nuke or don't nuke: limitations of binary choice design in video games
November 27, 2019 8:03 AM   Subscribe

Fallout 3, The Outer Worlds, and the Megaton Problem [Unwinnable]
“The Megaton decision goes like this: You exit your vault to find a postapocalyptic wasteland before you, and you start walking towards the nearest signs of life. The first settlement you come to is called Megaton, so named because a certain cult has ensured that the atomic bomb that stands as the centerpiece of the town was never moved or deactivated. You soon meet people who end up giving you two choices to solve a problem: Blow up the bomb, and thus Megaton and its people, or disarm it and kill the man who suggested that you blow up the town. Setting aside the ludicrous nature of this “choice”, there are two competing inclinations when faced with it: the temptation to blow up the town and get a higher reward, or the guilt of the reality that you just murdered a town full of people.”
For all their increasing openness, games haven’t moved all that far beyond these flattened choices. [...] What RPGs need right now is choices with consequences that matter, something to make you care about what happens to these pretend people we play with in games.

• The First Big Choice in 'Fallout 3,' Megaton, Remains Its Most Troubling [Vice Gaming]
“If you ally with Burke and Tenpenny, Megaton is destroyed easily. A mushroom cloud goes up on the horizon. "All this bright light and wind has given me quite a thirst," Tenpenny says immediately afterward. "Where's my scotch?" Allying with the wealthy denizens of Tenpenny Tower is siding against those who would make life possible in the bleakness after the end of the world. The people of Megaton are building something that isn't the old world, and it's a blot on the landscape of the landed rich. While Fallout 3 obviously files the complexity of real-life decisions down to a simple choice, the starkness of choosing between Megaton and Tenpenny reveals the simplicity of these choices in real life. Do we want a new world in a new image, or do we want the old and violent structures?”
• The Morality of Megaton [Kotaku]
“Part of the reason why I chose to disarm the bomb on my initial playthrough is because there is no sense in doing otherwise. In offering you the quest to blow up the town, Mister Burke fails to offer any reason at all why you would want to do this. Sure, he offers you money, but his motivation is clouded in vague utterings of the town's worthlessness. So, although I accepted Burke's mission, I couldn't immediately bring myself to follow through on it. I wandered around town for a while. I couldn't bring myself to insult Gob, the ghoul bartender at Moriarty's Saloon. I started helping Moira with her research. I repaired the leaks in the water system. I told Lucy I'd deliver her letter. I didn't betray Leo's confidence, although I did steal some of his supply. Megaton is full of regular people. They may have their share of problems, but I didn't view them as any worse than my own. The more I thought about it, the more I realised: the only reason to blow up Megaton is just to see what happens. And even though I had set out to deliberately experience something different, that reason didn't strike me as sufficient.”
posted by Fizz (37 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I think the author of this article would enjoy Disco Elysium. It does a better job of not flattening the choices you make, and alternate solutions are not generally laid out before you explicitly, where you hit a button to choose the big consequences/reward.

Regarding the "third way," those often feel like a cop-out, a way for the developers to avoid making a real statement, making the player make a tough choice, and just reward players for doing a modicum of extra work for the implausibly good solution.
posted by GoblinHoney at 8:16 AM on November 27, 2019 [9 favorites]

We need a Good Place episode about this. With real bombs.

A sequel to the Trolley episode.
posted by bonehead at 8:23 AM on November 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

Btdubs: I opted to bomb Megaton. I wanted those extra caps.
posted by Fizz at 8:24 AM on November 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Every once in a while I hear about how great Suikoden supposedly was, but the main thing I remember about that game is the "choice" of drinking or not drinking the tea offered by a suspicious character. Every time you choose "no," she insists that you do, and you're given the "choice" again. Exiting the conversation and leaving this creep is never an option. When you finally relent and drink the tea in order to progress the story... of course it's drugged.

So I suppose a choice like this in a game is a step up.
posted by Foosnark at 8:27 AM on November 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

The choice to blow up Megaton or not features in hbomberguy's amusing Fallout 3 is Garbage, And Here's Why.

