The Myth of Choice and Willful Ignorance in Games

I can’t say for sure where or when it started. Most of these sorts of things are born in PC gaming, but popularized in mainstream console gaming, so any attempt I make at citing the first occurrence will like be met with Nerd Rage and “No, that was first done on the PC 10 years earlier!”

Yeah, no one cares. PC gaming is for nerds, NERD!

The easiest way to explain it is to call it Morality Gaming. Developers write alternative dialogue options which allow your character to “make choices” and treat the world the way he wants to treat the world. Those quotation marks will be explained shortly …

The best early example in a console (nee PC) game is Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Bioware, maker of all morality games ever, allows the player to choose between Light Side and Dark Side actions as they journey to becoming a Jedi. In a universe built around this dichotomy and the major paradigm shifts that usually accompany such a swing, the SW universe was rife with opportunity to shape your world and to explore your character.

In theory anyway.

And for all its strengths, and including this system for its time, KOTOR suffered from the same limitations as all games in this genre – extreme choices. Given any scenario, Bioware was really only able to implement 2-3 choices. So let’s say an old man is being confronted by thugs. You approach in all your Jedi authority and see what’s happening. The game will give you 3 choices:

  1. Neutral – Leave the situation well enough alone.
  2. Light Side – Kill the bad guys and then give all of your worldly possessions to the old man to help him get back on his feet.
  3. Dark Side – Kill the thugs, then kill the man, but steal his ID and go to his house to sleep with his wife and daughters, then kill them, then burglarize the house, then steal his dog.

While comically extreme, none of these choices are what I would really do in the situation. The myth of choice exists, but the variations are completely limited. Further iterations of this game design have yielded many shades of gray in between, and characters can choose motivations rather than actions – for instance, if your character is greedy he might only help for a reward, or if he’s altruistic, he might lecture the old man on his drug habit that was the cause of the original altercation. But on the whole, the spectrum is very limited.

Still, we refer to this as “making choices” in games. Entire games are built around the concept of Good or Evil. But what choices are really being offered?

Typically a character is rewarded for delving fully into one side or the other, and will learn new abilities or powers for become 100% Evil or 100% Good. Story-lines will sometimes differ depending on choices made, such as whether to kill an NPC or save a colony about to be overrun. These sorts of games usually offer achievements for completing the game one way, then another for completing the game making the opposite sorts of choices – in Mass Effect, for instance, an achievement exists for saving a certain character, requiring the sacrifice of another. Conversely, the alternative achievement exists, mostly asking the player to repeat the game and, at the integral moment, make the opposite choice. Let me reiterate, requiring a second playthrough.

I understand, the developers are not requiring a second playthrough. In fact, games have become such long-term investments while simultaneously life has minimized free time as I have aged, making completion of a first playthrough mostly unlikely while a second playthrough is nigh impossible. This is simply not the way we game anymore.  And while I certainly understand the intention of creating a dichotomous system, I would be more likely to fully explore this duality if it really were a choice.

Here’s why we’re willfully ignorant to the fact that “choices” are not actual choices in these games: story arc. Any morality game sets up a series of core plot elements that WILL be met. Imagine that every playthrough gets to point A. Point A lets you choose whether you will make a good choice, leading to Point X, or an evil choice, leading to Point Z. But regardless of what you choose, Point X and Point Z both inevitably lead you to Point B. Lets see this in action:

Point A: Your character gets to a house in the woods. A man outside the house appears to be pouring some  kind of flammable liquid around the base oif the house, and you realize he’s going to light it on fire. You can:

  1. Stop the man, question him, end up having to fight him and kill him. You enter the house and find a family tied up. They are so thankful that the mother of the family gives you her heirloom necklace, a shiny emblem that looks like it might open a secret door …
  2. Ignore the man, and move on. When you are making camp that night you see giant flame lights in the distance. In the middle of the night that man attacks you. You have to kill him. When searching his body, you come across an heirloom necklace, a shiny emblem that looks like it might open a secret door …

Point B: You come across a giant palace, holy looking, with golden light shining from its windows. A giant golden gate bars passage, but there is a keyhole in the gate … that shape is oddly familiar …

It doesn’t matter what you’ve chosen – in fact, although the choices add flavor to the experience, on the whole there’s been no real change in the trajectory of the story. If there is no consequence, how can there have been any choice?

