Cogs are greater than heroes: Games and choice

Choice in videogames has about as successful a history as games that will “make you cry”. 99.9% of the time the claim is BS, and that other .1% you had something in your eye. Point being when some marketing guy says their game features deep meaningful choices that really impact your game, he is talking about your lightsaber turning red/blue. Or at best some NPC dying that you would never see or hear from again anyway.

Off the top of my head, the only game where I ever felt choice actually mattered, and where I actually stopped to thing about a situation was in The Witcher. And surprise surprise, The Witcher also ranks right up there in terms of story and setting, while really staying away from the traditional crap like shiny hunting or a character skill tree that’s so large even the devs can’t remember half the skills. The game was about story first and foremost, and it actually delivered (waiting on a Steam sale for Witcher 2).

A game like Dragon Age is full of ‘fake choice’, where every quest seems to have multiple solutions, but the end result is just different loot or some placeholder NPC switching up one line with another. Not that it really mattered in DA, the game was still fun and its story was good-enough to see it to the end. I’d just never put it anywhere near The Witcher in terms of moral choices and tough decisions.

On the MMO front, this situation is even more ridiculous. Name one NPC you actually remember and care about from an MMO. Exactly. They are stationary loot dispensers and task-masters. Trying to make NPCs matter in an MMO is perhaps even worse than trying to get me to cry in a single-player game.

Now, depending on what MMOs you have played, you might remember certain players or situations between guilds. Currently EVE has just such a situation going (btw, is this Tobold trolling EVE, or EVE trolling Tobold?), but the reason the situation is complex and people are invested in the outcome is because its player-driver, and the end-result is uncertain. Maybe the Goons really are evil, or maybe they are just trying to improve EVE. You can’t Google the questline to find out, and the answer has more impact than a red/blue tint to your lightsaber.

Whether you love or hate EVE, you can’t deny that something like this is 100% more interesting than what guild beat raid X three hours after a patch. And no, you (yes you) will never be in the shoes of someone like The Mittani, while you most certainly can be a ‘hero’ and slay Arthas. But while slaying Arthas might get you the same achievement millions of others already have, being just a cog in The Mittani’s machine has infinitely more impact on that world. The ‘choice’ to kill Arthas is not a choice, while joining/opposing The Mittani very much is.

The other major advantage an MMO has in regards to choice is how long the impact lasts. In a single-player game, you can always reload and pick a different option, or start a fresh game and pick a different path. In an MMO, the results are more permanent (unless they are instanced…). You can’t ‘reload’ a bank heist, switching guilds, or the result of a major conflict. Both sides remember the results, and will make decisions going forward based on those past results. This, in part, makes those choices ‘matter’.

At least as much as internet sandcastles/spaceships matter (a lot).

13 Responses to Cogs are greater than heroes: Games and choice

  1. Drew says:

    In before the WoW lore-junkies massacre you for misspelling “Arthas”.

    I’m not sure your analysis of The Witcher vs. Dragon Age is totally right, though. Some of the choices were artificial in DA, but dealing with the child at Redcliffe and whether or not to have a baby with Morrigan weren’t really. However, The Witcher 2 takes all that a step farther as I understand it because a choice you make early in the game dictates which half of the content you’ll see – the choice is that big.

    But yes, from my MMO experiences it’s most definitely been the people I remember – not the NPCs. Really the only exception to that was the Wrathgate questline in WoW, believe it or not. They did a fantastic job telling that story – so much so that I cared enough to read all the quest text and indulge myself in watching the in-game cutscene.

    • SynCaine says:

      Oops, fixed the Arthas thing.

      Wraithgate is a good sRPG that got mixed into an MMO. It happens (rarely).

      As for Witcher, it’s not so much that the choices switch up the game 180 degrees, it’s just that they are not black/white, or can be min/maxed, or display the result right after you make them. Most of the time they are subtle changes, just done well.

      • Drew says:

        Heh, that’s about right for Wrathgate – it was a fun little event with a solid tale.

        I get what you mean about the complexity of the choice in The Witcher; and yes, the choices in DA were definitely more shallow on the whole. (Kill the child? Save the child? Sacrifice the mom? One of these is clearly better than the rest.)

  2. Captain Placeholder! He was missed when he was removed.

    Have you read Mittens’ latest article up on Ten Ton Hammer? He covers some EVE players who have honed their skills to levels that bring them to the hero level in the game.

  3. epic.ben says:

    Love this line: Maybe the Goons really are evil, or maybe they are just trying to improve EVE. You can’t Google the questline to find out, and the answer has more impact than a red/blue tint to your lightsaber.

    Honestly, that made spill my Cheetos. So sad, yet so precious.

  4. Carson says:

    I was sad when Old Blanchy died in WoW. Do horses count?

  5. saucelah says:

    While there have been some choices that mattered, Bioware’s conversation systems rank up there as being particularly guilty of preferring the illusion of choice over actual choice. The KotORs, the first Dragon Age, and the Mass Effects are all guilty of providing conversation options that do not change what your character actually says or how the NPC reacts.

    It’s quite annoying if you’re like me and like to play through these games more than once.

  6. Adam says:

    Fail post.

    The mittani/supercapital thing is really interesting but you ended up trolling all these guys into talking about RPG non-factorness.

    I love the fact that its unclear whether the supercapital nerf is even real. It’s based on one of his toadies buttonholing a CCP guy at PAXprime.

  7. [...] options are not equally attractive, and the player must be able to make an informed choice.” Syncaine:  Paraphrasing … choices need to matter.  ”Off the top of my head, the only game [...]

  8. [...] have put “meaningful” in scare quotes every since I read SynCaine’s post on choices, and based on the example he used, I think everyone should as well: A game like Dragon Age is full [...]

  9. Nicole says:

    I loved the cut scenes in FFXI, I might have been the only one, but it has been several years since I’ve played it, yet I can clearly remember the poor Sandorian boy with the mean father who lost his fishing pole, and the taru-taru kids gang. I found that I felt really immersed in the world because of those NPC interactions.

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