In modern video games, choice is king. It seems as though almost every major release is chock full of dialogue choices, optional missions, branching storylines and multiple endings all designed to create a more immersive interactive experience and make each player feel they’ve been given a unique and personal journey.
Some choices however, do more than enhance an experience, they ask players to make a decision so onerous that it weighs on their conscience, making players feel as though they’ve left a part of themselves in the game. Here are our top seven such in-game choices that left us scarred to this day.
BEWARE OF MAJOR STORY SPOILERS FOR ENTRIES SEVEN, THREE AND TWO
7. Mass Effect 3 (2012)
The decision: Cure the genophage or let it continue
The history of Mass Effect’s universe is rich and complex, but one historical point that’s prevalent throughout the series is the genophage.
The genophage is a biological weapon that had been deployed against the Krogans (a race of aggressive anthropomorphic lizards with a propensity for starting wars) hundreds of years earlier in order to greatly inhibit their ability to reproduce, reducing their numbers and sending the race spiraling towards extinction.
Within the trilogy, you fight alongside a variety of allies (Krogan or otherwise) determined to cure the genophage, but in Mass Effect 3, that decision lies squarely in your hands, leaving you to decide whether to maintain the status quo or run the risk that the Krogan will return to their old ways when strengthened by numbers.
This gives the player a lot to think about. There’s the pull to help the allies that Commander Shepard has made up to this point and the Krogan in general, but then again after spending all this time saving the galaxy, does ending the genophage just condemn its people to more war and misery in the end? Factor in that curing the genophage means the death of one of the game’s most popular characters and players are left with feeling that whichever decision they make is the wrong one.
6. Pokemon Red/Blue (1999)
The decision: Bulbasaur, Charmander or Squirtle
OK, so it doesn’t have the gravity of a genophage, but hear us out on this.
When most players first delved into Pokemon Red/Blue, they were at a young age and had spent many afternoons glued to the TV as Ash Ketchum traveled from gym to gym in his quest to become a Pokemon Master with Bulbasaur, Squirtle and Charmander by his side. So when players found that they could only choose one of these three Pokemon in their own adventure with no opportunity to collect the rest later in the game, this became the hardest decision of their young lives!
Each had their own draw: Bulbasaur was the pragmatic choice, so strong against the first two gym leaders that he could carry you through the first section of the game while you built up the rest of the team, Charmander was more difficult but eventually evolved into Charizard – the coolest Pokemon of all, then there was Squirtle whose cuteness alone was a pretty persuasive argument. Whichever one you chose, you’d always have that lingering wonder of what it would be like to have one of the others by your side.
This trend didn’t end with Pokemon Red/Blue either. Each successive mainline Pokemon title to follow asked players to choose from a new selection of starters, ensuring that this burden wasn’t isolated to one game but instead echoed through each successive generation.
5. Undertale (2015)
The decision: Pacifism or Genocide
Undertale is the quintessential indie darling. Created by lone game developer Toby Fox after a successful Kickstarter campaign, Undertale received rave reviews, a zealous cult following and a Metacritic score that currently stands at 92%.
That love is well earned – the game has heart, charm and a unique hook: You don’t have to hurt any of the monsters you encounter, instead you can befriend or placate them in a variety of ways, for example, flirting, laughing at their jokes and getting into a flexing contest with a narcissistic Mer-Horse until he flexes himself off the screen.
This gives players two major, distinct options: Play through the whole game without hurting anyone (a pacifist run) or kill everything that gets in your way (a genocide run). These options work as a potent one-two punch to the player’s psyche because those who choose the path of pacifism will never play another RPG the same way again; from that moment on, enemy encounters will always force the player to wonder “Why do I have to kill this enemy, isn’t there a better way to work things out?”.
Those who decide, after completing the game as a true pacifist, to go back and see what happens if you take the genocide route will find it a jarring experience. Aside from being forced to mow through your former friends, the changes to the game’s world highlight the destruction you’ve caused as the lively, fun places previously visited are now abandoned ghost towns. Additionally, the subtle changes to the soundtrack and dialogue give the whole game a creepy atmosphere that will make you lament your completionist ways.
4. Bioshock (2007)
The decision: Rescue or harvest the Little Sisters
In a game like Bioshock, which has a story centered around manipulation and mistruths, it’s no surprise that one of the game’s key mechanics is not explained to you in a completely honest way from the beginning, making what should be a fairly easy decision much more difficult.
