More and more, video games are featuring decision mechanics, even in genres they’re not really needed in. Most modern RPGs like Mass Effect and Skyrim have decision making points for plot and character development. Adventure games like Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead demonstrate how heavy the consequences can feel. Even shooters are implementing choice with Spec Ops: The Line and Call of Duty: Black Ops II. With Dishonored and XCOM: Enemy Unknown added to that pool from last year, you can see how prominent decision-making in games is becoming. My question though, is how powerful are the decision-making mechanics on a player’s emotions? I’ve noticed that most of these decisions… aren’t really a big deal. They don’t carry weight.
Playing through Skyrim I came across many situations that invited a choice. Fight with the Stormcloaks or Imperials. Join the Dawnguard or the Vampires. Help the Blades or the Greybeards. Those are just a few examples of decisions in the giant world of Skyrim. But the problem with Skyrim‘s choices is the lack of true consequence. All of the decisions are completely black and white. You know what will happen when you side with one over the other. There really ISN’T any consequence. You side with the Imperials, the Empire reacquires control of the nation. You help the Vampires, you get cool vampire powers and beat the Dawnguard. You enjoy the company of Paarthurnax, the Blades won’t be so buddy-buddy to you.
Skyrim is an example of a game that has boring decisions, just for the sake of having them. There are other games out there that claim to have heavy “game influencing” decision-making sequences, but they often fall very short to those words. Dishonored is a game that also has this problem. Dishonored was advertised as a game completely driven by player choice, and while it is true in the gameplay, it’s not true for the story or the plot building. In Dishonored the only real decisions you make as the player is “how will I assassinate this guy” or “how will I avoid detection.” While the gameplay features strong choice in how the player interacts, the story is, once again, very black and white in the decision making. Kill the guard, be a bad guy, Dunwall will become corrupt. Avoid the guard, be a good guy, Dunwill will be cleansed.
The Walking Dead is a game that features heavy-hitting decisions… that don’t really matter. While playing through the game once, it really feels like your decisions are making an impact, but if you go back and play the game again, you realize they don’t. They don’t matter nearly at all. Telltale was very good at pacing the story to fit in with almost every decision, the only difference you’ll ever come across is which NPCs likes you and which ones don’t. The story is a magnificent tale, sure, but these weak decisions end up making your reevaluate the game and think “wow I really didn’t shape that story at all.”
The problem is that these decisions are boring and don’t have the depth they could. I understand it’s a game and is predetermined by default, but branching storylines could still exist. Right now the decisions are set up as follows: Choice, A or B? Either way, it leads to C with mildly altered dialog. There isn’t a difference between environments, characters outside of the decisions or even plot for the most part. This leads to them being boring and lacking a true feeling of choice.
If you’re looking for a game that offers an example of good decision-making mechanics on a gameplay level, look no further than XCOM: Enemy Unknown. While the game doesn’t specifically say “Hey, should we do this or that?” it does feature turn-based strategy combat filled with decisions for you to make. The most devastating moments in this game are when your favorite soldier, who is named after your brother, thrice decorated and seemingly immortal, gets shot and dies because of a bad decision on your part. This. Is. Heavy. I legitimately couldn’t play the game for a week because I was too upset over a soldier’s in-game death. You feel absolute guilt because of the loss.
Game developers need to learn from XCOM. They need to provide games where the plot builds off of your decisions, not the other way around. You need to feel guilt, anger, joy and sadness. I think the next generation will be where developers finally take that extra step towards deep and powerful decisions that will shape the games and how we play them. I am very excited for that day.