Choices are common in life, as in video games. The power of choice in life is what truly defines each of us as individuals, with the choices that we make reflecting our own selves. Then why is it that games often neglect this facet of choice? Choice in video games is often either an attempt to provide false agency or a way to add artificial replay value. What can we do in order to provide stimulating, stirring choices? What is it that makes choice so important to games? Well, let’s take a look.
In life there are big decisions that guide how we live: what we will major in, what career we pursue, where we live, who we inflict ourselves upon, what to have for breakfast. In roleplaying games we see rising similarities. What race, class, and skills you choose will affect how you play the game, in turn defining either you or your character’s play style. Team Fortress 2 and Call of Duty exercise this kind of choice by allowing players to not only select a class, but also specific weapon loadouts that change how each class is played. This allows players to have a sense of agency within the game and leads to further enjoyment, theoretically. Players are allowed to craft their own unique way of playing. This is why many different people can enjoy Team Fortress 2 in many different ways, and why Call of Duty has such a large audience.
When this kind of choice is done wrong, it’s usually because available bonuses and skills only affect gameplay in a marginal way. This is one of the reasons why “roleplaying elements” are frowned upon in shooters, as a 5% bonus to reload time vs a 2% ammo storage rate does not actually give you much choice. While percentage tweaks in variables may be an easy way for designers to fundamentally change gameplay, percentages are only effective past a certain point. Should gameplay effects not be noticeable, all you do is create an illusion of choice, frustrating your players by making their decisions lack weight. Nobody likes to finally reach the carrot dangling in front of them only to find out it’s actually made out of cardboard.
Of course, there are other choices in life besides how we live it. Many situations in life often require complex decision making in order to react, such stumbling upon a person getting mugged, learning child your child got suspended, or finding out your significant other has been cheating on you. These circumstances do not have clearly defined answers. Every person will respond in an endless variety of ways. These choices are also a part of what defines a person, which makes it no surprise that RPGs use choice to define your own character.
Yet, unlike real choices, video games tend to be very binary. You find a basket of puppies; you can: A) save the puppies, B) sell the puppies, or C) eat the puppies. While choice can define characters, giving a good, neutral, or bad option does not make for deep character building. In these cases, designers most likely either didn’t put much thought into the philosophy of choices, or simply put shallow choice in to increase replay value of a game. When choice is done right in RPGs, it serves to help provide a personality to a character. Fallout 1, 2, and New Vegas did choice wonderfully, as while there were good, neutral, and evil options, over-all alignment was weighed more heavily with individual settlements than on a scale of good versus bad. A player’s alignment with each of the factions gives a much deeper character personality than simply having a character be an angel or a demon, resulting in characters with their own affinities, personalities and prejudices.
The further down this rabbit hole we go, the more our choices can teach us about ourselves. If we want to explore the depths of choice, we will have to turn to the most complex form of decision making available: social interaction. A series of simple and complex choices that define us to ourselves and to other people. This means that social interaction can be used as a dynamic way to create commentary in a game, even if one might not think that possible after looking at a Halo or Call of Duty lobby. But by looking to Journey, we’re presented with an enlightening example.
In Journey you, well, journey across a desert; all by your lonesome. Eventually, you run into a player-controlled partner with whom you spend the rest of the game exploring and solving puzzles. The catch? You can only speak through a variety of chirps, or calls, or whatever you would call it. By holding down a button for various amounts of time, you can adjust the length and power of your “call”. This simplifies social interaction to it’s very basic format, leaving players to have to interpret eachothers messages. He chirped really loudly three times in a row, is he mad at me, or just happy? I just chirped randomly in a sing song pattern, will he get that I’m singing, or does he think I’m bugging him? By analyzing your reactions to situations and how you interpret your own partner’s messages, you will walk away from the game knowing a little bit more about your own personality. I personally learned that I’m observant to a fault: I worried about how every gesture was taken, and I always assumed the most negative connotation with my partner’s chirps. I endlessly worried and felt that could not trust my own partner, reflecting personal issues I had until then ignored.
The kind of subtle choice that is required of Journey‘s social interaction provides a great template for games of all types. Elegant and deep choice can make it possible for games to better explore the human condition, craft more vivid fantasies, or cater to even more types of players. While choice may be hard to implement, and requires many more resources than linear decisions and stories, allowing players to put part of their own tastes and personalities in a game is priceless. The interactivity of videogames is what makes our medium unique, and is why players should be allowed more freedom with their own personal narratives, with their own choices.
Choice doesn’t only affect story, it changes gameplay. RPGs and class based shooters are prime examples of genres that use choice to affect individual enjoyment of a game. Agency stems from the power of choice, from both gameplay choice and story choice, with false choice only serving to frustrate and discourage the player. Morality cannot be measured using a dualistic approach, but rather on a situational basis. Social interaction is the deepest form of choice and shows us more about ourselves than it does other people. Choice is what makes our medium special. Video games thrive off of choice, and if they wish to be further respected as a mature art form, deeper and more complex choice must be possible. Just remember, it’s always a good choice to take a closer look.
Special thanks to Saotome for authoring this article.
Please be sure to share this article if you enjoyed the read!