Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Other Problem With Choice

Choose life.  Choose a job.  Choose a career.  Choose a family.  Choose a fucking big television.  But make sure to check which one gets you the Achievement.I've been playing Overlord, which I'm mostly enjoying, but I'm struck by the other problem with choice.

I talked about choice when I did my posts for Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic, and how it's most often handled quite badly, those games being the exception. Overlord handles it badly.

When you attempt to put meaningful moral choices into your game, there are three ways you can go wrong.

One: The choices aren't meaningful. Either the choice has no substantive effect on the story and gameplay, or the player is provided with no information on which to base their choice, effectively making it arbitrary.

Two: The game clearly indicates that there is a right choice and a wrong choice, where players who take the wrong choice are suckers. This can be due to an imbalance of in-game rewards, a less interesting plotline connected to one choice, or simply by the game making the player feel like a complete tool for picking the "wrong choice".

And three: the other problem with choice. Which is that "a wide range of moral conundrums" often just boils down to one decision, repeated ad nauseum: are you a good guy, or a bad guy? Sometimes it's whether to kill the prisoners or release them, and sometimes it's whether to bully the villagers or defend them, but they're not different choices, it's just the same one twice.

Games rarely make the middle ground interesting. Contextual morality isn't rewarded by game mechanics. If you look at Overlord's list of achievements you'll see one for "maximum corruption" and one for "minimum corruption" but there's no points to be had for "a fascinatingly complex character with an off-beat but internally consistent moral code". Once you've made your first decision to kill a peasant, you'd better stick to it or you'll be missing out on a lot of what makes Overlord worthwhile.

Overlord probably isn't the most appropriate target of my ire here; it's something of a special case, where it feels like the ability to not do evil was only inserted to make the core gameplay of "slaughtering every man-jack you see" feel more punchy. It's kind of the reverse of Mirror's Edge in that respect, where the ability to kill makes the choice not to more satisfying.

I'll have a full post about Overlord coming soon; I know you readers are slavering for my opinion of a two-and-a-half-year-old second-stringer game, and I intend to deliver. Stand by for updates.


Morgan said...

Despite these useless choices, Overlord was a fun game. In the same way that Alien vs. Predator 2 was a good movie.

Go in with low expectations.

Another title that felt like it had meaningless choices was Fable 2. That and the end choice is one of those "you're a chump if you don't take this option" decisions.

If you played it (and even if you didn't), Freelancer was an interesting bundle of choices. A space game released a couple of years back, you played as a freelancing pilot (explains the title, eh?). There are multiple factions throughout the galaxy, each with ties to other factions (whether positive or negative). Taking missions from and helping/killing pilots of certain factions would all influence how they would treat you. And it was possible to stay neutral with everyone, but you wouldn't have access to many items.

Zubon said...

I look forward to your opinion of a two-and-a-half-year-old second-stringer game. I wait for that kind of thing before buying. I am thinking of picking up Bioshock, but I have not yet checked whether you have a review.

I am reminded of Yahtzee on moral choices: Mother Teresa or eating babies. Where are the interesting "Mother Teresa eats babies" options?

Greg Tannahill said...

Morgan: Freelancer was released more than "a couple of years back". Released 2003, it's five years old now. And first announced in 1999. Personally I was always more of a Privateer fan but Freelancer is not without its charms.

Zubon: There is indeed a Bioshock review. (link) My other gripe with choices, which I've ranted on before, is that it's less often "good guy or bad guy" than it is "good guy or petty jerk". Being randomly brusque with people who are trying to give you useful information is not the hallmark of a supervillain.

Morgan said...

Pah, everyone knows that Stalin was a petty jerk, and he villainously ruled one of the world's superpowers.

So it seems it is possible to be a petty jerk and a supervillain at the same time.