And like, I agree with the central idea - choices that matter make RPGs more interesting but there aren't usually a lot of them. Your choices are really about choosing what version of the story you play through, not choosing a different story altogether.

It is really hard to balance meaningful choices with the need for the main character to complete certain quests. I don't think I've played an RPG that 100% succeeded at that - I've always felt somewhat railroaded at some points. Good writers can reduce that feeling, but Fallout 3 didn't have those.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:33 AM on November 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

There are further choices to be made if you go Tenpenny's route, though? I fucking can't with this discourse. Nobody is actually looking at the whole context of these games.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:41 AM on November 27, 2019 [5 favorites]

Many moral choices in video games are essentially the following: "You see a baby on the road. Do you give it candy, or kick it?" The "evil" choice is just senseless cruelty that benefits no one. The "good" choice, while obviously better in that it doesn't harm anyone, is just there to make you feel good about doing the bare minimum to help at no major sacrifice to yourself or distraction from your main goal, and is not nearly sufficient to solve the real problem of the baby lying on the road oh my god where are their parents? Of course, this idea that "good" is token niceness and "evil" is pointless brutality shows up in many places besides video games as a way for people to shirk responsibility for their harmful behavior (e.g. "I'm not a homophobe because I don't hate gay people"), but only in video games do we see it enshrined as the dominant moral principle.>
posted by J.K. Seazer at 8:52 AM on November 27, 2019 [20 favorites]

The thing about Fallout 3 is that it's a really, really big game. Setting aside the issue of trying to create games that appeal to literally everybody, which I never think really helps them, I feel like there's a sense with Fallout 3 or with Skyrim that this is a place you are going to be spending a lot of time. Having a lot of actual deep moral choices in a game that length would, to me, be actually exhausting. I think a lot of people would burn out on it well before the end of the actual gameplay. The only reason to blow up Megaton is to see that side of the story, which to me is less appealing than the "good guy" side, but I did it anyway at one point, because I spent probably like 200 hours playing Fallout 3. I don't think these are necessarily moral choices provided to be hard, but to give some kind of "story" to the version of the game you play where you destroy stuff just to see what happens.

Outer Worlds, on the other hand, I like it a lot, but it's not quite the same size of game in general, so I think something of that size could do more with the choices involved and actually still let me get through the whole game and want to replay it and try some of the other choices to see where they go. But... I still like it the way it was. I don't know that I actually want to care that much more about these pretend people. I'm stressed out enough as it is.
posted by Sequence at 8:54 AM on November 27, 2019 [8 favorites]

Not a gamer.

Is there a difference in the way the games play depending on which option you take? That is to say, does the binary good v. evil test inform the game as to what level/type/morality of shit it throws at you for the rest of the game?
posted by Thorzdad at 8:56 AM on November 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

I just want more games where you aren't the Prime Mover that needs to solve all the world's problems while the actual inhabitants stand around helplessly.

Disco Elysium does a decent job with this at least... Some shit goes down in that game that you can at best mitigate a little, and it feels like your decisions are more about what kind of person you want to be internally.
posted by selfnoise at 8:58 AM on November 27, 2019 [5 favorites]

That is to say, does the binary good v. evil test inform the game as to what level/type/morality of shit it throws at you for the rest of the game?

Sometimes! In some games, if you make enough of the 'evil' choices, people will be mad at you or scared of you, in a way that forecloses certain possibilities down the line.
posted by Ragged Richard at 8:59 AM on November 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

Also, I swear I've made this exact comment like 3 times on Metafilter, but this bit from the first article bugs me:

Bioshock, another landmark game, also contributes to the flattening of good and evil by rewarding you for doing the right thing in the eyes of the developer, all but negating the purpose of giving you a bad option.

This is, I think, a real misunderstanding of what's going on in Bioshock. It's true that the option to harvest/save the kids is kinda a false choice, but the very fact that all choices in video games are essentially constrained and illusory is folded into the narrative of Bioshock's late game!

