Difficult Choices Aren’t My Thing

On another webforum, a person declared that games without choices are merely “arcade sequences between cut scenes.”  They were talking about Assassin’s Creed, but they were looking for RPGs to play with these “choices.”  Unfortunately, this concept of “difficult choices” is something that I personally loathe.  I think it might help to explain why I have that position.

In the first and second Fable games, your hero could get crowds of people enchanted by your presence. Here, in the first game, some women like the hero.

First of all, many games handle them badly.  I’ve never played the Fable series, but I’ve heard things about the plot that make me pretty certain I wouldn’t enjoy how the game works.  Shamus, from the blog “Twenty-Sided,” discusses his issues with Fable 2’s plot in a four part series.  There’s multiple times where the “good” or “evil” action is irrelevant, or a stupid choice forced to give you a choice.  In Fallout 3, the original ending of the game had your hero giving himself massive radiation poisoning so he could type in a number.  You got good ending if you killed yourself and the other option involved a narrator saying that you decided to not finish your work.  Your party included people immune to radiation.   In the DLC, they added the option to have the radiation immune person do the work, but still didn’t give you a great ending for having some brains.

In Etrian Odyssey II, you run into humans who want to stop you, but there is no choice but to fight.

Another problem is a “Sophie’s choice” or a “Hobson’s choice.”  These terms basically reference a situation where you have two unpleasant options or a situation where you have an option or nothing.  In Fallout 3, you can try to make peace between some ghouls and a town.  No matter what your choice is, one side will end up dead.  Many gritty games favor shades of grey style choices.  This can be frustrating for the player if there’s another seemingly sensible option that can’t be taken.  In Etrian Odyssey, you are stopped at a certain point with a choice.  Either you massacre sentient people on a floor, or there is no more game to play.  Forcing the player to decide if they can stand to continue playing is a risky and surprising choice. However, in the case of Etrian Odyssey, you literally have no options.  You can’t talk to the people.  You can’t make your mission anything other than a massacre.

A final issue is something that I think is simplest to call karma problems.  There’s games where you have no “good” side to play.  This can be frustrating if you want to play a good character.  There’s games where evil is so pointless and vile that it’s repugnant to play, but “partially evil” does not give benefits.  There’s games where choices are purely there to give you good or evil points, or are the most basic “kiss baby” or “kill baby.”  There’s games where you can make an evil choice, and then undo the damage by doing good.  There’s games where you have a million tiny choices that do almost nothing, and then one big important incident that freezes you in one alignment.

So, someone says, there’s games that do that well, or you can overlook the iffy aspects.  There’s games that give really and truly gut wrenching choices that are immerse you in the world and hard to make.  These games, for fans of the style of writing, are nothing like a game that doesn’t offer the same choices.  In a gritty dark world, you can get older characters and mature content that wouldn’t pop up in a generic game aimed at pre-teens.  You get replay value since you can try another path, or another option.  Even if the result is the same, the very existence of a choice can feel freeing to some people.

For me, however, it can knock me out of my immersion.  When the game has a Sophie’s choice, or a pointless moral decision, or when “good” is basically “lawfull stupid,” I’m not immersed in the world.  Instead, I’m bashing my metaphorical head on the limitations of the plot.  Without choices, I can’t hope to have the game do better.  For me, a badly written path through a story isn’t immersive.  Even if the other paths are amazing, I’m still stuck playing a story that I’m not enjoying.  If all paths in the game have a flaw, I have choices that don’t fit the root problem I have with the plot.  If the characters are repugnant or irritating, I’m not annoyed with them. I’m annoyed with the person who thought it was a good idea to hook me up with them.  If I work and strive to try to do something, and find out that neither choice would make a good result, I feel like I’m wasting my time.  If the game suddenly introduces a problematic element and handles it badly, I’m even more thrown out of any interest in the plot.

In a D&D game, I was playing a mage/thief.  We had a naive princess, and her loyal knight in the party.  The GM’s npc was an elven ranger type.  We knew nothing about D&D’s rules and systems.  My character was mildly obsessively optimized (I grabbed a build off a website.)  Definitely not ridiculously overpowered, but she was pretty good at what she did. The GM okayed everything.

The GM had an ambush with 12 bandits at a narrow mountain pass on the road.  The pass was literally one person wide at one point.  The princess’ player didn’t like the odds and wanted to negotiate.  She rolled an 18 and gave a typical lawful good paladin speech offering work with her father, a law abiding life, and so on.  However, the GM said they were just a little less interested in killing us and that negotiation wouldn’t work.  Since I suspected negotiation wouldn’t work, I asked if I could roll climb and stealth to sneak up the side of the rocks around the pass and get around so I could flank the bandits. Meanwhile, the knight was next to the princess, and the elven ranger was sneaking around along the river on the other side.

The negotiations failed, and the bandits attacked. I decided to use color spray.  It’s a cone of magic that would knock out enemies for one to six turns, and blind them for about another one to four turns.  I hoped that would give everyone else time to fight over and protect my character, since she had all the endurance of tissue paper. Due to turn order, my mage knocked out five bandits since one moved in range.  My mage was hurt, as I suspected. I’m not sure if the GM was trying to protect her a little, but she lost about a third of her health in a single attack.  We ended the battle with five prisoners, still unconscious.

The elven ranger stabbed them in their sleep.  This was where things fell apart.  The GM said that color spray was over powered and we destroyed the difficulty level of the fight.  The GM said that a town couldn’t afford to feed bandits until it was time to kill them.  The GM said donated money to the town would be abused by the mayor to build an extravagant house.  The GM said that we were trying to force her to play an unrealistically happy world.  The GM said that bandits were supposed to be pure evil, so taking prisoners was making them too “good.”  The GM said that we were supposed to think that three against one odds were beatable.

My mage, Folami.

Now, you could argue that a corrupt town, plagued by bandits, is a cool idea.  You could argue that prisoners and negotiating with “evil” enemies is too much work.  You could argue that a naive princess finding out about the real world is a cool plot idea.  However, for me and I think the other players, the way the GM handled it wasn’t immersive (since we were supposed to be willing to work with the ranger,) wasn’t conducive to roleplay (since the princess’ ideas were shot down,) and wasn’t fun.

I think for some people, that could’ve been great fun?  I think though, that people should try harder to understand why it’s not fun for others.

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