(Before you begin reading, be aware that there are spoilers for Walking Dead: Season Two and Spec Ops: The Line ahead. I will warn you when spoilers begin for each game, and also when the spoilers end.)
The reason I've always enjoyed gaming more than movies, television, or music is because it's interactive, I'm actually doing something. But with that comes a certain drawback--the ability to make you feel bad. Yes, a movie can do the same thing, but in a completely different way.
Let's take a movie like Full Metal Jacket, a fantastic movie by all accounts. It shows the gritty, dark reality and horror of the Vietnam War. The last section of the movie is the entire platoon (or company, or regiment, I'm not sure when one it is) trying to find a way to take down an enemy sniper. Some marines get killed in the process, and when they finally do kill the sniper, they discover that it was a teenage girl. The girl winds up mortally wounded, and there's a debate among the marines whether they should mercy kill the girl or not.
You watch this scene and feel bad because not only is it heartbreaking that a teenage girl was put into a situation where she had to fight in a war, but also that she winds up dying because of it. But with a videogame, sometimes you're forced to be the one that has to make these kinds of decisions. Since we're already talking about war, let's begin with Spec Ops: The Line.
SPOILERS FOR SPEC OPS: THE LINE BEGIN HERE
Maybe this is just me, but throughout the game you're given several choices in tough situations, and I was completely unaware that certain choices even existed. One situation involves you having to decide who to kill: a man who was caught stealing water for his family, or the soldier that was sent to arrest the man and wound up killing the man's family. My decision was to kill the soldier. I would have preferred to kill no one, but between these two, I felt the soldier was the obvious choice. Everyone would steal water to provide for their family, and the soldier disobeyed orders and murdered five people.
You're surrounded by snipers during this scene, so choosing not to kill one of them is not an option...or so I thought. After completing the game I looked back at an achievement guide and discovered that there was a car nearby for me to take cover and take out the snipers. I also later discovered that none of it was real (play the game, it'll make sense).
Another big decision was near the end of the game, and one of your fellow soldiers, who has been with you through the entire game, dies at the hands of some angry civilians. You're completely surrounded, and they attack you if you try to walk by. I sat there and thought "Are they really asking me to murder civilians? I don't want to do this, but I guess I have to." Then, upon further reading after I finished the game, I found that I could have shot my gun into the air and it would have scared them off. I hadn't even thought about that while in the moment, and I felt genuine remorse when I realized that those people didn't have to die.
This is also a particularly horrific scene.
Yes, I know that they weren't real people. I can discern the difference between fantasy and reality, but I felt like my soul had taken a hit. Even though shooting my gun into the air wasn't readily apparent as an option, why didn't I--as a person--think to try that first? And this comes from a guy who is a youth leader at his church. I consider myself to be a good human being, and then I let this happen. How could I?
I'm being a bit hyperbolic here. I didn't really have an existential spiritual breakdown, but I did genuinely feel bad about my decision before I came to my sense and realized "Oh yeah, it's just a videogame. No one actually died."
If you haven't played the game and decided to read the spoilers anyway, I still suggest playing the game. It's probably the best story I've ever experienced in a military shooter, and what I've talked about is only a fraction of what the game brings to the table. Also, Nolan North.
SPOILERS FOR WALKING DEAD: SEASON TWO BEGIN HERE
I adore the Walking Dead series from TellTale Games. I had a spurt where I enjoyed the show, but then I stopped watching due to disinterest, and I've never been a comic reader. But the games still enthrall me. That's what I was talking about earlier when I was explaining why I enjoy gaming more than any other medium.
The first season of The Walking Dead is surely a contender for the finest piece of storytelling in game history. There's a reason it won several "Game of the Year" awards from major publications, websites, and even the Video Game Awards, and it wasn't for its great controls or cutting-edge graphics.
That being said, I was super excited for the second season, but after the first four episodes, I was underwhelmed. That's not to say that it was bad, by no means is that true, I still enjoyed them very much, just not on the same level. That is, until Episode 5: No Going Back.
Just so I don't have to give you all of the details leading up to the final scenes, I'll make a long story short. You play as Clementine, who you were tasked with protecting in Season One. At the end of the of Episode 5, you're given the choice of either killing Kenny, who is someone that you've known since the very beginning of the series and have been through a lot with, or killing Jane, who has become somewhat of a big sister to Clementine.
During Episode 4, one of your party members, Rebecca, has a baby and winds up dying of exposure. Within 24 hours, this child is an orphan (his father having been killed before his birth), and Kenny has taken it upon himself to protect the baby at all costs as a way to make up for the fact that he wasn't able to protect his son, Duck, in Season One.
Up until I was given the decision on who to kill, I had been siding with Jane on everything. She's tough, and seems to genuinely care for Clem. Not to mention that Kenny had been going through a slow descent into madness since Episode 3, and by this time he had become completely unhinged. Kenny and Jane hated each other, and when the three of you wind up separated in a snowstorm, Jane hides the baby in an abandoned car. When the three reunite, it's insinuated that Jane killed the baby (you're given scenes earlier in the game showing that Jane doesn't have a particular affinity for infants), and Kenny attempts to kill her.
When Kenny and Jane's fates are put in your hands, you're given a much longer amount of time to decide than you do with normal actions. I debated internally until the final moments, where I decided to shoot Kenny. The ensuing dialogue between Clem and a dying Kenny was heart-wrenching; I had been through so much with him. Then you discover that the baby wasn't dead, and that Jane had merely hid the child. Plenty of games have twist endings where someone you've been working with turns out to be a villain ("Would you kindly..."), but never before had I felt as betrayed as I did when Jane revealed the truth.
When I play The Walking Dead, I play it one time, because that's my story. That's how it happened to me. Those are the decisions I made. And if I regret a decision, I deal with it and move on. But I just couldn't do that here. I restarted the checkpoint and changed my decision, that's how bad I felt. Kenny later goes on to redeem himself for all the crazy, and I felt better with that decision. The game actually made me break my own unwritten rules because I felt so bad about a fake decision I made about a fake person in a fictionalized universe. On one hand, that's fantastic, on the other hand, it really bothered me. It maybe didn't help that I played these games back-to-back.
END SPOILERS HERE
Games like Mass Effect or Skyrim or any other game where you're given choices about the morality of your character never leave me regretting my decisions. Most of them are cut-and-dry. That's not to say there aren't tough decisions in other games, I just haven't experienced any that made me go back and question them after my decisions were made. Maybe it's the fact that in Skyrim I play a wood elf who looks like he should play bass for Amon Amarth and slays dragons with his trusty arrows, and in The Walking Dead and Spec Ops I play a pre-teen girl who I don't want to turn into a monster and an American soldier trying to save some folks, respectively.
All I'm saying is that sometimes I just need to step back from all this seriousness. Sometimes, I just want want to control a round, pink blob with a smile on his face who makes adorable sounds and cooks stuff.
Ahh, much better.
Thanks for reading,