So here's the essay.
The anonymous poster... ugh, I hate anonymic, so we'll call him "Herbert". Herbert says
"Not enough deeply disturbing dilemmas, I think. I want to choose the light side but it will mean sacrificing something very important. Usually it's sacrificing a tempting weapon or maybe a nice sum of money."
Okay, this is the "balanced choices" theory of design. This is the same theory of design that KotOR and friends use. But they are starting to discover its limits, and you can clearly see this in Mass Effect. It's not a very good way to design things, although it is useful for another reason.
As you read this essay, please consider the difference in choices between Mass Effect and a KotOR game. I think you will see that they have followed the same logical path I am outlining here.
Let me explain what I'm talking about. In fantastabulous detail, yes.
First we have to point out that we're not talking about a skill challenge. A choice of this nature should never be about choosing the option with greater utility. These choices don't train up a skill (like jumping, shooting, or placing plumbing) and they don't happen often enough to form a complex "terrain" of choices. Furthermore, they are heavily warped by the player's play style and current situation, so any "balancing" you do between the options is going to be totally ruined by what the player brings to the table.
It is possible to make the choice between a long-term gain and a short-term gain, in which case it could really tax the player's skill at analyzing these sorts of things. But frankly, you'll only choose the short-term option if you're doing badly, and it will always feel like you've failed, like you've had to ask for help. It will make you weaker in the long run, too, so that's a nasty positive feedback loop. No, not a good situation.
These kinds of choices are not useful as skill challenges. They are, instead, offered mostly as expressive choices. Allowing the player to choose between a gun and a sword is a very effective choice, even if they are the same, utility wise. Hell, even if one is a bit better or worse.
This is because most players have a strong preference on that front: I'll always take the gun. While it's not a "challenging choice" - the answer is obvious - it does allow me to express myself and start on a path I prefer. Of course, if the game continues to offer me the choice between sword and gun over and over for the rest of the game, they don't count. I've already expressed myself on that front, and unless something has significantly changed the utility of one or the other, I'll just go the same way over and over again.
Self expression is the only thing these sorts of "A or B or C" choices are useful for. But, once you've self-expressed a particular sentiment, there is only a little value in expressing it again unless something big has changed.
Now, to get back to Herbert. Herbert says he wants his preferred side (light side, same as me) to be balanced against a tempting equivalent on the other option (guns and money). Let's quickly examine why this is not a good way to think, although the same end result may be reached from other lines of thought from time to time.
Let's remove the flavor for just a moment. Instead of light side, we'll just make it a "power point". Which it is: you get a point or two of light side for choosing the light side path.
Those points are very personal and long-term statistical improvements. They are very valuable and keep their value forever. Choosing a gun or money, on the other hand, is a short-to-medium-term benefit that will go away as you cycle through various equipment over time. (Actually, money is usually completely worthless in KotOR games, but let's skip that fact.)
This means that, without the flavor, we're talking about that old bugaboo we mentioned, long term choice vs short term choice. Unless we have decided that the points are worthless, choosing for short term is going to feel like failure. It's admitting that we need outside help instead of being self-sufficient with our steadily growing point-power.
Now, adding the flavor back in, choosing light side is emphasized even more.
It may make us feel good that we're "sacrificing" for the sake of our light side choice, but the fact is quite the opposite and, as before, it's not usually an actual choice. It's usually asking us to re-express the same thing we've expressed before: yeah, we're STILL light side.
We could, instead, reverse the flavor. This is probably what Herbert was trying to get at. The idea that we choose flavor or reward.
I think that flavor is, essentially, a long-term reward. No matter how long the game goes on, the fact that we saved that child will never be "replaced" by a "better" act of good. They are cumulative, unlike which gun you equip. So flavor is a long-term reward.
Choosing guns over flavor is, therefore, admitting that you need help bad enough that you're willing to give up on the cool shit in the game to get a boost.
This works in both directions, of course - light side and dark side flavors are equally long-term and valuable. So it's not simply that bad guys get more stuff. In order to get the cool "I burned all their faces off" sequence, you have to sacrifice stuff, too.
You could make it long-term reward versus long-term reward. For example, strictly a flavor choice between light side and dark side (perhaps with a small amount of random statistical crap tossed in so that the player feels like they're affecting their game). But these flavor choices have a dominant side, just like offering me a gun or a sword. I'll always choose the gun and, similarly, I'll always choose light side. It's not a choice except for the very first time.
You can choose between, say, light side flavor and light side points - two tangentially related long-term choices. Except that most players will probably choose in favor of one or the other and always choose that way, just like I'll keep choosing light side after I've starting choosing light side. There may be a little bit of waffling, but I think you'll find it trends towards choosing flavor, because flavor keeps it's value even after the game has ended, so it is longer-term than points. I know I would feel like I was failing if I chose points over flavor. Unless, obviously, the flavor was not enticing to me. Players don't feel bad about not choosing something they find has no merit.
What I'm saying here is that the idea of a scripted choice that is internally balanced is not very good. A player will generally make his choice the first time he sees such a choice, and then continue going that direction forever. If offered choices between long-term and shorter-term rewards, he'll trend towards the long-term rewards. And flavor is a much longer-term reward than any balanced gameplay reward.
The problem is that these choices are always going to be inherently shallow. Compare them to non-shallow gameplay. Non-shallow gameplay iterates rapidly and involves training up your skills. These kinds of scripted choices do not iterate rapidly - they barely iterate at ALL - and they don't involve any kind of skill. So they are not skill challenges.
As ways of allowing the player to express himself, they are good to some extent, but tend to become very repetitive. Even if I have always chosen light side, the scripted choice is always between light side, neutral, and blatant dark side, rather than being chosen to challenge my sense of light side.
Therefore, it is necessary to create a method of extremely long-term options that never ask the same question twice.
That is what I outlined in my last post.
Sigh, I'm trying to figure out how I should have written that first half. It's not very good. Oh, well, does everyone understand what I'm saying? Agree? Disagree?