Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Meaningful choices and consequences

An opposing force has attacked a small town full of civilians. It'll be hours before government forces arrive. I'm here because my base is in this sector, tracking anomalies. I've got a squad with me but we're not prepared for an attack of this magnitude. I look at my squad, men and women that I've trained with and fought with in countless engagements. Blocking out thoughts about some of them not coming back tonight takes everything I've got.

The fight has gone well so far. We laid down smoke, disembarked from our aircraft troop carrier, the Interceptor, and took out the lone sentries. Rodriguez caught a round in her arm but our medic patched her up. We crossed the outskirts of the town quickly. I'd like to have taken it slower but that'd mean more civilian casualties. I kept expecting to hear a round go off, expecting to see one of my soldiers fall.

The higher ups explicitly expressed that we keep capture at least one member of the opposing force for questioning. Our scout, Olsen spotted something and signaled for the squad to stop. I crept up to Olsen and saw that the opposing force had dug in around the town church and that they had a number of civilians inside. On the ground, around the church were bodies of those who had tried to run. Our heavy weapons specialist, Dimitry was ready to go. I had a choice. Do I go in heavy and risk the civilians or do I risk my squad and try to save at least a few of the civilians? I feel ashamed that the thoughts even crossed my mind as I signal for the squad to head in ...


This is a typical scenario in a game of X-COM. Choices in the game were interesting and meaningful because there were consequences. To me, this is role-playing in a way that does not involve extensive dialog. Am I the type of person that is willing to risk the lives of my team to save the lives of civilians? Each loss of life to my team is a devastating blow to the overall covert war effort. Finding and training each member takes a considerable amount of time and resources. More than that, they are my comrades. A team member that goes down during a battle does not magically come back to life at the end of the battle.

At the same time, even though the death of each civilian ultimately only equates to numbers on an after action report, saving their lives is what my team signed up to do.

I bring this up because lately, the games that I have been playing have rarely presented these types of choices. For now, I will focus on Mass Effect. In Mass Effect, your team members stay alive as long as you stay alive. This is understandable because of the detail that goes into each team member. In X-COM, each team member is really just a name, a rank and bunch of statistics. In X-COM, you are the one creating stories as you play.

However, there was a scenario in Mass Effect which came close to a situation where I faced similar dilemmas. There were a group of civilians that were being controlled against their will. I could either use lethal weapons to get past them towards the source. Or I could use non-lethal weapons at greater risk to myself.

Once I dealt with the source of the mind control I hurried back to check on the status of the civilians. I felt something when I couldn't account for all the civilians until I remembered that some of them had fought the mind control and sacrificed themselves to let me past.

This was a great scenario but its impact was reduced because of two things. Firstly, I knew that my team would all survive if I survived. The consequence to me would be a few points towards either a light or dark rating. Secondly, I would soon be leaving the planet to go onto the next part of my mission.

I understand that each game is different but I just wanted to highlight what I'd like to see more of, namely meaningful choices with meaningful consequences.

In Deus Ex, there was a character who was a member of your family and whose ultimate fate was decided by your actions. You cared about this character because time and time again, the character risked death to save your life. The game presented you with the question of how much you were willing to risk to do the same. I'm not sure why this worked so well. I suspect that the reason was because the character was a family member.

In Jagged Alliance 1 and 2 (games similar to X-COM but with scripted soldiers), your soldiers were all individuals and the loss of each was painful. However, for different reasons. Each soldier was scripted for you and there was a finite supply. This created a situation where you really could not afford to let any soldier die. This meant that as you played, there was really no option but to reload if a soldier went down, unlike X-COM where you could eventually recover from the painful cost.

In short, I'd like to see less scripted companions, game rules that are balanced in a way that could allow team members to die and be replaced and scenarios that I can role-play with consequences to both the world and to me.

As a side note, a role-playing game that did this well was Wasteland.

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