August 30, 2007 12:14 AM | Leigh Alexander
[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats-- those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]
In last week’s column, we discussed BioShock’s Little Sisters as part of a legacy of creepy, ambiguous little girls in survival-horror who highlight our dark sides with their innocence and shame us by letting us see ourselves through the eyes of a child – even if those eyes are a pair of eerie orange headlamps. Mention the Little Sisters, though, and the question’s bound to come up: Harvest or rescue?
Whichever your pleasure, chances are BioShock fans (and those who are damn sick of hearing about it) have heard or participated in a discussion to that effect at some point over the past week. And in those discussions, chances are someone’s raised the issue of choice in games; that very issue came up in the comments on my last column. As I mentioned last week, I have heard in my colleagues’ work, in emails I’ve received and in various discussions lately – whether about BioShock or other games, such as in the comments of my recent column on Persona 3 – that thus far, what we’ve been offered in terms of "choices" from gaming often tend to amount to little more than what one reader called a “cost-benefit analysis”. In other words, since the impact of our choices is limited to a statistical benefit or penalty (with perhaps a different ending tacked on), any moral or emotional decision presented to us can be reduced to a technicality.
In a recent article at Sexy Videogameland, however, I explained why I feel that the immersive, richly-realized environment of BioShock makes the moral issue very much a choice[spoiler-free link], in that it very greatly alters how it feels to play the game. The sensation of having a choice, an impact, comes from my relationship to the game, a connection that I actively choose to make whenever a game is fleshed-out enough to make it possible. If you aren’t particularly absorbed in or affected by the experience of playing BioShock, or any other game, chances are you’re calculating cost and benefit rather than feeling anything significant changing for you, either.
“Choice in games” is the new Holy Grail, it seems. In the comments on the article I just mentioned, one reader raised PC games like Fallout and Baldur’s Gate as his ideal example of how a game should handle choice. When applied to console gaming or a single-player closed story, though, they become less possible because of the lack of open-endedness, real-time dynamics, or other players. But what would real, definitive branching in games, real gratification for decision-making, look like? And could it be that – of all things – Hentai games know something we don’t?
Plenty of games previously discussed in this column have incorporated some very appealing choice elements. Fan favorite Silent Hill 2 will penalize you for choices you aren’t even aware of making; the story’s outcome is affected by player behavior that indicates a certain preference or state of mind, rather than a single decisive path taken or action chosen. For example, things like examining in your inventory overmuch the knife with which Angela wanted to commit suicide, or staying too physically near the manipulative, sexy doppelganger of your dead wife – such behavior assumes a certain morbidity or weakness of character that reflects on you in the end. You’re never told this, either; if not for GameFAQs, fan forums and strategy guides, nobody would even know.
But Hentai games have choices at their crux. In fact, choosing is the only gameplay to speak of. You watch a scene or an animation, look at some still images, read some narrative and some dialog. Then, the game asks you what you want to do, and you pick. You make your choice with an objective in mind, and there are several objectives – in other words, potential mates – from which to choose. Sometimes it’s not clear whether the decision to be detached or affectionate, to stay after school and help your buddy with his homework instead of going to your club meeting, to snoop in your sister’s room or leave her diary alone, will help or hinder you trying to score with the library girl, your Mom or the interdimensional magical warrior. You can guess, but it’s not always eminently clear (in the more complicated H-game) – and if you don’t choose well, you might lose your shot.
One game I recently reviewed, Yume Miru Kusuri, takes this decision-making to a particularly advanced extent. There are actually three disparate games here; at times, they overlap, and at others they're broadly divergent. A character may die if you don’t take the opportunity to intervene in her life early on; another may fall in love with you but disappear forever if you don’t keep your commitments in mind. Granted, this setup is still relatively simple compared to what choice in games could be – picking plot branches and then getting a “good” versus a “bad” ending is hardly sophisticated. But it’s notable in that what you get for your decisions is a wholly different experience that reflects the fact that you selected one option over another. And each disparate branch feels like a separate relationship evolving, the story beginning to show influence of the traits and tendencies that may have led you to choose that girl in the first place.
When Aberrant Gamer discussed text adventure sex games, I picked the oddball Moist to demonstrate how erotic games might work without pictures. You’d think that a text parser wouldn’t offer much in the way of flexible experience, but Moist is about one thing and one thing only – sex, of course – and as such, the programmer thought of everything. While there are only four different women in the game and they’re all pretty unremarkable “types”, just about any action in your deviant imagination is understood by the parser, and its result is explained in lush detail. Having sex with these women is the vehicle by which you must progress the game’s plot, as flimsy as it is, and you can accomplish this in any fashion that appeals to you. While each girl prefers something specific, after a certain point you can get them to do anything, which means that Moist is an entire game, beginning to end, that you can play your own way. Pretty revolutionary for text-only.
Sex games have been thinking about choice for much longer than mainstream ones; after all, the allure of sex as a computer or video game is that, unlike a still image or porn flick, the interactive element in gaming allows you to have things your way. So to build a better sex game, Hentai titles and their ilk have been adding more and more options for helming your very own personal ship of love. One of the reasons this column exists is to highlight some subtle things that sex games get “right” in terms of the overall gaming experience – like creating a visual experience, or treating emotional relevance as essential, for example – that are overlooked because they’re, well, porn.
There’s another reason, though, why sex games might be more effective at creating choice – or, at least, the impression thereof. When we play a Hentai game or any other interactive sex game, we know precisely what kind of experience we want from it, and what we want our end result to be. There’s no need even to think about it. However, when we play a mainstream game, our reasons are much broader and much more subjective, justifiably. When you sit down to play BioShock or Persona 3, what do you want from it; why are you playing, and what do you expect? That's entirely subjective, and the answers will be as numerous and varied as the individuals in the gaming audience.
Are you playing BioShock because you love action shooters, or because you love exploring complex scenery? Or are you going into it looking explicitly to be rewarded – or punished – for your values, whatever they may be? Do you enjoy video games that challenge you to puzzle out combat strategy or stat allotment, or do you prefer to pretend you’re in a fantasy, with as little interruption between you and the virtual as possible?
The difference between a choice that feels impactful and a cost-benefit analysis that feels hollow or manipulative is not only in the validation that the game provides for one path versus another, but in how it changes our experience of the game. And that needn't be something we can see on the screen. Whether, for example, Persona 3’s social elements feel like a superficial and mindless leveling system or a systematic, emotional power-game is entirely up to the player. Games have a great deal of power to give us experiences – but primarily, they offer us the structures to create our own. Good structures are essential, but at the end of the day, we get out of it what we put in. As for how you are affected and what it means to you -- ultimately, that’s your choice.
[Took the lead image from Bonnie's Heroine Sheik -- you'd think such a picture would be easier to find, right?]
Categories: Column: The Aberrant Gamer