Taking a look back at some of the dilemmas that made BioWare games some of the most memorable interactive stories ever told.
BioWare has given us dozens of memorable choices to make over the years, and have pushed forward storytelling in video games to previously unthought-of heights along the way. The true test of whether or not a choice has any meaning is how it makes you think and feels, and BioWare regularly serves up some emotional doozies.
The way I play these types of games is to make my choices and stick with them; even if I regret them. Most of the time, I don’t go back and load a previous save. I prefer to deal with the consequences of my actions as if the story wasn’t just a game. My first playthrough is my canon playthrough for always; no takebacks allowed. I want to see how the game bears out my on the spot decisions made with good intentions, even if things end up going full Breaking Bad on me.
In the best cases, I may make the decisions I think are right, and the results may seem horribly wrong when it’s said and done. That’s when you know you’re playing something that’s more than a simple video game. That’s when it’s interactive art. Here are the moments BioWare has given me control and left me wondering for years afterwards if I did the right thing or regretting that I failed to do it.
Why, Bastila, why?
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was a huge part of the decision to switch to Microsoft’s Xbox after some great years with the PlayStation. It looked like the game of my dreams, and it did not disappoint one little bit. Compared to the newer crop of games (now with 75% more ambiguous moral choices!), this one’s may not hold up on an emotional level, but there is still one that still haunts me over ten years later.
Bastila is a female Jedi who acts as your right hand woman through most of the game. Cute, charming, and a little uptight; she’s a solid, dependable character and potential love interest whose character evolves away from the strict code of the Jedi somewhat as the game goes on. At one point, she gets damseled, and when you go save her she greets you as a free woman. A free Sith woman, that is. Turns out that if you haven’t corrupted her already during your evil playthrough, Darth Malak’s mental torture does the trick and she has turned against the Order and you and is convinced she is beyond redemption.
Now depending on your choices, one of three things can happen. You can decide to take her out, she can decide to take you out, or you can convince her that she is redeemable. After a lengthy discussion, I chose the wrong approach, failed to convince Bastila that she still had a chance for redemption, she came at me, and I struck down a friend. I killed a valued team mate and I felt like a total failure even as I saved the universe. It was unlike anything I’d ever felt in a video game before and if BioWare hadn’t already won a lifetime fan with the rest of the game, this’d have done it.
That Goddam Mirror
In Dragon Age 2 I was presented with a serious ethical dilemma. It’s pretty much been established that blood mages are bad news at this point, so the sequel naturally puts one in your party: a Dalish elf named Merrill. In spite of her mega dark magic affinity, Merrill’s personality is made entirely out of adorableness. While her geeky combination of intelligence and naivety is normally charming, it occasionally swings into the “wtf are you DOING!?” range.
Merrill’s pet project involves an elvish artifact; specifically a tainted Evluvian mirror that she is attempting to repair. Not only is she into blood magic, but he ends up dealing with demons and all sorts of stupidity trying to get this mirror working, supposedly for the good of her people, who have shunned her because of it. At one point you have a shard of the mirror and have to decide whether to acquiesce to her desire and let her have it or keep it from her for her own good before she destroys herself.
The real question there is whether you’re the kind of person who trusts in their friends and allows them the freedom to pursue their own affairs even at their own peril or the overbearing mother hen type who knows what’s best and will fight them until they agree or part ways with you. I’m the first kind. Freedom is my most consistently prized value. But it isn’t free…
So I let Merrill fuel her obsession with the mysterious, dangerous magical artifact knowing we could handle whatever came out of it. Except what happened was Merrill’s mentor sacrificed herself when the mirror bequeathed a demon bent on possession. She took the spiritual bullet for her wayward pupil and the demon used her body to attempt to kill us all. We struck the elvish elder down in self-defense just in time for the rest of Merrill’s clan to happen upon what admittedly looked like a pretty bad scene.
The banished blood mage with her forbidden dark magic artifact and her outsider companions leaving behind the corpse of the beloved elder doesn’t look great. I gave the wrong answer to their question and was then forced to slaughter my companion’s entire clan or be killed by the very same people she was claiming to be trying to save. Damn it, Merrill. I figured we could handle any foe the game could throw at us, but I never thought it’d be innocent people. Well played, BioWare.
Geth or Quarians?
This is an overarcing issue across all three Mass Effect games that comes to a head in the final installment. The Geth are an AI race who overthrew their creators, the Quarians, exiling them in deep space. They are a regular enemy who often align with the opposition, feeling threatened by biological races and occasionally manipulated by the Reapers. The Quarians are a species oppressed across the galaxy for their nomadic ways and they are consumed with the idea of defeating the Geth and reclaiming their homeworld.
This seems like an open-and shut choice, but over the course of the series and independent Geth named Legion joins your crew and teaches you a lot about his peoples’ story, culminating in you taking a tour into the Geth’s collective mainframe where you see the events that led to their initial revolt. Turns out the Quarians instigated the war that caused their own exile when they attempted to wipe the Geth out after they achieved self-awareness. Not only that, but the Quarian leadership are mostly complete assholes.
