With the launch of Issue 11 for the The Secret World imminent (or at least coming SOON™), I’ve been thinking about choices and consequences in games. Issue 11 promises to wrap up the story of the game thus far (don’t worry, we’ve been assured it’s only a wrap up for Part One) including some pretty major choices the players have been making at key points in the story. TSW has crafted the story in such a way that despite much speculation, none of us is completely certain what effects these choices will have; the game is famously more about shades of gray than a strict right/wrong dichotomy. Still, the idea that we’ve decided the course of major events ingame has always been exciting.
Choice and consequence in games doesn’t always spark so much interest from me. Morality meters and the like often sound like an interesting idea, but fail to deliver the experience I hope for. It becomes far too easy to start playing the meta – “How good do I need to be to get a decent price from NPC stores? How evil can I get away with acting and still get Nifty Power?” Games that make the “good” and “evil” answers blatant (I’m looking at you, Fable 3) take away any doubt about whether you’ve made the “right” choice. When decisions feel like “Save the town, or set everyone on fire” it becomes more about the player deciding if they are playing a “good” or “evil” character than about seriously weighing the options.
I’ve heard The Walking Dead both praised for offering so many nuggets of choice, and blasted for not delivering enough serious consequences. I know a number of players who have been put out when they realized that portions of the main story are pretty much set in stone, explaining that when it’s only the “how” instead of the “what” that changes, it feels unfulfilling. My personal opinion is that the detractors are being a bit hard on the game – not every choice I make in real life carries heavy consequences, after all. There’s practical limits to how many storylines a game like that can juggle and still remain in budget and tell the story they are trying to tell. The little message that a character “will remember that” may have become a meme by now, but I find it a unique way to get the player invested in the story. Cynicism aside, it made me think a bit harder about the decisions I was making – and since I couldn’t know what the consequences might be, I also find that reflects reality fairly well. I think a key part of making that work is keeping the player invested in the story and characters. If I don’t care about Clementine (I can’t imagine not, but to make the point ^^) then I’d have no reason to care if she remembers what I’ve said to her.
The idea of choices with consequences isn’t something I’d never run into until current games, either. I remember my first playthrough of Chrono Trigger, and the feelings I had when confronted with the actions I’d taken during the carnival. I remember a treasure box in Super Mario RPG that gave a different reward if you opened it with or without permission. I remember when I first learned that in Final Fantasy VI (III on the SNES) if I had not waited for a certain character, he would not have appeared for the rest of the game. Small consequences as far as overall gameplay, sure; but at the time it was a new aspect. I never got any consequences for all those pots I smashed or innocent ducks I’d murdered in other games.
Equally interesting to me are the games in which I know I made many choices, but didn’t notice them enough to remember them. I can’t remember every conversation choice I made in a Fallout game or how many times I chose to steal/not steal an item in Skyrim. The one decision I do remember is that I always choose to save the dog, in both examples. That’s not even a super creative choice to have to make, but I remember it because that, at least, meant something to me.
With the choices in The Secret World, I tend to wish I’d gone through them earlier in the game’s existence. No one flat out spoiled the choices for me, but by the time I’d played through the “Big Three” I’d learned a lot about the game and its world through the forum and in chat. Would I have made the same choices anyway? I’d like to think so, of course, but I can’t know for sure. Which brings me to another choice in that game, one that I’ve talked about in other places.
There’s been a fourth choice in the game, one that the devs have said will almost certainly not have any “real” consequences (though with our devs, we always wonder – in a good way!). Without going into too much detail (though I can’t help light SPOILERS), near the end of the current main storyline, you have a choice in how you want to progress to the next area. You can follow the path that you’ve been assigned to (which used to take more time, it’s since been scaled back into not being nearly as arduous) or you can “cheat” by running a different mission that gives you the option to purchase a forged document.
This choice came up for me right around the time that the new area had first opened. I was in a hurry to join my friends once it went live and curious about this second route, so I went ahead and obtained the forged document. The ending of that mission was not clear, but it made me nervous. I suddenly wondered who exactly (in the game world) would want to help me get to that next area, who would be willing and able to forge documents for me, and why in the world did I not even consider what they might expect from me later? As the story of the new area unfolded, I began to learn more about my unseen “benefactor” and have gone back and forth between a creeping dread of what I’ve done and the hope that maybe it’s not as bad as I thought.
The reason I babble on about this choice so much is that it “got” me in a very natural, and very realistic sense. I wasn’t trying to make a “good” choice or a “bad” choice; I looked at my options and picked what seemed most convenient to me at the time. Only afterward did I start realizing I’d walked into more than I bargained for by making that choice, and by then it was too late. I don’t even know if it was necessarily a good or bad decision, I just know that I leaped before I looked. All of that, and there’s not even a guarantee of ingame consequences; just my uneasy feeling as a player. In addition to that, it doesn’t feel like I was “tricked” into anything – the simple fact of it being a forged document should have tipped me off…if I hadn’t been too busy looking out for my own selfish desire to get what I wanted fast. Sounds an awful lot like how decisions folks later regret happen in real life. Most folks don’t set out to do “evil,” after all.
Choices and consequences ingame don’t have to be earth-shattering in order to affect the player. They’re best if they feel natural, if they aren’t easy to game, and when they flow with the story. It’s a bonus if you can construct the game in a way that there are clear consequences (I’m right with everyone else on tenterhooks, waiting to see if we’ve ruined all-of-the-things in TSW) but that’s not always necessary. It’s been months since I made that choice in TSW, years since I made choices in other games…but the well done choices have stuck with me.