Conditional Gaming: All or Nothing

Moral Choice Games Offer Dozens of Choices, but Only Give One

Freedom of choice is something a lot of us are used to, it’s something we deal with everyday. Picking up coffee for your coworkers makes you a paragon of the office, a shining idol of warm and roasty beverages, while taking the last donut makes you a rebel with the greed to match your gluttony. For example, this week I chose to be a rebel and ended up not writing this very article until the last second (Editor Getch, Im sorry. Editor Brian, you know me well enough to expect this by now).

 

But life has a way of presenting potential. Everyday I can choose to take a different path. There is always a way back no matter how hard or how long the path may be. I’ve already developed a habit of procrastination, but that doesn’t mean I’m stuck with it. Maybe next week I’ll get a head of myself and write two articles at once (purely hypothetical), leaving plenty of time for my clouded writings to be shined by my intelligent and very forgiving editors (… and beautiful… and wise). But these wild character changes are much harder to achieve in video games where the narrative is often set in stone. Choosing to betray your comrades and live a life of evil is difficult unless the game is built around that concept from the start. Often times this moral code offers a decision that is simply two means to the same end, or two sides of the same coin. Which is a fair comparison, as you often can’t have both sides at the same time…

THIS DOESN’T COUNT!!!!

Some games boast a rich moral system, having each choice leave the lives of the innocent in the balance against personal gains. What’s worth more? The personal safety of your character, or of the citizens of the neighborhood. Well that’s on you to decide, but no matter the choice the game decrees your character as either good or evil in it’s own definitions. But each choice made puts you further to one side or the other, and there is very rarely a middle ground.

 

In 2009’s inFamous for the Playstation 3, allowed the main character Cole to sling lightning as a hero or an anti hero. The player is rewarded with new abilities for each decision you make. Not caring about the people around you, destroying parts of the city, and in one case saving your girlfriend credits Cole with evil Karma, causing your lightning to pulse red explode more. Stopping a riot, being honest and comparing yourself to the Greek god Zeus returned a Heroic Cole with Good Karma, which made your lighting blue and gave you… less explody lightning? Good Karma choices filled a Good Karma meter, and Bad Karma choices filled a Bad Karma meter. The more attention these individual meters were given, the more rewards they gave out, but due to the limited number of options the game had, you could only make so many choices that supported good karma before completely losing the ability to unlock bad karma powers. There is not way to go back, or make an exception without losing efficiency in your superhero potential. This presents an awkward situation, if you want that great, ultimate, end-all attack you have to devote yourself to one side or the other. And this removes the ability to choose who you are morally as a character. It presents the one choice of good or evil, limiting the amount of depth the character can have. Perhaps you want to save every citizen, but not necessarily let the villains live. Well you want to get your hands on that super special finishing move, then you are stuck letting every mugger and evil maniac go on their merry way.

 

A similar problem occurs in The Old Republic, a Star Wars MMO that allows you to walk the path of the Jedi or Sith, each with a Light and Dark side options. Fantastic! Sith aren’t all bad, except that there are some powerful items and weapons that are locked behind a dark or light side level. So if that item were obtained, that player is locked in to being a bad guy if they want to stay strong. Even worse if you had a high dark side rating but made a light side choice, you wouldn’t get a light side rating, your dark side rating would lower. So by the time any of these items were obtained, there is no going back and turn over a new leaf, not anymore. The game presents strength in choosing once, light or dark, at the beginning and never diverting from that choice.

 

You must be this evil to use this weapon

The best game I’ve seen tackle this issue is the Mass Effect Trilogy… Trilogy… with only three games, n more. This game had the player roam the galaxy to find and destroy an alien race that was out to kill all life. In the place of a good and evil scale, there were Paragon and Renegade options. While a Paragon would talk things out, a Renegade would punch the reporter because she was asking loaded questions. Seems similar to the system presented by inFamous, but instead of rewarding players for how much a certain type of choice was made, the reward was in the choice itself. This is a small change but makes leagues of difference when it comes to what choices feel valid. The player isn’t stuck making evil decisions because it’s an evil run. With this the player can pick and choose exactly how evil he wants to be and still be rewarded. In Mass Effect 2 there is a moment where you pretend to be a mercenary in order to get close someone the mercenaries are hunting. It’s obvious that this will result in a huge fight in the end, and at one point you are left alone in a room with an engineer that is too busy repairing a helicopter to notice you. My personal run was Paragon, but by god did I shove that scifi space welder straight into that guy’s back. It didn’t make me evil, it made me a Renegade. And you can be both a Renegade and a Paragon at the same time.

