Sunday, October 26, 2014

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: The Start of a Semiotic Language!

I’m ashamed to say that I was largely unaware of semiotic language formation for the bulk of my life – I didn't even hear the term semiotics until I read Gibson’s Patten Recognition at the age of 21, hung over, sleep deprived, and jet lagged, a fine way to read that particular book.  Even after I’d been introduced to the term it remained buried somewhere in my subconscious for the most part, never even approaching the forefront of my thought process until I began teaching composition.  In composition, which focuses predominantly on conventional “verbally literate” texts, that is to say texts made up primarily of words, concerns about visual literacy (which normally deals with texts composed primarily of pictures) are often given short shrift, if they’re engaged with at all. When you think about it, that's pretty insane: most people are far more adept at symbolic or semiotic visual literacy than they are at verbal-visual literacy.  After all, semiotic literacy engages directly with visual memory through pattern recognition, without using any of that messy locative memory shortcutting that our jury-rigged ape brains use to generate visual-verbal literacy equivalencies.  In a sense, that makes it much more challenging to actually engage with semiotic and symbolic language: we’re used to just accepting the language of semiotics in the world around us unconsciously, absorbing information without realizing it.  Reading is a conscious act, a challenge for many people, and fixating on aspects of a process you’re already aware of, a process you’re forced to consciously work on improving during some phase of your educational development regardless of who you are, can be much easier than forcing yourself to analyze the nuances of a process you engage in almost as reflexively as breathing.  But when you discuss semiotic or visual literacy in concrete terms, students who had trouble with general literacy begin to acquire deeper critical thinking skills they can utilize to, in turn, improve weaker skills that they lacked the capacity to self-assess their progress in previously.  It’s far from a perfect system, and it’s challenging: the study of semiotics is never really engaged in in a thorough critical framework, and those who do study it often do so for the sake of manipulating its frames through the generation of branded material in fields like design and advertising, rather than the generation of discourse surrounding the response of individuals to that brand.  It's an unfortunate state of affairs, because breaking down the function of semiotic response mechanisms can be extremely edifying.  By making the invisible visible to an audience, you’re doing more than just deconstructing symbols: you’re deconstructing the response-feedback loop surrounding those symbols.

So what the fuck does any of this have to do with video games?

More than you’d think.  Video games are essentially engines for instruction.  They all but categorically teach players to apply patterned solutions to problems, often stacking mechanics on top of one another through sustained play that prompt increasingly complex solutions in response, generating a feedback patterns promoting general critical thinking and problem solving skills.  Think of Half-Life 2’s helicopter battles.  First you’re on a boat.  You’ve got no rockets.  You’ve got no choice, really, but to run the fuck away from that god damn helicopter. Alyx is there giving you tips.  She’s acting as the voice of the developers as they teach you how to avoid being straight up murdered by that god damn flying death machine. After that, you’ll be given a handful of rockets and asked to fight another helicopter.  Here you learn how to aim and fire while evading, utilizing cover to keep yourself safe and firing at the helicopter when opportune moments presents themselves. There’s a steady mix of aiming and dodging and timing there, but the basics are coming together for you by now: you’re figuring out how to kill these helicopters, and how badly you can fuck up without thoroughly screwing yourself.  Eventually, you’re forced to fight these helicopters in different scenarios: in some, you’ll be in mostly open ground, and your timing as you move from piece of cover to piece of cover is key.  Sometimes, you won’t have access to any rockets or anti-aircraft weapons at all, and you’ll be forced to use the grav-gun to fire mines back at the helicopter as it drops them.  Sometimes you’ll fight weird fishy-helicopters that don’t drop mines, and you'll be forced to use the weapons at your disposal and objects scavenged from your environment.  Eventually, you’ll fight them with nothing but your souped-up grav gun, at which point you’ll only have one weapon to use against them: energy orbs, which you’ll have been trained in the application of during a series of exhausting earlier battles.

Half-Life 2 repeats this pattern a number of times across a variety of mechanics, but the core pattern of challenge-solution-expansion is uniform across these examples.  Most games use this pattern to teach players how to interact with their mechanics, though not all of them are as deliberate or thorough with their application of this strategy as Half-Life 2.  Nor are the anywhere near as transparent, thanks to Half-Life 2’s seminal and still-enriching “commentary tracks” scattered throughout the game.  Valve took the time not just to craft these arenas, but to tell us that they were internally called “arenas,” and that they were oriented around giving players a particular object lesson, especially in the first half of the game.  They made what McGonigal and Gee discussed in broader terms very specific: they demonstrated the instructive capacity of games in a directive, measurable way.  They've even got outcomes metrics, something that Gee lacks entirely and that McGonigal, who I love dearly, is somewhat fuzzy on when she brings them to bear in her talks.

