Video games have certainly come a long way from their pixelated past. Back in the days of the Super NES, PlayStation and Nintendo 64, the hardest decision you had to make was what weapon to use to dispatch your enemies. Yet, in today's more sophisticated games, players are given difficult and morally ambiguous choices that can determine the entire course of your character's development, the direction of the whole game, and even change the fate of the wider virtual world and everyone in it.
But some of the most gut-wrenching, seemingly important decisions turn out to be no more consequential than what color outfit you choose during character creation, only changing the game in superficial ways. Still others seem like meaningful choices that could make pivotal scenes play out in strikingly different ways depending on what you choose, but in reality end up the same way no matter what you did. Still other moral choices in games are more a choice of evils than anything else, keeping you up at night with regret, wondering about the ramifications of your actions and if things would have been different if you'd made another decision.
Here are 15 of the most difficult video game decisions that either were not real choices at all, were impossibly difficult decisions between two unbearable options, and/or in the end made no actual difference.
Please note that these entries will contain major spoilers for the games in question, so proceed with caution.
15 The Two Brooches (BioShock: Infinite)
As you play BioShock: Infinite and explore the wondrous and horribly racist sky city of Columbia, you are greeted by what seems like an important choice soon after freeing Elizabeth. There are two brooches to choose from: one depicting a bird and the other a cage. Elizabeth asks the player to choose for her. Not an easy choice: since she was imprisoned, choosing the cage seems not the best symbol, but her prison guard was also a giant bird.
Did you lie awake at night tossing and turning, wondering what kind of insane unforeseen consequence your choice in tasteful accessories might have for our female lead? Well don't worry, because the two brooches are literally never mentioned again in the whole game and don't affect the outcome whatsoever. It turns out they were both just highly symbolic and for you to notice that in one of the final scenes the "Elizabeth" you've been trying to rescue is not the Elizabeth you've been talking to because she isn't wearing the brooch. Other than that, it affects nothing at all. Hope you didn't pull your hair out over it!
14 Side With The A.P.R. Or U.F.L.L. (Far Cry 2)
In Far Cry 2, you play a malarial mercenary who enters into an unnamed African country gripped by civil war. During the course of the story, the game provides you with two factions to side with: the Alliance for Popular Resistance (APR) and the United Front for Liberation and Labour (UFLL). This is a difficult choice to make: the APR seem anti-communist and more to the right of the political spectrum, while the UFLL's name implies left-wing politics and socialist leanings. Players have to choose one to advance the plot and may feel pressured when they seem to have the fate of an entire nation in their hands.
Ultimately though, it doesn't matter which of the two factions you side with. It becomes obvious through working for both of them that they are both greedy and only interested in power. They both pay exactly the same and, besides rhetoric, they are pretty much identical in practice. Story-wise, no matter which you side with in the civil war, you still end up killing both the UFLL and APR leaders. It really just changes the order in which you kill them. Well, at least you stopped the war, right?
13 Save Your Friend Or Save the Town (Life is Strange)
To be perfectly honest, almost every decision in Life is Strange could be given a spot on this list. Don't get us wrong, it's still a great story either way, but it's the decision at the very end that really gets under the skin of gamers. In a very similar way to Mass Effect 3's controversial ending, the player is given two brutal non-choices that boil down to: save the town or save your friend. That's right. You have to either let thousands of people in Arcadia Bay die by saving Chloe, or you can choose to let Chloe die in the initial bathroom scene, losing your best friend in the world, but saving everyone else. Let's not forget you've grown attached to Chloe by now and watched her suffer through so many deaths, reversing time each time to save her.
While this final decision does affect the world, there's a reason it belongs on this list. Because it turns out your powers were what was making the tornado more powerful, to stop rewinding time undoes all the hundreds of smaller changes you've made to the timeline. So you can let a town be destroyed, or decide not to save Chloe at the start, by which you logically erase every other decision you made in the game. This makes the whole thing feel rather pointless.
12 Standing Up To Ramsay Bolton (Telltale's Game Of Thrones)
No doubt this is a difficult decision. On the one hand, you want to stop Ramsay from terrorizing and possibly brutally torturing your family, but on the other he's a murdering beast with a violent temper who has all the power in the situation. Sadly, none of these choices make any difference. No matter if you choose to stop him tormenting your sister or bide your time, Ramsay will walk up and stab his knife through Ethan's throat, declaring him far too much trouble. That's Westeros for you.