I don't know why I feel so compelled to defend Bioshock every time this comes up, except that I think the developers did something really cool and interesting around the issue of agency and free will in a built environment, and it frustrates me to see people continually miss the point.
posted by Ragged Richard at 9:03 AM on November 27, 2019 [21 favorites]

Disco Elysium is a huge step in the right direction and I wish every future game that claims to have important player choices tried to apply lessons from it.
posted by Memo at 9:04 AM on November 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

Players love meaningful choices in games. The problem is, they are really expensive from a development standpoint. Each distinct branch has to be designed, content created, custom logic coded, dialogue written for, localized, play tested, QA'd, etc.

It's even more expensive if you want the meaningful choices to interact ("ripple") in any way. One binary choice produces two paths. Two binary choices produce four paths. Ten binary choices produce over a thousand paths.

Most players won't even finish a game. Of those who do, most will play it once and maybe reload a late save to see the different endings. So it doesn't make sense for a studio to spend a huge amount of their budget creating content that few people will see.

Life is Strange is one game that successfully implements multiple rippling choices which feel meaningful, but even then they restrict their effects to key scenes. The "megaton" choice is at the end of the game so they only have two major endings (each of which incorporate previous important choices, but in limited ways, like a dead character not appearing).
posted by justkevin at 9:07 AM on November 27, 2019 [9 favorites]

If you're interested in making some tough moral choices, check out Tyranny, developed by Obsidian, they also did Pillars of Eternity. You're an arbiter of law, a fatebinder. You basically dole out decisions and justice in this awful universe. It's not as long as Pillars of Eternity but it does force you to make some really terrible decisions and every one has a far-reaching consequence.
posted by Fizz at 9:13 AM on November 27, 2019 [9 favorites]

I realize what I wrote up above might not sound so interesting, but it is. The choices you make will haunt you a bit. You'll think long and hard about your decision to put down an uprising because you burned a library in their city just a few decisions ago. Everyone is wrong in this universe and it's very engaging.
posted by Fizz at 9:29 AM on November 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

This is related to the Knights of the Old Republic problem, where your choices are to be either a paragon of goodness, or a petty dick. Except the game calls it Light Side and Dark Side.

Which is interesting, because the movies show us Jedi being dicks and Vader never kicks any puppies.

Another vote for Disco Elysium. I love how that game treats what other games call "combat" as a series of skill checks. I didn't know I wanted that until now, and now I want more!
posted by BeeDo at 9:41 AM on November 27, 2019 [7 favorites]

The Suffering had an interesting take on this - while the play of the game itself was essentially linear (you wake up with amnesia in a prison, you get a chance to escape, you run into some dilemmas on the way, you finally escape), your moral choices in the game change your past.

In the final scene, the reason you were in prison in the first place is revealed. If you chose good options along the way, you finally remember being unjustly framed for a horrible murder you didn't commit (your own wife and children). If you chose evil, well, let's just say you remember why you really belong in prison.
posted by Mogur at 9:57 AM on November 27, 2019 [6 favorites]

Disco Elysium looks really interesting to me but not something that I want to play in my brief breaks between panic attacks after accidentally reading the news, you know? I get this conceptually, but in practical terms? In practical terms, I've got enough impossible moral choices to be making just trying to allocate my extra cash among queer/trans/disabled friends in crisis. In video games, I am perfectly happy to be able to save the world.
posted by Sequence at 10:02 AM on November 27, 2019 [5 favorites]

Except that in practical terms, Disco Elysium has a great sense of humor and it's really funny. While Outer Worlds' single joke tone wears welcome out faster than corporate advertising.
posted by mavrik at 10:56 AM on November 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

This is a topic I'm super interested in!

I recently fell down a Youtube hole about a game called Pathologic thanks to a recent analysis by hbomberguy (who also analyzes Fallout 3's Megaton, if you are interested in further viewing). A lot of the time moral choices in games are definitely "gamified" in the sense that we've come to expect certain types of results from "good" and "bad" choices in games. But what if, like in real life, you aren't necessarily guaranteed a reward for making the heroic choice - either by friendship points or by quest rewards? Or what if your information is incomplete, or you don't understand the motivations of the person who made the request of you - or what if they're wrong or misguided as well? Then it's you, the player, who makes that choice depending not on an expectation of a reward, but on the narrative you want to create, the information you have, and on maybe even your personal moral compass.

