Every day you are presented with binary decisions. Either you wake up or you go back to sleep. Either you go to work or you go back to sleep. Either you eat lunch or you go back to sleep.
No, I did not get much sleep last night.
But my point is that your everyday life is full of these choices. You are presented with two options and you can only pick one. You could choose to not choose, but that’s actually another binary decision: choose or don’t choose.
So then it’s odd when games catch a lot of flak for having binary decisions. Either you save the princess or save the town. Either you kill the villain or let him live. Either you blow up the camp or you blow up the factory. It’s pretty straight forward: you are presented with two options and you can only choose one.
And these are not insignificant decisions. Unlike you deciding if you want one or two slices of cheese on your turkey sandwich today, these actions have huge consequences. People will die or live on and wars will come to an end or just begin. Video games deal almost exclusively in momentous, weighty decisions (when you are given the chance, anyways).
So then why the hate? In Infamous, Cole’s choices saved either a lot of lives or just one life, changing his entire life in one fell swoop. In Grand Theft Auto IV, Niko had to willingly and purposefully choose between two people who would live and who would die. Mass Effect forces you into siding with logic or with old allegiances. If someone were to come up to you The Box-style and made you make the same decisions, I doubt you would be so blasé.
The problem, of course, is that these games split these choices into very clear good and bad categories, some of which do so in a very visual, discrete manner. Infamous has a karma system, each decision color-coordinated to show you if what you’re doing is good or bad, so you know that a good man would save the group of doctors over your decidedly less useful girlfriend. Mass Effect has the renegade/paragon meters and a set, rigid methodology of responding in conversations either by the dialogue wheel or the interrupt buttons. You always know which side of the line your actions and words fall on because of this. GTAIV has neither of these and actually has some more morally gray decisions (e.g. the Blood Brothers mission), but it’s usually well implied what is what such as when it comes down to Playboy and Dwayne.
But I think there’s a solution. Or rather, Telltale Games has stumbled on a possible solution in The Walking Dead. The developers have said in an interview (I’ll find it and link to it, but just trust me for now) that they aim for a 50% split on every major plot decision in their episodes. While the actual numbers are a bit hit and miss (most of the post-game statistics are still heavily skewed one way or another), the results are proof enough: people care.
No one likes making the decisions in The Walking Dead. While some may seem easy or more pragmatic than another, the ensuing fallout is never pleasant for anyone. In fact, the lead up and the execution are rarely pleasant for anyone else, either, but they are necessary.
They are necessary and gray in the worst ways. There is no clear good or bad side, sure, but you can also see the merits of both sides oh so very clearly. In Infamous, you know you should pick the doctors, but you do hesitate and linger on the thought of Trish. However, like a fog rolling over London, the doctors and the potential good they can do eventually overtake your love and nostalgia. You may consider both sides, but you have to make a concerted effort to defeat your instincts on this one.
In The Walking Dead, however, the fog doesn’t come in. It’s already there and there is a lightsaber duel or wizard battle going on in the middle of it. You vacillate between your choices, knowing exactly how those around you will react but not knowing what the outcome will be. She will obviously be mad or he will obviously be sad, but you won’t know what happens after that, and what’s more terrifying than the unknown?
And it’s not always practicality versus emotion. Sometimes your allegiances are strained or the necessities of one group are pitted against the necessities of another and you must choose which one is better. Better for either you or others is a completely separate issue, but that’s part of the emotive mechanism that Telltale manipulates within you.
And these are always binary decisions, proof enough that the one-or-the-other style of making players choose isn’t inherently faulty. It’s not about making choices weighty and hefty as that is simple enough (just put someone’s life on the line), but you have to make it matter not only to your character in the game but also to you as a player. I generally don’t care about ruffling up any feathers in choice-driven games, but The Walking Dead makes me hate making decisions precisely because I care about those feathers and their currently unruffled state. Am I propelled by emotion or utilitarianism? How much can I put my faith in this person to protect me and my own? How long before everything goes to shit?
Video games are not razors; more blades do not make a better game. By putting more lives, civilizations, or galaxies on the line, you do not make me care more. It’s about making those few lives count and making sure I more than know that. I have to feel it.
Now excuse me while I binary decision myself back into bed.