Video games are also highly reliant on visual languageLet’s look at Half-Life 2 again, with its broad scope of art design.  Terrain, construction, and environmental symbolism in Half-Life 2 presents players with a bevy of useful information. Video games rely predominantly on visual literacy skills, often to the point that writing becomes a secondary or tertiary concern.   Much of the information we’re given about our world emerges from snippets of visual language: a vortegaunt standing by a trash can fire, an aging priest wearing a pair of Chuck Jones originals as he blasts away headcrab zombies with a shotgun, a horde of zombines pouring out of a troop transport, surging towards you with grenades in hand.  These bits of visual data all operate on a semiotic layer, either drawing on existing symbolic or imagistic information from the real world, instructing players in the meaning of visual frameworks within the game, or building on that understanding of said visual frameworks to convey important information about the world players are moving through.  Even the laser sight trail of a sniper rifle is a semiotic clue, providing players with information about where, when, and how they can move through a space.  When you’re given a chance, in Episode 1, to use those sniper rifles to your advantage through Alyx, the semiotic message is clear: the combine are on the ropes, and their tools have become yours.  The symbols in the world that represented dangerous obstacles now represent handy resources that can get you out of a potential jam.  The symbol, and its inversion, achieve a narrative process more effectively than a cutscene or some dialogue might.

Half-Life 2 employs semiotic information to give players instruction and to tell stories in the world around them, sometimes using subtextual information contained in a character’s style of dress or the condition of their equipment to give us background or history about a given individual.  Portal takes it even further, creating an environment rich with semiotic language, the corruption of which, as the plot continues, informs players about both the state of their world and the state of GlaDOS’ authority.  As players begin to strain against it, the veneer begins to peel away, revealing information about previous occupants of GlaDOS’ experiments, as well as information about the world you’re in (through the delightful frame of an abandoned power point presentation, one of the more concrete indicators of slapdash half considered perspective in the modern world.

All of these references, created by artists and writers, inform these worlds.  They’re a huge contributor to the kind of world building games are invested in, and a big part of the particular literacy that games encourage in their participants. The same way reading a particular kind of book might encourage students to look for certain patterns of writing to help them locate particular kinds of information, playing a particular kind of game indoctrinates players towards engaging in a particular kind of semiotic discussion with their surroundings, as well as the mechanics of the game itself.  A player who frequently plays RTSes will look at the world in a different way than a player who plays FPSes, who will look at the world in a different way than someone who plays RPGs.  But all of these learning structures rely on notions of subtext and symbolism that we don’t usually discuss, even when we acknowledge their presence, and the generative proto-linguistic framework that is semiotics is core to effectively discussing these subjects.

Developing an effective language to that end could be a major step towards improving games as education tools, literary and artistic structures, and generating legitimate video game criticism.  I think Valve could do some remarkable things with philosophical and scientific principles given a little push in the right direction, but right now it doesn’t seem terribly interested in doing anything but generating games that the critical apparatus can’t really process appropriately.  That’s also a push in the right direction: that games should exceed criticism’s grasp encourages both mediums to excel, and in the case of criticism, that’s particularly necessary.

Astute allegations of sexism and nepotism on both sides aside, #gamergate brought something to mind that I’d stopped thinking about long ago: video game criticism is broken.  And while one could say it’s broken for the same reason that poetry criticism is broken (it’s almost always hinging on professional courtesy between reviewer and game-maker, and those game-makers often take especially effusive and talented reviewers on board as writers) I think there’s a more fundamental challenge facing games criticism, that of an effective critical linguistic framework.  This problem has been around for a long time, ever since gaming magazines tried to review games with such categories as “fun factor” in an attempt to represent their value as experiences, and it’s sustained in the manner in which the apparatus continues to rely on numeric or graded scores for artistic products, an absolutely absurd conceit when you consider that the same process is being applied to Call of Duty and Depression Quest.  There have been pushes away from this, often in the form of heated issue pieces, like Leigh Alexander’s critiques of the representation of women in video games, and Stephen Totilo’s highly conventional measured journalistic writings which aim to treat games with the same level of discourse as any other artistic medium, but the bulk of the industry seems content to avoid any kind of real critical discussion of games as an art form in favor of utilizing a set of in-house comparisons and slapdash subjective linguistic frameworks that address outcomes, rather than processes by which games achieve their goals.  Even people like Anita Sarkeesian, whose remarkable videos have polarized elements of the enthusiast community, rely on linguistic frameworks that struggle to convey their own points (though, to be fair to Sarkeesian, a great deal of that can be attributed to the massive scope of her undertaking, and the breadth of her audience).

