The Choices We Make

A thought occurred to me while I was working on my third playthrough of Dragon Age: Origins: how player choice can present itself differently across different games. Now I know this has been a long discussed topic, particularly when people feel that in so many games that their choices don’t matter, but I wanted to discuss how I most enjoy player decisions when they’re available.

This particular DA:O playthrough was my first time trying a new character (new origin, new look, new personality, new love interest, the whole bit), and as I progressed through the game, I realized that a lot of my significant plot point choices were very similar to my “canon” playthrough’s choices. I didn’t intend it to be that way, since I usually like to play around with new choices, but I also realized that several of the choices in DA:O have very clear indicators for what are the “right” and “wrong” choices. Not for everything (some decisions have more ambiguous consequences), but when it comes to recruiting allies for the final fight against the Archdemon, certain decisions could wind up costing you companions as well as certain allies. Alternatively, Dragon Age II and Dragon Age: Inquisition had a number of quests that relied on the player’s perception of the situation (sometimes with the intent of questioning morality) and it felt more catered to whatever personality you gave your protagonist. (Side note: personally, I don’t think DAII is as morally grey as it likes to think it is, but there were more opportunities to incorporate your decisions into defining your protagonist’s characterization.) The Dragon Age series’ choices are not perfect, but there is more room in the later games for varying personalities and characterizations than just “I’m being a horrible person just because I can.”

The point is: I feel that player choices work better when there’s an ambiguity to their result. I want to be sitting there wondering “did I make the best choice?” rather than just working down a “good” or an “evil” path. And when I make that choice, I don’t want only immediate results, I want that choice to affect me 10, 20, 30 hours later too… or even in the next game. I could not tell you how glad I was to have dodged a bullet in DA:I when I realized that making Alistair king two games ago might have just saved his life (and kept my Warden from a broken heart). I want more games to give me that sort of stress: make me feel the consequences of my actions even long after my decision has been made.

Games have the very unique ability to travel down different plot pathways, a reminder of the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, and when done well, I think it’s a very fun mechanic for the player to mess around with. It drives replayability by having the player wonder “what if I had done this instead?”, it encourages communication between players (for better or worse) on how they handled different decisions, and it has the ability to characterize the audience/player. One of the things I love knowing about my friends who have played the same game as me is how they decided to play the game. Did we make similar choices? Were different choices made based on what kind of personality they gave their character? What choices do they gravitate to naturally and what are they breaking away from to play their protagonist “in character?” I’m certain developers love hearing these sorts of responses as well. It’s a feature I love about finishing episodes in Telltale Games: polls will indicate how many made certain decisions and if you were in the majority or minority.

Telltale Games, in fact, is a company that has built an entire brand identity on the concept of branching storylines, with the mechanics and episodic set-up laying the groundwork for a lot of possibilities. I am particularly enjoying some of the new features added in the latest Batman: The Enemy Within, which include shifting attitudes towards Batman based on how you treat each of these characters in dialogue options. This expounds upon Telltales’ previous MO of “_____ will remember this” and creates the sensation of more tangible consequences and repercussions, whereas before it sometimes felt as if that statement didn’t have an explicit consequence. I understand that sometimes Telltales’ games have to override decisions for the sake of keeping a somewhat linear storyline, but one day, I would like to see them create completely separate scenarios and situations based on the decisions made by the player. It doesn’t have to be the whole game (that’s definitely a lot of work), but it would be interesting that for an episode, there could be two different versions with completely different scenarios and decisions. Then make it tie back into the story later, once the storylines have converged again: how will the protagonist react to a later situation based on what they experienced in one episode vs a protagonist who witnessed the other version?

The Dragon Age series and Telltale Games’ series are obviously not the only games that have a strong focus on player choice. Pyre is another game that focuses on decision-making, albeit a bit in a more subtle way. I mentioned in its original review post that there is no “True Ending” for Pyre, and you are forced into uncomfortable decisions in the realization that you won’t get absolutely everything “right.” Since there isn’t a right or wrong answer to the choices, players are given full responsibility for their actions in a way that adds pressure to the decision. Life is Strange starts off strong with their choices affecting characters and the player in later episodes. For example, being nice to one of the characters in the first episode will make them more receptive your cautions as opposed to suspicious in the later episodes. There are also many things to interact with that will show up in small ways later, such as under-watering or over-watering your plant. However, in the ending of the game, the ending itself is only based on a final choice, which just about ignores every decision you’ve made up until that point. It was possibly one of the most frustrating things to find that at the end of a very detailed game, none of your decisions had an effect on the ending.

Personally, I love decision-based games that give me a certain freedom to play how I want, and you can tell when the writers of these games took the time to consider the different options a player might want to take. Given that decision-based games continue to be a popular trend, I think writers should continue to examine how they go about writing these forks in the road. My personal favorite approach is the “you’ve made your bed, now lie in it” approach, making the player wonder if they’ve made the “best” choice and making them feel the effects even long after those scenes have passed. I’m curious to hear your thoughts: how do you think player choices should be handled? What games do you think use this concept well? How do you think some of these mechanics could be improved?

