Over on Facebook I’m working my way through one of those ’30 day challenge’ things – you know, when you get a list of questions and you try to find something interesting to say about them. This one is on video games, and I’m, actually enjoying considering the questions and coming up with something that I think is at least of passing interest to anyone on my friend’s list. I’ll make a blog post with my answers next week (at least, the first half) because I think it’s relevant and because I’ve been writing a reasonable chunk for each of the games and it’d be nice to use it for something other than sparking off fights with Facebook friends.

Last night I put up #13 – ‘Best video game story’. I chose Spec Ops: The Line (for reasons that you’ll see when I post the list next week). But, one of the discussion points that came up in the comments was relating to choice in games.

I’ve thought about it a fair bit since it was raised, and I want to make that my topic for today – choice in games with special reference to Spec Ops: The Line. I will try to be as spoiler free as I can here, but I don’t promise success. Spec Ops is such an involved, multi-layered and self-referential experience that it’s really hard to discuss it at all without running the risk of opening a big ol’ can of worms. So maybe don’t read this post if you don’t want to know more about the game than you currently do.

Some people have said, reasonably so, that Spec Ops: The Line doesn’t really give people a chance to make moral choices. By now you’re probably aware of the basic plot arc – the game loudly proclaims its spiritual link to Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, and the game’s core experience of a descent into madness is difficult to avoid if you’ve heard anything at all about it. The basic story theme is ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’, and some have complained that the impact of that is lessened because you don’t get to explore alternative intentions along the way. It’s not actually true[1] but I understand that it *seems* to be the case for a lot of people. My main counter to that objection is that Spec Ops is an incredibly deep game and that part of what makes it deep is in the way it provides choices.

The choices most games give you aren’t really choices. They’re just different ways of making the game go on. They’re a ‘continue with this game’ button. If I do a lethal take down, or a non-lethal take down, or if I sneak past a guard they all have the same basic outcome. I might enjoy the metagame of playing one way over another, or I might prefer the mechanics of combat to stealth or vice versa, but there is no *meaningful* difference. See for example Deus Ex: Human Revolution – there is no weight to the choices you make as to how you play. If you do a pacifist run, you’ll see exactly the same game as you will if you do an all guns blazing run. It seems like choice, but it’s not meaningful because you’re just choosing between the game continuing or not.

The Walking Dead does a great job in making you *feel* that your decisions have weight, but if you play it through a second time (which I did) you see that all you’re doing is flavouring the narrative a little. You’ll get almost exactly the same story regardless of what you do. Again, that’s not meaningful choice although the illusion is powerful. The only place it’s not true is where inaction, or the wrong action, leads to a game over screen. In those branches only is the choice genuinely important. Dying in a game tends to be viewed as failure, but it can be a genuinely valid stopping point in your own personal story.

Mass Effect is almost unique in both giving you choices and making those choices matter but it’s able to do that because of the length of the game and also because it cheats like a bastard. If you kill <the thing in Mass Effect 1> you’ll encounter <indenti-kit replacement thing in Mass Effect 3>. You don’t meaningfully change the game, it just feels like you do. At best you get access to a few more quests, or an adjustment to some dialogue, or perhaps a in-joke or callback. The Walking Dead gives you the sense that if you did some things differently you might have got to explore a substantively different game. It’s only a sense though – you’re on that railroad to the end regardless.

There’s nothing wrong with this – I do like these kind of choices in games and the Walking Dead even has the benefit of making your choices feel *urgent* because of the timers to go with them. But none of these choices, in real terms, matter. For 95% of the game experience, they simply don’t make the slightest difference in real terms. I have played the whole Mass Effect trilogy, start to end, a total of three times. I’ve played Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 a couple of times more on top of that. I can tell you that 95% of the time, even when making radically different choices, the playthrough will be identical. Shaping that 5% is important in giving a sense of ownership over the game, but let’s not pretend that it matters beyond that.

I’ve hidden spoilers below for those who want to see how I relate this to Spec ops. Highlight if you want to read them.

Consider the mortar scene in Spec Ops – the one that is most distinctively visceral. You actually have three choices there. One is – fire the mortar. The other is, don’t fire the mortar. You’ll eventually be overrun and die.

The third is – switch off the game and stop playing. As the loading screens say at one point, ‘Do you even remember why you’re here?’ and ‘Do you feel like a hero yet?’. I actually do play these games, in part, to feel like a Big Damn Hero and if I’m not getting that out of a game it’s entirely my choice as to whether or not I continue. That’s a choice I always have in a game, but Spec Ops makes it explicit. In Spec Ops you did have a choice *within* the game too – fire the mortar, or die. There’s only one ‘game continues’ button, but nobody said choices had to be easy or equally viable. If you fire the mortar rounds, it’s because *you* chose to. In my second playthrough of the game, I decided not to fire the mortar and made a last stand until my ammo ran out and I took too much damage to live. That was, as far as I was concerned, how ‘Walker Mk 2’ finished his story – I didn’t restart or continue from there, that particular narrative had met its end.

The claim ‘Spec Ops is a railroad shooter’ is only true in the sense that it often doesn’t give you more obvious ways to continue the game, but in turn all it would have done is trivialise the choice and render it down into ‘mere entertainment’. Sure, it’s ‘do or die’, and nobody will thank you with anything other than a ‘game over’ screen for not engaging in a war crime. But then, people just expect ‘the right thing’ from people. You don’t get a medal for being a good guy and dying. Your own perception of your own actions is the only reward this particular moral choice system has to offer you, and for me it’s incredibly compelling as a result.

