Decisions, decisions, decisions…
Being able to choose how I interact with other characters has always been my favorite aspect of video games. To have the fusion of personalities between yourself and the character you are playing can be very powerful and if utilized properly, can result in very intense attachments.
These choices can be very revealing of one's own personality, or at the very least, your current moods (I know on my darker days I’m far more likely to tell a bow-legged, orphan child to jog on when they ask me for change). Profound consequences can arise from these often seemingly minor decisions that not only affect gameplay, but how you think/feel about characters, morality and the world both inside and outside the game.
Explaining lore in games has always been a double edged sword - too little and you know nothing about the world you are in, too much and you risk overwhelming people who might not necessarily be interested.
One of the ways the Elder Scrolls series has revealed information on the happenings of Tamriel has been through being able to enquire as much or as little as you want with NPCs and The Elder Scrolls Online is no different. Combined with fully voiced NPCs, ESO offers a wealth of information on the world around you through optional dialogs, without ramming it down your throat through repetitive, arrow injured, Nords.
Following the lead of SWTOR, choice in quest development through dialogue has made it’s way into ESO, which help make it the wonderfully interactive MMO that it is. While not hugely game changing, the choices offered are often morally challenging. In one instance, I found myself forced to choose between sacrificing a knowledgeable but old wizard or his young, “well endowed” Elven apprentice, who insisted that l should sacrifice her as the old guys knowledge was essential. While I did not see the after effects of this choice majorly impact the game, for that moment I was forced to think to myself “What would I do if this happened in real life?”
True to real life, I saved the well endowed Elven apprentice.
Combined with a touching story - in this case a heartbroken persons journey to find meaning in the love of his life's wedding to someone else - dialog choices place us in the shoes of the character and make their problems our own.
As I scraped my way to my ex’s wedding, scavenging through bins and whatnot to get by, I encountered lots of individuals experiencing very real life issues and was force to chose whether to sacrifice precious time and money to help them out, ignore them or to take advantage of their vulnerability. Thinking myself a good person, I took every chance to prove it to myself by helping people out. ASM manipulated this empathy in ingenious ways, and by the end, I felt emotionally exhausted by the choices I was forced to make.
I had tried to talk people out of suicide, drug abuse, murder and so on - not all successfully - and was left with the bitter taste of “what if I had said -?”. At this point I realized I had gone through the whole game trying to take control of every persons life for them, trying to show them the error of their ways, and saw how blind I was for assuming I could do so. The game uses often over the top tragedy and comedy in equal measures to both criticize society, the player and his/her choices to great effect. It is intelligent, thought provoking writing at its best.
On a side note, I haven’t been as distressed watching two people tying the knot since The Red Wedding.
A common critique of dialog choices in games is that they very often have little effect on the storyline of the game as a whole. Rather than finding this as a negative thing, I feel this accurately depicts the way life often seems to have a beginning and end set out for us, highlighting making how we fill the space between as the important part.
The Walking Dead is one of my favorite example of this. In a zombie apocalypse, you have to make quick decisions on the spot if you want to survive. TWD reflects this by putting a time limit on many life threatening decisions. Through the autosave feature, it then forces you to take responsibility and live with them through the rest of the game.
While these decisions left the horrible “what if” feeling through the rest of the game, on another playthrough I found that my choices had no effect on the overall ending, as many of the decisions took us to the same conclusion regardless. Although initially disheartened by this, I found that I still felt responsible for the outcomes of my choices in the first playthrough and still questioned the decisions I had made. In those brief moments when I was forced to make a choice in a situation I had no control over, I had a glimpse into my own morality,and was forced to deal with the emotions that came about due to consequences of my choices.
Think of your favorite TV series and picture being able to take part in the events that unfold, make choices for the main characters and form relationships with the other characters. That is what The Walking Dead games do and the end result is extremely emotionally provoking.
Knights of the Old Republic has always been a cherished game of my childhood, probably being what sparked my love of Dialog Choices in games, and I was skeptical that this could be replicated in an MMO through SWTOR - How wrong I was.
SWTOR is laced with Dialog Choices - Through your characters main storyline, side quests, Interacting with your follower and even in the multiplayer aspects such as the Flashpoints (Instanced group missions). Bioware seamlessly blends the dialog in instances with multiple people involved through players randomly having their dialog choices chosen. This produces a wonderfully roleplay-esque feel to group missions as everyone's character gets a voice and their personalities are shown through their choices.
You may think that the Sith will have all “bad” dialogs and the republic have all “good” ones. This is not the case. SWTOR manages to allow for good/bad choices on either side, without it feeling unrealistic. I played as a Sith, however, I considered my character to be good, or at the very least honorable. I saved fellow Sith apprentices, stopped mass murders and let Jedi live, whilst managing to rock my suave black robe. This blur of morality not only makes for interesting character development, but is a wonderful unbiased glimpse into the worlds of the Sith/Republic, showing how each side has its share of monsters and heroes.
While I feel SWTOR can be criticized for many of its other features, its dialog choices are definitely not one of them, contributing to its wonderfully interactive storylines (yes there are many of them) and making the game worthy of succeeding the Knights of the Old Republic games
Mass Effect 3 utilizes dialog with characters so well that I found myself spending vast amounts of time keeping up to date with all the members of my ship and interacting them outwith the main storyline itself
As my interactions with each crewmember developed throughout the game, I became more and more attached to them. I found out what they did in their spare time and joined them outside of missions. I learned of their problems and helped them through them. I had banter with them as good friends would do. I cared about what happened to them, and the line between myself and my character started to become blurred.
In the finale of the game, it reached the point where we had done all we could do to prepare for the final battle and it was time to say our goodbyes. I made up with those I had rocky relationships with, I found out how much the friendship had meant to those I was close to and I made love to one I had fostered a romantic attachment with (AAAUWH YEAAAAUH.) These touching moments where the climax (no pun intended) to hours of building relationships with these characters and where other games may have faltered at the last step, Mass Effect 3 flourished.
I am unashamed to admit that this has been one of the games that has managed to bring a tear to my eye (Multiple tears actually). The whole game had felt like a book that I was writing as I played and when it was over, I was left with a large empty feeling, knowing I could no longer interact with the NPCs I’d come to know and love.
I feel obliged to mention at this point that the ending itself has came under fire for various reasons, and rightly so (although I myself enjoyed it all the same), but the focus on this review has specifically been on dialog choices and their effects on the game. In this respect at least, Mass Effect 3 stands out on the top of my list of games that employ the feature successfully. Even talking about it just now makes me when to binge a weekend away on it, loosing myself in the world and the characters again...
All games have the potential to take us from reality into different worlds. However, games with dialog choices are often at the forefront of this, drawing on the human connection we all strive for and, if successful, turn playing the game into a wonderfully immersive and meaningful experience.