Choice in video games is meant to be a powerful aspect in a game's design, something that offers replay value to the player. I’m of the mindset that choice in story-driven games these days is just straight up jive, meant to take advantage of people not willing to put any thought into the games they play. By their very make up, they don’t understand what is supposed to be truly effective about a choice. Instead, it simply provides a contrived reason for the game to have replay value.

Choice, even in a story-driven context, isn’t inherently a bad thing. It’s not the aspect itself that is jive, but the way it’s constantly executed. To make this point, we are going to examine the choice in this year’s Wolfenstein: The New Order, because it commits multiple sins that are common in modern video game choices. So if you have not played Wolfenstein: The New Order, and don’t want to be spoiled, you have been warned. You should also go play that game, as I find the game to be great. In fact, you can read about how great I think that game is here.

In the opening prologue of Wolfenstein: The New Order, BJ Blazkowicz and his comrades Wyatt and Fergus are captured by the evil Deathshead, who forces BJ to witness an awful act. In premise, tone, and presentation, it’s all handled as it should: the sequence is able to evoke genuine disdain for Deathshead as this menacing villain. The player is shown, just by the look in BJ’s eyes, the genuine shock and horror he feels after watching Deathshead do what he does off screen, and it’s not compromised by anything BJ says in his monologue.

Where it is compromised, is the choice itself leading up to that scene. BJ is forced to make a choice picking between which of two characters he is willing to watch die. It all sounds so dark and compelling on paper: having to pick between two comrades, while neither choice feels like the correct choice. But, that’s the only area where this choice is compelling. On paper.  

The problem is that neither Wyatt nor Fergus are built up or developed into characters the audience will have any investment in. The scenario is dark and presents a no-win situation, but under no circumstances have you been around them long enough to grow any attachment to these people. From a characterization standpoint, both individuals are nothing more than archetypes in the early going, fitting the 'grizzled old vet' or the 'young and in over his head soldier' cliche.

Where it truly begins to break is how it contradicts the character of BJ Blazkowicz.  BJ is not an avatar that the player defines. No, in contrast, he is an already defined individual with his own beliefs, hopes, opinions, and reactions to what is around him. He is a character who is stubborn, strong-willed, and the type who goes out guns blazing; specifically, the type of character that doesn’t make the choice of killing one of his comrades.

BJ's type of character has been done ad-nauseum in fiction, and putting him in an impossible scenario where he has to weigh the value of two individual lives is nothing new. When done effectively, it might even provide decent character study, but not in this specific case. BJ himself would not pick one of his comrades to die just to save his own life, and certainly not to humor a maniac like Deathshead. It’s a failure amplified by the fact that the game doesn’t allow you to simply not pick either of the characters.  

Above all else, this choice commits the sin of being binary in its makeup. It may not be black and white in morality, but it is binary by simply being an A or B scenario; a zero-sum game. Not once does the game consider the logical notion that BJ would choose C, and thus, that the player would chose C: choosing to kill neither character.

Why wasn’t there a third option where, upon picking no one, you are forced to witness both characters dying? If the reasoning is for the potential payoff, then we should examine what those payoffs are in Wolfenstein. Narrative wise, the payoff is a tongue lashing from the surviving character to BJ to make the player and BJ feel guilty. Game play wise, it’s gives the player an alternative timeline where they have a different mini-game, as well as a different health/armor upgrade system.

This all sets up Wolfenstein’s biggest sin for its choice: every bit of its payoff is contrived. It’s contrived because the two play throughs are separated by an upgrade system that didn’t need this choice to exist to be part of the game. It’s contrived in its execution because the narrative uses the choice as an opportunity to make the player and BJ feel guilty, without ever asking exactly why the player would feel guilty.

If you provide a choice that is contradicting the actual character itself, and contradicting what the player wants to do, then you don’t actually get away with telling the player they should feel guilty. Fundamentally speaking, the decision they made isn’t necessarily the decision they wanted to make. The game forced it on them, and then the plot expects to paint guilt on the player that isn’t earned what so ever.