 

Light and Dark side, Karma systems, and other mechanics like it need to do more than just offer that one choice. They need to offer that choice continually throughout the game, at no downside to the player. Utilizing a “How Evil Are You-ometer” makes a decision in the opposite direction detrimental to what you’ve worked for the entire game leading up to it. Having some grand reward given to how much of a good boy you’ve been the entire game makes choosing the bad boy route lose value. For game to give true moral choice, it has to allow the character to be played how the player wants. Heroes and villains are more than the title portrays, because they are people. My Mass Effect run I was a Paragon that helped the downtrodden and saved every life I could… Except those out to kill me, they died without a second thought. Does that make my character less heroic than someone who would spare the villains of the game? Possibly, but that was my choice, and it was made knowing that I wouldn’t miss out on a big reveal or way to make my character stronger. Other wise these “series of branching choices” that were advertised, end up being just one.

 

Do you want to be Good or Evil? Heads or Tails…

 

 

Written by Joe Turgeon

Conditional Gaming: Bullets Make Me Brave

What You Don’t Have is the Scariest Part of a Horror Game

Imagine if you will, a horde of dozens of the undead crawling and scraping past the ruins of what once was a utopian city. Everyone is gone, dead, and risen. There is no culture or reasoning like there was before,  a dead stench sits in the air. Uncaringly they drone past all that was important to society for the one thing they now truly desire. You. Alone, outnumbered and options running thin, what is there to do? There isn’t much that can be done, but maybe I can change that. Imagine now this same scene, but in your hands in a fully automatic rifle, and on your back is shiny new shotgun begging to used, and in your pockets is enough ammo that no reasonable person could carry more. You’re not so alone anymore, you aren’t so outnumbered anymore. With the addition of a few weapons the scene has changed from a bleak view of horror, to an adrenaline fueled action scene where YOU have the power. That’s all it takes to turn Resident Evil into Doom. The horror genre can be completely made or broken, not by what it presents to you, but by what it keeps from you.

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Conditional Gaming: Beyond a Hero

Looking Back on Guitar Hero as a Guitarist

Way back in 2005 RedOctane and Harmonix released Guitar Hero, a rhythm game about living out a rock fantasy as the main guitarist of band on their rise to stardom. While by no means was it the first rhythm game, Guitar Hero has the most name recognition with gamers and casual players alike . This was enough to grant a total of seven games in its main series. That isn’t even counting the many releases that revolved around a specific band, like the rock gods that go by the name Van Halen, Metallica, and Aerosmith. So there were a large amount of gamers out there playing a plastic guitar in tribute to these bands, and getting good at it, incredibly good at it. To the point where playing Guitar Hero starts to feel like playing a real guitar. Falling to your knees during a signature solo becomes natural. So does rocking to the beat of the song or smashing the guitar after it’s all over (PLEASE DON’T DO THAT). This can lead to doing some things on that game that most guitarist couldn’t touch. Until it got boring… Until maybe there was a feeling of want after the series inevitably ended… Until the maestro of this plastic guitar decides to put it down, and pick up the real thing. A mighty instrument made of wood, metal and soul.

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Conditional Gaming: No Loose Ends

Why the Ending of Red Dead Redemption Still Makes Me Cry

SPOILER WARNING: As the title states, the ending makes me cry. So spoiler warning to the end of Red Dead Redemption

 

Red Dead Redemption was released back in 2010 to universal acclaim. The world was a vast and beautiful landscape, ranging from snow coated mountains to dry, arid deserts. The portrayal of the old west was spectacular, it felt like a world that could be lived in. Flocks of birds would fly away if you got too close, wild animals roamed the land, it even featured its own population of buffalo that you could run extinct. It didn’t stop there, the environment proved leaps and bounds above the rest of the market. It was entertaining just living in the world, getting from one side of the map to the other. But above all, the aspect that shines brighter than all others is the game’s story.

Taking place back in the early 1900s, Red Dead Redemption highlights the fall of the cowboy. Industry is catching up to the west, and the rough and tumble countryside is being slowly tamed into something more hospitable to the common masses. This proves an issue to our anti hero with a dark past John Marston, as the only thing he has ever known was being a cowboy… and an outlaw. John Marston spends the entire game trying to run away from his latter life. Outlawing doesn’t support a family, and that’s exactly what John has now. Or at least he did. Right away the game shows that life isn’t looking up anytime soon. John has stumbled into a family and quit the only way of life he’s ever known. He’s pushed out into the world as a cowboy, but that world is slowly learning to leave him behind. Despite John trying to turn over a new leaf, the government isn’t too keen on letting Marston forget all his past crimes. They kidnap his family and strike a “deal.” If John hunts down all the members of his former gang, his family will be returned to him and as a bow on top of it all he will also be given a ranch to live out the rest of his peaceful life. That’s the goal of the game, something so simple. “I just want my family back.”