When I talk about developing a lexicon for discussing semiotics in games, I don’t just want to see it applied there: the discussion could easily escape the medium, and take root in any number of semiotic dominated fields.  Discussing the impact and evolution of branding, discussing the way that mechanical engineering and design shift over time, discussing the manner in which signage functions in different cultures; these are all valid venues for the application of semiotic discourse, but they’re far more often discussed in terms of their outputs (and how those outputs might be gamed or manipulated) than their moving parts. I don’t know how a critical or academic language for semiotics could be generated, short of a massive undertaking, but when I consider the potential impact, it seems worthwhile.  Games have long stood as a tremendously influential medium and a remarkable instructive framework; participatory frameworks are almost always super effective.  But without an effective language to outline the flow and function of semiotic language, we can barely discuss things like Sean Tejarchi’s LiarTown USA with more depth than nodding and saying “that’s funny.”  Even, where feminism goes to die, managed to miss a joke at its own expense, recommending that people buy a “Social Justice Kittens” poster that lampoons the very kind of language and infantile discursive discourse that Jezbel relies upon.  That says something about the state of semiotic discourse: we’re capable of engaging with the modes and models it presents, but when it comes to reflecting on the function of those meanings, or even just deconstructing them in the broadest senses, we seem to consistently come up short.  It’s just especially apparent in games, and until we have a language for discussing the frameworks games rely upon for generating their discourse, we’ll always be discussing it in childishly broad terms, struggling to express the profundity of what our experiences have shown us as consumers of this, the most nascent of artistic mediums.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Super Nerd Sunday Presents: Decision Making Anxiety!

As the weeks ticks by, I find myself still playing Wasteland 2.  Part of it is that the game is simply massive, stretching out for dozens of hours, hours I do not have as midterms roll around and I find myself aggressively grading student papers and finalizing elements of syllabi and course frameworks I began developing little more than a month ago, but just as significant, perhaps more significant, is the fact that Wasteland 2 frequently paralyzes me with potential decisions to be made.  It's a feature of the epic scale RPG with enduring consequences slapped on to the end of it: a game like Wasteland 2 encourages you to explore every conceivable option, and encourages you to do so with thorough aplomb, so much so that each time you enter a new area, if you want to have full control over your potential options in that area, you'll often have to move very, very carefully.  Want to save Sarah in The Valley of Titan?  You'll have to snipe her assailant from across the map.  The Valley of Titan is actually a series of potential narrative pitfalls, which can terminate quite unexpectedly.  Traveling with a Monk Guide, a seemingly innocuous decision to make, can completely destroy potential narrative lines.  Traveling without a guide can do the same - whatever choice you make, someone's going to try and fight you, and you'll have to kill someone which will, inevitably, piss someone else off, long term.  There's really no way around it.

The end result is that I spent three days playing through each potential scenario for The Valley of the Titan, in between grading assignments and picking out readings.  Something that marks me as someone with obsessive compulsive disorder?  Certainly, but it remains a feature of my experience with Wasteland 2, and it's actually a product of the same qualities I discussed previously that actually make Wasteland 2 so remarkable as a game.  I can't necessarily discern where the narrative is going to go, and, as a result, I'll often explore multiple venues.  But, since I'm a giant fucking control freak, I'll also replay the game again and again until I get the ending I want.  I'd prefer not to just shoot my way into Rodia, so I'll quietly infiltrate the town and assassinate the leader of the bandit army occupying it.  I'll rob the bank while I'm at it, and try to find some medical supplies that can potentially help people, but I'll also mess up and accidentally save a marriage instead of reuniting a pair of lovers, which will, in turn, keep a radio from being repaired, and force me to either wander the wastes until I can correct my mistake, or reload my game from an earlier save state and try to dig up some dirt about that filthy Beatrice tramp.

Either way, it's time that I'm wasting for the sake of my ideal playthrough.

