The Zen of Video Games – Choices


The simplest, smallest choice can have far-reaching effects you’ll never know about. Choosing to drive a different route to get to work one morning could condemn someone else to die several days later. It’s just another part of the unpredictability of life. You just never know.

Choice has always been an important part of video games, even as far back as Super Mario Bros. If I choose to get the hidden 1-up in the early part of the world 1-1, I’ll miss out on taking the pipe, which skips about half the level. In Chrono Trigger, you can choose to have Melchior make the Prismatic Dress, the ultimate armor for the ladies, or three less-powerful Prismatic Helms, which anyone can wear. One of my favorites, Front Mission 3, has a simple choice early on – go hang out with your friend, or stay in – that changes the way the rest of the game plays out.

It won’t save this poor bastard from my massive mech shotgun, though.

But rarely did video games have choices that produce far-reaching consequences – until recently, at any rate. And even then, it seems most choices are built on a pure good/pure evil system – would you save this basket of puppies from a burning house, or watch them cook and then eat them? I’m exaggerating, but sometimes it feels that way. There’s rarely any middle ground.

Games have not yet mastered the art of choices that have no clear moral or tangible benefit/disadvantage that have very clear and lasting ramifications. The Front Mission 3 example is the closest thing I can think of, off the top of my head, and that was back in 2000.

And only lately are games experimenting with extended consequences. Mass Effect is a phenomenal science-fiction third-person-shooter-RPG hybrid with an incredible universe of characters, races, and worlds to explore. And one of its most impressive features is continuity. See, you will make thousands upon thousands of choices in Mass Effect, and not only will choices affect events later in the game, they have the capacity to affect events in later games.

Not really sure if Liara’s going for a ‘come hither’ look or if she’s actually been zombified here.

In Mass Effect, you play as Commander Shepard, and how he/she looks – just as how he/she behaves, is entirely up to you, the player. Towards the end of the game, you have to choose between two human squadmates. Both are in dire straits, but you can only rescue one of them – the other will die. That character will not appear in Mass Effect 2 or 3, except in flashback sequences. The character who survived will have a relatively small part in Mass Effect 2, but in Mass Effect 3, they can be fully recruited into your squad again.

Characters recruited to join you in Mass Effect 1 can open up side quests or give you bonuses in Mass Effect 2, and even Mass Effect 3. Conversations held, things you said, can come back to help or haunt Commander Shepard. And these are not small games – 20 to 60 hours of gameplay each. And they were released years apart. So, on some level, something I did years ago can have a profound effect on me today.

And that is DEFINITELY true about life.

The most recent and profound example I can think of involves a girl. The best stories always do, in my opinion. And even better (for the romantics, at least), it involves our first date.

Her: “He seems interesting – this might be going somewhere….”
Him: “God, I love breasts.”

I remember all my dates, largely because there aren’t that many to remember, but this one was special. The girl was (and is) beautiful, the restaurant was fantastic, the food was delicious, and the comedy class we went to afterwards was a great time. Easily the best date I’ve ever been on. But the salient point here – and what I’ll remember most about it, besides the eight-nippled dog-boy – don’t ask – was our conversation.

After the wine arrived, but before the meal, we were quietly talking. I don’t remember how, but somehow we started talking about our flaws. And I looked at her, and in a split-second I decided, knowing this could be a very bad idea if I wanted to woo this girl, that I was going to be completely open and honest with her about my flaws. And I told her something I hadn’t told another living soul since college. To my complete astonishment, and to her credit, she didn’t flee screaming from the room, but responded in kind, confessing a very personal flaw of her own.

It was a remarkable experience – here we were, our first date, and we were talking about things psychiatrists would have a hard time dragging out of us. We both agreed that this total honesty trend should continue, and as I said, the rest of our date went really well.

Though the total honesty trend did continue, and there were more dates, things did not go as hoped for between the two of us in the long run (story of my damn life), but we were and are still good friends, though separated somewhat.

And for the first time in what feels like forever, that separation is not maintained via restraining order.

Fast forward to a month ago or so. I’d discovered a rather alarming physical problem – it’s a bit too personal to talk about, but suffice to say that fixing the problem would require costly surgery, and without health insurance, I doubted I could afford it, even with the best financing. I didn’t know what to do.

On a total whim, I scoped out the girl’s Facebook page, which I hadn’t seen in some time. There was a great picture of her with her friend that made me smile. It also made me realize I hadn’t seen her or talked to her in months.

I sent her a text, asking how she was, and she responded enthusiastically, things were going pretty well. She asked how I was, and I remarked that things were not going so well for me. And naturally, as I should’ve known she would, she asked what was wrong.

Now, my gut instinct was to hide it – this problem is embarrassing, and she’s one of few individuals on this planet whose opinion of me actually matters – but I remembered our promise, which had become more of a tradition at this point. Total, brutal honesty, no matter what. So I told her everything in a few text messages.

Her reply told me that her father could help me with my problem. I was amazed, but excited. I would’ve been over the moon if I could’ve just saved a thousand dollars or two.

She then said he could get things fixed for FREE.

The “clunk” sound my jaw made when it hit the floor scared the hell out of my neighbor’s dog.

To say that I was stunned would be an understatement of the highest order. I can’t possibly explain the magnitude of my gratitude. I think I’m going to spend the rest of my life making this up to her and her father, that’s how extraordinary this is. But I realized within minutes that it would never have happened if I hadn’t made the choice to be completely honest on that first date, seven or eight months prior.

And I have been floored by this realization. Ever since then, I’ve been making choices more carefully, deliberating more thoroughly. After all, I can’t possibly know what effect my choices will have. If something as against my self-interest as telling a girl about a deeply personal flaw ON OUR FIRST DATE can have outrageously beneficial effects months later, how can I possibly gauge what effect ANYTHING I do will have on me, or anyone else?

In the end, though, I think it’s not going to change how I make my choices. Just as I do in Mass Effect, I try to choose what’s right – I think my decision to be completely honest with her so long ago came from the fact that it would’ve felt wrong not to tell her – and the decision to be completely honest with her a few days ago was because it DEFINITELY would’ve been wrong not to tell her after we’d promised to be honest.

I’m not a paragon of virtue, like my Commander Shepard. I’m not the best man I can be, not yet anyway. But I know it’s important to at least try to make the right choices – not just right for me, but for others as well.

Because you never know whose life you’ll be changing with that choice.