There are many ways to model choice in games, and one of the ways in which this particular game does it is to explicitly make the link that ‘not playing the game’ is a choice. That is part of why the Spec Ops story is so much better than other game stories. The ultimate responsibility for carrying out atrocities is yours, because you *chose* to play. ‘You brought this on yourself’, as the arc words of the main character continually echo. It’s not like you aren’t warned – from the first steps onwards you are in violation of your mission objectives, and the only way to stop violating them is to choose not to participate.

Real choice within these kind of games is incredibly costly to produce because you need to have a branching system whereby certain important decisions lock off (or open) other parts of the game. Imagine if your triple AAA title actually had to be six times as big because you needed to make decisions matter. That’s an unreasonable proposition. Games already take too long to develop and have too much cost associated with them. In the end most people never complete them once never mind several times. The illusion of choice is cheaper and more feasible. Spec Ops takes that basic truth and elevates it so that decisions are simultaneously costly (not to experience the game to the end) and meaningful (the story you are collaborative building with the game has a genuinely different impact). Not playing the game might be a sign of quitting in another title. Spec Ops does all it can to make sure it’s a choice that you know you have. Therefore, the choice to keep playing is a tacit acceptance of the role you have in the story. You don’t want to do terrible things? Don’t play. If you keep playing anyway, you have nobody to blame but yourself.

I believe Spec Ops: The Line was written as a piece of art – that is to say, it’s not just a mundane shooter with a mundane story. It’s actually a deeply layered, deeply complex work that incorporates many lenses. Some of those lenses are on the relationship between the player and the character, and some are mirrors that reflect ourselves as players. The choice to stop playing is an explicit choice the game makes available, and as it goes on it judges you more and more harshly for persisting. ‘Can you even rememberwhy you came here?’ is one of the loading screen ‘tips’ later on. I came to be a hero, I came to feel like something I’m not, and the game is denying me the experience and judging me for it. With that relationship between myself and the game, not playing is absolutely a choice I am being offered.

Within Spec Ops in particular there is an additional element that nuances the idea of choice – to what extent am I the character and the character is me? Games tend to adopt a position on one of two poles here – you create the character from the ground up, investing it with a personality, a name, and career choices. Most role playing games, at least until the modern era, allowed you to do this as a matter of course. Others put you in control of a character with an already established life and relationship to the world. You’re not Lara Croft, you’re just the person controlling her. Spec Ops: The Line offers you an existing character, and the question the game asks is ‘to what extent are you responsible for what the game makes you do?’. Are you really in control of the character, or are you playing the role of the last semblance of sanity that is seeping away bit by bit? Are you supposed to identify with the character, or are you supposed to be horrified at what he is doing? If the character isn’t you, what control do you really have at all? If you have no control, what do your choices really mean?

Games like Mass Effect attempt to bridge this gap by giving broad interaction options… Renegade and Paragon, for example. But all I do in these kind of situations is point Shepard in a direction and then watch what he does. At best I play the role of the angel, or the devil, that sits on his shoulder. We don’t have meaningful choice in most games, and Spec Ops is thoroughly cognisant of that and thus presents us with real choice by involving us as players rather than characters. We may not be able to direct the character in the directions we want. We can however stop directing him entirely – we can cut his strings so that the puppet falls to the floor. The atrocities will continue until we give up our role as an enabler of atrocity. A strange game… the only winning move is not to play.

Spec Ops manages to invert, subvert and reject our traditional understanding of the relationship between a character and a player by providing us someone who we *can’t* (hopefully) identify with. A character who’s slow descent into insanity makes us as players as uneasy at it does his comrades. Towards the end it becomes incredibly difficult to differentiate reality from fantasy, flashback from fiction. Walker is the perfect ‘unreliable narrator’ – we are seeing the world through the eyes of a man who has been utterly broken by the things that he has done. With that in mind, where is your choice at all? Can you really meaningfully choose when your only source of information about the world is so thoroughly compromised? Does that inoculate you from the role you play as an enabler? The game doesn’t give you easy answers, because they are complicated questions.

I could literally talk about Spec Ops: The Line for hours. I haven’t even scratched the surface here about how it challenges our perceptions of choice in games. There is similar depth in how it works as a commentary on war, on war games in general, PTSD and the things that we ask of soldiers.

This doesn’t really relate to Epitaph at all, other than to constantly gnaw at me with the knowledge that we must try harder to allow for meaningful choice within our game. To some extent we’re already doing that by making faction choices have real impact – they change the quests you can see, the areas you can discover and what you can do within them. That’s choice that’s meaningful, but it’s not choice that really makes anyone reflect on the nature of decisions in games and the extent to which they are complicit for the decisions made by characters they control. I’ve never had any particular pretentious towards ‘Epitaph is a work of art’ – I’m very explicitly building a game. But Spec Ops does make me think that the idea you have to choose one or the other is a false dichotomy.


P.S.  Remember to check out the computer games journal, and my new paper on text games.  There is a free car for the first one hundred readers[2]

[1] There are numerous areas in the game where the game mechanics themselves let you explore choices that aren’t explicitly stated.

[2] There is no free car.