Videogames give players choices. That’s because they’re interactive. Some people say a good game is a series of interesting choices. And games are beginning to give players a lot of choices to choose from.
Over the last few months, in my winding, amateur sort of way, I’ve been playing through Fallout 3. A role-playing videogame set in an alternative, post-apocalyptic future US, imagined as if the 1950s never quite went away, one of its big features is a great number of scenarios designed to allow players to decide how they tackle them. An often discussed, and probably the most interesting, is the Tenpenny Tower quest. For those wishing to avoid spoilers, you’d probably best not read on.
Tenpenny Tower is a luxury hotel left standing alone in the wasteland just outside what remains of Washington DC. Its rich occupants have gated it and posted guards to ensure no one undesirable can get in. And when you arrive, there’s a ghoul, called Roy, outside, demanding to be let in. Irradiated and mutated humans, ghouls are Fallout 3’s underclass, and the inhabitants of Tenpenny Tower definitely don’t want to let him in. In fact, the chief of the guards asks you to kill him.
On travelling to the dingy, underground home that Roy shares with his partner and friend, you realise how militant he is against those in society that have turned him and his kind aside, and he asks you to help him invade Tenpenny Tower with a pack of feral ghouls, mutated humans that have gone homicidally mad. But in your conversation with Roy, you realise that you also have a chance of convincing him that there might be a way of negotiating with Tenpenny Tower’s inhabitants so that he and his gang can move in peacefully.
So there are three possible and far-reaching outcomes: you can choose to kill Roy, you can choose to help him kill the occupants of Tenpenny Tower, or you can try to negotiate a non-violent solution. And, by God, you’ll find yourself wanting to try it all. You can save and reload at any time in Fallout 3, and I often find myself saving at a point where I can make a choice in order to experience each outcome and choose the most beneficial. And, in the case of Tenpenny Towers, the outcomes, particularly the peaceful one, are fascinating. If Roy moves in, you can go away and revisit to find that both sides are getting along well. But if you come back once again, you’ll find all the humans dead and stripped of their clothes and possessions in the basement because of a ‘disagreement’. Though much of Fallout 3 is pretty simple and morally predictable, sometimes it likes to give you a big surprise.
So I’m playing all this with multiple saves, Fallout 3’s carefully engineered storylines and choices fractured and displaced as I zip between them, sampling and testing to find the one I like, and profit from, best. I’m essentially thumbing my nose at an artificial world that’s designed to be naturalistic, with its sunsets and sunrises, its flora and fauna, its crumbing tarmac and crackling swing music, its attempts to provide believable reactions to my pluralistic actions. And I feel slightly cheap for it.
That’s why I respect and love Shiren The Wanderer. Gleefully anachronistic, this game is a Japanese take on the Rogue-like RPG. Don’t worry about what that means – all you need to know is that it’s extremely complex, with a great number of different items and monsters that have a vast array of different effects. To understand how they all work, and how you can survive, takes a long time, and in Shiren The Wanderer, death means your adventure is over. With the game’s world randomly generated each time you play, every attempt you make is different, and filled with serendipity and chance – and you can’t save. You’ll slowly learn tactics and techniques – choices – that will help you survive longer and longer, but you’ll die crushing deaths over and over again.
But as frustrating as each death fleetingly is, it’d be meaningless without its finality. In Shiren The Wanderer you can’t erase your choices. But just the chance to have had a really stupid death (for funnies), a really tense and exciting death (for kicks), or, most importantly, a really instructive death (for experience), can make a death a means in itself.
That’s not really true for Fallout 3. Though its creators have attempted to make sure there’s something of value – and something negative – in every outcome, there’s always a niggling sense that you’re missing something, that you’ve failed in some way, that there’s something better if you do things another way, and you can always rewind through your saves to try and fix things. And as you do so, you’re splintering its story and diluting the clarity of the choices it offers.
My question, then, goes back to that moment I’m standing before Roy as I try to decide whether to kill him, help him kill others or try to make everyone get along. Would it be more interesting and meaningful if whatever I choose is final? Or does Fallout 3 gain something from allowing me freedom to hop around it, spatially and temporally, as if it’s some sort of 4D hypertext?
I’m going to have a good think about that, and write about it in another post very soon.