11 Cure Cancer Or Solve World Hunger (Saints Row IV)
Being President of the United States grants you the power to make world-changing decisions, which often must be made under very high pressure from all sides. When you play Saints Row IV, as President you'll find you have to make big choices and you learn that quickly when you enter the White House and are greeted by your Vice President, famous film and voice actor Keith David (yes, as himself). He informs you that you have enough political clout to push for one major bill, but not both and asks you which one you want him to push for: one that solves world hunger or one that cures cancer.
That's a pretty major decision and you can only choose one. Surely this will change the world forever either way, right? Well not really, since both decisions are rendered effectively meaningless a few minutes later when the Earth is invaded by an alien empire. Well, at least you tried, right?
10 Upgrade Your Chip (Deus Ex: Human Revolution)
Later on in the main story of Deus Ex, mechanically augmented people, including your main character, Adam Jensen, start to experience a phenomenon known as "the glitch," which causes pain, disorientation, interference to vision for those with augmented eyes and other disturbances supposedly including potentially lethal effects. You're told the cause is a problem with the peripheral nerve interface, which can be fixed with a neural chip upgrade that you can get from the L.I.M.B. clinic in Hengsha. The upgrade is for free, but you still get the choice of whether or not to accept it. Good deal, right?
Except not really. Proving once and for all it's not a good idea to let strangers poke around inside your head under suspicious circumstances, it turns out the glitch was intentionally caused by the Illuminati and the "upgrade" allows them direct control over all augmented people by allowing a "kill switch" to remotely shut down a user's cybernetics. If you choose to get the upgrade, a later boss will shut down all your cybernetic components, making an already difficult fight about ten times harder. But hey, at least it was free!
9 Destroy, Synthesize, Or Control the Reapers (Mass Effect 3)
Mass Effect 3 has an ending that most fans considered, in a word, godawful. Having spent hundreds of hours playing through three excellent and expansive games filled with alien invasions, plagues, dialogue, and romance, nothing angered gamers more than having to choose between three bad options that all feel unfulfilling. To end the Reaper threat, Shepard must choose between controlling the Reapers (Control), merging with them (Synthesis), or destroying them (Destruction). Well, surely there must be a way to save the universe after all you've fought for?
Except not really. The "Destruction" ending uses the power of the Crucible to destroy all synthetic life in the Milky Way galaxy, with devastating costs to Earth, the Citadel and the Mass Relays. The "Synthesis" ending merges human DNA with synthetics, which basically makes everyone Reapers. And the "Control" ending has you sacrifice yourself to take command of the Reapers and prevent more destruction. Mass Effect fans felt that the ending choices made no sense, hadn't been properly set up, and overall were a pretty lame way to end a great series.
8 Love, Sacrifice, Or Wealth? (Fable II)
At the end of Fable II, you're granted one of three wishes and told to choose carefully because it will affect all of Albion. The first choice is "Sacrifice," which brings back to life the thousands of innocent people killed by Lucien Fairfax in the Tattered Spire's making, but you're told if you choose this one you will never see your family (killed earlier in the game) again. The next is "Love," which brings your family (and even your faithful dog) back to life. And finally there's the "Wealth" choice, which is a straight-up cash prize of one million gold pieces to spend however you wish.
Choosing Sacrifice seems like the perfect choice for a good character, but you never see those individuals; all that really happens is a statue of you appears in Bowerstone Old Town and you get a letter of thanks from the people of Albion. One million coins sounds great, but by that time many players earned a million gold anyway and even without choosing this wish, earning it is still possible. In fact, despite it seeming like the least likely choice, Love is probably the best, since you get to play the game with a very cute dog.
7 Which Dictator Do You Want To Rule Kyrat? (Far Cry 4)
From the beginning of Far Cry 4, it's clear to the player that Pagan Min is the violent, tyrannical maniac in charge of the fictional central Asian country of Kyrat, because he is the one who spends most of his time having theatrical outbursts in between stabbing people and ordering them tortured. Naturally, upon escaping his clutches, players go running into the arms of the Golden Path rebels who want to overthrow Min's regime. At the end of the campaign, the rebels can go one of two ways, depending on which prominent leader you chose to lead the Golden Path.
If you side with Sabal, it's demonstrated that his vision for Kyrat is to turn it into a fundamentalist theocracy and that he plans to execute former members of the group who sided with Amita for heresy against the Gods and treason, claiming that "sins can only be washed away with blood." If you side with Amita and she is placed in charge, she reveals her true intentions to turn Kyrat into a totalitarian drug state and orders her soldiers to forcibly conscript children to protect the drug fields. Both of these choices are arguably worse than the Pagan Min regime you helped overthrow in the first place.
