Disclosure: This post has nothing to do with gender, sexism, or the like.
I picked up a used copy of inFamous a few days ago. I'll let Brad's review do most of the talking on that, since I feel it's pretty accurate. However, inFamous isn't what I'm here to discuss, not in and of itself anyway. What got me thinking was the moral choice system in inFamous—perhaps one of the worst I have ever seen. Playing inFamous made me think of other games that I've played where I have the ability to make choices that effect the story or other parts of the game—to be "good" or "evil" so to speak. And after some thought on the subject, I discovered I was hungry and made a sandwich. After that, games such as Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, BioShock, Morrowind/Oblivion, and Fallout 3 came to mind. The question that I pose is this—what makes a good way to allow the player to "choose" their path while not pandering to ideological extremes and still providing an engrossing experience? Ideally I would be able to chose virtually any action I wanted, and have the game respond accordingly regardless of what I chose. Is this even possible? Or has it been done already?
inFamous and BioShock are prime examples of what not to do. inFamous's system takes away all the moral self-examination and questioning from the choice and turns it into a simple decision of what powers I want. The choice is meaningless in terms of the game universe. BioShock certainly isn't hampered by its choice system, but it just didn't seem necessary. I never felt any particular emotion one way or the other regardless of what I did with the little sisters, and given BioShock's gameplay type I didn't understand why it was needed. The outcome of my choices barely changes the game at all, so what's the point? In these two games the choices I make are either inconsequential or so watered down and blatantly exposed that all the fun of making them is taken away. So how about we do a better job of weaving the choices into the game's story?
The original Knights of the Old Republic is, as of the time of this writing, my favorite product of the Star Wars franchise. And its choice system generally serves the game well, but even a well-done implementation of choices such as this still leaves a somewhat odd aftertaste. To go down the evil path I have to make many choices throughout the game that lead me to the dark side, eventually leading to me becoming a cold, cruel, and calculating Sith Lord. But here's the thing—would such an intelligent Sith Lord (as dictated by the game) really waste his/her time with senseless acts of brutality such as common mugging? I would imagine that an up-and-coming Sith Lord would try to use his victims to their fullest extent, then dispose of them when they no longer had value. Instead I found myself being a run-of-the-mill asshole, and that somehow led to me conquering the galaxy. The moral extremes of sainthood and belligerent sadism were extremely stark and awkward despite the quality of the story, leaving me to wonder how the ideal choice system would actually work.
Mass Effect (which has been getting lots of discussion time on this site lately) does a better job here, but the problem of moral extremes is still evident. Most of the time the evil choice is represented by a simple act of aggression instead of a more subtle cruelty or self-serving action. Now to be fair, such acts are more believably associated with the character of Commander Shepard rather than my character in Knights of the Old Republic. However, the basic problem still exists—I can't be the scoundrel with a golden heart, only a universally loved hero. I can't be the insidious mastermind, only an arrogant bully. While Mass Effect does present a better moral middle ground than many of its ilk, that path is largely dull and uninteresting. In order to access more conversation options I have to go towards one extreme or the other, meaning I have no real reason to toe the line in the middle. So now that we have an area between the two extremes, what next?
Bethesda's Elder Scrolls games and their fairly recent Fallout 3 have a much more open-ended structure around the choices I make. Say I am tasked with saving a certain town. The town's leader asks me to do so out of the goodness of me heart, while another man asks me to destroy said town for unknown reasons. I have a bounty of choices here that wouldn't be present in Mass Effect or Knights of the Old Republic. I can save the town and expose the evil man. I can destroy the town and collect my unknown reward. I can report the evil man to the town leader, then kill them both and take their valuables. I can destroy the town then kill the evil man, take his belongings and survey the devastation. Or I can do nothing. Or I can kill everyone in town and loot it provided I'm powerful enough. The scenarios presented in these games presented me with more of what I was looking for—I could be the low-key do-gooder or the ruthless pragmatist if I wanted under certain circumstances. However, the game still didn't really reward me for doing things outside the extremes in most cases. Usually all I had to show for it was just what I could pick up of the dead bodies or in empty hideouts, getting nothing from that particular quest. So now we have a scenario where I can go outside the proposed choices at will, but I just don't get a whole lot out of it.
So now what? Where does the evolution of player choices go from here? Someday I'd like to see a game where I can make virtually any choice in any situation within the bounds of the game world's reason, and be rewarded or punished appropriately for it. Am I being too greedy? Is this impossible with currently existing technology? Is there a game that already does this that I'm overlooking? Can I possibly fit more questions into this paragraph? Sound off at your leisure. Or don't—your choice.