Warning: If you haven’t played Call of Duty Black Ops II and you’re still taking this franchise seriously, you should probably come back later.
And there I was, at the end of the mission Achilles’ Veil in Call of Duty: Black Ops II, taking control of Farid (a spy ordered to serve as a mole inside the populist movement of Cordis Die) as Menendez (the game’s main villain) ordered me to show my loyalty to him and kill Harper (an American ally captured by Menendez).
The game gives me the option of either follow Menendez’ command, or to disobey and shoot Menendez who is standing right behind Harper. I decided to kill Harper. But not only had I done it because I knew I was being fooled (the whole mission reeks like a setup), but mostly because that moment doesn’t seem like the time to kill the game’s main villain. So I pulled the trigger, Harper died, and then a gun-blazing ally gunship came to the rescue, making me think “oh, no… If I waited just a second or two…”
But then I wasn’t really surprised when I learned that, if you try to kill Menendez, the attempt will end up in failure; Menendez will move your arm away before you can pull the trigger, and shoot you back; if this happens, the gunship takes its bloody time to make its appearance, even Menendez has enough time to monologue with you before putting an end to your misery.
From the developer’s perspective, that was a crucial choice I had to make that will have an impact on my game’s progress; for me “they’re just making stuff up as they go along”, I didn’t feel part of the story, I just felt dragged along to any of the two outcomes they already prepared. Now that moral choices in videogames have become a thing, I’m getting tired of developers adding unnecessary options in games just for the sake of doing so.
Of course it’s not the first time we’ve being placed in a situation like this, and the first that comes to mind is Splinter Cell: Double Agent. Normally, I’d warn you about the following spoiler, but the scene I’m going to talk about is right there, in its official trailer (but still, you can skip the next three paragraphs ahead if you want to).
During the final mission of the game, you’re ordered to kill Irving Lambert (Director of Third Echelon, main character of the series and close friend to the game’s protagonist Sam Fisher), and you have the choice of to do so, or to kill Jamie Washington who is ordered to kill you if you don’t carry on with the command.
This was actually a really cool scenario, since the rest of game will play differently according to your choice: if you decide to kill Lambert, you won’t be blowing your cover and will have an easier time completing the rest of the mission; and if you decide to spare Lambert and shoot Washington instead, you can still carry on with your mission, but the task will be a lot harder since everyone will be gunning for you this time around.
The outcome of this decision doesn’t end right there, since saving Lambert is the only way you’ll get an extra final mission where you have to defuse a bomb being transported to New York’s bay area. All of this was great by the time, except that your choice doesn’t matter at all, since Ubisoft decided to keep the death of Lambert by the hand of Sam Fisher as canon for their next release of the series Splinter Cell: Conviction. So, what’s the point of all of this? Seriously, don’t give me a damn gun if you’re not going to follow through.
Don’t be fooled, different choices and endings don’t make a better game or story; that’s what developers and publishers want you to think, but from a programming perspective, they’re just a set of conditions made to hide some stuff from you.
We need to discard the need of “choices” or “different endings” if we expect that videogames keep growing up as a narrative media. Movies and books don’t require them, why does videogames? I know that “Pick you own adventure” books exists, but is it any of those a best seller, or something you’d totally recommend to anyone looking for a great read? Or did you expect to have different endings for The Lord of the Rings? No. The author planned it that way, and that’s the way the story needed to be told.
You want to get the good ending, don’t you?
On the other hand, videogames –as an interactive media– can do amazing things with the addition of choices and different endings, but in order to do so, these must be planned as a core element of the game, not just added during the process because statistics show that consumers love this kind of things.
But even if choices are planned from the beginning of a game, it doesn’t mean that they’ll let you write the rest of it. Fallout 3 is one of those games meant for you to play them whatever the hell you please (everyone has already played this game, right? If you haven’t you can skip to the next paragraph), but still by the end of the game you have to decide whether you sacrifice yourself by going inside a radioactive chamber, or let Sentinel Lyons do it for you. I guess I wasn’t the only one wondering why I couldn’t just send Fawkes, who had already helped me during a similar situation earlier in the game. Of course, you can eventually tell him to do that, but only if you buy Fallout 3: Broken Steel DLC.
Of course there are good examples of moral choices worth mentioning, and one of the best examples anyone can point at is Telltale’s The Walking Death (don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything here): In my case, after the first two times I had to choose to save one of two characters, Lee (the game’s protagonist) was asked why did he save that character but not the other one; both times I chose to answer “I thought I could save both”, and I really meant that; I didn’t know that I could save only one of them, but I didn’t feel tricked at all, the events on that game are really random and chaotic, that’s pretty much like humans do.
But if an aircraft will come one second or one minute late depending on a choice that doesn’t have anything to do with it, that’s rubbish. I know they wanted to make things more dramatic, but if they want to tell a story, just tell that story already, don’t make me part of it. Changing some cutscenes and hiding the “good” ending behind a set of conditions don’t create depth in a game. In the case of Black Ops II you can just finish the game once, and then watch the rest of the endings through Youtube; that’ll just take a little more than 13 minutes of your life (and actually, none of those endings are really great at all).
Also –this one goes to the developers– do you want your franchise taken seriously? Then don’t do this to your characters.