6 Stormcloaks Or Imperials (The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim)
Speaking of civil wars, few fictional conflicts have inspired so many endless heated fights on internet forums and YouTube comments sections as the Skyrim Civil War in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Everyone has very strong opinions on whether the forces of the Empire or the Stormcloak rebels represent the best destiny for Skyrim. We've heard all the arguments before: the Imperials banned Talos worship and give the Nazi-esque Thalmor free reign, while the Stormcloaks are racist and thirst for power. Whichever faction your Dragonborn chooses to support will eventually win or else the war will be in eternal stalemate. But hey, no pressure!
It certainly feels important, but like many faction choices in modern games, taking a side only affects the game mechanically; it does nothing to affect the main quest or the final outcome of the game. The Dragonborn goes on to fulfill their destiny and save the world from Alduin regardless. The only things that change are a few lines of dialogue from NPCs, the uniforms of a few city guards, some permanent damage to either Solitude or Windhelm, and whether General Tullius or Ulfric Stormcloak live to treat you rather dismissively afterwards. Uh...yay?
5 Vault 34 (Fallout: New Vegas)
Bethesda's Fallout series is well-known for presenting the player with morally ambiguous and difficult choices. These include not only deciding what faction to side with in the main quest, but also how to solve the missions for the various Vaults you find in the Wasteland. One of the vaults in Fallout: New Vegas, Vault 34, is probably the most challenging morally. The set-up goes like this: Vault 34 is leaking radiation into the water, which is affecting nearby sharecropper farms, causing the crops to die and widespread famine among the people who are completely dependent on them for food. After you head into the vault to investigate, you discover there's a group of people still alive inside, but who are trapped in an unreachable part of the vault.
The Courier has to either deactivate the reactor, stopping the radiation and saving the farms, but dooming the trapped survivors to being buried alive or reroute the controls to the trapped people, enabling them to open the doors and escape, but dooming the crops and ensuring further starvation. There's no real way to know which is right decision; the game itself seems hesitant to pass judgement on such an impossible choice and doesn't add or subtract any karma either way.
4 Leave The Island Or Kill Your Girlfriend (Far Cry 3)
At first glance, this would seem an obvious choice. I mean, you're not really going to kill your own friends and brother who you've fought this whole time to save, right? Much less your hot girlfriend who has put up with so much from your adventuring ass and all this to side with a crazy warrior cult? The problem is the more you think about it, the more BS the ending choice becomes. Basically Jason has to choose between embracing the soulless killing machine he's become and staying on the island (ultimately getting stabbed for it after sex with Citra), or to head back to civilization with his friends, who he probably doesn't have much to talk about with anymore since, you know, at this point he's killed more people than Genghis Khan.
3 Chop Off Your Arm (Telltale's The Walking Dead)
Season 1 of Telltale's The Walking Dead offers a huge amount of choices clouded by moral grey areas, but perhaps none as visceral as deciding whether to cut off your own arm. After Lee gets bitten by a Walker, the characters theorize that cutting your arm off at the sight of the bite might stop the spread of the infection. Of course, you don't really know – it's just a guess, but it's the best chance you've got. So cutting off an important limb will possibly save your life, but having only one arm will severely limit your chances of survival in the zombie apocalypse by limiting your ability to climb and fight, not to mention the blood loss. It's a huge risk either way and remind yourself that Lee has Clementine to protect.
But as it turns out, this seemingly earth-shattering decision doesn't have a huge impact on the outcome of the game; just the way that it's played. If you choose to keep your arm, Lee looks more sickly, but will be able to perform more tasks himself and Lee eventually succumbs to the infection either way. Hold on, I think I have something in my eye...
2 Die a Hero's Death Or Live A Coward (Fallout 3)
Of course, you can try to get your follower Fawkes, the Super Mutant who is immune to radiation, to do it for you. In the vanilla game he simply refuses, which is silly, but if you have the Broken Steel DLC, he remarks at how clever you are for not pointlessly dying. Unfortunately, he's the only one, as the closing Ron Perlman narration calls you a coward for it: "The child refused to follow the father's selfless example, instead allowing a true hero to venture into the irradiated control chamber." Really? It's like the game wants you dead and punishes you for skirting it. To their credit, with aforementioned DLC, you end up surviving this originally rather ridiculous ending.
1 Use White Phosphorus (Spec Ops: The Line)
Except they weren't soldiers, but innocent civilians. The ending scene reveals that you burned dozens of people alive with white phosphorus, an agonizing way to die and the game makes sure that you walk among their charred corpses, focusing in on the bodies of a mother and a child in her arms. The ending scene is essentially a punch in the gut, meaning to cause intense doubt and self-loathing. Of course, if you try not to use the phosphorus mortars, you keep failing until you do. The decision is a determinate masquerading as a choice and perhaps that's the whole point. You can't choose to escape that war is hell; it's just a fact.