Choose How The World Will End: False Choices in Videogames

The next Deus Ex is a few months away, and there are already hints at what the next Mass Effect will be about. I think now is a good time to reflect on how the previous games in the series ended.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution starts with a jolt, throwing the player as the protagonist in a change that evokes interesting questions of embodiment. It charges through a convoluted science-fiction conspiracy of cybernetics-based social change before running face-first into an ending. In the end, you are presented with a choice of four options that determines the future of the human race.

The Mass Effect-trilogy follows the epic adventures of Commander Sheppard in a galaxy threatened by extinction. Through three games, you fight endless amounts of overwhelming enemies, conquer crises after crises and – very probably – lover after lover. In the end, you are presented with a choice of four options that determines the future of the whole galaxy.1

In both games, you have the right to make these choices because you are the hero. You suffer, you kill and you conquer, so you get to make the choice for all humans in one case and for everyone living in the other. The existential choice is made not by the philosopher with existential questions in their mind, but by the warrior with blood on their hands. This seems to be a recurring theme: existential choices are the given to the hero, because they have gone through the hero’s journey, and earned the right to make the choices, usually by a genocidal amount of killing.

In the first Mass Effect you must make a painful choice between two of your companions. One of them dies, while the other survives. While making the choice, you can’t help but consider all the consequences this has for the game going on. One character will follow you through the rest of game (and possibly two other games), while the other one is dead. The consequences of your choice are very concrete and real.

If we compare this to the choices made at the end of the game of both Deus Ex and Mass Effect the situations there are very different. The choices have no consequences, apart from which video you get to watch. The choice makes no difference in the game’s world, since the game will end after they are made. Essentially, the world will end as soon as you’ve made the choice.

This is what makes Mass Effect’s ending particularly bad. By the time you reach the end, you have played three games with many interesting and meaningful choices, but the actual choices you’ve made during the game (whom to love? whom to save from dying?) are meaningless. They have no effect on the ending of the game. Instead, you get one dialogue that determines the fate of the galaxy.

There is classic rpg that managed this much better. In the original Fallout games the game ends with a narrative overview of the meaningful choices made during the game, showing how the actions of the player-character affect the lives of others. The choices are connected to moments in the game, instead of being a separate chamber of choose-your-own-ending. There is an old quote from Sid Meyer that says that videogames are about making interesting choices. It’s interesting that despite all these years of trying, games are often so bad at giving you those choices.

I’m not saying that the endings in Deus Ex and Mass Effect were simply bad: rather I’m saying that they couldn’t help but be bad – there was no way to show a video in the end of the game that could have fixed the fact that the choices never had any meaning to begin with.

Part 2 of posts discussing Deus Ex: Human Revolution. You can also read part 1: 0 Unread Emails: Rewards in Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

  1. Both games actually present three main options. The fourth one is to refuse to make the choice, which is of course a choice in itself.