I've made some stupid decisions in my time. Some of them have had more of an impact than others.
Most of these ill-considered choices resulted in my own virtual death; the underestimation of an opponent, a hot-headed rush into battle, picking the wrong tool for the wrong job. Smash. Bang. Respawn.
But these decisions are trifling, minor choices that populate nearly every game we play. Most of the time we get them right. Second nature. Well worn grooves. Perfection born of practice. A well placed grenade here, a good spot to camp there, handbrake round this corner, countermeasures released then.
However, there are choices that we make in the games we play that have far reaching consequences. Maybe not even immediately visible, but sure to be keenly felt at a later date. Sometimes even years later.
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Bioware is a studio that makes games where choice is central to experience. The Mass Effect trilogy acts as the pinnacle of their lofty ambition: to make games that we care about. Characters that touch us, narratives that sweep us away, themes that affect us in our day-to-day lives. All of these cornerstones are present and correct in Mass Effect 3, the final chapter of Commander Shepard's galaxy spanning adventure.
Choice was there at the very start. At its most basic level it boiled down to right and wrong, but as the series progressed an increasing amount of grey areas started to appear. Morally ambiguous choices, far beyond the confines of black and white. More and more frequently we were being asked to choose the lesser of two evils, and that can make it uncomfortable to say the least.
There were some choices that I made early on in my N7 career that I would come to regret much later. I wish I'd saved Ashley. I wish I'd talked Wrex down. I didn't, and years later I'm still dealing with the consequences of my actions.
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But there's the kicker: they're my actions, my choices. I own them, and that's why they carry so much weight.
Let me digress for a moment. 2K Games boss Christoph Hartmann recently went on record and said that until games become photorealistic, videogames will not be able to develop to the next level. The implication is that they're not as emotionally affecting as cinema can be. I'm not sure it's that simple.
I think it could be argued that games are already just as emotionally affecting as movies are. This is because of their interactivity, and the stories that we experience, and not because of the emotion plastered across the faces of the characters we control and/or interact with. Hartmann argues that consoles work best when supporting action and FPS titles, because of the simplistic emotions they evoke. According to the 2K boss, that's why they're the gamer's choice from recent years. Whilst this may contain a kernel of truth, I think it's fair to say that shooters are popular because people like to shoot things, not because something better is yet to come along and we're making do.
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When we find ourselves moved by a film, it's because of empathy towards the characters. Emotional connections formed in games are entirely different, because when we play games we often play as virtual representations of ourselves. Sometimes these representations are inversions; we play a particular way because it is the opposite of how we would conduct ourselves in real life. But our moral compass is still there, informing our choices, even if we decide to go the other way.
The results are experiences that are individually defined. Carved through decisions based on personal opinions, these stories touch raw nerves, frayed over years of experience, both virtual and real.
Mass Effect 3 is only one game that has the power to provoke a strong emotional response, but there are many others. Bioshock is another great example. We graft through Rapture, discovering new skills and fighting tooth and nail to reach Andrew Ryan. The choice of whether or not to harvest the Adam from the Little Sisters is a superb example of a studio putting you in a difficult position: harvest the Little Sisters and reap the rewards, or do the right thing by saving the children.
It's up to you, but come the end of the game, the narrative twist, and you'll be left reeling. Not because of the emotions etched on the face of Ryan (although that is one hell of a cutscene), but because of the emotional investment made in the journey up to that point. Would we be as involved in Bioshock the movie? I think not. Precisely because of the choices we made throughout.
Now, I'm not saying for one minute that films can't be powerful, emotional, engaging, whatever. That would be silly. I'm also not saying that games are more emotionally affecting than films, because that would also be a ridiculous statement to make. What I'm saying is that there is a massive difference between the two and we shouldn't hold one up to the standards of the other; films rely on empathy towards characters for emotional gravity, whilst games utilise player choice and tangible cause and effect to create the emotional connection between gamer and game.
Improved graphics will certainly allow us to empathise more with the characters we interact with, but they aren't some kind of holy grail that will forever change the way we perceive and play games. They're already powerful and emotionally charged, but not so much because of empathy, but because they allow us to follow our hearts and make our own choices. Games shouldn't be trying to be more like films, they should be trying to be more like games, because choice, and not empathy, is what makes them unique. And it's also why we love them so much.