This is where you, the player, become John Marston. Where you experience his effort and his loss. From the get go you under stress and against insurmountable odds. But slowly you pick up your boot straps and start your quest. Despite mistakes and fumbles, you manage to find and kill all your old gang members. Each one talking about the “good ol’ days”, pleading that things didn’t have to go this way. Despite that, John is set on his task. He forces each of his old friends into a duel, a mechanic in which the world slows down to a crawl, a one-on-one fight between two individuals on a fair playing field, with no tricks or deceptions. Only the best man being the one who gets to walk away. As a staple of the Old West, it was often used to settle a dispute, and there was no better way of giving John’s old gang mates a fair shot at getting to walk away. But John had something that none of them had, something worth fighting for. And so, one by one, John slays each member of his old gang. One even decides to end himself, jumping off a cliff. The whole ordeal is heart breaking, killing old friends for a new family.

 

While hunting old outlaws may be the meat of the story, the heart of the it comes after. You’ve painfully brought an end to all of your former allies from your old gang, and the government comes through. Your family returns, and you come home together to your new government-funded ranch and life goes on… and so does the game. The end goal is over, but Red Dead Redemption wants to show you what you’ve worked so hard to earn by giving you small ranching missions to really introduce your family. You, the player, finally get to see what you’ve been fighting for this whole time. John’s wife, Abigail, isn’t happy. She criticizes you for leaving the family, when you were really out saving them, and complains about the new life John forged for her.

 

Love yooooou 😉

 

Despite this bittersweet interaction, there is a bright side to living on the ranch, learning about John’s son Jack. He’s only about 15, but he’s smart. He can read, a novelty for all but the rich during this time, he asks questions about his new ranch life, and most impressive of all is he proves proficient in blacksmithing. By learning a trade skill he can become a functioning member of the New West, something John struggled with all his life.

But there can be no loose ends…

The government blackmailed you into killing your former gang members, but after all that there is still one member remaining, John Marston. On a stormy night, goverment rangers assault the ranch. Abigail and Jack manage to escape, but John stays behind. The government rangers aren’t after them, they are after John, they are after you. With a dozen rangers surrounding you, John kicks open the ranch doors and a duel begins. But unlike the other duels you’ve been in, this one is stacked against you. In slow motion, you are given the opportunity to take aim at every foe. In slow motion the cursor crawls across the scene, marking one ranger for death and crawling to another. And in slow motion, the rangers take fire. The thunderous drumming of gunshots dominate the scene as John Marston’s body falls.

As jarring as this scene is, it’s the most powerful the game offers. For the simple reason that it let you, the player try. If John Marston had walked out, shared a few tense words with government officials and was shot down, it would have been morbid. Instead Red Dead Redemption gives an opportunity to try. This grants a sense of agency to the player. Now, it’s not John Marston who died, it’s you who died. You, the player, fought long and hard with blood, sweat and tears to earn a life with your family. And you, the player, died in sacrifice so your family can go on a live the life that you fought for.

But the game doesn’t end there. There is one more chapter. After being shot, the game fades in from black and you find that you are in control of Jack Marston, the outlaw. Having escaped from the ranch, Jack grew up to be just like his father in the worst way. Jack had a future, one where he wouldn’t have to fight and shoot his way through. But here he is. Living as an outlaw in the New West, where there is no room for him.

 

Jack Marston, just like his father

 

Red Dead Redemption sets up a world that has no good ending, but still manages to trick you into thinking one can still happen. More than once the scene could fade to black and the result would be at least bittersweet. Stop the game after the Marston family reunites and you’ll get an ending of flickering optimism. There is no room for cowboys, and there is still one left. Stop after John dies and at least his death would have been for something, ensuring his family’s future. The ending we were given shows us Jack Marston hunting down a list of men. Just like his father he will probably succeed, and just like his father he will probably die. The West wasn’t kind, and why should a story about the fall of the cowboy, starring a cowboy, be any different.

-Joe

Nearly Independent: Horizon Zero Dawn Has You Make Almost Everything

Horizon Zero Dawn is set in the world of the Wilds, where forest and desert take up more area than the growing population that lives in them. People form tribes, preferring to band together and help one another survive, settle down, and cuddle for warmth. Other than the struggles of tribal life, like starvation and the bitter cold of winter, there is another threat, a predator. One that is larger than life, skin as hard as steel and a FULLY AUTOMATED MOUNTED GUN ON ITS BACK!… and two on its jaws… and lasers there too… and a radar to scan you in hiding spots, proving that you can’t run, or can’t hide. These giant robot dinosaurs live everywhere and it’s clear that they’ve had control of this land before any human opened its eyes to see the beauty of the very same landscape. Without the help of a faithful tribe, life can seem bleak.

