Role-playing games, specifically those which operate primarily on a decision-making mechanic, fill a strange niche in a medium more focused on action than thought. Many games traditionally labelled as RPGs restrict the player’s control largely to the physical characteristics of a character; whether they swing broadswords or snipe with a rifle, sneak around in the dark or charge headlong into the fray, and so don’t entail any real sense of truly inhabiting a character. These choices relate to actions over personality, and what methods will be used to dismember or explode various foes. The newer wave of RPGs (your Mass Effect, The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, Dragon Age) place a greater emphasis on player choice than character stats, giving the illusion of player agency turning a formless world of potential possibilities into a coherent narrative experience by shaping the actions and reactions of a character. Others straddle the line between the two paths, such as the Fallout series or Planescape Torment, whereby stats and skills can open new options for decision-making in areas with which the character has some base of knowledge. The intention is clearly to make the player feel as if their choices matter, that they are making actual decisions with unpredictable consequences rather than following a linear path. In actuality we know that what we’re actually doing is merely picking from a selection of linear paths already hard-coded for us to follow, but the illusion of choice allows us as players to pretend we are shaping a story for ourselves rather than following a script.
It’s not a perfect system. More often than not, I find myself making choices for my avatar that are calculated to bring the most gameplay benefit rather than being based on the emergent personality being shaped1 by said choices. It’s a rare occasion for me to agonise over an in-game decision, and rarer still to do so because of my character’s (or my own) personality rather than because I’m trying to decide how my choice will impact the story. At the end of Mass Effect 2, I gave great thought to the matter of the Collector base, not because I felt Shepard would be conflicted but because I was unsure how my decision would shape the third game of the trilogy2. Cerberus was clearly untrustworthy, but I might need the technological advantage they could offer to fight the greater threat. It’s one of the few moments in the series that I felt transcended the simplistic paragon/renegade approach to decision making and offered a choice which felt meaningful and worthy of consideration.
Part of what made Spec Ops: The Line interesting was that while it offered moments of choice, those decisions were almost never between right and wrong, usually being instead between two different flavours of wrong. The constant trauma inflicted on Walker, and by extension the player, throughout the game meant there was ample room for dodgy self-justification when the time came to make a judgement call. The options were not presented as part of a package deal where one choice would move Walker’s personal moral scale in a different direction, but worked seamlessly into the narrative of a rapidly collapsing man and the question of whether extenuating circumstances justify extreme response.
That said, I rarely felt bad about my choices in Spec Ops. Nor did I feel particularly good. The only occasion I feel somewhat guilty about was mowing down the rabble of unarmed citizens, and that – which I’m prepared to swear to in the European court of human rights – was an accident. After attempting (and failing) to walk by the angry mob of civilians, I opted to fire wildly into the air to scare them off. Unfortunately, my surviving squad mate, nerves understandably fragile by this point, took this as a call to arms and opened up on the crowd. When this squad mate later confronted me/Walker with our actions, it felt as if the game was accusing me3 on some personal level. Unfortunately this fell a little flat, in part because the “choice” made was not what I had intended but also because Walker’s experiences were so alien to my own. Placed in Walker’s shoes, it’s extremely unlikely that I would have followed the same sequence of actions4 that I led Walker along in the game, with the separation of player and character giving a level of distance enough that I never felt personally responsible. For all that the game was pointing fingers and insinuating that to commit mass-murder for entertainment was despicable, the bulk of my mind was still aware that I hadn’t actually done so. Unreal actions, however immersive, are rarely able to inflict feelings of real guilt or shame because our minds know we haven’t done anything truly wrong. Unless, of course, those unreal actions reflect real choices.
Recently I sat down to play through – though perhaps “play” isn’t quite the right word for such a profoundly unsettling experience – Depression Quest, and to my own surprise, I found myself drawn out of my perspective of omniscient puppet master. As a sufferer of depression, much of the experiences described in the game were intimately and uncomfortably familiar, and I naturally related to the character on the basis of shared experience, something I’ve never had with a space-faring hero or a Khajiit assassin. When presented with decisions, there was never any thought given to what gameplay or narrative ramifications those decisions might have or whether any of the options felt “right” for the type of character I was trying to portray; instead everything was weighed on the scales of my own life, and how I imagined I would react. Put simply, I found myself for the first time playing a game as myself.
