The lights are on
We’ve all been there: The game is paused, the choice menu stares you in the face. Do you return the lost pet to the grieving old lady, hold out for a better reward, or punt the puppy across the street for sociopathic kicks? If you want to build the most powerful antihero you can, you better warm up those size 12s. That digital dog is getting booted.
I grew up in an age where games didn’t hold back on the challenge, and scraping every advantage from the environment was a must. Rogue doesn’t care that you don’t like eating meat; you’re chowing down on that giant rat you just killed or dying of starvation and starting over. Those old games didn’t pretend to pose any moral problems – you eat raw rat or you die, simple as that – but they did imprint in me a deep-seated need to optimize my capabilities in a video game in any way I can.
Perfecting your build, creating the right mix of abilities to enable your ideal tactics, or recruiting just the right party members are activities intrinsic to many genres. Ever since the technology could support it, developers have experimented with every method they could think of to gate access to those gameplay options. Completing a side quest unlocks a hidden character. Finding a secret room offers unique loot. Choosing an advanced class grants specific powers.
Kicking a puppy increases your dark-side points* and improves your lightning-shooting skills.
If you’re like me, the draw of increased power trumps any role-playing aspects of a decision. Call it a character flaw,** but I almost always find myself setting game mechanics above narrative when the two conflict. I could toss my power level to the wind to pursue a path based on role-playing, my personal morality, or any other criteria – but I don’t.
The problem is that I love games that give players some level of control over the narrative or the game world, no matter how illusory. But when I need to max out my do-gooder score because it makes my healing spells cheaper to cast, I might as well be playing a Boy Scout simulator for all the tough choices I have to make.
This precise reason is why I was so excited when Mass Effect’s morality system was revealed forever ago. It’s not perfect in practice – I still found myself going full Paragon for whatever the stupid bonus is for getting to the final tier – but I adore the idea of a fuzzy system that demands players do whatever they can to get the job done.
Dishonored is another step in a positive direction that doesn’t quite land. Your targets in that game are (spoilers!) terrible people. The rank-and-file enemies in your way are at best unwitting pawns of a brutal state and bloodthirsty thugs at worst. I love how the game doesn’t cast any judgment at the player, no matter how they resolve situations. Still, Arkane felt the need to include the asinine end-of-level score screen that assigns a high- or low-chaos score the level. At least you’re not directly rewarded or punished for your narrative decisions, though Dishonored does do some unfortunate behind-the-scenes enemy-spawning that makes things harder for more violent players.
I’d be much happier if the impact of narrative decisions was contained to the story. If you absolutely must tie different powers or other gameplay options to choosing whether to kill an NPC or help an out-of-luck farmer, at least make the optimization fuzzy enough that I can pretend that getting a healing spell is just as useful as shooting lightning out of my fingers.
And for the love of all that is good and right in the world, don’t make me search out innocent puppies to kick so that I can be the best galaxy-conquering badass I can be.
*(Star Wars is its own side-discussion thanks to Lucas’ infantile black-and-white view of morality, but the larger point about tying gameplay to narrative decisions stands.)
** (I had to take something at creation to balance out my stunning good looks.)