Sometimes the only right decision is the least-wrong one
Updated with the Community Choice winner!
Life, we're told, boils down to the choices you make. And traditionally, video games are all about the faces you shoot as a result of those decisions... usually. That, or offering black-and-white options as we discussed last year, giving players the choice to be either a paragon of good or an evil scumbag.
We've written about this before when we discussed the top 7 gut-wrenching choices, but more recently games have been mixing it up a little. Choosing between saving and harvesting Little Sisters was an obvious black-and-white choice, but in the last few years we've noticed more and more games throwing us between a rock and a hard place. Developers are using their games to test players' ethics with some truly tough decisions that seem built solely to make you feel bad about your choice.
7. Fallout 3 is full of mistakes to make
Fallout 3's wasteland is so vast that you'd be forgiven for thinking your dodgy decisions will never catch up to you. But right from the get-go, the game's throwing tough choices at you--and incorporating far-reaching consequences into your story. The first area, Megaton, is a shanty-town built around an unexploded nuclear weapon that you've the an option of detonating immediately. That's a pretty good metaphor for the game's moral universe, in which every decision contributes to how you're perceived and what avenues remain open to you.
But while that might seem like one, massive example, the game is actually full of smaller choices to make and feel bad about. What does developer Bethesda actually seriously think of players that make these decisions, though? Midway through the game, you're locked in a VR machine and asked to massacre a bunch of AIs... incurring a substantial penalty to your Karma back in the Capital Wasteland. Sure, the "AI" were actually "real" "people," but the anti video game message was obviously there. Obviously.
6. Mass Effect 3's choices are so big you might get dizzy
Fittingly for a series that's all about choices and consequences, Mass Effect saved the biggest decisions for the final installment. Your performance throughout the entire trilogy comes to bear on the game's final hours, forcing a number of decisions that make the past game's choices seem minor in comparison. Which alien race do you eliminate from the universe? Do you allow another race to slowly die at the hands of a deadly virus?
Of course, there was some controversy (understatement alert!) regarding just how much variety these endings really contained, leading to the release of Extended Cut DLC which expanded on the results of your choices. The Wii U version will come with this DLC, as well as the From Ashes DLC, as standard. Of course, some are still arguing that Bioware should release an alternate ending in light of all that DLC...
5. Heavy Rain is all tough choice and grim consequence
Heavy Rain's tough choices go beyond simply offering the player a couple of difficult alternatives to choose between. The game's complex, branching story incorporates a stack of player choices, both major and seemingly minor: Romance or reject female lead Madison? Kick a drug habit or ride it into oblivion? Depending on your performance, the epilogue might contain anything from a happy-ever-after resolution to a grim suicide scene.
Players raised on a diet of 100% Completion scores and save-assisted playthroughs might have trouble with the idea that sometimes, no choice is the right one. Creator David Cage says the best approach to Heavy Rain-and to his upcoming
Beyond: Two Souls-is to fight that perfectionist impulse. Play it once and then dont replay it, suggests Cage. Make choices and then never know what would have happened if youd made a different choice. Because life is like this. But life is scary and disappointing, David--that's why we play games!
4. Skyrim's Chosen One still has some choices to make
Right from Skyrim's initial fade-in, the game's setting you up for a big decision. Will you side with the Empire, forcing unwanted Elven laws upon Skyrim? Or throw your lot in with Stormcloak insurgents, whose strident isolationism veers between noble homeland pride and ugly cartoon racism?
While you'll be fighting a great big evil dragon all the way-spoiler, but you did see the trailers, right?-the game continues to load your choices with ever-more moral and political ramifications. The Empire's telling people who to worship! But the Stormcloaks are massacring the Forsworn! But the Empire's in the pocket of the High Elves! But how far can we trust this Ulfric character anyway? It's enough to make a Dragonborn want to hole up with a house full of redundant shiny crap and just read books about ghosts all day.
3. Spec Ops: The Line is an unremitting deluge of tough-calls
There's always a choice, teammate Lugo tells your character right before the most notorious sequence in Yager's Spec Ops: The Line. No, he's immediately told (by your own character, no less), there's really not. And that's why your guys have to burn dozens of people, combatants and civilian hostages alike, to death with white phosphorous--which, chemically speaking, is two parts napalm to one part pure agonizing evil.
But then, it's hardly like the rest of Spec Ops: The Line is a cakewalk through moral righteousness. The game forces tough choices on players every other scene: Protect an informant or save civilians? Avenge a comrade's lynching or turn the other cheek? There's never a "right" choice, and, often, the game will flat-out tell you that you made the wrong one. Even the game's writer, Walt Williams, says the game's unofficial ending is the one where players simply put down the controller rather than take part in any more gut-wrenching choices. As if that's ever an easy decision to make...
2. XCOM: Enemy Unknown puts the whole world in your hands
It's all well and good to encounter an NPC and be saddled with making the choices that'll keep them alive. But when the task is escalated to essentially protecting the whole world, and all of its countries and people, things get dramatically more complicated. And that's essentially the name of the game in Firaxis' XCOM reboot, which forces players to constantly decide between "bad" and "well, there goes the world."
Ignore a country in Enemy Unknown and its panic will rise--and when its panic rises high enough itll pull out of the XCOM initiative, taking its money with it. Easy solution: Dont ignore a country when it needs you, right? Wrong. Usually, three missions will pop up at once, and youll need to pick only one to help. Its this balancing act that makes XCOM: Enemy Unknown so good, and so damn punishing. Like, come on, South America, you knew we were on our way! COME ON!
1. The Walking Dead leaves the hardest decisions for the living
If you're after a game where zombies exist to groan and slough off limbs, apply elsewhere; these undead are much more intent on testing your moral fiber. Not an episode goes by that you won't have to weigh the important of individual survival against group welfare, or abandoning the infected versus taking your chances until the end. Some choices have immediate payoff... and some, promise developer Telltale Games, have consequences that won't be revealed until the season finale later this year.
But what makes The Walking Dead so painful isn't even the incredible tense, difficult decisions, but the multitude of small ones. Lie to Clementine and the game will note that "She will remember that you said that," immediately letting you know that the small, seemingly innocent choice you made might have rolling repercussions later. This turns everything you say and do into a potential mistake, making playing an episode of The Walking Dead akin to walking on a minefield. Except instead of mines, there are disappointed glares from an eight-year-old, which, we'd say, is much more devastating.
Community Choice: The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings
The people have spoken: The Witcher 2 forces you to make some of the toughest decisions in gaming, simply because of the ambiguous morality and consequences of many of the choices. KnowYourPokemon sums it up nicely, recalling that Practically every decision in that game had a downside to it, story-wise. Nothing was simply black and white, or good and bad. Some of the choices arent even telegraphed to the player, completely changing the way they experience the game based on a previous interaction or exchange. Craza admits that there were things I missed out on that I didnt find out about until I saw them online.
JohnDagger embraced the negative aspect of Geralts constant tough choices, saying that Every decision feels like the wrong one No one is the good guy, and everyone has their own agenda (including your friends). Blaze38 drives it all home, stating that In The Witcher 2 every choice felt like a grey area. Seems like video game decision-making doesnt get any more nerve-wracking than taking a walk in Geralts witchy boots.
What'd we choose to omit?
Doubtless games have forced you into some thorny situations over the years too. What's the most awful thing a game's compelled you to do? Which alternatives had you drawing up "Pro" and "Con" lists? And when you took a chance on your chosen course of action, did it end up how you expected... or were there just more horrible choices to make?