Gaming has always been a linear experience, even if allowing for minor wavelengths of options. The choices made by the player are more minuscule and less impacting than the illusion of choice as presented by modern gaming – as Mario, the player could always choose to jump wherever the fuck he wanted to jump. The impact seems ot be about the same – Level 1-3 is always going to follow level 1-2. Unless you use the warp pipe.

This is not to say that these games have not been enjoyable – the dialogue options in Mass Effect are a hoot, and watching the physical changes to your character in Fable has always been a treat. But to present these games in a light of “making choices” is rather dishonest, and I wonder to what degree the gamer is aware of that dishonesty.

Coming from a broader perspective, some games are allowing for broader freedom of choice. For example, Scribblenauts. Although I do not own the game, I have read nothing but rave reviews of this form of game, here called “emergent puzzle action.” The premise is simple: see a problem, identify a solution, write a word and the game will provide you with that item. Cat stuck in a tree? Write “dog” to have a dog come and scare the cat down. Or write “fireman” to have a fireman come and rescue the cat. Or write “mice” to have mice run across the screen and have the cat come down to chase them. There is no “correct” way to solve the problem, and the game attempts to give the player wide breadth in creative problem solving. The only real limitation here is the programmed content which, while very broad and expansive, is nonetheless a finite experience.

Similarly, Warioware DIY, the next iteration in the micro-game hyperactive spasm, will allow players to utilize a battery of tools to insert items and create their own microgames. Again, there will be physics limitations based on what the programmers deemed worth of putting in, but the initial idea certainly seems ot add a lot of leeway to the experience.

Finally, and less noteworthy, Little Big Planet offers gamers the chance to develop their own platformer levels to implement into the game-at-large and to share. Though I am not a LBP player myself, they have at times had a very robust and active homebrew community doing everything from recreating classic Nintendo game levels to finding ways to turn the experience on its ear.

If there is to be a dialogue about making choices in games, and about free will as players, there will need to be a more expansive technology created, or even possible. Free will in life is limited only by the possibilities and capabilities of the mind – perhaps game designers interested in Choice Gaming should start with free will and find a way to organically adapt the narrative to the choices being made.

Or perhaps my expectations of the possibilities of the genre are simply too lofty to come to fruition?

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10 thoughts on “The Myth of Choice and Willful Ignorance in Games

  1. “Neutral – Leave the situation well enough alone.
    Light Side – Kill the bad guys and then give all of your worldly possessions to the old man to help him get back on his feet.
    Dark Side – Kill the thugs, then kill the man, but steal his ID and go to his house to sleep with his wife and daughters, then kill them, then burglarize the house, then steal his dog.”

    I realize these are pretty extreme, but taking them one choice at a time, (i.e., kill the bad guys or leave them alone as choice one), what other options are there? Talk to the bad guys? I’m pretty sure that’s how the entire scenario begins. Were we faced with this scenario in real life, we would have an infinite number of choices – but only these three make sense. If it were presented in a table-top RPG, where you also have an infinite number of options, would there be any other options seriously considered? (keep in mind I’m terrible at chess/planning ahead so I could be missing some big options here).
    Are you looking for morality blended with class options, like lure away the bad guys and set a trap (stealth), or charge in with swords blazing(tank)?

    I know we like to think that our actions can’t be considered attribtued to such dichotomous motives as “good” or “evil,” but there are certain actions – inflicting pain, suffering, etc. – that, while they may have benign, pragmatic or even truly noble motives, are socially viewed as “good” or “evil.” That’s why I like these games; many of them let you know that the meter represents how the outside world views you, and consequently interacts with you, not necessarily how you view yourself. I like to think of it as a weaker version of the Godfather I, where you have vendetta scores from the rival houses, and especially liked Fable’s morality system where good people dislike you if you’re “evil” but bad people like you even more if you’re “evil.”

    You are correct, though, that in order to be rewarded with the benefits that come with a full alignment bar, you have to live as a saint or tyrant in every action. As another side-note, since the beginning of my experience with RPG’s, one thing I truly enjoy is side quests for the very reason that there’s no end-game. Kill the bad guys, join in with them, leave them alone, you’re not trying to get to point B, unless point B is additional experience. In a way, developers are allowing you to choose whether you want to do anything without ramifications (except maybe to your alignment).