My proudest and most difficult moment came as my nameless character hit a low point, and was left alone for an evening. Amid several options was the choice to spend that time drinking alone, and this honestly gave me a longer pause than any choice I’ve faced in a game before. It sparked an argument between different parts of my own psyche as to whether or not I would do that if I were in the character’s position. I don’t talk about it much, because frankly it’s a little embarrassing, but those who’ve read the comment section of a previous article will be aware that I have a long-running problem with the bottle, one in large part caused and reinforced by my problems with depression. I’m happy to say that I’ve been sober for over a year now but the urges are still there, particularly at times of low mood, and that’s a feeling that Depression Quest is excellent at evoking in its quiet, un-dramatic way. The question was not what should I do, because every addict knows the answer to that. It’s sticking to it that’s the tricky part. Instead the question I was grappling with became what would I do, faced with the same situation and circumstances.
Without tangible game benefits or a preordained character personality to guide the decision, I was forced to really think about the choice being presented to me. To weigh the consequences, certainly, but more than that to engage in frank introspection in order to determine whether or not my reaction would be one of weakness or strength. The answer didn’t matter in the concrete way it would in other games, there would likely be no measurable result or impact on the rest of the game, and certainly my physical self wouldn’t wake the next day with a pounding head and a sense of failure. It still felt important.
I chose not to drink.
Some have argued that Depression Quest, presumably by dint of nobody having their bollocks blown off, does not qualify as a game. There is no way to “win” as such; instead, the somewhat bleak ending, even the ostensibly “happy” one I came to, reflects the reality that depression is never just going to give up and go away but is something one must learn to cope with rather than defeat. For me though, that one choice represents a real victory, achieved in unreal ways. Immersed in an experience where there were no genuine consequences for my actions and presented with temptation, I still turned away from the path of self-destruction. This choice, and the awareness that came with it, felt like a much greater achievement than any of the bosses I’ve defeated or wars I’ve won in my life as a gamer because even though it was virtual, the decision I made was a real one.
Games like Depression Quest or Papers, Please are able to impact on us in ways that Mass Effect or Fable’s choice systems never could, because they allow us to relate ourselves and our experiences to the problems faced by the characters we portray. The future of choice systems in videogames, the presence of which grows greater all the time, might not be best used in the grand scope of an epic galaxy-spanning narrative but in the smaller and more personal tales. A decision which challenges us, which asks us to think beyond whether we’ve chosen to play a good or an evil character, is so much more rewarding an experience to overcome. When we struggle with a difficult choice and emerge triumphant, it isn’t the character we play who benefits – it’s us.
- Sometimes, of course, the two can go hand-in-hand. As a rule of thumb I’ve found it easier to play a sprawling RPG as a traditional, white-hat good guy because it provides greater reward. On one memorable occasion I began a second playthrough of Dragon Age: Origins with the intention of being a snarky, mercenary mage. This resolution lasted until Orzammar, where I was asked for help by a certain quest giver and gave a sarcastic, unhelpful response. Instantly, said quest giver decided that my character was rude, and resolved not to speak to him again. The quest may have been a minor and relatively unimportant one, but the lesson was clear; play nice, or find aspects of the game unavailable to you. As a result, that self-interested mage swiftly became an altruistic messiah figure just like a thousand other characters, which rather ruined any sense of agency or freedom. [↩]
- Remember, at this point we still thought that all the series’ major decisions would have an intricate payoff and heavily influence the course of the third game. Hindsight’s a bitch. [↩]
- A feeling helped along by loading screen tips questioning how many Americans I’d killed that day (which, incidentally, is presumably a much more effective gut punch if the player actually is American) or whether I thought I was a hero. [↩]
- For one thing, my instinctive reaction would probably have been to curl into a ball and start crying as soon as the bullets began to fly rather than attempting to one-man-army my way through an entire regiment of soldiers. [↩]