The problem with Wolfenstein’s version of Sophie’s Choice goes far beyond simply being a trope where the main character is asked to pick between two characters who are supposed to be close to the protagonist. It’s a binary choice where the player’s investment is never earned, instead expected because of how dark the scenario is. The choice relies on manipulating the player's emotion through situation, rather than actual attachment or investment.

The payoff, no matter how well written, will always be completely pointless if the origin and lead up are badly written and devoid of impact. The fact that the choice can contradict not only the character, but the player as well, makes the choice poorly designed.

What makes it more infuriating these days for me is that now we have games that do choices effectively, like in The Witcher. That franchise not only presents choices that cover multiple spectrums from a morality standpoint, but showcases range in options and consequences. The payoffs in The Witcher aren’t contrived platforms for game play deviation, or to make you feel guilty because the story said so. If you feel guilty in The Witcher, it’s because you yourself made a decision that you would feel guilty about if someone called you out on it.

The New Order expects you to feel guilty because the story said so, and that is some straight up jive.  Worst yet, it doesn’t actually provide the game replay value. The ironic part is that the game play itself offers more replay value. Not because of some health/armor upgrades, but more so because the action and encounter designs are fantastic and worthy of another spin.

The open nature of the levels will allow you to play some scenarios in a way you didn’t play last time. You’ll have access to your improved perks and weapon upgrades on new game plus, which will make higher difficulties more accessible for you. I would have preferred if the developer had been more confident in the game having intrinsic replay value because that choice brings more compromise to the story than replay value.

So, developers, I do not like being presented a “dark”, “sophisticated” and “meaningful” choice that is binary and doesn’t earn my investment. Quit telling me I’m getting avant-garde when I’m clearly getting a shit sandwich. Either learn to do more meaningful choices that make sense in the context of your defined characters/plot that also take into account the player’s investment, or straight up cut them from your game. Thank you. 

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#6 Foolz 2014-08-20 03:26
I feel like the choices in Papers, Please don't work great from a moral or storytelling perspective because of how cartoony the story is (the ridiculous conspiracy stuff worked better because it fit with the contrived, cartoony, melodramtic storytelling; but the subtle morality stuff was lame as hell), but from a gameplay perspective it was GREAT, so it should definitely be lauded for the way it handled choice.
#5 Minishdriveby 2014-08-18 21:46
In Papers, Please, you're on the clock. You know the consequence of helping anyone who doesn't have proper paper work, docked pay; however, in the time constrained situation its more telling of the player on whether he'll help a refugee escape a war torn country by seeking shelter in Arstotzka or turn them away so to keep his wage and feed his family at the end of the day. It's a small simple choice, let the lady in or deny her access, but it's not an easy choice, especially if you're punished for doing what you may think to be right.
#4 Minishdriveby 2014-08-18 21:46
Quoting Beacon_of_Truth:
] Why do you find the binary choices in Papers, Please work so well.

I think there is a hidden layer of consequences for your binary decision. Ethical choices in games work well when they're not posed to you in a "this is a ethical choice prompt, now choose!" sort of way. This is why I felt games like BioShock and Mass Effect were fairly superficial with these options. Yes, in Mass Effect it changed the outcome of the story more drastically than in BioShock, but the morality system was still extremely Black and White (or Red and Blue), and the morality system paused the game to allow you time to choose.
#3 Beacon_of_Truth 2014-08-18 14:01
Quoting Minishdriveby:
I've found that most video games suffer from being unable, possibly technically, economically, creatively, or a combination of the three, to make choices that are not binary; however, I have played a game that uses binary choice effectively, Papers, Please. The choice is simple allow access into the country or deny, but the repercussions from that choice carry weight.
Why do you find the binary choices in Papers, Please work so well.
#2 Blabadon 2014-08-16 01:45
Good write-up.
#1 Minishdriveby 2014-08-15 00:17
I've found that most video games suffer from being unable, possibly technically, economically, creatively, or a combination of the three, to make choices that are not binary; however, I have played a game that uses binary choice effectively, Papers, Please. The choice is simple allow access into the country or deny, but the repercussions from that choice carry weight.

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