    Oh, and penis pump.

    • Bobby – You’re right about there being, at a base level, very few options of outcomes. But your next question is more on point with what I’d like to see – don’t make me choose between three absurdities, give me some freedom to explore alternative options. These could be class based, or character driven. Maybe one of the bad guys is a lady, and I happen to be a real charmer. Maybe I pickpocket one of them and then stalk them down in the night. Maybe I simply run up and start screaming obscenities. Maybe I try preaching to them.

      I guess I just find the current palette of options very restrictive and constrained, based on someone else’s imagination. I want to have more of a hand in playing my character.

      But perhaps that’s the real myth in console gaming – I am playing someone else’s character. Which I don’t mind in a linear game, like a Final Fantasy. So I think what I really dislike is the teasse of “choices.”

  2. Jon,

    I think you would really enjoy watching this talk my friend Shane (who is a game designer) gave recently about procedural content,and it’s possible future uses for things like plot.

    I would also like to add that this sort of thing get’s even more interesting when you’re playing a pen and paper RPG. Of course a GM and players can come up with a lot more things than you could ever do in a video game, and a GM can adjust things on the fly, and take a story in a completely different direction, but some of these same sorts of techniques (the illusion of choice that still all leads to the same, or roughly the same place) is used by GM’s in Pen and Paper games all the time too, though of course because it’s being done by a real person, it can be done more smoothly, or in some cases more deviously (ie, you kill an NPC that was going to give you some information, or was going to play some role later on in the general story the GM want’s to tell? No problem that other NPC you were going to meet takes on those traits). It’s all very interesting stuff to think about, and luckily an a Pen and Paper game the GM can be more flexible can can see what the players want and change the story entirely, but a lot of these same techniques can and will be used even outside of video games.

    Though of course due to the role playing and such inherent in PnP games, even if a GM does use these sorts of techniques, the game really can be “more about the journey” since you can really do more character development etc.

    Anyway this has gotten really ramble-y and I should really get back to work… But good post!

  3. It’s a matter of getting rid of the need for there to be one point A leading to one point B, right? If you reduce the gameplay down enough, games are just movies where we have to hold the Play button down to see what happens. (This was always the criticism of Final Fantasy games.) One could even imagine a book where in order to get the next chapter you had to show someone the solution to a puzzle. If the dream of a game is really to put the player in control of the narrative, then the narrative needs to be able to be non-pre-determined, which is I guess what Stephen’s friend’s talk is about.

  4. At the extreme end of the choice spectrum is something like interactive fiction: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interactive_fiction.

    Of course, you’re talking about the spectrum of choices about the plot here, which I think misses the point. RPGs aren’t really about the plot; they’re about the characters. The decision space in an RPG is character development, and there are typically many interesting choices to be made in how you develop your character, all of which can lead to very different outcomes for the character, even though the plot is roughly the same for all characters.

    The reason it’s so difficult to create a rich and branching plot is content creation. Think about the plot as a branching tree. The amount of content the developer creates is the length of all the branches, summed. If each possible decision point represents a complete divergence in the plot (never to converge again), then for any given amount of content the tree very quickly becomes broad and not very deep. That is, the experience would offer a wealth of different paths, but no individual path would be very long. So if there are 64 different possible paths, then the game might take 1/64 as much time to play through once.* This is why the tree in a typical RPG follows a West-Virginia-family-tree model: it branches and then converges over and over again, so that no matter what path you choose, you are sharing most of the game’s content. It would be viable to create a game that follows the divergent model, but only if you are willing to sacrifice the length of the play experience. I think most people would not want to pay $60 to play a game that takes one hour to “complete”, even if the replayablility was amazing.

    So what most games do to create the sense of choice is plop you down in a simulation of some kind. As opposed to a pre-constructed narrative, a simulation uses some rules to determine how the game responds to the player. This creates a much broader possibility space, but the results are not guaranteed to be narratively appealing. Think about a game like Civilization or The Sims. The possibility space in which the stories of those games unfold is extremely broad, because it is not pre-determined, but is an emergent property of the simulation. Interactive fiction is an attempt to create a possibility space with rules that will create emergent narratives that are appealing and can rival the traditional narrative experience. This is also what Scribblenauts does. The Sims is probably the most successful product so far at creating this kind of emergent narrative, although it succeeds mostly by making the details vague enough that the human brain fills them in in dramatically interesting ways. That’s why the Sims speak gibberish, it lets the player fill in whatever details would improve the story they are telling themselves in their head at that moment.

