Choice has always been a finicky thing in games, and how developers have consistently used choice has trained gamers to react to it in a certain way. That way is almost exclusively about weighing the costs of what you may get or lose. We have, by and large, tied most choice in games to rewards, or lack thereof.
Bioshock, for instance, pretty much told you up front “If you play this way you’ll get a reward, and if you don’t, you won’t.” So you weren’t making a choice based on the story or your emotions, you were making it as a calculating gamer deciding which way was better. Even if you thought you were making it emotionally, you likely weren’t, as you likely expected, even if subconsciously, to be rewarded for “picking right”. And the game obliged; if you saved all the little sisters, you ultimately got a better reward for it in the end.
And that’s the conundrum facing developers. How do you make a player choose based on story and emotion instead of that cold calculating center that has been cultivated all these years? We’ve been so conditioned to believe there is a good and bad ending, and good and bad solution, that it’s hard to imagine a situation where this won’t factor in. We weigh every split in a path, and each door against the other, worried that we might miss out on some little treat hidden somewhere.
Enter Mass Effect 2. It is a sequel to a game where you made choices, and it will have a sequel where your choices are realized. I saw the consequences of my decisions in the first game realized in Mass Effect 2. And I knew beyond a doubt that my choices in ME2 would be realized in ME3. But they offered no treats; I knew that whatever I decided would not be reflected in this game, and because of that, it shut down my gamer brain. I was no longer searching for the best outcome. I was no longer worried about missing out on something important.
This game made me do what no other game has: I made decisions based on my feelings. I was Shepard. For the first time in 25+ years of playing video games, my decisions were based entirely on the raw emotional impact of the situation. I couldn’t game the system. I couldn’t know what would happen based on my decisions, except to evaluate it as a character in that universe. All I knew was that my decisions will be important, and that, for once, I cared about the outcome, rather than the reward.
I’m sorry Mordin. I cannot condemn your actions concerning the Genophage, but neither can I assuage your guilt. Your decision was a hard one, and while I understand it, I cannot condone it.
RIP Legion. I know we will meet again, but I still wish I’d chosen better.