To some extent these qualities are forcing me to confront my anxiety, which is a good thing.  I'm a twitchy guy in general, and a little encouragement to leave well enough alone sometimes is healthy.  But it's also generating something of a crazy time sink as I approach the game less like a narrative experience I'm engaging in, and more like a crazy-as-fuck equation that I'm trying to balance with only a formative understanding of mathematics.

Part of the trouble comes from the fact that there are losing and winning outcomes imbedded in the narrative frame: there are decisions that can be made that eradicate other decisions arbitrarily, elements that don't need to exist for narrative cohesion, that exist none-the-less for the sake of narrative simplicity.  The first major plot point of the game, where you're forced to decide between saving two settlements, is one such occasion: other RPGs might let you save both towns, or give you an opportunity to work on saving both towns in different ways, but Wasteland 2 forces you to make your own bed and lay in it, even if the bed seems a bit trite and forced in its making.  And sometimes, especially when you uncover a particularly nasty unexpected twist, the end result isn't that you feel like something incredible or organic has emerged, it's that you feel like the game has cheated you in some way.  Hence the reboot.

This anxiety, as it builds, is pushing me further and further back into my playthroughs.  I've already prepared a new party that I plan to run from start to finish in the game, now that I've uncovered the importance of starting the game with 8 intelligence (so many more skill points!).  I've spent days loading and reloading scenarios in the Los Angeles swamp to test out how my decisions will impact the world around me.  It's begun to build up to the point that playing the game, something I once did with unabashed joy and enthusiasm, has become something of a chore: I'm not just playing the way I want to play, I'm playing the way I think people might want me to play and trying to discern what my choices will actually lead to, long term, in about six or seven areas when they finally come to fruition.

When I sit down to play, there's now a weight to my actions, partly because of the approaching confrontation that I can see shaping up as the game eases towards its finish, but also partly because of this queer system of accumulations that has become, rather than engaging, onerous.  Every interaction, every new area, must be fully explored.  Taking one action has begun to represent the elimination of other potential futures, instead of the generation of one particular future.  It's an old phenomena, one that dates back to the first consequence oriented games, one that people have found remarkable workarounds to in games like The Walking Dead, but that doesn't make it any less real.  Each time I sit down to play Wasteland 2 I find myself compelled to look into the future of the Wastes, and simultaneously paralyzed by the variety of options that I see there, options that I know I'll be eliminating the moment I carve out my future.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Super Nerd Sunday Presents: Gauntlet Brings Back the Motherfuck!

There's a certain kind of joy that comes from shit talk, a kind of reverberant negative-positive energy, especially when it cycles back and forth, up and down, as the game stokes the pedantic shit-talking fires that lie in the adolescent hearts of every human being.  Rendered in random conversation, these aspects are socially unacceptable, with good reason.  Whiny, pedantic shits tend to find themselves friendless and in banking by the time they hit thirty for lack of basic human conscience, but the same winging shiftiness that besets the least among us takes root in us all, and to suppress that knowledge, that urge, that verve, is to do a disservice to the animal within all of us.

That's part of why the Gauntlet reboot is so remarkable.

In a world where co-op has become king, and co-op is a "let's all win together" prospect, wherein teammates function to the capacity of either the least or greatest among them equally, a kind of cruel, Darwinian engine for resolving personal disputes with impressively raw passive aggressive force is more than welcome.  Gauntlet brings just that to the table, featuring what Jerry Holkins aptly termed "competitive co-op" in its best form.

See, Gauntlet harkens back to the unforgiving arcade days of yore, where you were on your own, at the mercy not just of the enemies you were fighting, but your teammates as well.  Games designed to eat coins were looking to eat your coins, yours specifically, and in so devouring those coins, they would emasculate you, make it readily apparent that you were less man than your friends.  Your friends would make fun of you in turn, fueling your rage, your drive to push back into the game.  Your drive to improve.

That drive, once fulfilled, was rewarded with the flip side of the same cycle that reinforced it into being in the first place: you'd be the mocker, the winging little shit who'd shoot the food to spite your brain dead elf who didn't have the brains to grab it before it was gone.  You'd be the jack off grabbing the gold from his still warm corpse, picking up the crown from the barbarian when he dropped it after taking a hit for the team, darting in and out of combat, hoping for the best, fearing the worst: that you might be exposed, even for a moment, as something less than superlative at your game of choice.

