Spoilers: Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 2: Arrival.
BioWare has become known for the choices it presents its players. Are you going to be a Jedi or Sith? Open Palm or Closed Fist? Paragon or Renegade? However, with Dragon Age, the choices were slightly more varied, and did not plot you on an overall either/or scale. Unfortunately, this led to some quests being approached in a manner to game the system and receive the ‘best’ result. What seems to have happened is BioWare questioning how players make decisions and how to tinker with their own formula.
In particular, this appeared to have happened quite frequently with the Redcliffe quest, where one has to make the choice of how to deal with Connor. As David Gaider points out in a post on the BSN, this meant many would just look up how to ‘Save Everyone’ and take that route, thereby bypassing any actual decision making. This led to a different view of how to accomplish certain goals in the game, and in a forum thread, Gaider talks about the murder of Leandra:
If you’re of the opinion that every story should have an outcome that the player can directly control– I’m not going to argue with you. Not everyone is going to like that sort of tale, and certainly I think there’s a limited amount of that you can really do inside a game. But this is the sort of thinking that led to the “Save Everyone” option in the Redcliffe Quest, which ultimately became the quest option that everyone thought was the only “real” solution even though it was the least dramatic. I don’t really intend to do that again, and I’m not about to re-write it simply because some people feel uncomfortable about it.
In general, I agree with Gaider about the fact that sometimes things can be outside of the player’s control, though it needs to be handled differently. Apparently, according to Gaider, the original quest had an option to save Leandra, but when people were presented with the option, they felt they had to save her, rather than it being an option.
When Anders blows up the Chantry, thereby forcing action upon the player? I see it less about Hawke changing the world, so much as Hawke taking command of the situation. You’re still making decisions, just not the ones we have come to expect. The big, moral decisions are supposed to be made by us, after all, right? Otherwise we’re just railroading the character, right?
While it is a form of railroading, it is one that I assert can be useful. In the case of Anders’s bomb in the Chantry, it paints a picture whereby Hawke is not the only important character in the world of Kirkwall, which makes the fact that she’s become a legend all the more intriguing (and speaks to politics, image, and Hawke’s own privilege). If all the big decisions are made by the Champion, all we’ve done is provide the typical empowerment fantasy, whereby the player is the only character worth anything in the world. Everyone else is just a tool to use as Hawke’s ends may require. I, for one, was glad that my companions such as Isabela and Anders had their own goals, quests, and were not just waiting quietly for me to direct the course of their lives.
However, it is important to note that in Dragon Age 2, these big decisions are never presented as Hawke making decisions without your input–it is the intervention of other characters that forces you to make decisions on how to proceed. Mass Effect 2: Arrival does not use such a tactic, rather using the railroading technique to force your Shepard to make a decision. What results is that regardless of a Shepard’s approach to things, the decision is always the same, and ends up with Shepard ready to face trial upon return to Earth.
It’s easy to see why they made this decision: it forebodes an uncomfortable situation for Shepard in Mass Effect 3. At the same time, it also does something the rest of Mass Effect 2 did not: force a decision upon me by wresting control away from my Shepard. In technical effect, it’s much the same as happened continually in Dragon Age 2, but the way it is handled, by making Shepard the locus of that action, is much different. Rather than roleplaying a character and feeling I am having an effect on the universe the game is portraying, I am being told some of my decisions simply do not matter because Shepard and I will part ways on whether to save a planet with Batarians or to destroy them to hinder the Reapers.
Naturally, the setup was such that Shepard only really had one choice to make which would make sense with what was planned. While it can be argued that it was necessary for Shepard to make that decision, at the same time, the setup itself was subject to change. In an effort to tell a compelling story and set up Mass Effect 3, what has happened is I’ve become distant from one of my Shepards. This is not a case where I can decide how I will react to Isabela and Anders and determine if I can forgive them, but one where I am distanced from the very character I have been playing, and whom I have been encouraged to inhabit.
In theatrical productions, it can be the case where I may play a role with a character who makes decisions I do not quite understand at first, but whose decisions help me build a character. I have argued that I often see the act of playing a game as rehearsal (and am coming to the decision that it includes a fusion of such with performance), but games are an extension of such thought, and when I meaningfully inhabit a role that is predicated on making decisions, it seems forceful to make a difficult decision for me. It distances me from the avatar I am theoretically controlling, which may well be the desired result.
With a scripted character, the decisions made become a matter of figuring out why the character did such, whereas the way Mass Effect 2 had previously approached such critical plot points was one where I questioned which motivations struck me most. Actions easily define a character, and when made by an NPC, they help write that character as much as, if not more than, the dialog. The difference is between losing control of the trajectory of the plot and losing control of the character I am supposed to be playing. The former allows an in-game response, while the latter shifts that focus to the player’s response.