Tribes feel so safe because power comes easily in numbers, what one doesn’t know another can thrive in. Life gets harder in the later years, and knowing that the next generation can help in exchange for wisdom is comforting. Forming tribes to stand together can make these titanic mechanical beasts, some literally named Deathbringers, that much smaller. Knowing you aren’t alone can make these Deathbringers manageable. With the help of others, feats that are impossible alone become within reach. Living alone is a death sentence.

Aloy, the main character of Horizon, lives on her own. Exiled from her village as an infant she only had help from a fellow exile and father figure, Rost. From him, Aloy learned everything that it took to live on her own. Hunting, cooking, tying a sick braid in your hair, and she had to master all of it. There is an immense pressure on her that if she fails just one part of her exiled life, then it will quickly end. So it would come to reason that Aloy should be able to handle every facet of her survival. But there is one aspect that escapes her grasp, she can’t create her own weapons or defensive armor.

They say unraveling those braids yields about 10 yards of rope.

Aloy is completely and utterly self reliant, making everything she uses out of the world around her, everything except for arguably the most vital tools of survival. While it’s not impossible to believe that making bows and slings are out of her grasp, it feels strange. Every other component of that game can be found or created from found objects. Hours can be spent hunting animals to upgrade how much inventory Aloy could hold at one time. Running dry on ammo for a particular weapon is solved by a simple hike through the forest to find the sticks and flammable materials. But if you want to get a new and stronger way to fire these combustible arrows, you have to buck up and try to avoid eye contact as you ask someone else to make one for you.

Aloy has been taught everything, from a young age Rost would bend down and speak of a shrub called a Salvebrush and that it can be used to help wounds heal faster. At the same time, the kids of her former village would shun and bully her. Both these would make Aloy grow with the ability to survive without needing anyone else, and with a seed of hate toward the village who kicked her out of society. This doesn’t seem like the person who want to go out of her way to ask someone else for any kind of help. She has learned all she needed while she was young. She grew up with that knowledge while training to her physical peak. It’s at this point where the player truly takes control of Aloy. From the start you are a master of the Wilds needing no other but yourself and a handful of arrows. As the game progresses Aloy gets stronger, being able to do more and more on her own.

This idea of being self reliant took hold of me, and I often refused to visit any villages unless brought there by a quest. That is until near the end of the game, I had cleared the fog over the map and most of the activities scattered about it were done, all that was left was the story. But suddenly there was a difficulty spike, enemies hit harder, and my weapons weren’t as effective as they were before. Curious, I scoured my inventory for a clue on how to continue. After a long look it hit me, I’ve had the same weapons from near the start of the game and visiting a nearby vendor uncovered where the rest were… waiting to be bought.

This feels oppressive as Aloy is still seen as beneath her peers. She goes from the title Exile, to Savage as she leaves to lands outside her tribe. After witnessing Horizon’s prologue where Aloy proves she can handle herself without a tribe, if feels like a let down having to ask for a shiny new weapon from a merchant in the city where the common citizen can be heard calling her a savage. The seed of hate that was planted early on in the game seems to have withered away, replaced by a mild resentment as Aloy passively deals with the people around her. Aloy is ok with needing the help of others, rather than going out to help herself like she always has.

Getting a store bought bow feels mundane, it might as well come with a price tag. The new gear is useful, but not fulfilling. It helps take down larger challenges, but I can’t help feel that new bow did the work, not Aloy as a character.

Creating every weapon from scratch out of the remains of fallen machines would feel so much more satisfying. It would give a reason to explore and conquer greater challenges. How do you want to bring two thunderjaws to their knees? Stalkers are normally something to run from, but you need that part that only they hold. Using Trampler horns to create a new bow with your own hands gives a feeling of ownership. That bow is yours, and you know exactly what it took to obtain. Maybe it even deserves a name.

I call it… xXNinjaStorm69LolzXx

Taking the route of bought, over hand made weapons and gear doesn’t stop Horizon from being a tremendous game, it reigns high on my list of games of 2017. But it seems like a quick patch over that could have been a more elegant solution. Creating weapons would have made Alloy appear stronger and have her stand out more from the rest of the world. This solution would improve game mechanically and one that falls easily in its story.

-Joe Turgeon