The developer of this bleak game (who is, of course, Russian) is releasing a remake/sequel, Pathologic 2, which looks to solve a lot of the rough technical edges of the original Pathologic. I've already spoiled myself quite extensively because the gameplay is certainly not my cup of tea and I'll likely never play it. But the exploration of moral themes and meta-themes is wild and I think it's worth looking into, especially if you like a game that leans hard on the fourth wall.

Another game that I think presents some interesting ideas about this is - and stay with me - Undertale. There are two main routes - a pacifistic route where you save the world and get yourself a happy ending, and a genocidal route where you literally have to work to kill everyone you meet, including the random encounter baddies, until there is no one left. So the choice is between paragon of virtue versus history's greatest monster, which initially seems quite flat.

But taking the monstrous route is a slog. You have to walk around until you've found all the enemies. You very quickly outpace all of them in terms of stats and the battles become very simple and boring. Not only this, but generally people will do it AFTER having achieved a happy ending, so you're going through and killing characters you've previously saved! And the game kind of calls you out on this: you know you can get a super happy ending for everyone. Presumably you the player rolled back your happy ending and you're engaging with and working towards this ingame genocide on purpose just... because you can, more or less. Just to see what it's like, or for the sake of feeling like you have squeezed a sense of "completion" out of the game. So is it worth it?

I think at this point we have a shared language for our karmic choices in games that don't really take morality all that seriously, and I think Fallout 3's (sigh) initial moral choice... while it wasn't really the first game to kind of do this, it encapsulates it quite well. Honestly at this point I'm not sure I mind it entirely provided the game kind of stays in its lane - do you want the player to make complex moral choices, or do you want to gamify karma? I'm not sure that it's possible to do both, at least not well.
posted by one of these days at 11:17 AM on November 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

I won’t steal something from a character in Skyrim, because stealing is wrong, but I will take absolutely everything from their house if it’s not designated as “stealing”, including but not limited to the food supplies, books, and plates of a poor peasant farmer. That shit is mine now. I’m gonna sell it and buy some potions.
posted by dephlogisticated at 11:46 AM on November 27, 2019 [7 favorites]

but not limited to the food supplies, books, and plates of a poor peasant farmer. That shit is mine now. I’m gonna sell it and buy some potions.

I urge you to strongly consider stealing one particular thing and devoting yourself to that thing and then putting it into a room, like your "room of plates" or your "room of apples" .

Do this every time for the entirety of your play through and then at the end of the game, behold your mighty bounty.

Or you can just play however you like, maybe my way is insane, but it is an option available to you.
posted by Fizz at 12:28 PM on November 27, 2019 [13 favorites]

Genuinely evil choices are only possible in multiplayer games. There it's possible to actually harm real people.

In a single player game, doing actions that would be immoral in ordinary life is no more or less evil than writing an immoral character into a novel.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:31 PM on November 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

the main thing I remember about that game is the "choice" of drinking or not drinking the tea offered by a suspicious character

Just as I spent hours on end as a kid in Ian Livingstone's Deathtrap Dungeon trying to find some possible way to escape the labyrinth without killing Throm...
posted by Cardinal Fang at 1:32 PM on November 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

First article is wrong, second article is right.

I would have agreed once that the Megaton quest is cartoonish. And then reality became cartoonish. We're currently on track to destroy our own ecosphere because not doing so would mean raising taxes. The GOP is happy to destroy the rule of law in the US basically out of spite, pledging to their loyalty to a figure that makes Allistair Tenpenny look genteel.

From the Unwinnable article:

"But the effects of being either good or evil are arguably equalized, with as many benefits to one as the other, flattening the outcomes and minimizing the consequences."

So here the complaint is not that the morality of the game is cartoonish, but that it's frighteningly close to real life.
posted by zompist at 1:53 PM on November 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

Players love meaningful choices in games. The problem is, they are really expensive from a development standpoint. Each distinct branch has to be designed, content created, custom logic coded, dialogue written for, localized, play tested, QA'd, etc.

