With all the talk I've been doing lately about consequence it seems like I should talk about one of the key applications of consequence, and that is controlling the tone of your game namely in how "light" or "dark" it is. Now by light or dark I mean in the thematic sense. Warner Bros cartoons and high action/adventure cartoons, shows, and movies are generally considered Light while a movie like say The Dark Knight, Event Horizon, or even The Cable Guy are dark. How do consequences control this? Well, let's begin.
Consequences Govern Scope Which Governs How Light Or Dark A Game Is
Simply put the consequences we bring up determine how close or far we look at things and thus how light or dark a game is. In other words, how complex we make things - through our consequences and other things - and how closely we look at things will determine that level.
The rule of thumb here is that generally the closer you look at something, the more details you bring into focus, the darker a game gets. Why? Because when you really zoom in close, and consider all of the consequences to an action, you start catching all of the gritty details that shows just how horrific an action is.
Star Wars Is A Dark Place...
With the exception of Revenge of the Sith all the Star Wars movies are rated PG. There is also a TV-Y7 television shows. Star Wars, the original trilogy, is something a lot of us watched as young children, or show to young children because it is generally considered safe. And yet, if you actually look at the Star Wars universe it has the potential for a very dark and unnerving setting.
Well, look at the details. Without using anything other than the 5 PG rated movies Star Wars has: weapons capable of destroying whole planets that are fired on peaceful people, slavery, mental/psionic suggestion, child labor, clones, shape shifters, drug addiction, dismemberment, betrayal, manipulation, sentients sold as property, women sold into marriages, and ostensibly good guys murdering and otherwise endangering children.
Do these sound like the contents of a "light" adventure? I mean, hell, throw shape shifting and cloning in and you have a recipe for The Thing like scenarios all around the place. Put the mind of your average player in a room full of drugged people and the ability to create compelling mental suggestions and you can get dark very fast. Star Wars has everything needed to be rated NC-17 at the lowest, and all that is hiding that from happening is a shift in perspective.
In other words, yeah, I'm stealing Obi-Wan's cop out.
A Certain Point Of View
So let's talk application. We have two games. In one game we want the game to be light, fast, adventure game with "good" heroes and little in the way of consequence. In the other we want dark, gritty, with people having to be real people and face the full consequences of their action. In both games the player of Luke Skywalker has just destroyed a battle station moments before it could vape the base of his rebel pals.
The battlestation blows up with a great victory for the rebellion. You fly your X-Wing home and are cheered as a hero by your comrades for succeeding where others have failed. There are somber moments as people feel guilty for the brave men and women who died so you could succeed, but their sacrifices are considered worth it and everyone is just happy for the win, as short lived as it may be.
Not much to it, basically the ending to A New Hope. Why fix it if it ain't broken. But how else could it be?
As the battle station blows up you feel through your open connection to the force the wail of thousands of souls crying out before being silenced. You feel as their souls passed the multitude of people. Men and women. Some were fighters. Some were cruel and evil men, especially higher up in the ranks yes, but below that patriotism and people just trying to serve, pressed into service, or doing this so family can be safe.
Later on you see your face on a poster, not as a hero but as a wanted criminal. A child throws rocks at it crying that you killed his dad. Mothers shake their head at lost sons, men at lost wives, kids at lost parents.
A bit heavy handed, but you can see where it is going. When you focus closely on the consequences on the small level you can bring up a lot. Something always gets hurt in the crossfire and the more that comes up, the more you add shades of gray to the game, the more it will darken and become complex.
Warhammer 40k: A Different Example
There is also another area of focus. In the 40k universe one of the key feelings is despair. Despair that nothing you do will matter. That everything is inevitable. The reason for this is because 40k is so big and so grandiose that you can't see the details or even the big picture of your game, you can only see the grandiose huge extraordinarily large picture of the whole universe which is that war is unending and people die by the trillions.
However, if you focus beyond that. If you take the time, zoom in, shut out the rest, and focus on a small story you can have stories of hope, stories of honor, stories of fighting the good fight for the right reasons. All of those good things are in 40k, but they're coated because the world tells you the consequences of everything before hand, and that consequence is: no matter how big you are you don't matter, even if you become a god eventually your actions will fade and cease to hold meaning. It makes 40k a bleak place. But focus closer and you have the potential for some real good, entertaining, and soul-ful stories. The trick is to focus in on that, unless you want the despair to rule over all.