For a generation of gamers, Goldeneye was the ultimate vector of this shit-talking framework, but the Gauntlet reboot repackages it quite aptly, in a way that, unlike Goldeneye, makes it much more possible for players lagging behind to participate, and even catch up.  But, like Goldeneye, without shit talking there's really little to it: single player Goldeneye was about as fun as hammering a nail into one's dick, and Gauntlet without other people is a special kind of hell.

But on Skype, with friends screaming at one another, Gauntlet is exactly what it needs to be: a remembrance of a kind of game long since past, a throwback in all the right ways that takes the best aspects of the original (abject competition among teammates and unforgiving conditions) and throws away what it doesn't need (friendly-fire damage and pedantically frustrating penalties for even passing deaths).  Mixed in with a wonderfully original achievement structure, which thus far has mostly focused on the ways I've fucked up while simultaneously giving me benefits for fucking up continuously, Gauntlet makes me pine for a simpler era of gaming, where games weren't so simple, where social interactions were terse and passive aggressive.

There's some nostalgia there, too.  Gauntlet has a flavor to it that recalls the best of arcade gaming, where you'd sit around with a handful of friends mashing away, occasionally shouting at one another, mostly silently working together towards a single task.  It makes me long for discontinued foodstuffs from my youth, for Hoods single serving chocolate-vanilla ice cream cups served in long sleeves and pretzel sticks from jars.  That's the power of Gauntlet's game type, the power of the specific kind of social interaction it permits, even lubricates by making the framework surrounding it more forgiving.  And that is the real core of Gauntlet: not its asymmetric play, not its well crafted progression system, not its button-mashy chaos.

It's a framework for people to be shitty to each other.  A spectacular framework, at that.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: Unforseen Narrative Events in Wasteland 2!

We creep up the ridgeline, the six of us.  Cressida Two-Fists and Vulture's Cry crouch on the cliff's edge, sniper rifles drawn.  Thomas Gray and Angela Deth protect the approach from light cover, waiting to rain down a hail of bullets on any raider foolish enough to creep up.  Raymond the Mystery Man and Amara Realis sit behind line-of-sight cover, ready to pop out and engage any enemies foolish enough to rush the approach.  With pistols and shotguns in hand, they wait.  Cressida and Vulture take aim at the biggest, meanest raider they can, popping off two quick shots before the screen blurs and spins and the tension of my haphazard engagement setup suddenly coalesces into a series of furtive turn based choices.  Suddenly, Cressida and Vulture and Tom and Angie and Ray-Ray and Amara are all separate parts, instead of a self-contained whole.  They're all working towards a single end, but in a fractured way, a way that sometimes involves them accidentally shooting one another in a high stakes environment, or involves them suddenly ignoring my orders and diving from cover to pop shots off at enemies from open ground.  When the dust clears the makeshift base formed out of cargo container is littered with bodies, some of them glowing with potential loot.  My team is bloody, but still walking.  I tap the space bar to highlight all of my team members and click the reload button.  Fresh mags slam home with a satisfying cacophony of clicks, but there's something wrong.  Vulture's Cry just shrugs instead of reloading.  I bring up her inventory and see that she doesn't have any .308 left in her backpack, so I dart over to Cressida's inventory to pull some out of her bag and shuffle it into Vulture's.  Then, in Cressida's inventory I notice an unloaded sawed off shotgun just sitting in her off-hand weapon slot: a great weapon to have in a pinch, sure, but worthless if unloaded.  So after shifting the ammo I click reload again, then shift over to Cressida, change weapons, reload, change them back, and suddenly realize: Raymond's light machine gun is unloaded too!  Back to the inventory, this time to Tom, the .556 ammo mule, so that I can top off Raymond's supply, then hot swap out his weapons, reload, double check his stocks, and shift objects around accordingly.

This is the bulk of Wasteland 2.

There's far more to it than that.  The combat recalls the best parts of the Fallout series with more than a little Shadowrun Returns to it.  The exploration layer has a simultaneity of danger and excitement, and such a wealth of options to engage with one's environment that the game itself just explodes each time you enter a new area, uncovering land mines, picking locks and cracking safes.  The incentive for certain kinds of action, like recruiting new characters and returning to base to sell certain kinds of supplies, is very real, even as the temptation to hang out in the wastes endlessly hunting down baddies exists as a tremendously inviting counterpoint.  But all of this hangs on a layer of micromanagement, made necessary by the nuance of the system itself, which forces me into carefully monitoring and distributing ammunition, matching weapon usage patterns to the types of ammo available, and, in a sense, carrying my ammo-crazed craven attitude into each new engagement with enemies, as I cross my fingers and hope my sniper's rifles don't jam mid-fight.

