When RPGs give you ethical choices …

… it is also your choice whether to accept them at all.

When I play RPGs, I like having the feeling that my actions and my own choices actually affect the story, and be it just in some small way. I’m totally fine with linear stories, but it’s always cool to be feel like you’re not just along for the right, but an active participant instead of a passive observer. I’ve noticed that even when the choice turns out to be an illusion, I still feel a little bit more involved in the game. It makes the experience more immersive for me, because it prompts me to really think about the characters and their world … Hmmm …

Then again, an abundance of pseudo-choices can have the opposite effect. In Golden Sun, I was constantly given the choice between saying Yes or saying No to questions and suggestions – but for the most part, giving the “wrong” answer just resulted in my opinion getting ignored or overruled by the other characters. Pfff! Stop asking me this stuff if you don’t care!

What actually prompted this post was an old-ish SiliconEra article about Bravely Second‘s sidequests, titled Bravely Second’s Job Options Overshadow Sidequests’ Difficult Decisions – the headline actually tells you the core argument of the article, which is really refreshing in this age of clickbait titles. Still, I disagree completely with the sentiment.

A refresher: In Bravely Second, you acquire additional “Jobs” (aka character classes with unique skills and stat boosts) by doing sidequests where you can acquire the “asterisk” (think magical stone) that lets you use this Job (it’s magic). However, each sidequest makes you choose: There are two asterisk holders who have some kind of conflict, and you must pick a side, beat up the opposition and acquire their asterisk, but not the other one. The conflicts are varied enough: Sometimes it is essentially job advice, at other times it’s serious political issues – Should we lower the taxes if it means cutting benefits for the poor? Should schools be open to both genders or remain closed to boys? – or even trivial but nevertheless highly emotional issues like whether you’d allow a pop idol to make a dumb (but insanely catchy) cover of a song by a famous artist.

It’s actually a lot of fun! Obviously, your decision isn’t just influenced by which choice you consider to be the right one, but also by the consequences your choice would have for you personally – that is, which Job do you want to have?

Jenni thinks that this factor essentially renders the whole thing pointless:

The idea of making someone think about what might really be right or wrong and be rewarded with an Asterisk is an interesting idea. In some situations, it might actually work. But the promise of getting certain abilities immediately over another trivializes things. Was a coeducational experience in Florem more important than schools separated by gender? I believe so. But, I really needed that Monk Asterisk for Tiz, so I had to be selfish. If you’d have been in that position, you would have done the same.

Well. I was in her position. I didn’t do the same. And I, too, really wanted the Monk asterisk! It was just that my conscience wouldn’t let me go through with it. In my first Bravely Second playthrough, I missed out on a couple of jobs that I really, really wanted to have – because I prioritized ethical over practical concerns. Jenni didn’t, but that’s on her – it was her choice.

The game offers you a choice and gives you both moral and practical aspects to consider. Bbut it’s totally up to you which factors you prioritize.

In real life, moral decisions aren’t made in a vacuum either. And at all times, the very first step is to decide whether you even want to consider the ethical dimension at all, or just do what’s most comfortable and convenient for you personally. The inclusion of this element doesn’t trivialize the choices, it actually makes them more complex – and realistic.

Of course, such a set-up relies on the player’s willingness to take the story and the characters seriously. Suspension of disbelief works differently for different people, and the real problem of Bravely Second’s sidequests is that you don’t actually see the consequences of your decisions. What you do in the sidequests doesn’t actually affect the story. I guess this is inevitable, considering that they’re just optional sidequests. But once you’ve figured out that your choice isn’t even important in the grand scheme of things, you might become less likely to take the scenarios seriously, and more likely to just pick the job you want – and screw the rest.

It’d be awesome – and potentially terrifying – if your choices had serious effects on the world, on a political and socio-economical scale. It would definitely change the way you approach the decision-making.

I have to talk about Chrono Trigger in this context. I was completely stunned when I reached the famous trial, and suddenly my perfectly normal JRPG-hero-behaviour was used as evidence against me! Sure I picked up that lunch – I pick up everything! Sure I tried to sell Marle’s pendant – if there’s a dialogue option for it, why shouldn’t I?* This was probably one of the first moments in a videogame where I realized that my actions could have consequences, that I could have, should have, considered whether my behaviour was right or wrong, instead of doing whatever was possible, just because it was possible.

(There is another major decision much later in Chrono Trigger, but I won’t discuss it here because a) someone might be reading this who still hasn’t played the game, and I don’t want to spoil her, b) I did start writing down all my thoughts and feels about this scene, and it got awfully, awfully long, so … it deserves its own post. ^^)


*) I dread the day when they finally make me pay for all the vases I’ve smashed in The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds.


3 thoughts on “When RPGs give you ethical choices …

  1. I so agree about Golden Sun’s stupid choices! The only cool choices were about the djinn distribution allowing different classes but it was overshadowed by how easy the games were. I don’t have a 3DS to enjoy Bravely Second but its choice system seems interesting.

    What do you think of “good/evil” choice systems like Mass Effect or Fable, where you must clearly act either like a saint or the worst jerk ever (but still savng the world/universe). Most of the time, especially when NG+ is involved, I end up doing playthroughs on both extremes. Recently I felt it kinda defeats the storytelling. It’s like, when you’ve made every choices, they are not really choices anymore.

    Strangely, one of the games that had me feel the most emotions is NieR, which is very linear and doesn’t offer you choices. It’s more about really understanding how the character’s own choices affect the world and characters, over the course of some NG+ mechanics.

    I’m anticipating your Chrono Trigger post! I love this game and really need to play it again, haven’t touched it for a long time.

    • What do you think of “good/evil” choice systems like Mass Effect or Fable, where you must clearly act either like a saint or the worst jerk ever (but still savng the world/universe).

      I haven’t played any of the Mass Effect or Fable games … but normally when I am given the choice between being a jerk and being nice, I always end up being nice! I’m such a wuss. Even in I Am Setsuna, playing a ~cold and dispassionate assassin~, I end up saying nice things to people because I’m incapable of being mean to fictional characters, apparently. (I still need to finish this game, damn.)

      Come to think of it, since you bring it up, how could I play evil but still save the world? It’d be interesting if a game allowed you to be evil properly, so that instead of working to defeat the bad guys, you could join them? :D Or has this been done before?

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