The Zen of Video Games – The Kobayashi Maru


[Warning: Spec Ops: The Line and Mass Effect 1 spoilers!]

Moral choices in games are usually pretty clear-cut. There’s the good, wholesome, hand of justice thing to do, and then there’s the bad, evil, rectum of Satan thing to do. It pretty much boils down to whether you want to be a superhero or a supervillain. But I find that the choices that stick with me the best are ones in which the options aren’t so cut and dry.

I’ve been replaying Mass Effect, for lack of any new games to play, and I’ve been having a pretty good time with it. My Commander Shepard is a woman this time (her name is Ramona), if only for variety’s sake. I’ve started by clearing out all the side missions, and finding all of the materials, medallions, and insignias I can get my hands on.

I played the assignment where scientists were being killed, and they were all linked to Akuze, the site of a military disaster where Ramona was the only survivor. I found the only surviving scientist (who, it turns out, had been responsible for the Akuze disaster) being held at gunpoint by a distraught soldier who’d been kidnapped and experimented on by the scientists.

I tried to talk him down, but it was still early in the game, and Ramona’s Charm skill wasn’t high enough for me to stop him from shooting the scientist and then himself. I like to think that Ramona’s emotional scars from all this will play out somewhere down the line, when she gets into a sudden murderous rage and mows down enemies like blades of grass.

And it’ll be hot as SHIT.

Later on, after some levelling, I was called upon to defuse a situation with a cult of biotics (people with mental powers, for those who don’t know), and not only was I able to talk my way in the door, they sent me straight to their leader, and Ramona’s Charm skill was high enough that I was able to convince him to turn himself in without any violence whatsoever.

The interesting part is that on my first playthrough, years ago, I remember it turning out exactly the opposite: the tension between my character and the cult leader escalated to a gunfight, and once I’d killed their leader, I had to slaughter every last cult follower just to get out alive, but I managed to talk down the soldier holding the scientist at gunpoint. The only real difference between the two playthroughs that changed the outcome was when I’d chosen to tackle those particular missions.

And it started me thinking – I know it’s possible to succeed at both of those missions, as long as you put them off long enough to get enough points into your Charm or Intimidate talents – but what if it wasn’t? What if I’d had to choose between them instead? What if I knew from the get-go that I could only get the best outcome for one of them, and the other would end in blood and death?

Which, admittedly, is how a LOT of things in Mass Effect end.

From a sheer numbers standpoint, it still doesn’t seem like a difficult choice, but in Ramona’s case, one could make a case for why she would rather choose to save the lads from Akuze, as she was the lone survivor in that incident, and while they don’t make a big deal out of it in the game, she’s got to be suffering from some pretty severe psychological issues over it all, survivor’s guilt maybe, or just the horror and trauma of watching your entire unit get eaten or mauled by giant thresher maws. She could be desperate for closure.

This got me thinking about other “unwinnable” scenarios in gaming, cases where you cannot save everyone, or even yourself. They’re pretty few and far between, which is sort of understandable, one of the things video games do best is making the player feel empowered, and these sort of situations have the exact opposite effect.

Some great examples of this include the losing path in Wing Commander 3, where humanity’s making a last stand, and the player is forced to fight a battle they cannot win until his ship explodes or he ejects. And I understand, though I have not played it, that Halo: Reach ends in much the same way.

Kind of like this.

The entire game of Spec Ops: The Line could be considered an unwinnable scenario, sure, you can beat the game, but you don’t really win. There’s a moment about halfway through the game where you are told to make a choice: kill one man and the other may go free, but you are instructed to choose between the two. You can try to save them both, but it won’t work. And in the end, it hardly matters anyway.

And of course, Mass Effect. Later on, I’ll have to make another, similar choice. And one will live, while the other will die. And I cannot save them both. I’m still not sure which choice I’ll take, honestly. Last time I kept my love interest alive while my best friend died. I could do the same, and then I’d be having Kaiden around for ME2 and ME3, or I could keep Ashley around a second time, and have the entirely new experience of letting Shepard’s lover die.

And that’s the point of these difficult choices, isn’t it? It’s a new experience, at least for someone like me. The hardest choice I tend to make is whether to get a hot dog or a fruit cup for lunch. I’ve never had to make the kind of judgment call that will ruin someone’s life or end it entirely. God help me if I ever actually DO have to make that call – I torment myself enough when the decision affects imaginary, digital people, I shudder to think how I’d take that kind of pressure in real life.

And this is just how I get when I have to pick a flavor of ice cream.

Having said that, while these moments in games can be stressful, I hope developers keep making them, for two reasons. First, some of the best and clearest memories I have of gaming are of moments like these. While they’re not happy memories, it’s still evidence that video games have a remarkable impact on me, and, as far as I’m concerned, further proof that video games are an art form.

And second, these moments can help inform us of who we are, and what we’re capable of. In the Spec Ops example I outlined before, I chose to try to save both of those men, knowing it was probably hopeless, because I couldn’t bring myself to choose one man to die over another. While it may be true that in trying to save all, I will wind up saving none (it was certainly true in the game), it still beats arbitrarily condemning someone to die over another. And I think if confronted with the same option in real life, I would do exactly the same.

I hope I never have to make a choice like that. But if I do, at least I’m confident now that I’d be able to live with myself afterwards, no matter how it turns out.