Angels on the
Sideline
13-01-16
Posted by Ben at 16:58

There's something that's been bugging me for a while, years probably. It's something that comes up when I'm talking to friends but I don't think I've ever put in a review. It's also something I'm not sure I can explain, so bear with me as I stumble around it.

I don't think I like choices

I finished Shin Megami Tensei 4 today, it's a fantastic game with a slow middle. I also started Until Dawn, Sony's slasher movie homage designed around the premise of the butterfly effect. Until Dawn really lays it on thick too, the game opens with an explanation of the term, has butterfly symbols in the UI, then even has a couple of characters talk about it, it's a game about choice. When it came to the first meaningful choice, or at least consequence, I, well, I didn't like it. Iíve scratched around for words to end that sentence, I didn't resent the choice or having to make the choice, I didn't Ďhateí it, it just stirred an Ďoffí feeling in me that I can't place.

I donít want to spoil too much, but Iíd seen a warning of what was going to happen and based my decision around that. It didnít go well, and immediately I wondered about the other choice, should I have taken it, what would have happened if I had, would it have been worse for the character, worse for me?

I think a big part of it is that the rules of a videogame donít reflect the rules of life. We make an immeasurable number of choices every day, whether to just sack off work is usually the big one, but before Iíve even clocked in Iíve made hundreds of decisions, trivial things about breakfast, what to wear, which order to get ready in, which route to take, what to listen to, when to cross the road etc etc. Granted, I could have picked a different route yesterday morning and stumbled on to a gang war, altering the course of my life immeasurably, but I didnít. I didnít because thereís a consistency to life that isnít reflected in games. I generally know the consequence of my choices because I generally make the same ones every day. Even when it comes to interactions, Iím an adult human, Iím experienced at social interaction, I more or less know what to say to someone, and even if Iím trying to antagonise them how far to go

Thereís grey areas in life that canít possibly be covered in a game. Think about that vague moment in Until Dawn I mentioned earlier. Before that life and death decision how many decisions didnít I get to make? We ran when maybe I wanted to face down whatever Ďthatí noise was, and we ran in a direction maybe I wouldnít have done. I think a big part of my problem, and the problem with choices in games, is that itís a forced hand. Iím left with either, effectively, no choice, or a consequence I couldnít have foreseen, and the game shrugs at me and says ďdunno what youíre complaining about, you chose it mateĒ

Itís why I mentioned Shin Megami Tensei 4 before. I donít really want to spoil the end of that game, but while thereís lots of choices along the way, ultimately it comes down to an all or nothing choice. Thereís a character I agreed with, but his methods were essentially ďkill everyoneĒ, I canít get behind that, but nor can I talk to him and suggest some sort of middle ground. The choices are binary in a way life's choices are only if you're trying to win an argument. It's frustrating as a player who's invested so much into the game (Shin Megami not life), I was making choices based on ďfuck itĒ rather than picking what reflected my feelings and thoughts. I think even if your character had muttered a word of protest it would have gone a long way.

The other area where choice in games falls down is consequence. While I finished it, and did enjoy it to a point, one of the reasons The Walking Dead lost me was the schizophrenic reactions to your actions. Suggest that someone might want to calm down so as not to give away our position and 3 people get shot in the face. LA Noire suffered from it massively. The text to set up what you are about to say would imply a gentle prodding against a statement, what actually happens is Cole screaming at a 5 year old accusing them of murder. Mass Effect and Fallout suffered from it too, it's a disconnect between the rules of the game and what the player experienced in the real world expects

Maybe this is part of a bigger topic, but I think the nature of gaming and of being a gamer is the introduction of competition. Even when you're told there's no wrong answer, that it's about your experience, but there's usually a 'better' outcome. And that's all it takes, a difference, and all of a sudden you've failed. Add to that your ideal scenario not being available, the setup not matching the conclusion, and options not being available to you, and maybe choice isn't always a good thing
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