How choice in video games can weaken everyone’s experience.

Linearity has become a scarlet letter in video games. Time and time again, editors and players alike chastise videogame stories that are out of their control or go down a narrow path leaving them to be just along for the ride. One thing is clear in our current culture, players want more choice. It makes sense to a degree as video games are an interactive medium; players naturally assume that they should control everything.

This mindset may be the reason so many games have unsatisfying or illogical endings; a problem more pronounced in videogame story telling. Stories in every other medium are written with one single narrative, one path that culminates to reveal underlining themes the author is trying to convey. Everything presented in a story builds on and supports the messages hidden within, especially the actions taken by the characters. In videogames, this almost never happens. In videogames, players alter the actions of the protagonist based on what they themselves want to do; even if those actions do not support the established motivations of the character they are playing.

Developers are trying to meet their consumers’ needs and are pushing for more choices, more control of the story. The good/evil morality systems for years have been a mainstay as seen in games like Infamous, allowing players to see the story fold out in two separate ways. Games like Mass Effect, Spec Ops, Skyrim and Heavy Rain, told their stories by splintering the narrative at multiple points in the story, allowing for even more choices by shuffling characters around, varying deaths, changing elements of environments and altering the main character all based on player choice. Some believe that this makes for better, more immersive stories. I disagree. I would argue that all this choice creates an amalgamation of data points to create facts that work against the story the writers were trying to tell which is now minimized under the weight of all its variations.

When deviation is allowed to be applied to a story, it can only break the core themes. What would happen if choice was presented in movies? Take Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 classic Full Metal Jacket. At the end of the movie (spoiler alert) Joker’s character is given the decision to kill a downed female Viet Cong sniper. He ultimate pulls the trigger, giving in to the peer pressure of his fellow soldiers and finally succumbs to the militarized indoctrination of the Marine Corp, which was a major theme of the film. But what if the viewer got to decide for Joker, and chose not to shoot the sniper. This decision would totally disrupt the point of the movie, and would negate the point Kubrick was trying to make. If viewers were able to alter this, it would make for a lesser experience. Why is this any different when it comes to gaming? What if you could save Aeries in Final Fantasy 7? Would that make for a better game? I highly doubt that it would.

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The irony is despite how you feel about choice in stories, what we have now is not even choice at all. What we are left with is an illusion of choice, presenting the player with option A and option B as if to suggest those are the only relevant solutions when facing the games presented dilemma. Take for example Mass Effect 3 (before the patch), as many people faced frustration that in the end, their final choice was limited to 1 of only 3 outcomes. Players wanted to know why their Commander Sheppard couldn’t take other measures to ensure a better ending or argue with the game’s final dialogue trees. Immediately, it became clear that we never really had true freedom in our choices, but preset paths that we would go down no matter how hard we fought against it.

The reason we have limited choices in our games currently, is that it is damn near impossible to write a story with multiple arching decisions that remain true to the characters and affect the game on a grand scale. Thousands of hours of voice work would need to be recorded, incredible amounts of scripting work would need to take place, and hundreds of new environments would need to be rendered. To make a game that gives players all the choice they claim to want, would be impossible in the current marketplace and for the foreseeable future.

Why do we even want this? Consider a game in which you can choose everything down from the shirts you wear, to the food you eat, to the conversations you have. Would this be beneficial or desirable at all? I have always thought that stories served as a way to widen your perspective and make you consider things you wouldn’t normally. But in a game where every action is driven by your choices, the game would simply reflect everything you are as a person, offering no new insight or ideas. At what point are we sacrificing gaming’s collective culture influence in order to support more choices from the players?

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Barry Schwartz gave a presentation at a TED conference which I highly recommend called The Paradox of Choice – from which my article is referencing. Schwartz makes many arguments for why, in modern societies, more choices actually make us unhappy in our lives. Many of his points apply to gaming, but specifically his point about Opportunity Cost. Dr. Schwartz explains this idea “The more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything at all that is disappointing about the option that you chose” and this phenomenon is very true in video games.

Opportunity Cost presents itself in many video games, take for example upgrade trees. Typically, players can put their experience points into leveling up one tree of many, but never all of them. This system has a potential for players to feel great regret. What if a player puts all their experience into a machine gun, only to learn hours later that the shotgun would have been better? Doesn’t this lessen their experience? Another example is when games give two paths to choose from in order to progress in a level (for example streets or rooftops). I always hate this choice because I feel like I am missing out on content, no matter what my choice is. Even when picking the rooftops, I can’t help but be curious about what was on the streets and irritated that I will never get to see it unless I play through the entire game again.

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In the end, I think we should celebrate when a video game has a strong linear story. I am not suggesting that all choices be left out of gaming but I do think this notion of “games with linear stories are bad” needs to stop. When it comes to choices in videogames we don’t really have them, but maybe that is not such a bad thing at all.

DanimalCart’s Soapbox: 04/03/13