The final conflict comes in Mass Effect 3 when the two races go Armageddon on each other over the homeworld in question. The Quarians hold the advantage but Legion has a program that would allow the Geth to achieve true sentience and hypercharge their capabilities to turn the tables and end their creators. With the Quarians unwilling to back off it was one or the other.
There is a third outcome that allows for peace, given you managed to work out a certain compromise in the second game, which I somehow failed to do. So I was tasked with deciding which race gets wiped out. Fuck my life. Given that I viewed the Geth as mechanical potential, evolving theoretical lives as opposed to the clear and present sentience of the Quarians, I was moved by Tali’s pleas not to doom her people. But it was close.
I was rewarded with a tear-inducing outcome that saw Legion desperately attack Shepard in an effort to save his people before being taken out by Tali. His last words were to ask her “does this unit has a soul?” Wracked with sorrow, Tali answers “Yes, Legion. Yes it does.” It freakin’ gutted me.
Out of all BioWare’s epic story twist, turns, and choices in their games, this is the gold standard for me. The climax in Dragon Age: Origins isn’t the confrontation with the gigantic Archfiend leading the swarm of Darkspawn engulfing Fereldan. It’s the preparations made beforehand as the country struggles with divided loyalties over an impending civil war.
The Grey Warden has to take a leadership role in unifying Fereldan against the threat. Your opposition is that prick Loghain who you must first attempt to best in a debate where he expertly twists your own words and deeds against you. Win or lose, it will come down to a duel between one of your number and the evil dickhead. If you win, you are presented with a lot of heavy options.
In my case, I ended up compromising my own values for the good of the realm and making several decisions that were arguably wrong, but made with the best of intentions. I married my charming Templar knight (in training) Alistair to the ambitious queen of the realm, Anora, thinking the two of them would be the coolest of rulers. Except Alistair doesn’t like Anora. At all. So I lost a particularly cool party member and forced him to marry a woman he doesn’t love just because I thought it’d be neat. Shit.
Then there’s the issue of what to do with Loghain. I really wanted him to die. He deserved to die. But the thing is Anora is his daughter and I really wanted her support in this whole endeavor so killing her dad in front of her was not the call I wanted to make. So I had to lug this shithead around in my party now instead of Alistair. I then got the option to make him a fellow Grey Warden and allow him to die fighting the Archfiend. But then he would be remembered as a hero of the country and not the piece of garbage who betrayed it. I chose to let him live out his days in obscurity with a chance for redemption, but he never had to answer for what he’d done. Not only that, but as a favor to the witch Morrigan for services rendered (and possible future story intrigue), I….I let him bang her.
Don’t ask me how it ended up this way. I sold out my friend and gave the biggest bastard in the game the night of his life instead of a stump on top of his shoulders like he deserved. I’m actually rather ashamed that things ended up this way, but it’s a testament to the depth and nuance of the choices that the game offered to you. Life and conflict is about compromising and not always getting the result you want or doing the right thing and it’s not often you see that reflected in a video game.
The Toughest Call
For a lot of people, Mass Effect was the first time they experienced a truly agonizing choice. In RPG’s you are given a party of characters to be your friends and companions in all things. It’s part of the deal. On a few occasions, a character is scripted to die and it’s super sad, but it’s just part of the story. Their part is done. But what if their fate was in your hands?
At the climax of that first amazing game in the trilogy, you send Ashley and Kaidan on separate missions and you only have time to save one before a nuke goes off and blows the facility to atoms. So who’s is going to be? How long did you sit and stare at the screen weighing the possibilities? Ash was kind of a racist tool, but an interesting foil and my best performer in combat by far. Kaidan…well, he wasn’t all that memorable or interesting to me and I preferred Liara when it came to biotic powers. Plus, Ashley’s kinda pretty. [blush]
If this was a one-off game, it wouldn’t have been any big deal. But Mass Effect is a trilogy, meaning th characters come back. While the second game had only small roles for either character, the closer brought them back to the forefront of the action on the Normandy. It’s like I barely even knew Kaidan. I’ve had three games to be attached to almost every other Normandy crew member in the series, but this guy’s story was cut short by my hand. Ash’s story in Mass Effect 3 was great. What was Kaidan going to be like in the third game? I’ll never know until I finally get around to replaying the entire series front to back.
So those are my dirty little first playthrough secrets from BioWare games that haunt me. They’re the kind of decisions that immerse you in the game’s world and really make you feel the stakes. As I’m sure some of you are raging about internally now, my picks were sorely limited by my status as a filthy console peasant so none of BioWare’s old PC classics made the list due to me not having played them.
So now it’s your turn. Share some favorite old school Baldur’s Gate or Neverwinter Nights tales if you’ve got them or tell us which Dragon Age, Mass Effect, or other latter-day game choices left a lasting impression on you. Or you can always just tell me how idiotic my choices were. No wrong way to play.