This week I will be taking a look at yet another gaming cliché. This week instead of a story cliché I thought that I would branch out a bit. So instead we will be talking about a cliché that affects the story and the gameplay. I know it’s quite ambitious, but I like to think I try to challenge myself every now and then. Now, this cliché is not usually as vital to the story as you might think. I would consider this cliché to exist in different levels when it comes to incorporation into the story and gameplay. There is the first level and what I find to be the laziest type in which you get different perks based on what moral affiliation you have. Then there is the second level where it does have an effect on how you choose to play, but the outcome and the world overall does not react much, if at all, to the choices you make. The third level is the rarest and the most satisfying where your choices have a sizable impact on the characters around you and influences the world itself. Now I am going to take some time to go through each level step by step to show the effects each one can have on the games we play. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for freedom of choice, but one should always ask if a feature is there to enhance the game or to pad the runtime.
Now let’s start with the first level and work our way up. The first level is the one that has the least affect on story and gameplay. In this level moral choice is relegated to a system of sorts where gaining new abilities is related to the choices that you make throughout the game and your current alignment. You also usually get a choice between a couple of endings based on your alignment. As an example, let’s look at a game people might have heard of before, Bioshock. Now I will say that Bioshock has one of the most fantastic video game stories to come about within the last 20 years. That being said, the choice to save the little sisters does not do much in the way of the story aside from what ending you get at the end. The gameplay difference is negligible as well as long as you are consistent in your choices. So why give a moral dilemma that doesn’t mean much except that you will have to play the game again for a different ending? I will grant that at least Bioshock is making an effort here by having the choices matter in the early stages rather than just choosing from two different types of the same skills. However, that doesn’t change the fact that while the story and gameplay are both good, the moral choice aspect does not significantly impact either of them.
Moving on to the second level, this level has the moral choice serving more of a role in story and gameplay, but is missing an important aspect to have the cliché be used to its fullest potential. To illustrate the example this time, we will talk about a more recent game called Ghost of Tsushima. If I’m being honest I find the idea of this game quite interesting for this type of dilemma since the moral code the main character is at odds with is not as simple as good and evil. What is at odds is whether to fight honorably or fight dirty. One ensures his pride as a warrior while the other ensures his ability to live longer. Now as opposed to Bioshock, this dilemma feels as though it is the center of both the story and the gameplay. The story highlights the struggle the main character goes through to become “the Ghost” and the gameplay allows the different approaches of one-on-one combat or stealthy infiltration. So, at least the moral choice aspect doesn’t feel tacked on like it did to an extent in Bioshock. However, Ghost of Tsushima stumbles in the same way as Bioshock when it comes to the moral choice aspect. Where they both fall short is the fact that none of the choices you made matter in the end. However, it doesn’t matter as much in Bioshock because the game’s main focus is not about your morality, but rather freedom of choice. In a way, having moral choices not really matter in Bioshock is somewhat in line with the game’s central themes. Ghost of Tsushima on the other hand, centered an entire game around this aspect and yet does nothing to change the story or encounters with characters. Your actions don’t really matter that much, but yet they really feel like they should since that is the premise the game is built upon in the first place. You are never given a path to choose, but rather the game gives you the illusion that you had the freedom to decide your own moral dilemma. I’m not saying that Ghost of Tsushima is a bad game, what I am saying is that they could have done more. At least, maybe it so you have the option to die as a warrior rather than be forced to live on as a “ghost”. It was nice the game allowed you to branch out in terms of gameplay, but it should have had allowed the story to branch out more as well.
Now I think it’s time to take the next step and move to the third level where we can see the true worth of having a moral choice system in a videogame. Quite honestly, in recent memory no game has done this as well as this one, so for the final game of focus we will talk about Undertale. Now the key thing Undertale has that many other games do not is not only do your choices matter, but they affect every single interaction along the way from the start to the end of your journey. The game even keeps track for subsequent playthroughs. Not only that, but your actions on your journey are reflected in how you play the game. It is hard to find a game that can achieve such an interesting dynamic between gameplay and story. To further elaborate on this, I should establish that the moral dilemma is the same as in Bioshock. You can choose to be good or bad and choosing good make things more difficult but leads to the best outcome. The crucial difference between them is that since in Undertale gameplay and story are two sides to a single coin, it means that the story encounters are vastly different and much more challenging. In Bioshock you will always get something no matter which option you pick, but in Undertale everything is either all or nothing. The key difference is that Undertale does everything in its power to raise the stakes, make you tempted to give up, waver your determination and it does all that so that you care about the results. That’s how it is supposed to be! Why bother introducing a dilemma if it can just be bypassed later? What would be the point?
Now you might be wondering why I am talking about this cliché. The reason is simply because I don’t think that it needs to be a cliché. I just want to address the fact that this is used in so many different games and yet most of the time there are no stakes or any real consequences involved with the decisions made. Which is a real shame considering the interesting discussions that can be had with this kind of topic. I know there are plenty of games that do give players an investment in making these choices. However, there are plenty of games that only treat them as a way to give players a different ending. It’s not like that is a bad thing, but it just feels like it’s a waste of potential. Giving the ability to choose the kind of player you want to be should mean more than just choosing between one or two different endings. In my personal opinion, if you create a world for people to interact and want to involve us in something as significant as a moral dilemma, then you should go all the way. Clichés are not bad to include in games. The reason they show up so often is that they still work. That is why if you are going to use something as complex as moral decisions, don’t just tack something like that on as a lazy excuse to add replay value since it won’t work if the choices don’t matter. Sure all of the games I have mentioned have replay value, but Bioshock and Ghost of Tsushima are not being replayed because they want to see the different endings. Undertale does have replay value for the different endings and if you do see both endings then you are a monster and the game will never let you forget it. Now that is a choice that matters.