Published on July 3rd, 2013 | by Andy Astruc4
Solid state decisions: Uploading our morals to the cloud
Everyone cheats. It’s perfectly human to seek out and exploit advantages in a system, be it in real life or the digital realm. People keep the extra ten dollars the cashier accidentally handed them as change for a five. They speed up to sneak through yellow traffic lights. They eat the last cupcake while nobody is watching. Poker is ostensibly a game about lying to people, with the cards existing merely as objects to funnel mistruths through. Looting is cheating in its most raw form: a group let loose to defy society’s rules because it thinks The Man is busy. We should be less surprised at how many couples experience cheating and more amazed that so many of us manage to avoid it.
Bending rules is even more common in video games than it is in real life, mainly because there are far less consequences involved. If a game lets me gun down pedestrians and blow up office buildings as part of normal gameplay, I might as well spawn a flying tank with infinite missiles while I’m at it. On top of that, I can always press reset and return to an earlier checkpoint if things go south, which is a cheat in and of itself. If time travel existed, the bulk of quantum jumps would be to avoid eating too much sweet and sour pork or to stop yourself accidentally implying someone was fat.
Moral choices — those pesky moments when a game asks you to pick one button over another, or wants to know if you’re playing an irredeemable vagina of a character versus an orphan-saving doctor of saintology — are a prime moment for cheating. In theory, these moments define your avatar; they are the mistakes which will build your legacy. In practice they’re often an ideal point to save your game and test which option you like the best.
Like sticking your fingers in the pages of a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, this creates a top-down destruction of your playthrough that can, ironically, never be undone. Memories of the narrative you were to craft are tainted by the memories of that time you broke down and went back to actually save the Rachni Queen, then regretted it. The problem, such as it is, varies in scope from game to game. Bioware titles are buried deep in a million decision-making moments, but each one is so carefully marked as a very important question that you could never miss it or mistake it for a simple scene to be interacted with. Something like Dragon Age draws out these choices and leanings over time, giving you ample opportunity to spot exactly where things are going should you develop the desire to jump tracks. The Walking Dead makes choices no less obvious, but its key moments are given peculiar weight by their speed and emotional connections. Frequently I made a rash decision in Telltale’s adventures, but my engagement with the characters and their stories left me with no desire to go back and fix it. Even the idea of ending each episode with a survey screen that stacked your choices against those of others felt somehow offensive to the only true sequence of events: mine.
The Witcher series prefers obfuscation when it comes to game-changing player decisions, and to its credit it comes closer than most to an organic and cheater-proof system. Events and conversations in The Witcher certainly lead in definite directions, but the effects spread further than the immediate. It’s often impossible to tell how your actions have led to any one point, making it virtually pointless to return to an earlier point if a specific outcome is in mind. In a similar vein, Westwood’s Blade Runner has countless tiny event flags and random occurrences surrounding the cut and dry player interactions like “shoot the owner of the gun shop” and “convince the 14 year old girl to run away with you”.
But there is a largely unexplored option that could easily complement any or all of these systems, particularly as we lumber towards a decidedly digital future. Cloud saving. In particular, automatic cloud saving. It happens in MMOs rather frequently these days, particularly as the genre exists in a curiously sparse overlap between constantly online titles and games with a narrative focus. Everything one does in an MMO is recorded and etched forever in the stone tablets of that particular character, which — in the case of games like The Secret World, Guild Wars 2 and The Old Republic — includes any story choices.
Bear with me for just a moment as I regale you with an abridged version of The Ballad of Long Bones. Pictured at the top of this article, Long Bones is a tiny creature from Guild Wars 2 called an Asura. They are a weak but intelligent race prone to inventing floating cities and being intolerably (but justifiably) smug. Long Bones is an Asura who leans more towards science than most, no matter what pesky morals, ethics or authorities might get in the way. Among his more admirable achievements is the time when one of his peers was accidentally transferred inside a golem. When this was revealed to be permanent, he did the only logical thing: he put the Asura-brained golem’s boyfriend in a different stone robot so they could make awkward robot love and he could gain some scientific insight. This isn’t just an abhorrent and profitable event, it’s an unalterable part of Long Bones’ history. No version of him exists that didn’t choose to rip the psyche from one of his own people for science; there is only Long Bones.
If this permanence could be transferred to single player games, it could completely change the dynamics of choice. It wouldn’t just be your emotional connection or a desire for an “evil” playthrough that pushed you into action; everything you did would be a part of the character for eternity. Just like real life, until the servers crash. While Megacorporation One goes on and on about the Infinite Power of the Cloud in terms of technical power and graphical fidelity, and while slug-lords insist that server side calculations are improving your city-building experience somehow, this is a tangible improvement that could be made to improve the narrative power of video games — and in a way unique to the medium.
This isn’t a viable solution for every game that has choice mechanics, of course. Part of the fun of the Mass Effect series has always been running through the game multiple times with radically different Commander Shepards. But it’s another tool in the toolbox that isn’t being particularly well utilised at this stage. And there are degrees. Imagine a title where subsequent runs are affected by how you handled things the previous time around; formerly friendly NPCs are up in your face due to your reputation as a guy who shoots first and asks questions later and then shoots. Or perhaps an open world title where events and the behaviour of characters is changed based on the save states of all those who have played or are currently playing.
Where technical people may see straightforward power in the cloud, I see the potential for manipulation. Games development is all about creating an experience for the player, and I can think of nothing better than a new breed of game that can not only messes with my head but anticipates my moves. The advantage of being a puppet is you get to be in the show.