Narrative Choice Seems Very Hard to Balance

By: Steve Zachmann, contributor


[Warning: there are some Mass Effect 2 spoilers ahead, so if you’re interested in that franchise but haven’t played it, you might want to pass on this post.]

A few years ago, I played through Mass Effect 2.  I loved it.  What I didn’t love were the choices that the game presented to you at the end.  I’ve only played it once and I blasted through it pretty quickly but what I do remember of the end was that I had to set up a crazy suicide mission where my whole team had to infiltrate some ship and stop a catastrophe.  I had to choose who would come with me, and who would go on different side missions.  This choice, unbeknownst to me, would dictate who ended up living and who would die.  For obvious reasons the choice isn’t presented in a way that telegraphs to the player which choices will cause which circumstances and all the options were ominous.  There seemed to be little, if any, way to tell who would make it.  In my playthrough, Mordin Solus died and I liked him a lot, so I was kind of peeved.  For the longest time it’s I’ve been thinking about the nature of narrative decisions in games because of this.  While I don’t think there is anything wrong with choices, they present a very interesting problem.

In real life we make decisions all the time and we have to live with those consequences.  Sometimes you do bad things that you regret forever, other times you do the right thing at the right moment and feel good about it.  When narrative choice is presented in games I think what most designers are striving for is that same type of real-life choice, but I believe that the nature of choice is far more nuanced than what we end up getting.  Think of any choice that you’ve made in your life that was difficult and that you ultimately feel like you made a good decision regarding.  It wasn’t an easy choice, right?  Not only that, it required a lot of non-discrete analysis.  Before you made this decision you most likely played out multiple scenarios of what might happen and agonized over them.  Even if you made the right decision you may still wonder from time to time what would have happened if you had chosen a different path.  So much about that decision making process is missing from most game situations.

When Mass Effect 2 told me to pick who would go on which mission it gave me no time to make a decision.  Sure, I could have turned the game off after the dialogue, pondered my possibilities, and then turned it back on after I had done several hours worth of thorough analysis, but that’s not how any of us play games.  We’re often presented with choices that present massive consequences and then expected to make those choices on the fly, with little to no idea of what they actually mean.  In real life we would have almost certainly had more knowledge about the mission we were about undertake, we’d be able to quickly weigh which choices were more apt to result in the death of a crew-member, and we’d have a more realistic idea of which crew-members best suited to which task.  Mass Effect 2 does it’s best to present you with that information, but it’s not nearly enough.  This isn’t because it’s a bad game either; it’s because choice is really hard to simulate.

Given that someone has to die in the Mass Effect 2 scenario, there really isn’t a good choice here.  Sure, if you knew which option caused the death of a crew-member you could pick the ones you liked the least, but I don’t remember really hating any of them, so there really isn’t a right choice.  That’s ok, I suppose, but it’s not necessarily the type of choice I’m looking for in games.  The choice of which soldier to send to their death is one that high-ranking military personnel wrestle with a lot.  It’s the type of decision that weighs on you for the rest of your life.  I sent a fake character, Mordin Solus, to his death and I still remember it.  I wouldn’t classify that as fun.

I don’t want to suggest that everything about video games needs to be fun, at least not in the traditional sense.  In many ways the Dark Souls series isn’t fun, but I find it’s challenge rewarding so I’m ok with what it presents.  The type of non-fun I don’t like is when I’m presented with choices for which there are major consequences, but I’m not given a complete picture of what that choice really means.

Farewell my friend.

I really don’t like what Mass Effect 2 did at the end and I felt really bamboozled by my choice.  I often feel the same about Telltale’s games.  Those games are often worse.  Choices are presented where there is absolutely zero presentation of possible outcomes.  You pick A or B and both of them get someone killed, but you have no way of knowing who it will be.

For a long time I felt like I was being some sort of curmudgeon about the whole thing.  I felt like I was just being too sensitive about what happened to my digital friends.  But isn’t that what the designers want you to feel?  Don’t they want you to feel a connection with the characters they spend so many hours trying to flesh out?  I would hope so.  If that’s the case though, why are they so eager to let you make arbitrary decisions that kill them off?  And more importantly, why do those decisions feel so oddly wrong.

For me, the realization of why the decisions felt wrong happened while watching Breaking Bad.  All manner of awful things happen on that show but I never felt uneasy about any of it.  This was because I was not in control.  If Walt made a bad choice, it was his choice, not mine.  I was free to hate or cheer him for it, but the consequences were for him, not for me, to bear.  In games we’re often presented with those same types of choices, but we’re asked to bear the consequences so when we do something that ultimately results in bad things happening to characters that we care about, we’re upset.  I don’t mind dramas that are sad and I don’t live on kitten videos (I do love em though).  I don’t necessarily want to feel like a dick while playing a game though, especially when I had no intention of acting like one.

For all of my ranting here, I wouldn’t say that there is a clear cut answer.  In Mass Effect 2’s case the only thing I could have thought of would have been to put in 40 more hours of gameplay to better flesh out exactly what the mission entailed, who would be best suited for what task, etc… That’s not really feasible though.  Every game can’t be 100+ hours long just so that when you’re presented with one choice you can feel prepared.  Mass Effect 2 was plenty long for what it wanted to accomplish.  Perhaps the answer is that the choices need to be more clear cut, but with that comes the problem of making the ”right” answer too easy.  If there had been a side-note that told me who was guaranteed to live and who was guaranteed to die, the final choice in Mass Effect 2 would have meant nothing.

Truth be told, I think I enjoy games with less narrative choice.  The Last of Us is amazing narratively, and there is very little choice there.  You basically play a game that’s interwoven with parts of a movie.  When Joel acts like a jerk I don’t feel bad because he’s doing it, not me.  Bioshock Infinite presents things similarly.  A story is told, and your job as the player is get from one part of it to another.  I used to think that those type of games were a step back.  To me they took away any interactivity that went beyond just shooting stuff.  The more I experience narrative choice though, the more I’m inclined to enjoy a guided experience.  That may just be personal preference, and I certainly don’t begrudge anybody their love of any game (except Animal Crossing).  I simply think that with what game designers have to work with currently it can be really difficult to present choices in ways that are meaningful and satisfying.