Philosony: Will the real Alex Sheperd please stand up?


One thing that I think we all love about our chosen hobby is that the experience of a single game can be drastically different for each person. I don't mean this in the way we mean about other "static" media where we might each interpret what we read/see/hear in unique ways. I mean that though two people may play the exact same game, the cut scenes they view and the boss battles they fight may be completely different. This might be most evident in sandbox games or titles that have a prodigious amount of side quests, but sometimes even the main story can take wildly different paths depending on player input.

Heavy Rain director David Cage has expressed his desire to create a game that allows you to really suffer consequences that affect the story and continue playing, always conscious of your input in the overall plot. We may be entering an era in which we gamers may not only see different stories but have to actually reflect on what the path we choose says about us as well as the story. When my recent play through of Silent Hill: Homecoming was rewarded with a less than satisfying ending I immediately cursed the game's writers for their ineptitude. But looking back I've begun to wonder: am I partially to blame? Are bad endings increasingly becoming the consequence of bad or even inconsistent decisions by players?

Don't worry, the spoilers don't begin for another 300 words.

While Silent Hill is not an according-to-Hoyle RPG we should think about stepping into the character of Alex Sheperd as stepping into a role. We have some sense of his past and we know his motivations for returning to Sheperd's Glen. Sure there's the game play element - killing psychosexual nurses and creatures that look Jeff Goldbum after a long night of particle physics - but narratively we as players are given the task of helping Alex solve the mystery of his brother's disappearance. The question that most of us don't consciously ask is this: should I approach this task the way Alex would, or the way I would?

Two other recent games can help illuminate this difference: GTA IV and Fallout 3. In GTA we have a very strongly defined protagonist. He's so strongly defined, in fact, that when certain missions arose that required me to decide if a certain character should live or die I could fairly confidently consult the old virtue-ethics rule WWNBD - What Would Niko Bellic Do? Sure if I wanted I could take a step back and consider whether I personally liked the poor sap currently having an HK45 tonsillectomy, but I wanted to play it out the way Niko would have, not the way I would have.

Fallout 3, on the other hand, puts the back story and personality of the protagonist in your hands. You even get to determine things about their childhood, such as whether they were gentle or mean-spirited. When the real story begins it is up to you to decide whether that character longingly follows the silky-smooth voice of their father like an abandoned padawan, or uses their new-found freedom to explore the world. Unlike with Niko I chose to envision myself as that vault-dweller and make decisions that I think I, Kylie, would have made.

Now, back to the aforementioned spoilers. In Homecoming there are three crucial points at which you/Alex must make decisions that determine which of the five possible endings you'll see. The first is whether to have Alex shoot his mother or allow her to die a more slow and horrible Saw-like death. Second is deciding whether Alex should forgive his father for the semi-abusive way he treated him growing up. Lastly you have to decide whether to give one of Alex's med kits to an injured comrade before heading into the final battle .

Now I'll admit that I was a little uneven in my playing/portraying of Alex Sheperd. For the first decision I went with Alex. That is, I went with what I thought Alex, realistically, would do. Despite thinking that shooting Moms was the ethical and humane choice, I didn't think Alex had the stones to do it. In the second case, however, I went with me. "Forgive Dad," I thought, "he's repented and it's only right." I didn't even ponder whether Alex would have done so or not - I just wanted to see it happen. The last decision I made purely from a selfish game play perspective. I might need that med kit, so sorry Deputy Wheeler, but you're on your own.

The result was a less than stellar ending, one which I dub the Jacob's Ladder ending in a nod to one of the great inspirations for the franchise. The whole thing was in Alex's head, a delusion he suffered as some species of post-traumatic stress! My 7th grade English teacher threatened to flunk any student that ended a story this way and I've loathed the whole concept ever since. Still, was it my own fault? If I'd played a bit more consistently would I have gotten a more satisfying resolution?

Maybe if I'd played the game solely from my own perspective the game would have ended with something I could accept. In an ideal world I'd like to think that I would have done the "right" thing in all three situations - put Mom down, forgive Dad, help Wheeler. That, of course, garners what the developers dub the "happy" ending. If I'd been more consistent, acted the way I think Alex (whom I found fairly weak-willed and shallow) would have I'd have not shot Mom, not forgiven Dad, and probably flipped a coin on whether to give Wheeler that med kit. It wouldn't have gotten the proverbial good ending, but at least I would have been treated to something consistent, something that wasn't a lazy literary cop-out. Heck, I might have even gotten to see a UFO.

What do you think - should more games respond to player choice in a way that rewards consistency? Or is it better to have one static story that everyone can experience without the need for multiple play throughs?

This article was originally published on Joystiq.