Choice is special to gaming. While books sometimes dabble in choose your own adventure tales and movies had those god awful interactive DVD games, neither genre gets choice as well as video games.
The medium has long grappled with this concept and the unprecedented power it offers gamers. There has always been a delicate balance between player and story autonomy. However, a new trend has emerged in modern gaming that seeks to disrupt this balance. Players have been presented with what at first appears to be meaningful choices, but when you look at it a little closer, you realise that what you have been presented with a lie, an illusion of choice.
But, maybe that’s all we really need.
Before we get into that, however, we need to first understand what exactly is a meaningful choice. By picking up the controller and playing through game we are unconsciously making decisions that affect the critical path. Most of these are purely cosmetic. Do I equip the shotgun or the assault rifle? Do I talk to this NPC? Do I complete this side quest? While answering these questions can be immersive and rewarding, they do little to affect the final outcome of your story. However, some games chose to disrupt the linear narrative by offering you a choice that splits the critical path into two or more… paths. These choices then open and close off future choices which cause the narrative to diverge even further, resulting in series of in-game parallel universes. Henceforth, two players playing the same game can experience two completely different in-game universes as a result.
However, doing this increases the narrative complexity by a frightening degree every time a meaningful choice is made. These choices are really only seen in RPGs as they are the only genre with the courage to take on the higher demands of the script. Therefore, to further understand this topic we have to travel back in time.
In the 1990s, when death was only one failed saving throw away, live a harsher breed of RPG. Advanced D&D ruled supreme as many games borrowed whole heartedly from the table top game and Baldur’s Gate was one of the best. Often regarded as the game that gave new life to the genre, Baldur’s Gate gave the player a staggering number of meaningful choices. Not to say that choice hadn’t existed earlier in gaming history, but it was with Baldur’s Gate that things started to get weird.
Choice in Baldur’s Gate was an extension of its morality system and its morality system was an extension of the one it ripped from D&D. Instead of the familiar good/evil dichotomy, the game used nine alignments on a combined Good/Evil and Lawful/Chaotic axis.
While not a mathematician, I am confident in saying that nine is more than two, so the developer of Baldur’s Gate (a little company known as Bioware) was obligated to put in a lot more choices to the then the standard good or evil answer. This allowed the players to experiment more with their morality and their characters story, which in turn pulled them headfirst into the narrative. Even games that continued to adhere to the old dichotomy (I’m looking at you Fallout and Knights of the Old Republic) understood the importance of making what decisions they had important and shaping. These choices also stretched out the shelf life of the games, beckoning players to sink play-through after play-through into them just to discover what they might have missed the first time. And for a brief decade, everything was right with the world. Then the sequels began to appear.
The problem was that the games had given players too much choice. There were so many permutations on the story that developers had to pull all the divergent timelines into cannon narratives. This lead to story arcs being nudged, characters being retconned out or back into existence, and the promise of a player directed experience being broken.
Players react badly when their choice is taken away from then. They spend so long customizing and role-playing a character that when someone comes along and tells them you’re wrong, it’s upsetting. What’s more is that is shatters the immersion and belittles a selling point of the game. Just look at the controversy surrounding the climax of Mass Effect 3 for a recent of example of how players react when they choice is taken away.
Yet, developers and fans still want their sequels. Therefore, we had a problem. It wasn’t until the last five years did we begin to see the solution. They began to create the illusion of choice.
The Walking Dead is a perfect example of where this new mentality has taken us. From the start, The Walking Dead states, “This game series adapts to the choices you make. The story is tailored by how you play.” However, as much as the game claims to be tailored by the player’s actions, your choices amount to little more than hemming. To its credit, The Walking Dead never breaks its promise. Your character has the ability to choose, but you really only have one option. The plot will always follow the same set pieces and aside from a conversation or two, the characters you save or let die have no further impact on the plot. The only thing that does change is how your group of survivors speak to you. A reflection of how Lee (the player character) speaks to them.
Surprisingly, that was enough. When The Walking Dead came out critics lauded the game as being an incredibly moving and immersive experience based on the strength of your choices. The ability to decide the character of Lee with the occasional story arc disguised as a moral choice was enough to trick the critics and it was enough to trick me.
The true benefit of creating the illusion of choice is that these games get the benefit of a tighter and more focused script while still generating the deeper level of immersion pioneered by the early RPGs. Writers were able to wrench control of the story back towards them and the players didn’t even notice. It’s only through replaying the game do the tracks reveal themselves. However, when games like Dragon Age: Inquisition clock in at over 80 hours of gameplay, you can bet that Bioware is counting on you to find the holes in their charade.
I think it is wrong to see the debate between choice and the illusion of choice as a good/bad argument. Old school RPGs had choice by the gallons, but had difficulties establishing continuity. Modern RPGs can have focus scripts while still immersing the players in a character directed story, but, try as they might, they lack the freedom of their predecessors. Both of these methods have shown that they can still produce entertaining games. I think it really comes down to who do you trust more to entertain you. Is the writer, bound by his deadlines and company interests, but possessing a creative soul? Or is it the gamers, with their free will for all and continuity be damned attitude?
I’ll leave that choice up to you.