The Illusion of Choice
If anything has become apparent to me this year, it is that gamers have developed the need, or the want, for choice in the video games they play. Choices, in video games, are usually made in the form of speech options (e.g. Mass Effect 3), choosing whether to go via the roof or along the streets (e.g. Gears of War 2), or simply just how you approach and complete an objective (e.g. Crysis 2). I recently finished The Walking Dead: The Game and it got me thinking, why do we want choice?
A lot of video games try to tell a story. They tell us this story not by showing us, but putting us in the middle of it. We don’t just see countless Nazi’s getting killed by a bunch of soldiers in a WW2 setting, we ARE one (sometimes the whole bunch) of those soldiers killing countless Nazi’s. Although gamers are, essentially, being told a story, we end up wanting to control how that story ends, and everything in between. When developers let us choose, we feel like we are controlling how that story ends. But are we?
What happened with Mass Effect 3′s ending is one great example of gamers wanting control. Throughout 3 games, gamers made hard choices relating to Commander Shepard’s life and mission. When it finally came time to choose the end to Shepard’s story, many fans weren’t happy with the endings Bioware gave Shepard. There was consumer backlash, and you know what followed. Gamers were given a few choices at the end of Mass Effect 3 and some didn’t like any of them. This is the risk with trying to give gamers control of the story. Would there have been backlash if Bioware didn’t allow players to control Shepard’s actions? Probably not, but because players had control through 3 games, they became attached to Shepard. The only reason the backlash occured was because consumers were given the illusion of choice.
Choice doesn’t just come from speech options. Spec Ops: The Line took gamers on a journey and also presented them with choices. These choices weren’t about controlling the narrative of the game, however, they were moral choices. Do you save some innocent civilians or save a military officer who says he has valuable information? These choices didn’t change the narrative completely, but still gave gamers control of certain situations- an illusion of choice.
So what’s better, the illusion of choice via speech options or the illusion of choice via actions that won’t necessarily effect the outcome of the story? How about both? The Walking Dead: The Game does a great job of giving players choice, while still controlling how the overarching narrative flows. It presents both moral choices, and narrative choices that can ultimately lead to whether or not someone lives or dies. But, once again, we are presented with the illusion of choice. Throughout The Walking Dead, you can make decisions that effect certain people or things, but there are several key moments you don’t have control of. For instance, you can’t actually change who survives at the end of the game. Furthermore, there are several parts in the game, no spoilers, where people you save are going to die anyway.
Choice, being an illusion, can fail. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is one example of how choice did not work. Reckoning had speech options, but few, actually no, options actually changed anything. They were basically just there so you could build your character to be a nice person, or angry person, but it didn’t have any effect on how people reacted to you long term. In this case, the illusion of choice becomes a let down. The only reason it was there was to try to make gamers think they were actually doing something. Another way in which choices fail is when you think your character is going to say something one way, but instead they say it in other way. This isn’t so much a big deal in most games, but in The Walking Dead, where characters remember how you speak to them, it is important. Once, I thought I was going to say something good about something, but the response came out sarcastically. To further improve the effectiveness of speech relate choice, maybe developers could include emotional reactions along with speech choices.
Choice, or the illusion of it, is something gamers want. We want choice so we can feel like we are in control, but, just like real illusions, some might not be as foolproof as others. So why would developers want to take the risk of tricking gamers into thinking they have control? It comes down to a couple of things, the first being attachment. When you make choices about a character’s life, you tend to grow more attached to them- that’s how video games work. So if developers give gamers plenty of choices to make, surrounding a character, they will grow more fond of them. This could lead to a sequel, which leads to more choices, which leads to a sequel, etc.
The second reason is replay value. Think about it, if you finish a game with choices you might want to go back and play through the game again with some different choices. This keeps you immersed in the game and could even lead to the possibility that you might buy a piece of DLC farther down the track.
The final, and maybe the most far-fetched, reason is discussion. In a game where choices are to be made, chances are someone you talk to will have made a different choice to you. This sparks discussion. What was the right choice? Why did you choose that option? Questions like these will appear not only in the real world, but on internet forums and social media. That means the game is getting more publicity and is being seen and heard by more people. It may even lead to the purchase of a few extra copies. Of course, a good game without choices will also cause this.
As story telling in games starts to improve, I think more developers will find ways to add choice and player control into their games. The tricky part will be creating a story and options that give the player the greatest illusion of choice or control. If players really feel like they are changing events and contributing to the outcome of the story, the risk and illusion of choice was successful. If players can see through the illusion, it might take away from the experience. Choice is a great thing to happen to video games, but developers should be careful to choose which illusion is best for them and their game.
Nathan loves making choices and being in control of his video games. He is also on the Editorial Staff at Analog Addiction, a choice the founder (Jamie Briggs) had to make. If you want, you can choose to follow him [Nathan] on Twitter.