One reason I find myself drawn to RPGs more than any other genre is that they are infinitely more likely than any other kind of game to offer that most addictive of gameplay options: the branching plotline. Like skill trees, character creation screens, and other mechanics that have established themselves as RPG staples, branching plotlines are fun because the give the player a sense of power. When there are enough of these moments of choice in an RPG, a player truly feels like he or she is shaping the events of a character’s life and affecting the world around them in a unique way.
I call these moments… decision points.
What? WHO already coined that phrase and named his memoirs after it?
God damn it!
You know what? I’m going to go super-rogue and straight-up steal the term! YOUR MOVE, DUBYA.
In video games, a good decision point reveals unadulterated role-playing. You have control over more than which bad guy in a horde you take out first — suddenly you’re allowed to choose what kind of person your character is and what their priorities are. While almost every game offers the player some control over strategy, only a select few RPGs give the player autonomy over character to a meaningful degree.
But don’t get me wrong. Not all decision points are equally interesting. Some are pure drama, perfectly tapping into the reason RPGs can be some of the most engrossing games on the market. Others play into the worst stereotypes about video games, and can be anything from bland to downright frustrating.
I realized halfway through playing the startlingly addictive and moderately confusing title, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, that I wanted to catalogue my favorite of these decision points from the role-playing games I’ve experienced recently. Questions would invariably be answered: Which stood out, and why? Are some types of decisions more interesting than others? Does my character want to sleep with that succubus?
Fair warning: Spoilers ahead for The Witcher 2, the Mass Effect series and Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
This week: THE GOOD
MASS EFFECT 3 – TAKING THE SHOT
Avoiding death is the primary desire in pretty much everyone’s life. Once a person is assured that they have taken the necessary precautions to avoid dying suddenly, they can move on to other goals like getting laid or accumulating antique pogs (though these two particular goals can never be accomplished at once).
But in video games, death tends to take on a significantly reduced role. If you’ve ever been stuck at a part in a game where you keep dying over and over, it begins to feel like a persistent case of the hiccups. Annoying? Totally. But fear-inspiring? Nope.
This particular decision point in Mass Effect 3 ignites death as a real deterrent. Here, player character Commander Shepard is faced with a former squadmate protecting the galactic council from a terrorist attack. Little do they know, one of their retinue is a traitor waiting to turn on them. Shepard knows this, but your old comrade doesn’t trust you. They point a gun at Shepard, and the next move is yours. Take them out? Talk them down? And remember, you’ve got limited time.
I found this whole situation absolutely thrilling. There were so many personal relationships, trust issues, subterfuges and allegiances swirling around one standoff that the stakes became totally clear. Death was brought to the forefront as a real possibility when communication gets muddled in wartime.
DEUS EX: HUMAN REVOLUTION — POPPING THE HOOD
Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a true entry in the larger Deus Ex series that spawned it — which means it’s all about making tough choices about who to trust in a world where few people are who they seem. So when you’ve begun to uncover a far-reaching, sinister corporate conspiracy that has dire implications for everyone on the planet, you may be a little leery when you’re ordered to go to a clinic to have the augmentation hardware in your brain “improved.”
Your choice, friend! Deal with a little static in your mind-radio, or let a corporate doctor knock you out and fuck around inside your skull. You don’t have all the facts when you make the decision, but you have enough to know that something smells fishy, and when you face the consequences later you know enough to either pat yourself on the back or accept your fate.
MASS EFFECT 2 – I CAN HANDLE IT (NOPE, YOU CAN’T)
There’s one kind of decision point that I find irresistible and yet am ashamed of. It’s the romantic subplot decision point. Who do you want to sleep with? Are you a sensitive person, a sexual dynamo or a prudish enigma? These questions are exactly what I want to be asked from a game. I’m not proud of it.
The reason this is a guilty pleasure is tha most of the time the whole thing is structured to be pure wish fulfillment, and the transparency of that bothers me. Your player character is attractive to all potential mates, regardless of gender, orientation or species, and you get to pick and choose who gets invited to have party time with your level 30 warrior.
And while I do go in for wish fulfillment sometimes, I find it much more interesting when a game that’s used to telling you “yes” tells you “no” in very clear terms. This occurs in Mass Effect 2 if you rescue a beautiful alien seductress known for killing her lovers. She essentially will make your brain explode if you agree to make love to her. Commander Shepard knows this, and knows that she’s done it to countless would-be mates before.
Now, some games would let you romance this alien, and because of your superior force of will or your amulet of boning or whatever, you’d be able to do it. But Mass Effect 2 thinks you ought to know better, and if you try it, you die a weird, stupid, embarrassing death where Shepard embraces the alien, goes stone-faced, shakes and then dies of a goofy sex-stroke.
The point is clear: there should be limits.
THE WITCHER 2 – JUSTICE OR LOYALTY
The Witcher 2 has a whole array of choices for players to make, from what haircut you get to what side of a war you’re on. But what I would consider the major choice of the game is made about a third of the way into a play-through, and it involves making a choice between doing the right thing politically or sticking by your friends – in other words, there’s no good guy / bad guy dichotomy here. Both paths are heroic. Both paths are a bit dickish.
Main character Geralt of Rivia must escape the town of Flotsam, but he needs a hand doing it. He can seek the aid of one of two allies. The first is an old brother-in-arms, commander of a unit that specializes in hunting non-humans. This guy busted you out of prison earlier, and has been at your side for the whole first part of the game, but he’s a bit of a fanatic. He tends to see non-humans with even legitimate grievances as brigand scum, and it seems like he may be on the wrong side of history. The other ally is a fierce elven warrior who has been mounting a guerrilla war on humans. The elf’s got a major point about the oppression his people have suffered, and usually games let you ally with champions of equal rights for all. But this time, there’s a personal cost. You’re teaming up with your friend’s worst enemy. Neither path allows you to keep your hands totally clean.
I think I see a pattern: Modern RPGs are transcending the idea of good vs. evil. No longer is everything a choice between playing as either a pure shining knight or bulbous satanic pustule. When you’re forced to form relationships and then betray them, or when you’re asked to face death in a more personal context, because of your own arrogance or foolishness or even your own love – that’s when things get really interesting.
And in the next installment, the decision points I didn’t find as compelling, including the succubus I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Stay tuned!
Note: Attorneys in the employ of Broadway Publishing or Former President George W. Bush please feel free to contact me via my email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ha ha! GOTCHA! God, I’m really sticking it to the no-longer-relevant Man!
About the Author:
Aaron Matteson is a stage actor in Brooklyn, a Seattle native, and an alum of Village Voice Media's Joystick Division.
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