    * – The math is actually a bit more complicated here, but the point is that it is exponential growth in the number of paths, which means the length of any given path shrinks very rapidly as the number of branches increases.

    • Wow, very nice response Nathan!

      I don’t disagree with your point inherently, but I think you’re a bit dismissive in your theory that in roleplaying, plot takes a backseat to character development. I think the paper-and-pen examples people are citing are spot on. But you’re right, at the heart of all roleplaying is the very issue of character exploration. Of mastering an understanding of a character.

      That being said, how many times in Mass Effect or Dragon Age did the tone of a conversation go from antagonistic and heated, or amorous and flirty, back into mundane or even sad? These transitions are symptomatic of the limitations, which are really what I’;m getting at. I’d like to see smoother transitions, or wildly branching paths of dialogue, instead of simply earning enough points to add “intimidate” or “persuade” options to the table.

      And really, it’s all speculative and theoretical in this conversation. I agree with you entirely in terms of one potential outcome (short games that vary wildly). I’m talking more about future ideas, where the technology can be more adaptive to the play style, and create a wildly different experience that is both character and narrative driven.

      Look at WoW for example. Disregard the narrative idea, but look at the gameplay options. You can log on daily to play the auction house market. You can play entirely as a PVP player (including leveling now). You can play just to run around farming items. You can run your own business running people through instances. You can farm and craft items. You can raid 5 nights a week. You could just play to collect pets and chat with people in the game. You could pursue a love life through itif you wanted.

      Now, I know that much of this is a reflection of it being an MMO. But there is also somehting to be said about the versatility of gameplay and the universal appeal of it. If nothing else, I am merely pointing out an example of how gameplay can vary extraordinarily but still contained within on universe.

      So in theory, what I am asking for is a more varied gamescape where choices I make might actually impact how the game I am playing unfolds.

      Also, despite no one seeming to agree with me, I don’t think the “choices” presented in a lot of games really add much depth to the character experience — because I know my friends playing the game are given the same limited palette of options. Again, I think real depth of character requires the player to think about the real character, the actuality of the character, and to make choices in line with what they want that character to be. If all we’re presented with is “good” and “bad,” that doesn’t encompass creative problems solving ideas, or religion, or morailty, or compassion, or pettiness, or wrath.

      I am simply saying these things should be explored more. I don’t necessarily want a storyline that’s completely off the reservation depending on my choices. I more so what a wide variety of choices to make me feel more like a driver than a passenger.

      • I’m not sure who you think isn’t agreeing with you about the “choices” presented in most games not really leading to much character depth. I certainly agree with you.

        One of the big problems I have with a lot of games that let you be “good” or “evil.” Is that the choices are usually down to “Do something good” or “Do something evil and also probably stupid.” Look, if I want to play an evil character I’m not going to want to just commit random acts of violence and make stupid decisions. I’m going to want to manipulate people and do things behind their backs that further my own goals. I’m going to be perfectly willing to work with other people, even good people, if it furthers my goals. I might betray those people later, when it will benefit me and when I have minimum risk in doing so, but I’m still willing to work with them as long as it’s helpful to me.

        I think that get’s to your thinking about the need for those choices to lead to some real character depth. I actually don’t mind when games keep leading you back to similar outcomes even when you make two different decisions, as long as the stuff in between is interesting, and actually maybe adds some depth to my character.

        This sort of thing is clearly a lot easier in a pen and paper game, but I think with some work and good writing could be done at least reasonably well in a video game, even with limited choices. I’m actually ok with limited choices, as long as all of those choices make sense and lead somewhere interesting.

    • I love me some interactive fiction!

      I recently played a very clever game called “Spider and Web” that I suggest everyone check out. It’s a little frustrating at times (unfortunately if you don’t phrase things quite right it can not understand what your intent is), but the concept and the way the game works with the narrative is pretty interesting.

      I’d love to run something like it as free-form RPG.

  5. Pingback: Immersion and Storytelling in a non-art format « Prince of Why

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