Make A Game (Not) A Good One Episode 1: Meaningful Choice

Make a game (not) a good one is a series of obiter dictum over what is important in a good, or cause of downfall of a bad, video game. Today, it’s meaningful choice.

I was willing to bet actual money on Mass Effect 2 not allowing me to take Legion to the Migrant Fleet when the assignment popped up. As phenomenal a game of truly meaningful choice as it were up until that point, I thought that catering for that particular stunt required a few too many balls on the writers’ and developers’ end. But they did it. They embraced the fact that players do choose to be badass.

Although grabbing for Mass Effect right from the off may feel like starting a barbecue party with a couple of bottles of tequila, it’s the perfect example. Squad. Loadout. Abilities. Dialogue. It’s riddled with choice. And the important part is I didn’t say consequence. Yet.

Legion. The unsurmountable monument to meaningful choice in video games.
Legion. The unsurmountable monument to meaningful choice in video games.

Say, Elite Dangerous. Whatever the choice, it’s devoid of in-game consequence. Those who work for the Imperial Navy get, outside of some repositioned progress bars and a couple of ships that do exactly the same thing as those not locked beyond this progression branch, nothing. Zilch. No bonus, no penalty, treatment no different to any other player out there. Hell, they are completely free to join the opposing Feds, whenever they want, no strings attached. And vice-versa.

Apart from that I see that as simply half-arsed mechanic, to me, that particular choice has absolutely no meaning. But it may do to others, whether it’s roleplay or simply showing off the undeniably gorgeous curves of Imperial vessels. If it’s something they enjoy, they immerse themselves in, they find meaning in, then who am I to stop them? In-game consequence doesn’t really matter for a player’s choice to have meaning.

Imperial Cutter. Not bad, not bad. Also, not worth weeks of grinding.
Imperial Cutter. Not bad, not bad. Also, not worth weeks of grinding rank.

I like consequence though. And I prefer quite an in-your-face firework display to reflect on my choices. A heart-breaking massacre of my Blood Ravens in the genius Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War 2 when I shrugged off warnings that artillery support or jump jets won’t work in the bowels of derelict Judgment of Carrion. A spectacular freefall down Dirt Rally‘s leaderboards as I chose to dump all the allotted service area time into fixing the turbo, not the suspension. Consequence gives my (moronic or not) decisions meaning. Learning that, I just know the game I’m playing is a ruddy good one.

This immediacy though, that’s understood to be once more a matter of personal preference. I, for one, didn’t exactly appreciate how The Witcher 3 has casually flown forward, leaving me wondering what exactly was it that turned the story events the way they turned. Although that may have had something to do with the game’s overwhelming amount (and quality) of distractions. I found myself caring about and investing a lot more thought into the optional monster hunts rather than following what may I have said or done to change the course of some overreaching politics.

On the other hand, the pick-a-colour click-a-thumbnail ending decisions to Deus Ex Human Revolution, pre-DLC Fallout 3, or sadly even the Mass Effect trilogy just pissed me off straight-faced. And surely enough, I wasn’t alone. Choice is good. But one that makes players feel like idiots is worse than none in the first place.

Choose an ending. Meaningful, immersive, inventive are just a few of the words you're NOT looking for.
Choose an ending. Meaningful, immersive, inventive are just a few of the words you’re NOT looking for.

Then there is of course the case of what I like to call ‘the XCOM syndrome’. An exquisite game of strategy and management, on not just a single occasion criticised for its below-belt, predominantly random, capital punishment. Regardless of choices, through no fault of the player they say. But is that a hand-to-heart honest assessment? Did those critics, including myself, truly backtrack through their choices that left them hanging on the outcome of a single turn tipping the balance from success to an utter, catastrophic failure? I know I didn’t and hope to fix that soon with the sequel.

Much like with every other topic or subject we’ll be touching, hopefully over the coming months, I am not suggesting that every video game better be like Mass Effect or I’m going to descend with fury, vengeance, and a bunch of BDSM toys upon its arse. Opinions and mileage will always vary, but no game – ever – should include even a dormant and defunct bit of code that says “follow this dot”.

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