New England Gamer
The Quandries of Choice
One of my favorite games of this generation is Red Dead Redemption. In fact, looking through
the list of pieces I've written for this column, I was almost shocked to discover I had yet to write
about it in any substantial way. The past ten years have had no shortage of games with moving
story lines. This is, arguably, the generation of gaming where the idea of a video game telling a
serious and poignant story has become less spectacular and more the norm. Red Dead
Redemption, in turn, had one of the most impressive.
Taking place on the American frontier, the game followed John Marston, a former outlaw
coerced into service by the American government. With his family held hostage John is forced to
fight his way across the West, chasing down and killing his former cohorts. As his quest
progresses the game examines the nature of redemption and progress, contrasting the ideals of
the frontier with the, often bloody, realities of the march of progress.
In the end, John himself becomes a casualty. The government, having initially given John his
family and life back in return for his compliance, decides that he's a liability and attacks his
ranch. Up against impossible odds, John holds off the government soldiers so his family can
attack, sacrificing himself as a final act of penance to give his wife and son the chance of a life in
the "better" world he's being killed to make way for.
I shed a tear at the end of the story, in no small part because the game builds it up so perfectly.
After you finish your work for the government, the game plays the perfect straight man,
pretending that all is well and giving several more hours worth of story centered around John
returning to his life. You get to see him be a normal person who loves his wife, wants to teach
his son, and live in peace. He wants to be a good man.
You are, of course, free to completely forget this and go on a killing spree if you want. This is
because, in addition to being an enthralling and moving story, Red Dead Redemption is also an
open world game developed by Rockstar, the makers of Grand Theft Auto. And as any fan (or
foe) of Rockstar's often controversial work can tell you, the core concept of their games is to
give the player the option to do whatever they want. Here's a shortlist of the activities one can
partake in Red Dead Redemption: murder, thievery, kidnapping, tying people to railroad tracks
and waiting for the train to come. The game boasts one of the most beautiful, well painted
worlds in a video game and then gives you free reign to paint it red.
It's a strategy that has worked well for them in the past. Rockstar, above all else, is famous for
being the modern progenitors of the open world game. They practically invented the subgenre
with Grand Theft Auto 3 and have been the perpetual masters of it ever since. If a game comes
from Rockstar, people expect it to have an open world for them to play in.
It's something you can see them struggling with in their endeavors throughout this past
generation. Whereas the games that made them famous, Grand Theft Auto 3 most of all, were
often written with a tongue-in-cheek sensibility that kept them from ever narrating with any real
sense of poignancy. With the release of Grand Theft Auto 4 in 2008 however, they opted to take
a different tone with the game. There were still silly elements and jokes included, but the focus
of the game was far more serious. Like Red Dead Redemption two years later, you played a
world-weary protagonist trying to escape a life of violence who is inevitably drawn back into the
fray by his family. With Grand Theft Auto 4 at least, Niko Bellic was morally gray enough that
the game's plot was still plausible even if you chose to play him as a murderous psychopath.
In Red Dead Redemption, however, the character of John Marston is depicted as genuine and
genuinely repentant. He is ashamed of his past sins and wants nothing more in the world than to
keep his family from falling into the same soulless void he once climbed out of. The game's
open world, in turn, often conflicts directly with John's tale of redemption because the player has
the option of acting like the same sort of monster he's fought so hard to transcend. The game's
extreme freedom of choice proves more of a liability to the experience of its narrative than it
does a boon to the overall game.
Rockstar is far from the only developer to struggle with the consequences of including choice
and freedom in video games. inFamous, one of my favorite games of this generation, played
heavily with moral choices that would change the story depending on how you behaved. If you
opted to behave heroically, defending the weak and what-not, the story would paint you as a
good guy. If you chose to be evil on the other hand, you'd develop into a villain.
The problem was that players who went through and tried playing the game both ways (myself,
for instance) often found that the developers clearly meant for your to be the hero. The
protagonist, Cole, even when directed to be an all out sadist, never really changed personality
wise. Save for a few added lines of dialogue here and there to clarify that he was indeed evil it
was basically the same character. The developers didn't put in the work to make the morality
mechanic anything more than a bullet point to dress up the game's box.
Not that I can't understand why a developer might be reluctant to put a lot of work into divergent
story paths. At the end of the day, if the game is fun (which inFamous is in spades) and you have
a story that you have your heart set on telling, finding the inspiration to create something
radically different to satisfy those players who opted to take a different road must be a trial. This
is especially true when a lot of gamers won't even bother to go through and try every alternative
story that has been built for them. The problem is that when developers fail to go that extra mile,
Mass Effect 3, while not an open world game, was the third and final game in a trilogy that built
entirely on player agency. Throughout the series major plot points could go markedly different
routes, dependent on choices made by the player. The final game was supposed to wrap-up all
these choices. It sold itself, in no small part, on how it would allow gamers to shape its final
vision of the universe.
The results were infamously underwhelming. In the end all of the choices players had made, all
the work they had done in the game, amounted almost to nothing. The ending was dictated by
one of three choices presented to you in the last five minutes.
When faced with the nightmare scenario of having to actually deliver on a title that resolved
dozens of potential branching paths, they opted for the easy way out. It was a move that led to a
revolt amongst many of developer Bioware's most vocal fans and an unprecedented decline in
the prestige of one of the most revered studios in the industry.
Even with the shadow of such failures looming large, there have been games that demonstrate
just how well freedom and choice can be integrated into video games. The Witcher 2, released
the same year as Mass Effect 3, is widely considered one of the best RPGs to come out in years,
predominately, because of its devotion to meaningful choice. There are choices in the game that
can completely alter how the rest of the story will turn out. Picking one path can literally lead
you to a completely different place and conclusion from somebody else playing the same game.
On the smaller scale, The Walking Dead, an episodic series of games based on the popular comic
franchise, has proven itself to be perhaps the greatest example of how to do choice in a linear
narrative. Rather than giving choices that affect the course of the story, the game has focused on
giving the player agency over how their character reacts to different circumstances. You shape
your character rather than the story. The differences come not from shifting plot points but the
changes in the way other cast members see and react to you and your actions.
There is hope even from the likes of Rockstar, who have struggled with dueling forces of
narrative and choice. With the lessons of Grand Theft Auto 4 and Red Dead Redemption kept in
mind they've begun developing their next game, Grand Theft Auto V, specifically with the intent
of fashioning a story that can be poignant regardless of how the player opts to play. Pioneers as
they have been through the years, I can only hope it's a goal they'll accomplish so that others
might see the light and follow them down the path to freedom.
Read more by Stewart Shearer