This layer of micromanagement doesn't just saturate the inventory management system: it occupies the game entire.  Wasteland 2 is only about surviving in the wastes on its surface.  The reality of the game is that it's a tremendously malleable interactive story with dozens, nay, hundreds of moving parts under the hood, reshaping with each tiny action, each furtive decision.  Your choice to free a gaggle of pigs or rescue some sex-workers will impact the long term story.  Your choice to solve problem X in Y way will totally reshape the whole outcome of the game, which is amazing.  That's excellent.  But what problemitizes that system, what makes it worth discussion, instead of blithe praise, is that all of this happens invisibly.  There are no faction bars telling you where you stand with people, nor is it readily apparent how each event and the choices you make will shape the narrative.  Sometimes it's clear enough: do good things in a small town and they'll elect a mayor who directs their growth in a way that's favorable to you.  But sometimes it's not so clear: repairing a train can lead to a genocide, following the letter of the law can keep you from getting a new friend.  Keeping your team alive will keep you from meeting new party members with fresh perspectives and personalities.

It would be easy to call this a shortcoming, to say that Wasteland 2's lack of transparency with regard to its own complexity is a failing, but I don't think that's actually true.  See, in the before time, before every game was mapped out on the internet in excruciating detail within weeks of its release, before we highlighted quest paths and ran players through their paces so that they could uncover objects in just the right order, lest the scripting language of the game shit itself and render saved game files un-usable, this was the way of things.  And it was amazing.  Unexpected things would happen all the time, and as a result, narrative immersion actually presented itself in these games.  In the real world, you have no idea where your actions will eventually take you.  There's no way of knowing if you'll end up exactly where you want to be, and you are, in the end, just doing your best to get there in an imperfect world where all the moving parts aren't readily apparent.  Likewise, I'm never entirely sure who I can trust in Wasteland 2, or where my actions will take me.  Choices that I'd like to go back and re-make, as transparent as choosing to save Highpool instead of The Ag Center, occur every time I enter an area.  Living with the consequences of my blind, flailing choices is just part of the game.

Of course, sometimes it isn't.  After settling into Rail Nomads I set upon a series of decisions that I thought would allow me to bring peace to the rival factions in the settlement.  But, lo and behold, trying to satisfy both peoples just wasn't an option: if I helped one, I'd destroy the other.  So, after discovering this through trial and error, after helping someone with something seemingly innocuous lead to what amounted to a genocide, I decided to reload the whole god damn game, effectively losing a day and a half of progress.

In the end, that might be for the best: I'm still learning about Wasteland 2's systems, and I'm learning to take my time and really listen to the dialogue that I'm being presented with, something most RPGs don't really treasure.  It's very apparent that in-Exile is intent on making gamers pay attention again, something that we haven't really had to do since Torment.  Even Baldur's Gate, fantastic game it was, consisted of dialogue options that were mostly flavor text; real game changing conversations were few and far between.  In Wasteland 2, every conversation could be game changer.  Every minor decision could reshape the entire game world.  Choosing to kick the wrong totem pole over could kill a potential party member and insure that peace never comes to a particular region of the wastes.  But it's never entirely clear what the outcome of each decision will be, or even what all the potential outcomes are, and that's where Wasteland 2 excels.  It forces players to engage with the game world through an imperfect apparatus and, in doing so, forces them to make executive decisions as players.  Most games remove notions of "executive function" from their decision trees.  It's a shitty, lazy move, something that seriously curtails the value of games as an educational tool.  But when games do present constructions of executive function, they do so in a way that actualize notions of consequences, actions, and critical decision making skills.  Wasteland 2 forces you to engage with the consequences of your actions, even when the consequences aren't entirely clear.  Sometimes, it gives you hilarious options just to see if you'll take them.  Will you exhume the body of a town's mayor in front of the town's inhabitants?  What would you gain from doing that?  In a normal RPG, the answer would be "some loot" and the town would just ignore you doing so.  If you decide to do that sort of thing in Wasteland 2, an entire town will try to murder you.  Then it's kill or be-killed, and if you end up somehow killing an entire town, that town is just gone.  The population of the titular wasteland will have just become a little sparser.  But why would you try to dig up that grave in the first place?  That's like something an insane person would do.  But digging up supply caches randomly scattered around various settlements?  That's just good sense.