Not many of us start playing a game hoping it will force us to make a big moral decision – even fewer expect to enjoy it! – but modern video games are intent on presenting us with the kind of ethical dilemmas that keep us up at night. Whether it’s the extermination of an entire race or deleting a save with dozens of hours of progress, there’s a kind of thrill to the feeling these kinds of situations give you. Here we’re going to explore some of the hardest choices we’ve ever had to make in a video game.
Obligatory reminder that from here onwards it’s spoiler country, so if you’re not looking to have entire plots ruined for you, get out before it’s too late. For everyone else, let’s dive right in.
Life Is Strange
In Life is Strange, Max Caulfield is haunted by visions of a dark storm destroying her hometown of Arcadia Bay. The visions begin when she manipulates time to save her childhood friend Chloe from the gun of Nathan Prescott, and they become more real as the game progresses. Max needs her powers to fix the world around her – preventing a suicide, securing important documents, and saving Chloe’s life in multiple situations – but there’s a price for her ability. Arcadia Bay experiences freak snowstorms, mysterious animal deaths, a sudden lunar eclipse, and a menacing double moon in the leadup to Life is Strange’s climactic finale.
Max’s vision of a deadly storm becomes real, manifesting in the waters near Arcadia Bay’s beaches. Finally accepting that she is responsible for the disaster that threatens the town, Max must either let thousands die or return to the start of the game and let Nathan Prescott kill her best friend Chloe. No matter the choice you make here, Max fails. She must sacrifice the town or the person she loves.
Bastion is set in the aftermath of a world-ending event known as the Calamity. Ruckus, Bastion’s husky-voiced narrator, directs the player character, known only as “The Kid”, through the different areas of the world in his search for the Cores. Together these Cores can power the world-saving device hidden within the City’s safe place, Bastion. However, he keeps the true nature of this saviour mechanism close to his chest until the final moments of the game.
In the game’s final moments, Ruckus explains that Bastion has the power to bring The Kid back to before the events that led to the Calamity, allowing him to potentially stop it before it begins. However, there’s no guarantee that you’ll retain your current memories, potentially trapping the world in an endless destruction loop. You could also harness Bastion’s power to take the few survivors far away to eke out a living in the world post-Calamity. There is no perfect ending for Bastion, just what you feel you should do.
Fans of Fallout will have met Harold before, first interacting with him in the Hub of Fallout 1. In Fallout 3, Bob, the tree growing out of the side of Harold’s head, has grown beyond his control and rooted him to the soil.
When the player meets Harold, he’s at the centre of a thriving community, his presence allowing for the growth of all manner of trees and plants in the middle of the barren wastelands. Tired of the endless worshipping of the people and bored with being stuck in one place, Harold begs the player to kill him. Meanwhile, the community implores the player to decide on either keeping Harold to itself or sharing his bounties with the world.
The story of Harold is a heart-wrenching one, especially if you’ve read his entire backstory. His fate and the fate of the community that relies on his plants hang on the choice you make here. It’s particularly hard knowing that ultimately the sacrifice is Harold’s, but you must decide for him whether his suffering is worth the lives of those around him.
This Is the Police
This Is the Police is an adventure strategy game where you play as a commissioner Jack Boyd, an old cop forced into retirement by the city’s corrupt Mayor. Jack has only 6 months save up half a million dollars for retirement. Fortunately, with rampant government corruption, the ongoing drug war in its streets, and the invisible hand of the mafia directing everything, there’s always money to be made for the opportunistic.
The mafia and other corrupt organizations come to you to make their problems go away, and they pay well for these favours, whether it’s “forgetting” to send an officer to investigate suspicious activity or fabricating evidence.
At the start of the game, a colleague of yours is under investigation for corruption and ties to the mafia. You could help him make a clean break and get out to start his life clean elsewhere, or you can stick to your code and throw the book at him at the risk of angering the mafia. Now you’re in charge of a weakened police force, dismantled by corruption and underfunding. Its members are either old or unprofessional. On top of this, Freeburg’s mayor demands you terminate the contracts of all black officers. The question that’s left is how much does your integrity cost?
Mass Effect 2
In Mass Effect, the Geth are a race of robots whose loyalties became divided by the Reapers, the series’ big baddies that harvest sentient life throughout the universe. The majority of Geth refused to aid the Reapers, but a small number of them, who came to be known as “heretics”, began to revere the Reapers as gods.
When Commander Shepherd killed the Reaper Nazara in the Battle of the Citadel, the heretics became obsessed with revenge. The “true” Geth, however, were intrigued by Shepherd’s exploits and sought him out to protect him.
The conclusion of the Geth saga leaves you with a grim choice: commit mass murder of the heretics, erasing them from existence, or use a virus to reprogram their beliefs in support of you. Genocide or systematic brainwashing? Are these sentient machines truly living beings, and what is the value of free will? I need to sit down and stare dramatically into the distance for this.
Dragon Age: Origins
You, the Warden, are tasked with choosing the individual who succeeds the throne of Ferelden after the death of King Cailin.
The bastard Alistair is Cailin’s closest blood relative. He’s well-liked and kind, but has no experience in politics and is unprepared to rule Ferelden in such dire times. His being a Gray Warden also means his lifespan is shorter than that of normal men, limiting the time he has to learn, and potentially allowing devious men of ambition (such as the player himself) to supplant him.
Anora is King Cailin’s widow, a bold and perceptive Queen with the experience and natural leadership qualities needed by Ferelden. Unfortunately, she’s dangerously self-serving and overly ambitious, two traits that could lead Ferelden to its doom.
Or, hey, maybe you just force a marriage between the two. Each has an equal claim to power, after all, and perhaps the positives of one can counterbalance the other’s negatives. There’s no way of knowing, however. An internal power struggle in Ferelden Castle could tear the country in two. Your very own Game of Thrones scenario.
Creator Yoko Taro’s genre-bending NieR: Automata ends with a Galaga-style arcade shooter where you do battle with the developers’ names on the credit screen.
Defeating the developers is an impossible task for a single ship, and the waves of enemies will kill you again and again. Eventually, the player will receive a message from another player offering rescue. Accepting this aid results in the summoning of an entire squadron of ships, each representing the save data of other players who have completed the game.
At the conclusion of the last cutscene, the game asks if you want to save your data or upload it to a ship to rescue another player during their final battle. Others helped you, here’s a chance to pay it forward. The kicker, though: uploading your data to a ship means erasing your save. Permanently. This means everything except the achievements you’ve earned. Dozens of play hours gone in an instant.
Will you come to the aid of someone hoping to experience NieR: Automata’s true ending, or will you save and continue?
These kinds of heavy, moral and philosophical dilemmas are here to stay in video games. As the authorship of video games creators and producers becomes more dominant in the creation process, the opportunities to explore deeper themes open up in ways impossible in non-interactive mediums. Don’t even get me started on anything from Quantic Dream. What’s the hardest choice you had to make in a video game?