Happy gaming!

~ M

Freedom in the Pyre

Rating: E10+ for Fantasy Violence, Tobacco Reference, Mild Language, Use of Alcohol

Available for: Playstation 4, Microsoft Windows, macOS, Linux

This post will contain some minor spoilers for Pyre.

I didn’t expect to play another game by Supergiant Games so soon after Transistor, but with hearing all the buzz about the recently released Pyre (2017), I knew I had to try it out for myself. Once again, I found myself enthralled by the beautiful art style and music that Supergiant Games continues to deliver and was ready for the story that was about to unfold.

Pyre is the story of exiles banished to the Downside after being marked guilty of crimes committed in the Commonwealth. You, the player, are a character in the game, newly exiled and deemed Reader as one of the few with literacy skills (something banned in the Commonwealth) and are given the responsibility of guiding your fellow exiles in a tradition called the Rites. These Rites are the key to freedom from the Downside and returning to the Commonwealth, where this feat is rewarded with a high ranking position in the Commonwealth. Your companions are called the Nightwings and have been instructed by a mysterious contact to find more companions to “fit each of the masks” used in the Rites. On your journey, you encounter different triumvirates who are also seeking Liberation as the Rites seem to be quickly coming to a permanent end.

Ultimately, Pyre’s story centers around the question: what does freedom mean to each character? And in a story that focuses heavily on different definitions of freedom, there is a surprising amount of emphasis placed on the player’s decision or rather, judgement. Being an integrated character, you are to be the deciding factor of who should be set free first, and as you progress through the game, your companions will reveal more about themselves to help you make your decision. More or less of certain character arcs were revealed based on what order you decided to set people free, provided that you managed to win that particular Liberation Rite. That mechanic, the fact that the story could and would move on even if you failed a match, made Pyre especially interesting. I tend to be a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to gaming, so the fact that the game would move on even in failure felt like getting a bad grade on a test and realizing it would affect your final score. However, unlike test grades, failing a match didn’t necessarily mean you would get a “bad ending,” it would just affect particular characters’ final endings.

Choosing who would be granted Liberation ended up being a tricky business, much more so than expected. Pyre takes the time to examine each character in the game, even your opponents, and in doing so, it highlights how each character has different desires for what they want their life to look like. The problem is: you find out fairly early on that there are a limited amount of Liberation Rites before they would be finally over for good, meaning that not all of your companions were going to make it out. Moreover, Liberation meant you could not use that companion ever again to play out a Rite, even if you do favor their Abilities over another’s. So, do you make the decisions based on emotion, especially when some of your companions ask you to be set free? Or do you make the selfish decision based on who is more useful in a Rite? To make matters more difficult, finding out more information on your opponents and their respective reasons for exile meant you could intentionally throw the match in order for you opponent to be set free, a decision I contended with a couple of times. All of these considerations put you in the uncomfortable situation of evaluating everyone’s reasons for freedom and making that final call. There is a third, story-specific reason for deciding who should be Liberated, because you also participate in a Plan to overthrow the Commonwealth and their oppressive regime. So who will be more beneficial to the revolution once back on the Commonwealth side?

With a Plan set to fight for everyone’s freedom in the Commonwealth, the player was reminded that the Nightwings were not just looking out for themselves. Yes, they each had their own goals, but they were not so blinded by their desires that they would fall easily back into the system that exiled them in the first place. They realized that something had to change, not just for them but for everyone else in the Commonwealth and the future generations that would come. It was a good way for the story to come together and also unite the Nightwings more solidly. Each character was very different, but they found companionship in each other, making each Liberation Rite more difficult than the last. Another interesting point was the fact that at the Gates before the Liberation Rites, each companion had to state their purpose, something that could also potentially influence the player’s ultimate choices. Realizing that not all of the Nightwings would be leaving the Downside, considerations for what staying in the Downside meant for the characters also took effect. At this point, the player also had to decide who could potentially be happy staying in this exile. Fortunately for the player, not everyone wanted to return to the Commonwealth, preferring their freedoms in the Downside.

Pyre is a story that illustrates what it means to be free by describing a course for unified freedom and while also defining it differently within each main character. The characters have a common goal of overturning the Commonwealth, showing that when the Nightwings fight for freedom, they fight for freedom for all. These same characters also have their own personal goals, what they would like to do once obtaining freedom. Making the player a central character serves to make this responsibility more personal and more emotional, but at times still reminding the player that game mechanics such as Abilities might also be in contention with their emotional decisions. There is no “True Ending” for Pyre, meaning that this is no true “right answer” for characters’ fates (though some might be better than others). This game is not meant to be so black and white, something that is reinforced by each of the varied, personal endings characters have: freedom can be found in many different ways. I enjoyed Pyre immensely, particularly for its ability to force the player into making uncomfortable decisions while still emphasizing the themes of their story, and I definitely recommend it!

Pyre Official Website

Pyre Launch Trailer

Happy gaming!

~ M