Giving the Player Hard Choices

So on a post of Shamus Young’s talking about Prey 2017, a discussion arose around moral choices in games with the idea being expressed to have really meaningful moral choices in a game there must be mechanical differences between the “good” and “evil” so that the player is tempted towards one side or another.  If the choices don’t have any consequences for the player, then there’s no meaningful choice at all.  I disagreed with this idea.

A comment by Redrock summarizes the argument pretty well:

You can’t really test the altruism of a character, because characters aren’t real. That’s just asking the player “what kind of character do you feel like playing as today?”. Which isn’t bad or anything, just not the type of experience I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is the type of game that speaks directly to the player and aims to trigger genuine introspection. Those games are rare because they should be willing to alienate some players by not being all that fun from time to time.

Which is fine. Movies and books that aim to trigger introspection are rarely pure entertainment too. But I do think that we need more games like that, games that wield mechanics and narrative in equal measures to really push and prod the player.

The problem for me is that the choices they are talking about tend to be moral ones, or specifically altruism vs egoism, but it’s very difficult to test that by appealing to the player, because players have very different motivations from the people in the game or who would be in that situation.  If you are trying, then, to judge or test them based on those choices, you will run into the problem that you have to make assumptions about their motivations, and if you get it wrong and judge them anyway they will get very upset at that judgement.

So, imagine that we take the common suggestion from that comment thread about giving less resources to the altruistic choice, which seems to capture the essence of the altruism vs egoism choice:  give up resources to help others or take the resources to help yourself.  The problem is that players are playing a game, and so when given this choice might take the resources only because they know that they aren’t that good at this sort of game and so would need the extra resources just to finish it.  Or, at least, that they are worried about running out of resources and so want to make sure that they have enough to finish the game.  We know that players will quite often change their behaviour to make their game experience better or to ensure that they have the levels/resources to finish the game given their skill levels.  In most RPGs, my main strategy is to ensure that I’m overleveled and so to grind more than usual just to ensure that the level advantage can make up for any lack of skill that I might have.  I also spent a lot of time in Dragon Age Inquisition exploring every nook and cranny to make sure that I had enough resources and levels to finish the game, even though neither I nor my character were explorers.  Shamus Young criticized the Mass Effect Paragade system for assuming that his Renegade character wouldn’t want the XP rewards from “helping” the other team out.  In general, the mechanics are what the players interact with to play the game, and so we will do a lot of things that we find odd or out of place just to play the game.

So if we are looking at the mechanics and thinking about things in a mechanical way, and we are presented with one of these “altruism vs egoism” choices, what are we likely to do?  We are likely to think of it as a mechanical choice and work it out to the best mechanical outcome for us.  We are, therefore, quite unlikely to think of it as an altruism vs egoism choice at all.  So if the game then turns around and later judges us as altruistic or egoistic on the basis of that choice, we are likely to react with indignation.  After all, that was a mechanical decision not a character decision.  All I was doing was engaging with the mechanics to set things up so that I can best interact with and enjoy the game mechanics.  Unless the game makes it a character choice, then I’m not going to treat it as one.  But then if it is made into a character choice then I’m likely to judge it on the basis of the character that I’m actually playing, which may not be me but may not be.  So then aiming a judgement at the player for something their character did will fall flat as well, as they will either pass that criticism on to the character, or else will be annoyed at the game for not understanding that the player and the character are not the same person.

The issue with giving mechanical penalties or rewards for these sorts of choices is that these sorts of choices, to be judged altruistic or egoistic, have to be cast that way inside the world itself.  Even in the example in Shamus’ post, the altruistic or evil choices are framed around events in the world and relationships that the character has.  If the player becomes convinced that there are going to be meaningful mechanical consequences to these choices and are worried about the impact that might have on their gaming experience, then that will cause a separation between the character and the player.  The character might well take the altruistic choice and be able to feel confident that they can win even with the loss, but the player may feel that they need those resources to complete the game or at least to be able to have fun playing the game, and they are playing the game to have fun.  So that will cause the player to stop thinking in terms of the world and start thinking in terms of the mechanics, and then that link to the world will be lost, and so it won’t be thought of as a moral choice anymore, but instead as a mechanical choice akin to what ammo and weapons and armour you buy and equip.

I submit this:  if you’re thinking that you need to add mechanical consequences to get people to think of a choice as a properly moral one and feel the moral pull of it you have already lost, because what has already happened is that the player has stopped thinking of your world as a world and is instead thinking of it as a playground.  If they were really immersed in your world, then they’d feel the choice as their character would feel it, and if they are playing as themselves it would wrench them sufficiently even if there’s only an appearance of a loss, in much the same way as when we are immersed in an ongoing TV show we happily ignore that some plot points are a foregone conclusion because the other option would remove the entire premise of the show, or how in horror movies we’ll ignore stupid decisions made by the protagonists if we are sufficiently immersed in their plight.  If the player feels that there aren’t real consequences of their choice here, then they are at this point quite aware that the game world isn’t real … and, at that point, they aren’t going to think of this as any kind of moral choice at all, no matter what mechanical consequences are foisted on them.  So the trick is to keep the player thinking in terms of the world, not in terms of the game.  And mechanical consequences always make them think in terms of the game.

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