Inquisition Offers an Evolution of the “Difficult Choice”

A screenshot of Warden Alistair in the Fade in DAI.

Warden Alistair in DAI via

There’s been a nice discussion on game crit Twitter this week about that perennial topic, choices and consequences in Dragon Age, spurred on by two great articles: one by Rowan Kaiser at Unwinnable, and the second by Austin Walker at Paste Games. Rowan’s piece is about how most players won’t see Dragon Age Inquisition‘s toughest choice, and that the game overall pulls its punches when forcing the player to make difficult, emotional choices.

The choice Rowan is referring to is during the “Here Lies the Abyss” mission, where depending on the player’s world state, the player may have to choose between sacrificing Hawke or Alistair. His argument is that DAI should have had more choices like this, but where all the players experienced the same emotional investment. I agree with Rowan that the situation is bullshit, but I completely disagree with why.

It is indeed unfair that the choice is only difficult for a certain minority of players. It happened in my first playthrough of the game, and it made me very angry. Bioware has stated in the past that most players make Alistair king; in fact, the most likely reason for Alistair to remain a Warden is if a female PC romanced him in Origins. Basically, this story step disproportionately affects female fans, targeting us for emotional turmoil in a way that most other players would not experience (it’s particularly bad if your Warden is still alive and looking for a cure for the taint).

But the solution isn’t to make the choice equally wrenching for all players: the solution is to do away with these sorts of “Choose who lives and who dies” situations completely. That narrative design was groundbreaking in 2007, when the first Mass Effect came out, and players were forced to choose between saving Ashley or Kaiden. That kind of decision had not happened in AAA prior to then. But in 2014, players are swimming in games with “gotcha” choices, choices purposely designed to cause the gnashing of teeth, some better-executed than others (all of which can be found in Telltale’s recent games, for example, particularly The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us).

Austin’s column breaks down what people mean when they talk about “meaningful” choices in games. It’s a great piece that tackles a long-running peeve of mine when the topic comes up, and talks about issues larger than just DAI. But the part that struck me was the ending: “The point is to answer the question. What do you value?” This gets to the heart of what makes choices in games meaningful. It’s another reason the Hawke/Whoever choice at the end of “Here Lies the Abyss” is crap: to the Inquisitor, both characters are two people she has just met no matter who they are. The choice doesn’t give the player the opportunity to express something about their character’s values or what kind of leader she is; it’s only about being mean to the player.

The question “What do you value?” also sums up why the choices in DAI are so interesting and often difficult to me in a way I had not been able to pin down. DAI is largely about leadership and faith. It lets the player make choices about what kind of leader your character is and what she believes and express those values; those moments are the most difficult, interesting, and meaningful choices in the game, whether they result in world state changes or not, and many of them are found in the companion quests.

In the Iron Bull’s companion quest, a situation arises where the Inquisitor has to choose between sacrificing Bull’s team, the Chargers, or sacrificing an entire dreadnaught of Qunari troops. What makes the situation complicated is that saving the dreadnaught means securing a powerful alliance with the Qunari for the Inquisition (for the purpose of saving the world from Corypheus); saving the Chargers destroys any chance of an alliance with the Qunari and would make Bull Tal-Vashoth–basically, an outcast from the Qun (a concept Bull has a lot of complicated feelings about). Is the Inquisitor willing to sacrifice a few people for the greater good? What kind of leader is she? What does she value?

Cole’s big companion quest involves dealing with his past trauma and his essential nature. The Inquisitor can push him either to become more like a spirit or more like a human. Solas and Varric argue for each choice, respectively. It raises a lot of questions to the player. What are spirits, really, and is being a human inherently better than being a spirit? Would making Cole more of a spirit make him less of a person? Is it only humans who have humanity? What does the Inquisitor value?

One of the most difficult choices in the game, for me, happened in the Solas romance storyline, which is only available to female elf Inquisitors and therefore a minority of players. Near the end, Solas reveals the true meaning behind the Dalish elf’s face tattoos: they were originally slave markings, from when elves enslaved other elves. The Inquisitor can let Solas remove hers, or she can keep them. Does the knowledge of their origin taint them? Or are they a part of her and important to her, no matter what their original meaning? What does she believe?

Those are just a few examples. The player gets many chances to express disbelief, indifference, or buy into the Maker and the story of being Andraste’s Herald. And there are also the dozen-or-so judgments, where the Inquisitor is put in charge of sentencing prisoners who have committed wrongs of varying degrees. What’s a just punishment for a man who tortured and destroyed people for Corypheus: execution, imprisonment, exile, Tranquility? How about a woman who did monstrous things because she thought she was saving the world? Or the man throwing goats at the castle walls? What do these decisions say about the Inquisitor as a leader and the Inquisition as an institution?

