The Power of (Virtual) Choices

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I have a confession to make.

I made some decisions that I thought were well-grounded, but two of my team members died. And a tough choice about a dangerous situation has been weighing on my mind ever since. It was a toss-up, a lesser-of-two-evils kind of thing, a choosing of bedfellows. My mind is uneasy.

See, I don’t usually have much time for video games, so I’ve been playing through a few good ones this summer since I have the time.

A well-written game functions like a story: it offers rich, deep characters; it flows along a well-developed plot structure provided by creative writers; it exists in a time and place crafted to enhance the tale.

But unlike a novel, games pull the player into the story as a participant. This kind of interaction is merely a pipe dream in the film world, despite all the 3D hoopla. I guess the old-fashioned “choose your own adventure” stories laid the foundation for what we now enjoy as role-playing or adventure games.

Not all game stories offer real significance, and I don’t have time for most intense RPGs. (You won’t find me playing Final Fantasy anytime soon.) And a lot of game plots are fun, but it’s not like you stay up at night thinking about the experience. (Kinda like “light summer reading.”)

Then I played Mass Effect.

I don’t want to spoil anything for those of you who might play ME in the future. It’s a trilogy; the final segment should release in early 2012. (I’m hoping for mid-February so I can sink a few days of Winter Break into it. Lol)

But I can tell you this much: in the Mass Effect universe, choices really matter.

The story is set a few centuries in humanity’s future, when Faster Than Light (FTL) travel permits us to wander the stars. Of course, there’s a new galactic threat on the scene, and you play as the badass Commander Shepard. Old hat so far. I’d call it a role-playing first-person shooter.

The game authors created a conversation mechanism for the game. “Conversing” has been around for a while in games, but BioWare makes Shepard YOURS in significant ways. For one thing, you choose among several respnses as you “talk,” responses which directly affect the attitude of characters or open/close options for future interaction. In real life, if you cuss someone out they are less likely to help you; in Mass Effect, your Shepard constantly has to decide what tactic to use to accomplish goals.

Even more impressive, your game-playing choices bear direct influence on future plot. Blow up someone’s planet? Don’t expect those resources to be around later when you need them. And do expect everyone in the galaxy to treat you with contempt. Except the outlaws, murderers, and pirates. They’ll love it. You will lie in the bed you make (proverbially) and the whole universe has to live with your choices.

Further, the game developers gave Shepard a voice. Whether you create a male or female character, all of the lines were recorded by appropriate voice actors. You spend the game hearing yourself talk. It’s a powerful mechanism for immersion.

Ethical choices stack up. Facing an overwhelming galactic threat, I made certain choices at the end of the first game. Those haunted me through Mass Effect 2, which itself forced me into ever-more-agonizing decisions. By the end of that game, I was questioning my ethics and leadership. Do you save all the lives in the galaxy at all costs? How many lives are “acceptable losses”? War ethics are a mess anyway. Crossing them with intergalactic politics and species magnifies the weaknesses in long-held beliefs, beliefs which affect my actions in the real world.

All good science fiction draws the reader to understand himself more clearly, to see human nature in clear light, to wrestle in a “laboratory” with decisions that would decimate us if we were making them in real life. Mass Effect delivers a rich experience, troubling and thoughtful. Current governments don’t need to fly around the galaxy to find people-groups to abuse, exploit, assist, provoke, or ignore.

I’m not going to replay Mass Effect 2 to get a perfect game or fix my mistakes. Life isn’t like that. I will carry my own Shepard into the final game with his scars intact, with 3 empty slots on the team as a reminder of the cost.

MAss Effect

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