It's even more expensive if you want the meaningful choices to interact ("ripple") in any way. One binary choice produces two paths. Two binary choices produce four paths. Ten binary choices produce over a thousand paths.

It depends on how you structure your game. Inkle and Failbetter Games both make games with a lot of choice that don't have a combinatorial explosion of options. The key is that a) they're primarily text games, b) they're games made up of modular nodes that can be rearranged, so they don't have to write a lot of similar scenes that only differ based on minor choices you made earlier, and c) they're careful about what bits of information propagate through the rest of the game - both companies like to ask the player questions about their characters' motivations, which doesn't have to have a mechanical consequence to feel meaningful.
posted by Merus at 2:58 PM on November 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Obviously you're all just choosing to play the wrong games.
Nethack Conducts
posted by simra at 3:54 PM on November 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

I have started, but never completed, the original Baldur's Gate probably 10 or 15 times. I never ever understood why one would elect to behave evilly or allow evil aligned players into the party, it didn't seem to accrue any real advantages and just made the game harder and less fun. Is it just for the exceptionally bloodyminded misanthrope of a player, or am I missing something?
posted by hearthpig at 4:09 PM on November 27, 2019

It's not a narrative RPG by any stretch, but Rebel Inc: Escalation (RPS writeup) is a postwar strategy game where every choice matters and your decisions affect each play-through in a systems-driven way and it doesn't shy away from ethical questions (the airstrike mechanic is very different from most other games in the genre). Definitely worth checking out, and I think the author of this piece would find a lot to chew on there.
posted by OverlappingElvis at 5:41 PM on November 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

For me, the most interesting ethical and story choices comes from the games without any particular overarching story. The big sim / tycoon style games for example. Prison Architect is full of no-win, all roads lead to heck, choices that come up organically. Or Rimworld. I'd second the above recommendation for Rebel Inc.

That's what I'm largely gravitating towards now. Give me the setting. Maybe give me the background lore. But for the main parts of the game, I would rather not have a traditional story. There's a recent release (early release) game which manages to do that while remaining a character-based RPG. Wildermyth gives the basic framework, then lets you take your characters and define their story & world for them. Much of it is procedurally generated. Feels like a fleshed out, more approachable, version of Dwarf Fortress's Adventure Mode.
posted by Teegeeack AV Club Secretary at 6:38 PM on November 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Feels like a fleshed out, more approachable, version of Dwarf Fortress's Adventure Mode.

I tried (second or third time now) to get into DF just a few days ago. That designer, goodness gracious how I love and hate him! The procedural generation and depth of that world, it is phenomenal. It is exactly what I love.

Reading some commentary. seems like it is a labour of love from a fairly stubborn guy, though, who doesn't know how to or doesn't want to play and share with others... UI is worse than terrible, just impenetrable, insane and kludgy. Like trying to access utopia, which is behind a smeared greasy window and your only tool is a broken and buggy actuator arm.

Many links to great games in this thread, many thanks to all who shared.
posted by Meatbomb at 7:16 PM on November 27, 2019


Holy shit!!! Have been playing the above recommended "Rebel Inc." and it is everything they say and more. If you are at all interested in games, strategy, wargames, game design... or even if you thought you weren't, because nothing has managed to hook you before...

Please reprioritise all action items and shift this to top priority. This one gets my unqualified endorsement, it is new and different and gripping. Stop reading, go go go!
posted by Meatbomb at 12:29 AM on November 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

My only issue is that the author confuses/blurs what can happen with what must happen. Yeah, you *can* just walk right into megaton and defuse/explode the bomb with the right build (or not one of the few wrong builds), and of course on a later playthrough you're going to do that to get a house sooner. But my first time through, it took me a while. Early on there are a lot more appealing skills than explosives, especially if you don't know that you're going to get a house out of it, so I'd done a few things for Moira and probably gotten to Rivet City before I could do it. Anyhoo, I had actually connected with Megatonners before I had any real choice to make.

