This question was inspired by a submission from Gameological (1.0) commenter EmperorNortonI and our recent discussions about morality and choice in BioWare games:
There have been plenty of games, especially in the past few years with the likes of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, that were able to make the decisions they present weighty and meaningful. What’s the ugliest choice a game has forced you to make, and why did it stick with you?
[Note: As you might expect, the staff’s answers contain specific plot details from various games.]
The one story I go to whenever this topic comes up is Revan’s choice to stay good or embrace evil in Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic. I was working in a D.C. bar at the time. George W. Bush was at the height of his powers. The land was covered in darkness. We were still a decade away from Deflategate and an all-female Ghostbusters cast. When faced with choosing the light side or having Big Z choke his best friend to death at my bidding, I was paralyzed. I spent the next two days bugging people at the bar, taking an informal survey about what I should do. (My tips suffered.) I nervously burned through a pack of Camel Lights. But in the end, I did the only thing a shiftless 24-year-old in the same position could be expected to do. Happy trails, Mission.
There’s a moment near the middle of Spec Ops: The Line where you come upon two bound criminals being guarded by two snipers. Through the radio, you’re told that you have to choose one of these men to kill. One man stole water (“a capital offense,” the man on the radio reminds us). The other man retaliated, killing the thief’s family. If you refuse, the snipers will kill both of them. You’re not fast enough to kill both snipers before one shoots you, so the only way to proceed is to choose. Like a lot of the moral choices in The Line, this situation is a bit contrived. You and your character, Capt. Walker, are both being forced to star in a twisted morality play. But the choice still gnawed at me, if only because it flew in the face of what games had trained me to expect. There was no right choice here; both choices were decidedly wrong. I wasn’t able to role-play the hero like I wanted. I only had one question to consider: What sort of bad guy do I want to be? Having to answer still stings a little.
At the end of The Walking Dead: Season Two your band of hardy survivors has been slashed down to just four: Clementine, Kenny, Jane, and baby Alvin Jr. Kenny and Jane have been at each others’ throats since the instant they met. Tempers are flaring, and after it looks like Alvin Jr. has been lost to the undead, the two of them get in a straight-up brawl, venting the frustrations they were barely containing while Clementine watches helplessly. At the climax of the fight, Clem grabs her gun and has to make the season’s ultimate decision: kill Kenny or let Kenny kill Jane. This decision is particularly ugly because it’s a “lesser of two evils” choice. In season one, choosing between Carley and Doug was difficult because they both seemed like decent folks with useful skills, but by this point in season two, Kenny and Jane are both deranged, violent, untrustworthy lunatics. But you’re only 11 years old and you’ve got a baby to take care of, so you’ve got to pick your poison.
The Dragon Age games force players to make plenty of tough choices. Do you show mercy to the villain you’ve spent most of the game trying to stop? Do you dabble in forbidden magics despite all the cautionary tales you’ve heard? Which of your companions do you take to bed after a long day of killing stuff and saving the world? While the full implications of your decisions might not be known for hours, when important choices come up, they tend to be pretty obvious. But sometimes they’re not. When I first started playing Dragon Age II, I created a mage. When my sister, also a mage, died just a few hours in, I was saddened by her noble sacrifice but not entirely surprised after Dragon Age: Origins’ opening slaughter-fest. My sword-wielding brother and I went on to have plenty of sweet adventures. But then I decided I wanted to try out another class. I created a rogue version of Hawke and was surprised when it was my brother who died instead. It made sense in retrospect—a party starting with two mages or zero would be unbalanced. But I didn’t realize that the game’s life or death choices began before the first dialogue options.
The choice that troubled me the most in any game I’ve ever played actually wasn’t a choice at all. When first playing The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time, I sincerely thought that I’d chosen a “dark ending” when I wrenched the Master Sword out of the pedestal and shunted Link seven years into the future, leaving Hyrule a desiccated wasteland for my friends to suffer in. I spent hours going back to my save game, exploring every nook and cranny for a safer path forward. I dumbly traded every mask at the Happy Mask Gift Shop, talked to every Zora, Goron, Kokiri, and Hyrulean over and over again expecting the game to be far more complex and cruel than it was. After a weekend of fruitlessly trying to find a new way, I bit the bullet and decided to just accept fate. Had I been a bit older, a bit more cynical and cognizant of the patterns in fantasy, I would have known better than to think all was lost. Taking up that sword was a heavy burden for my brain back then, though, and my choice still resonates today.
Virtue’s Last Reward is a game full of terrible decisions that you need to relive over and over again. For the most part, they start to weigh less on you over time after a while. But there’s one decision that always irks me: voting against Alice when she’s in the infirmary. The woman is, as far as you can tell, incapacitated and defenseless, so you have no reason not to trust her—except that if you do, she stabs you in the back. Choosing to betray her in the time-sensitive polling booth, however, results in your own near-immediate death. You need to see out the consequences of both choices (a big part of the game is replaying past sections) in order to learn everything you need to rewrite history and complete the game. I’ve played the whole thing twice, meaning I’ve been double-crossed by Alice at the same juncture four times, but at no point did I feel like I was doing the right thing. I always felt a heavy pit in my stomach as I pressed the vote button.
Fable II promised nuanced moral dilemmas, but lead designer Peter Molyneux famously displays a level of enthusiasm in discussing his games that far outpaces their scope. However, the game is not entirely without difficult choices. When The Reaver asks you to return the dark seal to The Shadow Court, it’s a wonder the hero accepts the task. Heedless of worrisome foreshadowing, you agree, only to arrive at the temple alongside a frightened peasant woman. The spirits of the court tell you that whoever holds the seal will sacrifice their youth so The Reaver may stay vital. The player can either force the woman to take the seal or keep it and be cursed with a hideous appearance. It is a base appeal to vanity, and I’m embarrassed by how long I hemmed and hawed over the decision. I tried very hard to justify not suffering the curse. Sure, it’s evil to sacrifice this woman, but I have the long-term health of my kingdom to think about! I could kill every demon in Albion, and I’d still have difficulty ruling the kingdom with a puckered sphincter for a face. Ultimately, I did choose the curse, but it was sdifficult to see the avatar I had lovingly cultivated so scarred. The woman was safe, though. I’d visit her in the village from time to time and—true to the spirit of Fable—fart on her.