I remember the moment with crystalline clarity, both emotionally and critically. As it unfolded, it confirmed for me something I'd long suspected about open world games. There I was, en route to a mission, following the orders of an NPC. His initials were in gold letters, so I knew his requests were the most important thing I could be doing at the time. But as I was nearing my destination, something caught my eye. On the corner, three Nazis were posed with their rifles shouldered. I slowed down, thinking perhaps it was another bug. It was not. I coasted up close enough to see the two civilian women cowering before them. I heard the dialog:
"Please, you don't have to do this," one said. A fraction of a second later, the Nazis fired and the two women fell dead.
This is a few days late, but in the interests of keeping a reasonable record of what I’ve written and posted around the net, I am making an entry for my latest piece on Kotaku’s AU website. Anyone familiar with my writing and thinking on games will undoubtedly recognise these ideas, but once again its a thought piece which intends to generate some critical discussion among the public, non-academic readers of Kotaku. Thanks again to Mark Serrels for his support with this project, and thanks for the by-line this time! I exist for reals now!
Kaiden or Ashley? Rescue or Harvest? How do you make decisions in video games? Video games were described by Sid Meier as ‘a series of interesting choices.’ Indeed, many good video games today involve choices that go beyond which gun to use or how fast to run through a room. Many involve decisions between two general strategies, or like the above examples between two characters or responses that affect the rest of the game. The question here is, how do those choices matter?
I want to suggest that there are two different types of choices available in video games, and wish that there was a third. The first I will call a ‘mechanical choice.’ These are the kind that may not even seem like choices to experienced gamers, as they are built into the mechanics of the game. These are the ‘choice’ to grab a Mushroom in Mario, or to pick up a sniper rifle in Call of Duty while standing on a rooftop. Do you upgrade your sword and armour or not? Of course you do these things, because they help you to beat the game. Mechanical choices are economic: they make the player-character (or his allies) more powerful.
The second kind of choice is a ‘narrative choice.’ These are the kinds of decisions that affect the fiction/story of the game, but not the relative power of the player-character. By rescuing either Kaiden Alenko or Ashley Williams in Mass Effect, the strength of the overall party isn’t affected, since the two characters are more or less interchangeable given the right balance of the other party members. We do not have the option to rescue both, so a loss is inevitable. The only difference is which personality you lose. Playing as a good or evil Cole in inFamous is a general strategy (like any other good/bad split we see so often these days), but doesn’t affect the strength of the hero either way. Each power is balanced against its opposite, so in the end, a Cole of either alignment has equivalent firepower.
Instead of being put up here, Kotaku AU has kindly accepted it for their site.
Bethesda’s Fallout 3 is one of those monumental titles that happened to be released during my WoW days, meaning I only even registered its existence about two years ago. I tried it out back then, and only just made it to Megaton before abandoning it. Two years and a very cheap Bethesda Steam bundle later I tried it out again. This time I made it as far as Galaxy News Radio in two or three play sessions. Now I struggle to come up with a single aspect of Fallout 3 that I actually like.
This article is the result of a nagging concern regarding one aspect of the game that I floated on Facebook as an invitation to discuss. What I wrote was: “Putting this out there that I think my ‘immersion’ and/or level of empathy with my character is higher in a third-person game than a first person game because I can recognise the motion of the body when I can see it than when I appear to be a floating camera-without-body skimming smoothly over the surface of the gameworld. This is opposite to the common wisdom that gets peddled in game theory.” After the discussion, I have a better understanding of my own position, and of the ‘common wisdom’ that some of my friends also supported.
I want to take a moment to pour over the semantics of a few important terms/concepts often used in the context of videogame studies. These terms are fundamental to our study, but are in my opinion, abused. That is to say they are either given new or limited definitions, or claimed by game studies when up to now, they've been deployed with different meanings and in different contexts. So without further ado: Play, Rules, Learning and Goals.