Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Illusory Choice: Memory and Consequence in Gaming

Dialogue choice in Bioware's Mass Effect

High levels of graphical fidelity are not the only way to immerse the player in the virtual world of a game. Many modern games offer choices to the player that will affect the way the game plays out from that point on. Gameplay structures built around a game’s “memory” – that is, the game’s ability to take note of your actions and change outcomes based on your decisions – are the gimmicks-du-jour that are making for complex, unprecedented, and fascinating experiences that can’t be replicated in any other medium.

The most readily available example of this trend is Bioware’s Mass Effect series, in which you play as Commander Shepard (whose appearance and gender you can customize), a veteran soldier tasked with saving the galaxy from impending doom in a futuristic Star Trek-esque space setting. Mass Effect tied its morality system into Shepard’s interactions with his crewmates and the rest of the galaxy’s colourful citizenry, splitting choices in both dialogue and action into threes: a Paragon option, usually representing a kind, gentle, or open-minded response; a neutral option; and a Renegade option, usually self-serving, cruel, or curt. Selecting more Paragon than Renegade responses, or vice versa, would result in unique choices further down the line. In this way, the player could craft an experience that suited their tastes. My Shepard, for example, began her story as a hardened combat veteran, unaccustomed to polite speech and social niceties, preferring the butt of her shotgun to verbal diplomacy when solving her problems. By continually selecting Renegade options, I helped my Shepard become a ruthless and intimidating presence in the galaxy, making a name for herself as the Commander with whom you don’t want to mess. But these choices came at a cost: my bluntness alienated my crew, who came to mistrust my judgment. My rash decision-making led to the deaths of several of Shepard’s closest friends, and as the story wore on, my remorse and guilt translated into Paragon choices, making Shepard stricken by conscience and seeing her do her best to repair the wounds she’d inflicted. My ability as a player to make these choices gave me greater agency in crafting the character of Shepard, and the consequences of those choices made for a deeper emotional connection with the material.

"Clementine will remember that." (From Telltale's The Walking Dead)

Some developers take this emotional-connection-through-choice to an extreme. Telltale Games has made a name for itself in recent years with its adaptations of licensed film material such as Jurassic Park and Back to the Future, combining those known properties and characters with a classic adventure style of gameplay that focuses less on action and more on puzzle solving and character interaction. The series that put Telltale on the map, however, was their episodic adaptation of The Walking Dead, in which you play as Lee, a survivor of the zombie plague who takes an orphaned girl named Clementine under his care. This strong-willed and brave little person, nicknamed “Clem”, becomes the emotional focal point for the story, as the game constantly places Lee in situations that force him to make difficult moral choices, with Clem’s well-being or sanity on the line. Enhancing this emotional connection are notifications that tell you, after you’ve taken a particular action or chosen a certain piece of dialogue to say, that the person to whom Lee is speaking will remember what just happened.

This simple reminder – “Clementine will remember that” – carries a massive emotional payload, as it shifts the player’s mindset into primal ways of thinking, activating the protective human instinct from which they are normally distanced when playing a game. It’s cathartic and pleasing when you learn that Clem will remember that you shared a pleasant memory of Lee’s, or offered his share of food – but it’s devastating and hurtful to learn that she won’t forget you shouted at her in a moment of tension, or chose to side with someone she doesn’t trust on an important decision. The choices that you make change the outcome of the game’s story, yes, but what’s more fascinating is that your actions will make you accountable to this little virtual girl, and your natural instinct to protect her can be reinforced or undermined by your own choices. You find yourself treading very carefully around Clem, because there’s a real chance that anything you do or say will have a permanent effect on her.

A screen from Monolith's Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor

Sometimes, however, a narrative-based emotional connection can be forfeited in favour of a visceral gameplay experience through choice. The recent Monolith title Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor does this through an ingenious gameplay infrastructure the developers have dubbed the “Nemesis” system. Set in Tolkien’s realm of fantasy evil, you play as Talion, a Ranger of Gondor who is killed along with his family while guarding the Black Gate. Caught in limbo between life and death, Talion’s body is commandeered by another trapped soul, an Elvish Wraith named Celebrimbor. This provides Talion with a suite of ethereal skills that allow him to slip in and out of a ghost-like state, able to be killed but doomed never to die, the better to infiltrate and rout the forces of Sauron. The Dark Lord’s military edifice is represented by countless Orcs and Uruks dotting the cracked and filthy landscape, and these disgusting, Cockney-voiced villains are the core of the Nemesis system. Sauron’s Army is displayed in tiers on the game’s menu screen, with lower-ranked Orcs filed at the bottom and powerful Warchiefs lined on podiums along the top. Gameplay is focused on targeting Orc captains, and working your way through them to their superiors, in an effort to slice and dice your way to the very top of the heap. These enemies can be found wandering the landscape of Mordor, protecting strongholds, holding feasts, performing executions, hunting hostile wildlife, and living out dynamic scenarios that have a tangible effect on your experience. Captains will call you out in battle, introducing themselves by name and challenging you to face them. If killed, they will be quickly replaced. If you flee, they will crow at your cowardice. If you are killed, they will roar their victory, and are summarily promoted. Dying at the hands of your enemy has a real cost in Shadow of Mordor, because it allows the ranks of Sauron’s Army to shift and grow and strengthen. Defeated captains will be replaced, and power struggles between different captains will be resolved, usually with one becoming promoted and more powerful by killing the other. Hunting an Orc who has bested you will result in the Orc recognizing and remembering you (“Haven’t I killed you once already, maggot?”) and battling you with added zeal. This is the beating heart of the Nemesis system, and it creates potent stakes for every battle; facing down an arrogant Uruk who has killed you twice and gotten fat on promotion and power leads either to brutally satisfying vengeance or shamefully crushing defeat. I have seldom been more engaged in the hunting and dispatching of enemy characters in a game, and it’s because the Nemesis system makes the world of Mordor feel truly alive. It’s a place where power is constantly shifting and changing regardless of your input, where failure has measurable consequences and success yields fist-pumping rewards, where your actions are noted and remembered and cascade into chains of cause and effect that are vastly unpredictable and wildly fun to experience.

If this is the direction that choice-based gameplay systems are headed, then gaming has a fascinating and profoundly immersive future ahead, in which your agency as a player – your level of control as the person holding the controller – can be called into question. Instead of asking ourselves “How much control do I have?”, we might begin to wonder: “How much control do I want to have?”

 Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

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