OTOH, it consistently annoys me that there's not a counterparty to the Dark Brotherhood in ES games, and to a lesser extent the Thieves' Guild, and that there's not even any consequence to joining and probably leading the local coven of ~satan-worshiping murderous psychopaths. Gimme a society of annoying goody-two-shoes that go after them with its own questline and own shades of gray about being paladin-style dicks.

OTGH, it's interesting when you run up against and counter two what the devs are presenting as "best." Like in Fallout 4 Far Harbor, there's a way to end up with the islanders, cult of atom, and synths at peace with each other, and while it involves some badness it's seemed obvious to me that Bethesda is presenting it as the "win." But... nah. There's no real peace with the atom folks, just a temporary reprieve before they get all murdery again, so (it being fallout and them not being real) I just lightly murder them all. This is best in life.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 6:47 AM on November 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

And Mjollnir the Lion or whatever her name is in Riften doesn't count. Only a nice deep questline counts.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 6:48 AM on November 28, 2019

Tenpenny Tower, for folks who haven't played or don't remember, is also the site of one of the Fallout 3 quests that subverts the "be a good guy" vs. "kick puppies" choice mechanic.

Obviously, as you learn from the Megaton quest, the people in charge of Tenpenny Tower are...not great people. So when you get there, and they give you a quest to murder a bunch of ghouls that live nearby, you may think, "Well this seems like an evil thing to do"...and really, it is; you can talk to a few of the ghouls and they seem like decent enough folks, they just want a nice place to call home like everyone else (including many of the more normal, less-evil residents of Tenpenny Tower, who you can also meet and chat with). So you go talk to the ghouls, and they explain they just want to move in to the Tower and you can jump through a bunch of hoops (really, it's mostly just "pass a bunch of speech checks" IIRC) to convince the ghouls and the Tenpenny Tower residents to live together in Tenpenny Tower in peace. So you do that! And the ghouls move in, the original Tower residents make some noises about how maybe the ghouls aren't so bad after all, and you go on your way, feelin' good, savior of the wasteland, bringer of peace, breaker of chains and all that.

Of course, if do all that, and you stop back in after a few days have passed, you'll find that the ghouls murdered all the humans (their leader refers to it as "taking out the trash") so as to have the Tower all to themselves. The only real way to keep both sides alive is to never complete the quest for either side's benefit, leaving them all stuck in their uneasy stalemate forever and forfeiting any quest rewards altogether.

Anyways: of those two types of "choices with lasting consequences" in Fallout 3, I much prefer the binary simplicity of the Megaton Bomb decision to the edgelordy "people are all shitty, you can never actually win" attitude displayed in the latter quest. Games are supposed to be fun after all. The idea that intractable moral dilemmas that leave you feeling crappy no matter what you choose is somehow more "sophisticated" and "realistic" than a clear-cut choice is....just a weird form of snobbery, I think. It feels like the video-game analogue to the notion that all Oscar-bait movies have to have unhappy or, at best, poignantly bittersweet endings, because "serious art" isn't allowed to make people happy. That's not to say that you can't or shouldn't have shades-of-grey decisions in games but there's nothing inherently more sophisticated about them.
posted by mstokes650 at 3:19 PM on November 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

I was going to bring up that Tenpenny Tower quest too, but bring it up as a great twist in an otherwise binary game.

As you play Fallout 3, you’re not just quietly racking up good and bad karma—The consequences of your decisions are literally broadcast across the Wasteland by Three Dog, the radio DJ. He’s a good-aligned guy, so if you’re a good person too, he will sing your praises. He also builds you up quite a bit, painting you as an avenging angel who is singlehandedly making the Wasteland a better place...

...So it’s a real kick in the gut when you tune in one day and he lays the blame for the slaughter of Tenpenny Tower’s residents at your feet. Everything has been so black and white so far, but here’s an unintended consequence you couldn’t predict. It’s upsetting, and it makes you more careful going forward. It’s both amazing and necessary. (And in subsequent play throughs I’ve mostly just murdered Roy, that backstabbing bastard.)
posted by ejs at 6:13 AM on November 30, 2019

« Older The Massacre of Black Wall Street   |   "This is no longer limited to middle-aged whites." Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments