to utilize a battery of tools to insert items and create their own microgames. Again, there will be physics limitations based on what the programmers deemed worth of putting in, but the initial idea certainly seems ot add a lot of leeway to the experience.
Finally, and less noteworthy, Little Big Planet offers gamers the chance to develop their own platformer levels to implement into the game-at-large and to share. Though I am not a LBP player myself, they have at times had a very robust and active homebrew community doing everything from recreating classic Nintendo game levels to finding ways to turn the experience on its ear.
If there is to be a dialogue about making choices in games, and about free will as players, there will need to be a more expansive technology created, or even possible. Free will in life is limited only by the possibilities and capabilities of the mind – perhaps game designers interested in Choice Gaming should start with free will and find a way to organically adapt the narrative to the choices being made.
Or perhaps my expectations of the possibilities of the genre are simply too lofty to come to fruition?