ME2 : The Illusion of Choice

I completed the final suicide mission in ME2 the other night, and as with all other times, everyone survived. The largest playthrough difference here is that my Renegade score was nearly at par with my Paragon. In the aggregate I was a middle of the road player, yet in the absolute sense, everyone survived and I had Samara, which is objectively the same result as a pure Paragon run. This made me think more about the choices I had made in the game, and how they did or did not impact the end result.

This is arguably different than ME1, where the decision points are typically tied to major events and results in of themselves. ME2’s Paragon/Renegade approach is in the method by which you achieve a result, it’s a lot different.

I do want to state early on that I am fan of the ME2 approach.

Design

As children, most of us were exposed to “choose your own adventure” books. It felt like you were creating your own story. The truth is that someone else built some blocks and put a stream of logic decisions to connect them. Designing anything is exactly this process, games included.

Putting a consequential choice in a game means that you need to build at least 2 outcomes, either A or B. And then you need to keep track of that decision for the rest of the game. If you chose to let Kaidan die in ME1, Ash is there instead for ME2 and ME3. Context around that choice has impacts as well, and it is entirely common to have one decision impact a future one. The early Fallout RPGs had actions in one setting impact those in another, and even had to account for the non-linear quest design. Adding impactful choices can become extremely complex and if done incorrectly breaks immersion.

Divinity 2 does a superb job in this, yet also limits the impacts. The impacts of the choices only affect the act in which the choice takes place. You can kill a quest giver in one quest, blocking other quests. The influence of those choices are felt all along the game, in that your reputation may open other doors.

Long story short, the design approach of choice can become unmanageable.

Flavour

An alternative approach is to add choice in the approach of an outcome, rather than the outcome itself. Saren at the end of ME1 will die, no matter what choice you take. Either you talk him out (saving some battle time), or you go guns blazing. Or perhaps the larger goal is to reach the end of a building, and you can either go through the window, the main floor, or the elevator. In the larger picture, the major beats are all there, but perhaps you reach them in a different order.

Now, I realize that ME3 took a lot of flack on this because the final culmination of all these choices were mostly ignored, or perhaps the view that the choices were not reflective of the types of choices presented earlier. I’ll get to that when I complete ME3 and refresh the idea.

For ME2 however, there is plenty of flavor on each and every quest, which allows for some customization of the story, without impacting the major items. The Samara/Morinth choice doesn’t change any story beats, it changes the skin of the squadmate.

Compare it to something like Hades, where there is dialogue and events which can add flavor to future events. The devs have some interesting bits on how they keep track of all these events, allowing for continual new items to show up in the story. None are actual choices in the measured sense, but more related to recognition of experienced events – checkboxes of sorts. The devs were clear that this added a significant amount of complexity to their design, and yet, they are the items that add the most amount of charm to the game.

Game Metrics

The meaningful points of change in the game are not explicitly related to an in-game choice, or more accurately they are reflective of a lack of choice. Success on the suicide mission is entirely predicated on the amount of optional content you’ve completed. The 3 ship upgrades are required to complete the non-interactive entry to the final mission. Miss some, people die.

The final sets of mission success is based on you having completed the loyalty missions for given characters. You need to send a tech expert in the vents. If you have not completed the loyalty quests, anyone you send will die. If you have, and send a non-tech person, they die. There are 4 such “choices” in this final quest. Since these are end-of-game choices, they impact the story but not the final part of the game. Further, these choices are reflected as influence in ME3, less about changing the larger outcomes. In this sense, its more like Divinity 2.

The Illusion

The best choice is the one that’s predetermined, or the false choice. Best in the objective sense, where it can be anticipated, measured, controlled, and managed. The element of chaos is persistent, and when you purposefully inject that chaos, you create work for everyone. There’s the reality of choice paralysis. How many types of toothpaste do we really need? – which is a sort of false choice since it’s all the same company with a slightly different flavor, hoping you buy multiple.

Really think about it. How many truly impactful decisions do you make in a day? In a year? Bioshock Infinite was an entire game on this principle. Every choice was an illusion in the larger arc.

ME2 presents the player with a multitude of events that have the illusion of choice. Reinforced even because when you take that choice, an magical number goes up. If you were to stop playing before the last mission, you would be 99% the same as every other player. It does a tremendous job in the final act to present impactful choices, but those impacts are only felt in cutscenes rather than impacting future choices.

I posit that this presentation of final choice in ME2, and what is a minor cliffhanger, set up ME3 for very high expectations. More on how that worked once I complete the ME3 playthrough.

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