A Personal Choice


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. 

  1. 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. []
  2. 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. []
  3. 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. []
  4. 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. []

Tom Dawson

About Tom Dawson

Tom Dawson is, in no particular order; a two-time Olympic bronze medallist (synchronised swimming), ancestrally Atlantean, a compulsive liar, the Green Lantern of space sector 2814 and the inventor of the cordless drill. His fondest wish is that someday he’ll get paid for writing stuff like this.