Player choice has always been a feature in video games even dating back to some of the earliest games you can think of like Pac-Man and Space Invaders.
Although whether you move your little space ship and your little pellet eating blob left or right may not be what you think of when you hear the term player choice, it is choice nonetheless, and this unique feature that games have over other entertainment mediums is one of the things that has been driving our industry from the start. Choice is integral to video games. The prerequisite for player input and the very fact that without the player making choices, the events of the game would not occur is crucial to what makes video games such a unique experience.
The sort of game that you probably think of when you hear the term however, are games such as Mass Effect, BioShock, The Witcher and of course Telltale’s games. The choices in these games are often criticised as not really being choices at all but rather offering an illusion of choice. Mass Effect is perhaps one of the best examples of this. However, this is an attitude that has never sat well with me and that seems to be coming from people who fundamentally misunderstand video games and indeed narrative.
In university, I wrote my dissertation on interactive storytelling, and while I am obviously not going to give a lecture on player choice, I would like to explain why the “illusion of choice” critique is quite simply wrong.
Illusion or not, it’s still a moral dilemma
First of all, the very obvious defence: While games require player interaction and therefore offer varying levels of player choice, the NPCs, environments and systems that you interact with are merely programmed artificial intelligence at the end of the day. You simply cannot code every possible outcome for every possible situation. It would require an infinite number of scripts, dialogues and codes. Everything is limited and every story is ultimately going to be limited in how many endings it can reach and how many routes it can take to get to those endings.
To expect anything more than multiple paths to reach one of a number of endings is not reasonable. I do think that most of the detractors understand this for the most part, however. The major complaint seems to come in the form of feeling the decisions you made that you felt were important at the time, didn’t really impact what happened after all.
The major complaint seems to come in the form of feeling the decisions you made, that you felt were important at the time, didn’t really impact what happened after all.
I have never liked this. To begin with, the fact that you know the level of impact that your choice had means that you clearly looked up all the choices and endings online (or perhaps played the game a huge number of times) – a luxury you don’t have in real life, and not an action that developers should have to take into account. If you want to look behind the curtain at the puppet strings than do, but you do not get to complain about what you see. If a decision was difficult to make at the time, then that is what mattered. It was important to you, it impacted your story and it feels like it mattered.
If you enjoy eating a sandwich which unbeknownst to you contained spinach, and you hate spinach, would it mean that the sandwich was retroactively unenjoyable after you discover that it had had spinach in it. Of course it woudn’t, you enjoyed the sandwich when you ate it and that is what matters. The same is true of player choice in games.
The fact that a choice was an illusion does not change the fact that the effect it had on you was real. The entire game experience is an illusion anyway. You may end up in the same place as other players, but you got there in another way. Life’s a journey, not a destination – the same is true of an interactive story. If the choices you made throughout the Mass Effect trilogy mattered so you, if you built relationships, found romance, made enemies, lost friends, forged alliances and became the Shepard that you wanted to be, that was the experience! To finish the game, go the Internet and find out that the other endings that you did not even get, are too similar to the one you did get is a complete insult to what the game gave you.
I quite like when games have one ending after giving me lots of choice throughout. It gives a sense of futility to the game events which can be quite a powerful tool in narrative.
Mass Effect offered the ability to choose dialogue options from start to finish. You could save the lives of your comrades or see them perish. Some characters could be in anything from one to all three games depending on your actions. Huge parts of the game and how it played out were entirely up to the player. Over half the actual game was optional.
Were you waiting for the end before you decided whether or not you like the player choice?
Do you really need a completely unique ending (which by the way, cannot really be achieved in-game development) for that to mean anything? Were you waiting for the end before you decided whether or not you liked the player choice? If it meant something at the time and made you feel something, then it was real. The ending does not change that. Player choice generating endings is not even the point of the mechanic. It is about morality, character development and roleplaying.
Telltale offer some of the best player choice driven narratives
Telltale’s games ultimately can only end in one way with slight variations, but the ways in which you get there are entirely different from player to player. Furthermore, the games use a clever mechanic of telling you when characters take particular notice of one of your actions. Realistically this does absolutely nothing in the game, but it is still a very nice storytelling mechanic when I am unsure of what to say to a little girl asking me about my shady past and after I speak the game informs me “Clementine will remember that.”
Regardless of whether that dialogue choice actually means something to the ones and zeros that make up the game, it mattered to me and my story.
At the end of the day, the argument “that wasn’t a proper choice, I just thought it was” holds absolutely no weight whatsoever. If you examine anything that you like too closely you will find that it was not as great as you thought it was. Don’t ruin the magic for yourself. Never forget, explaining a story is a lot like dissecting a frog. No-one is really that interested and also, the frog dies.