Choice is meaningless unless we’re weak enough to be affected by it.
Choice is clichéd. We’ve been presented with so many different kinds choices so many times that the average gamer can look past the immediate conflict, whatever it may be, and see the machinations going on behind the scenes. From what suit we wear, to the survival of townships, to the outcome of wars, our choices change the world. All that power seems necessary. If the world doesn’t change, then our choices are meaningless, but that power also dilutes the consequences because nothing ever (or rarely) happens to us, the player. It’s the world that changes, and we feel the consequences indirectly.
It’s ironic that in a medium defined by interactivity it’s the moments when we’re not in control that prove to be the most memorable. Dying from a nuke in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare or our murder of Andrew Ryan in BioShock, these moments stand out in our collective memory because they’re rare examples of powerlessness in gaming. Unfortunately, in both games, our fates were decided by the developers before we even hit the start button. We will die by that nuke regardless of how bravely or cowardly we acted beforehand, and we will kill Ryan no matter what we think of him or his philosophy. These moments are not consequences. We did not bring them upon ourselves. So while these two games do make us feel weak at times, they don’t exploit that weakness as best they could.
Then there’s BioShock 2, a game that combines personal consequence with a loss of control, and in doing so forces us to experience the worst kind of consequence in gaming.
The defining moment in BioShock 2 comes at the end of our jaunt as a Little Sister. We’ve wandered through Rapture, collecting pieces of a Big Sister suit for our daughter Eleanor. After returning to Eleanor, she puts on the suit and picks up the Little Sister that we currently inhabit. Eleanor says she’s been watching us, that she’s learned from us, specifically that the way that we’ve treated people over the course of the game has in turn taught her how to treat people. And then she’ll save or kill the Little Sister, depending on which action we took earlier. This is the moment that we lose control in BioShock 2. Whichever action she performs is a consequence of our choices, and from this point on, we cease to have any control over the world. We can still kill Splicers and Big Daddies, but our actions no longer affect Rapture.
This moment works for three major reasons:
First, I’m weak. As a Little Sister staring up at a mechanical monster, I’m defenseless, so Eleanor’s actions actually mean something to me. In Fallout 3, people loved me so much that they would give me items at random. It was a nice gesture but an inherently pointless one because I had no use for their gifts. Their charity became tragic when I realized that they actually thought that they were helping me. But if I was in position of weakness, I would have a completely different reaction. Their charity would actually be helpful, and I would be thankful instead of pestered.
Second, I’m at the mercy of another character. In Heavy Rain, I play an average guy. I don’t feel strong, so the game does that right. However, every consequence is a direct result of a choice that I make. By that, I mean that there’s no second party involved. My actions aren’t spurring others to act for or against me. It’s one thing to feel weak in a game, like in Demon’s Souls, where we’re fighting enemies stronger than ourselves. In that world, we can always run away, but it’s something entirely different to be weak and backed into a corner, our fates in the hands of another. That’s the ultimate loss of control.
Third, I’m facing consequences, not just unforeseen events. It’s not enough that in a moment of weakness another character helps or hurts me, in BioShock 2 that kindness or cruelty stems from a decision that I made. I didn’t know Eleanor was watching me when I saved the Little Sisters. I thought that my choice was being made in a vacuum, so when she admitted to watching me and imitated my actions, those choices that I had made were given new meaning and were made more important in retrospect. In a moment of ultimate weakness, I become my own victim. BioShock 2 makes a strong case for holding information back from the player, for delaying consequences. We don’t have to have all the facts before making a decision. It’s okay to reveal a twist later that makes us reflect back on that decision in new ways.
All these reasons are showcased again at the very end of the game. I’m hanging onto the side of an escape pod as it jets to the surface. I can see inside the pod, it’s flooded, but that’s fine because Eleanor is safe in her Big Sister suit, swimming around as calmly as a fish. But Sofia Lamb is drowning. I want to kill her for everything she put me and my daughter through, but since that’s impossible now, I’m content to just watch her die slowly. She struggles, I smile, then Eleanor appears next to her with an air tank and saves her life while telling me through the radio that I had taught her the value of forgiveness.
Forgiveness my ass, I want revenge. Essentially, I watch as another character takes away my last chance for revenge while telling me that it’s my fault. From the moment Eleanor saves or kills the Little Sister, my actions no longer impact Rapture. Instead that power -- that control -- is given to her. In this way, I get to see the ripple effect of my decisions.
Imagine if this kind of rippling, delayed consequence were in Fallout 3. You teach your daughter morality then let her explore the Capital Wasteland. She wanders around making decisions based on what you taught her, setting events in motion that you have no way of predicting. The world would naturally feel more alive because, when I’m not treated as the center of the universe, the universe always feels more real. While you might not necessarily be in a position of weakness in this situation, the very fact that there’s another person in this world with the same level of agency as you represents a significant loss of control. And then when you do get into trouble, how others react to you will be based on how she acted towards them, i.e. her interpretation of your morality.
It’s important that we experience a loss of control. In BioShock 2, we feel fine in the beginning, when we hold a little girl’s life in our hands at least once per hour, but we then lose all that control and become that little girl, both literally and figuratively. By delaying the real consequences of our decisions, the game makes us feel powerful in the moment of choice and weak in the moment of consequence when our level of control matters most. For all of the variety of choices offered in Fallout 3, Mass Effect 2, or Heavy Rain, none come close to portraying the absolute helplessness that BioShock 2 does. That’s why I’m so thankful that I saved all the Little Sisters, because when I finally got to see that moment through their eyes, I wanted to be saved as well.