Complicating all of this are the beliefs and values of the companions, who can approve or disapprove of any actions that you take. As relationships form between the player/Inquisitor and the companions, she begins to take into account their points of view. What will Cassandra think of me if I choose to disband the templars? Am I giving enough consideration to the regular people, as Sera constantly reminds me?

The best part is, some of these decisions aren’t actually going to be difficult for some players. Some players will feel so strongly one way or the other that it doesn’t seem like a real choice. I have read posts from players saying they would never, ever sacrifice the Chargers, or make Cole become a spirit. That doesn’t diminish what makes these choices meaningful, either for those particular players or for the game as a piece of art–it shows that the game is truly engaging with players’ beliefs and values, or at least those that they bestow upon their Inquisitors.

The Bioware writers pit has earned the nickname “emotional hooligans,” and they are known for messing with players’ emotions and throwing gut-punches. It’s true that DAI had fewer of those than past Dragon Age games (I jokingly reviewed the game on twitter as, “Not completely emotionally destroyed, 8/10, try harder next time”), but the solution isn’t to add cheap shots at the player like choosing which character to sacrifice. Overall, DAI moved choices in games forward by taking a less manipulative and more interesting approach, and I’m interested to see where the team goes from here.

Moral "Choices"

(This post contains spoilers for the ending Fable II.)

I’m currently playing Bioshock and will be writing a lot about it in the coming weeks (and I know talking about how awesome Bioshock is at this point is kind of like saying “Hey, have you heard of this thing called ‘The Internet’? It’s super neat!” but bear with me!). To kick things off I’d like to address the hook of the game: the decision whether to “harvest” or rescue the Little Sisters.

A brief summary, for those who don’t know or have forgotten: In Bioshock‘s game world of Rapture, the Little Sisters are essentially little girls that have been genetically altered to harvest a substance called Adam from dead people. Adam is used by the inhabitants of Rapture to modify their own genes to give them super powers. Because it is a very valuable substance, the Little Sisters are protected by the now-iconic Big Daddies from the people and creatures who want the Adam from the Little Sisters.

When you kill a Big Daddy you have the option of either rescuing or “harvesting” the Little Sister: harvesting takes all the Adam from her and kills her. Rescuing her takes only some of the Adam and frees her from the creepy enchantment-like state. Thus the game’s “tough moral decision” is set up: do you kill the Little Sister and get more Adam, allowing you to upgrade your powers more quickly and thus be more likely to survive Rapture? Or do you rescue the Little Sister, putting yourself more at risk but doing the Right Thing?

The thing is, during playtesting the Bioshock team found that because the “evil” path was more rewarding, players would almost exclusively choose that path, no moral agonizing. This led to a change in the final game: saving the Little Sisters actually ends up netting you more Adam and more powerful Plasmids (super powers) because in addition to the small amount of Adam gained from rescuing the Little Sister, you are given a gifts from one of the game’s characters as thanks for rescuing them.

So, ultimately, the “tough moral decision” was anything but, even with a charming Scotsman trying to convince me otherwise. For me, saving the Little Sisters was an easy choice: I did the Right Thing, and got better rewards for it.

The choice did, however, leave me to wonder what an actual agonizing moral choice would look like in a game, and how it could be implemented. There is one recent game that possibly does this, or comes close: Fable II.

Unfortunately I haven’t played Fable II, but this is what I know about the ending: during the course of the game your family, your dog, and thousands of people die; after the final boss is defeated you get three choices: 1. You can have 1 million gold (which is fairly meaningless because when playing the game you probably have more than that already), 2. Revive your dog and your family, or 3. Revive the thousands of other people that were killed.

Now just from reading about it, the choice between 2 and 3 seems like a truly difficult choice. Choice 3 nets you more “good” points, and is generally the right thing to do for the greater good, but because by this point the player really cares about her dog (and likely her family as well, depending on what she brings to the table) so doing the not-so-good thing is much more tempting.

Of course, because the townspeople aren’t real, it’s probably easy for a lot of players to simply do what is best for themselves (revive the family) because the game world truly revolves around their character. But I think the emotional connection to what is being lost is something that was missing from the Bioshock choice; so while the ending of Fable II might still be a fairly easy choice for most people, it’s definitely on the right track.

(Next I’ll be getting into some feminist analysis of Bioshock, which I’m really surprised hasn’t been done yet because there is a lot to talk about!)