Toward the beginning of the game you spot an eerie yellow-eyed child known as a ‘Little Sister’ roaming the corridors of Rapture. Your guide ‘Atlas’ tells you that these are abhorrent creatures; mindless young girls who, due to experimentation now only live to collect ADAM (a valuable resource in Rapture that can be traded for weapons and upgrades) from corpses. He explains that you can either ‘harvest’ the Little Sisters, draining a large amount of ADAM for yourself and killing the Little Sister, or you can ‘rescue’ them, which keeps them alive but only gives you half as much ADAM, making it much harder to progress through the game.
Of course, Atlas’ explanation turns out to be misleading and in reality, due to rewards given by another character, you will receive approximately as much ADAM for rescuing all the Little Sisters. In addition, you actually need to rescue all the Little Sisters to attain the game’s good ending, leaving anyone who opted to harvest in order to get better upgrades with a bitter taste in their mouths and a guilty knot in their stomachs.
3. NieR (2010)
The decision: Delete your save data or never unlock the final ending
One thing that NieR does better than any other game is tragedy. Everything about NieR radiates a sense of sorrow – the premise of the story, the characters’ situations, the muted colour palette, the warped, bleak world with so many unanswered questions – they all work together to give an uneasy feeling throughout. But when you’ve completed the final confrontation and unlocked the game’s first ending, that’s when the hurt really starts.
After finding out the truth behind the world’s state, you can play through the last few hours of the game again, redoing the final few fights with new context and additional cutscenes that make each battle an increasingly forlorn experience, By the time you reach Ending D – the final ending, chances are that you’re already emotionally drained… but then it becomes personal.
In order to see the game’s ultimate ending, the protaganist must be erased from time, which translates to delete all of the game’s saved data. In a story where the characters have experienced so much loss, this is an ingenious way of sharing that feeling with the player, by asking them to sacrifice all the work that they’ve put into getting this far in order to see the game to its bitter end.
2. Life is Strange (2015)
The decision: Let Chloe Price die or save Arcadia Bay
One of the most well known questions in the field of ethics is the Trolley Problem, which asks: If a runaway trolley is speeding towards five people who are stuck on the track and you have the ability to pull a lever, forcing the trolley to switch tracks and hit only one person, would you pull the lever? The utilitarian and most common answer of course, is yes, you should save as many people as possible.
Life is Strange’s final choice warps this problem, giving it new dimensions of difficulty by asking: What if that trolley was a destructive storm? What if instead of five people, it was the entire town of Arcadia Bay? And most importantly, what if that one person was Chloe Price?
This choice is one of the most divisive in gaming culture, with remnants of the great “#BaeOverBay vs #BayOverBae” debate still found all over social media. A look at the game’s statistics shows us that an incredible 48% of people chose Chloe alone over the rest of the town, which speaks volumes for the amazing bond that Dontnod Entertainment were able to create between Max Caulfield, Chloe Price and the player.
1. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015)
The decision: Throw a baby in an oven or…..don’t.
The background: Jarl Udalryk (an important figure and potential ally in the Isles of Skellige) has been possessed by a parasitic demon called a Hym, which feeds on his guilty conscience and is slowly driving him mad. Geralt reveals to his companion Cerys that the only way to free the Jarl from this burden is to make another person believe that they have committed a heinous act, making them feel guilt. When the Hym leaves the Jarl to latch onto its new host it will be vulnerable, giving Geralt the opportunity to kill it once and for all. Cerys says that she has an idea and Geralt agrees to trust her.
Some time later, as Geralt rests in a cabin, enjoying the heat from its oven, Cerys, chased by the Jarl and squad of armed guards, rushes in with a small baby in her arms. Cerys says that this baby is the Jarl’s son then hands Geralt the baby and tells him to throw it in the oven. Here, control is handed back to the player with a choice: Trust Cerys and throw the baby in the oven, or hand the baby back to his father.
Players who chose to Trust Cerys must fight off the guards who try to save the baby until Cerys’ accomplice emerges from the next room with the unharmed child and reveals that the Jarl’s son is actually fine. Although this was sufficient to lure out the Hym and ensure Geralt remained safe, players were left with one question screaming in their minds:
“WHOSE BABY DID I JUST THROW IN THE OVEN!?”
As a result of trusting Cerys the game doesn’t expressly answer this question, meaning that this moment not only breaks the fourth wall, but completely demolishes it before diving through it sword first, because in effect the game has inflicted the requisite guilt not on Geralt, but directly onto the player.
That’s our list, but don’t let it end there! Let us know in the comments if you agree with our pick, or whether there are any other decisions that have left their mark on you.