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Gray is Boring

I think these days, one of the biggest things people look for in games is choice. We're on the cusp of a new generation of consoles, and we're sure to see that trend continue in the games of tomorrow. Simply put, people enjoy games where their actions have consequences, and having to make difficult moral choices is a great way to invest players in the world. So, it's with this in mind that I feel the need to put to words something I've been feeling for a long time now. It's a simple enough statement, really, but I feel it's one that needs to be made.

Gray is boring.

Now, don't get me wrong. I support conflicts that are more complex than good guys vs. bad guys. In fact, that's why I'm writing this blog. People these days seem to have the impression that shades-of-gray morality is inherently more complex than "simple" black-and-white. But personally, I feel that's not always the case. In fact, I think that while a straightforward black-and-white conflict can still be enjoyable and emotionally fulfilling, a morally gray conflict without the necessary nuance is more likely to inspire apathy than catharsis.

Maybe it's just me, but when I'm being told that there are no right choices, the first thought in my head is a bit from War Games: the only way to win in that situation is not to play. Instead, I find myself drawn to situations in which all the choices are potentially right: situations where you aren't given a summation of your actions and have to draw your own conclusions about their consequences. I guess this is where my undying hatred of the slideshow ending comes from: it offends my "show, don't tell" sensibilities, and I feel like just giving me a paragraph of text that encapsulates all the results of what I've done removes the uncertainty that makes for a difficult choice.

Skyrim's civil war conflict is, for what it's worth, a good example of this. Two years after the game's release, me and my friends still discuss the Imperials vs. Stormcloaks. On one hand, the Empire really is the only major force for equality in Tamriel and stand a much better chance against the Thalmor than any other faction does on their own. On the other hand, the Stormcloaks' desire for independence is easily sympathetic, and they do have a point about Cyrodiil abandoning the other provinces. You can find all kinds of reasons to support either side, and while their respective leaders have a plan in mind, you're given no guarantees about what will happen, or if the result will even matter when the Thalmor decide to try again at conquest.

But I'm getting off track. The point is that, in order to make players really invest in their choices, I think the questions behind them need to be more complex than "Which ending did you get?". A clear-cut gray is just as straightforward as clear-cut good or evil. The way I see it, a tough moral choice isn't born out of the inability to make a "right" decision - it's the uncertainty of whether your choice is right to begin with, and the regret that comes with the possibility that another path was the right one to take.

I'm not saying it's easy. What's a tough decision for one person could be a no-brainer for another. Morality can be very subjective. But that means you need to try to create situations that resonate with people - not make every option unlikeable.

I hope someone will at least consider what I've said here. I know most of the creators behind these games aren't going to read it, but who knows. Maybe I'll make some up-and-coming indy dev take a second look at how they write conflicts. Anyways, thanks for reading.

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