Recently, I posted a really long, but unedited look at choice and consequences on Reddit’s “Truegaming” subreddit. It’s hot right now, one of the highest upvoted articles in the young subreddit, so I thought I’d present it here as a second draft. Also, consider this a SPOILER WARNING, as there are some minor spoilers for these games below. Tumblr doesn't have a simple way to hide them.
This article looks at how games look at the other side of choice. While choice in how one plays enables greater player agency and immersion, player choice without much consequence can also be an immersion breaker. This isn’t just about moral choice, but about the gray area with no right answer.
I was reading this playthrough diary of Deus Ex: Human Revolution (note: minor spoilers), and it had brought to mind meaningfully punishing consequences in games. In the diary, Joe Martin - the author - refers to initially treating the game like a game, and being punished for it.
After a short recovery during the opening credits of the game, Adam Jensen is brought back to Sarif Industries early. When he arrives, his boss urges him to a helicopter as quickly as possible. Joe Martin decided to play around the Sarif Industries office building for awhile instead.
That’s when the bomb goes off, killing several hostages.
This didn't happen in my playthrough. It didn't even occur to me as a possibility. I listened to my boss and went straight to the Helipad. I had no idea that my Adam Jensen was doing anything “right” thing here, and people would have suffered if I didn't. What a great way to indicate this to the player early on in the game. I’d also add that there really isn’t a “right” answer - you’re a morally gray character. It’s an old cyberpunk trope, the corporate security agent that’s really a spy with his parent company’s best interests are his interests. It’s in his best interest to save valuable employees, but an experimental product is the top priority to save.
This brought to mind Alpha Protocol.
ALPHA PROTOCOL - WHAT IT DID RIGHT
Amongst the many things that the game is consistently criticized for is the lack of autosave and its outdated checkpoint system. "Checkpoints are an old idea,” said console and PC gamers alike. “We could save to a hard drive now. Save now and save often."
This frustrated me initially as well. Why?
I kept replaying the first mission from the checkpoint that left me at 5% of a health bar while entering a room full of terrorist bodyguards. My run and gun strategy just didn't work as planned. It was loud, and not particularly covert. Eventually, I gave up and replayed the entire mission from the beginning, more carefully this time. That’s when I got it.
Commitment. Alpha Protocol is designed for commitment and the checkpoints were a part of that. If you make a decision, from dialog (Human Revolution does this as well) to what guns you take, to how much damage you've taken before entering that room - that is your decision and your consequence. In the game, the player becomes Michael Thornton because he is more focused on his survival than replaying the same story from the autosave. Thornton’s death means much more now, as well as his choices.
This is what is amazing about Alpha Protocol, that made it one of my top games of last year. This was a game that was not afraid of cutting out entire branches, plot points, and characters if you decide to do some other thing instead. It was not afraid of letting the player make mistakes.
It’s not without its problems that went against this design, a problem that Deus Ex: Human Revolution shares with it, in fact.
Mass Effect and Mature Decisions
In Mass Effect, there were only two truly consequential decisions I truly felt as a player. I found this disappointing.
The first was easy - Ashley or Kaiden? After all, Max Shepard and Ash were an item at the time. Even though the character was quite wooden and uninteresting, he was a regular stop in my dialog sweep around the ship. So when the elevator opened up and he wasn't there, I *"felt** that absence. The game had somehow managed to make me feel for a character that didn’t connect to before, and worse, make me feel guilty for choosing selfish happiness over another’s life.
In Mass Effect 2, some decisions seemed to have far more consequence than the first. When I arrived at the final mission, I watched Yoeman Chambers die. In a similar mechanic to the above situation with Kaiden, this was a character that Shep would talk to on a regular basis, and the perfect choice to show what it means to lose half a crew. Why did this happen? In a mirror to the above Deus Ex playthrough diary, I was fucking late. I was busy doing side missions, when the time limit came up, and I had one loyalty mission left. This mission? It was Legion’s, one of the final characters to join the crew. Worse yet, the consequences of not doing this would be astronomical, and so there was no choice in the matter for Max, renegade though he was. This is one of those decisions I hope carries over to Mass Effect 3, or Max’s sacrifice would be for nothing. That said, it’s emotionally draining for me to continue as Max, since he can't walk the bridge without feeling loss.
That being said, promised consequence of game to game in Mass Effect didn’t feel like it was there. Aside from a few portions that were designed to be dilemmas, well, there weren't many which represented these choices. The two examples above are the only shining examples of meaningful consequence.
Where Choice Breaks Down
Alpha Protocol and Deus Ex: Human Revolution both break down in the boss fights. In a game that emphasizes player agency and choice, the design breaks down when it brings in unavoidable fights that don’t allow for specific other playstyles to get around.
Alpha Protocol actually does have a dialog system - if your reputation with certain factions are at a certain level you may be able to talk a boss down - but not all the time. The requirements for these incidents are so rare that it’s surprising when this happens (this happened for me on the final boss battle). As dialog and reputation are also emphasized as weapons in your arsenal, this made perfect sense in a gameplay perspective. However, since it’s so rare, many players didn’t experience this. Further, some boss battles were infuriatingly hard.
Deus Ex on the other hand, allows for some some stealth mechanics and environment manipulation - but you can’t simply escape the boss battle like you can a gun battle.
It’s here where Boss Battles are treated like story points, but they really shouldn’t be. They are, as Ben “Yahtzee” Crohshaw puts it, Final Exams. They should be the culmination of how you played so far. So if you’re able to sneak past a set of guards by hacking cameras and hiding around pillars, it stands to reason that you should be able to sneak around a boss by hacking turrets and turning them against it. If you emphasize multiple playstyles in the game, you should emphasize them as tools in boss battles as well. Just Cause 2, a sandbox game with minimal story, allows for this sort of thing in nearly every mission.
Mass Effect will explicitly tell you what a consequence might or might not be. For the most part the moral dilemmas amount to either adopting or shooting a puppy.
Alpha Protocol locks you out of portions of the game if you chose a certain route. Mike cannot backtrack and try to do it another way. Once a mission is done the way its done, the story moves on.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution represents consequence without explicitly telling you that you were going to miss out on something. It requires Adam to improvise from now, to live in the moment while planning out A and B plans, and never treat the game like a dream.
In Mass Effect 1 and 2, I found myself gaming the system despite myself, even though I prefer not to do that. Playing with systems rather than people, the actual choices in game seemed forced and inconsequential in the larger scheme of things (particularly the romance choices). Max felt like someone I created, but the story felt forced upon him, like he was just along for the ride, with some control here in there.
In Alpha Protocol, I was awed by how much I felt like Mike and less like me. This was about how I wanted to play, but more committing to how I have already played. Sure, I could switch it up for Mike from time to time, but Mike was someone I played as, not someone I created.
In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, so far I feel like Adam. Swept in a story by other powers and forced to do things that he doesn't want to do, but hey, it's a violent world and life is cheap. I feel like I'm playing Adam Jensen the Security specialist / corporate hit-man. Even though some are playing like Adam Jensen the serial killer or Adam Jensen the pacifistic ghost, or even Adam Jensen the commando, Adam Jensen still feels like a fully realized character partially created by both the player and the developers.
Here, Tasteful, Understated Nerdrage breaks down Choice and Consequence with some similar game choices.