The Illusion of Choice

The Paleogamer

In my last few posts I have been talking about stories in games and how the best games have stories that follow the classic, epic pattern of the Hero’s Journey. The downside to this is that, despite being the “hero” of the story, as players we aren’t really telling our stories. Instead, we are simply actors in someone else’s story; improvisational actors in an outline created by someone else.

Several people have given me examples of games that do allow you to affect the story. I agree that there has been some progress made in that direction, but in reality the effect of your actions is still fairly minimal. The story remains the same and your effect on that story is only an illusion.

Many games have no choices at all, the Half-Life series for example. The most control you have over the story in Half-Life is choosing what weapon to use in a given encounter. There aren’t even any side branches or side quests to become involved in. You either proceed along a fixed route while killing enemies as you meet them or you simply stand around until you get bored. Just an actor following the script.

Other games give you some choices but in the end they become meaningless. Most RPGs for example let you take on various quests in any order and allow you to choose which companions accompany you on most of them. (Though even there you sometimes are forced to take certain companions on certain quests to satisfy the needs of the story.) Yeah, you can leave city “Start” and visit cities A, B and C or C, A and B, or even just C and A skipping B completely, but you are still going to wind up doing the same things in those cities and going to city “Finish” for the big, final battle. Your “choice” was nothing more than determining in which order you encountered a series of disconnected story elements.

And this can cause problems when the story tries to continue on its way even after you have gone the “wrong” way. Here is an actual example that happened to me in the Baldur’s Gate series. At the beginning of Baldur’s Gate you leave the starting city with your mentor who tells you that you are going north to a bar where you will meet some colleagues of his. You then immediately get attacked and he is killed.

Now, the game assumes that you will go on north to the inn anyway and pick up two companions there. Unfortunately, I decided that since we were attacked then someone knew where we were going and were waiting on us. So, I went south instead and picked up another set of companions along the way.

When I did eventually reach the inn I was either too high of a level or had too many people in my party or something. For whatever reason, the two characters simply left the inn when I arrived without talking to me and were never seen again. Those two characters effectively never existed in my game.

Which caused a problem with Baldur’s Gate II. In BGII you can import your last save from the previous game and so continue with the same character. I did this and the game starts you in a prison with several former party members. Including one of the two from the inn. The problem here is that the story assumes you know this character well and that she was with you during your adventures in the first game. Which she wasn’t in my case.

Yes, it is easy enough to assume that “well, you met her sometime between the two games” and go on from there, but this is an example of a case where my actions should have influenced the story and didn’t.

Other games tout that you will face “moral choices” and that they will affect the outcome of the game. But, do they really?

Let’s take a relatively recent example and look at Bioshock. The “moral choice” in that game really came down to deciding if you wanted to rescue the Little Sisters or if you wanted to harvest them. There was no middle ground; if you harvested even one Little Sister you got the “bad” ending and if you rescued every one you got the “good” ending. Everything else remains the same. Even Dr. Tannenbaum, who gets quite upset with you for killing her “children”, continues to help you through the game. To be fair she does need you to defeat Atlas so maybe she doesn’t think she has a choice in the matter. But still, at the end, no matter which choice you made you still end up in charge of Rapture. Yes, you see a different ending cinematic depending on your choice but that is it. The story told in the game remains the same. All that changes is the epilogue.

Other games have the same problem. BioWare likes to imply that you have the choice between “good” and “evil” in their games like Knights of the Old Republic or Mass Effect but here again your choices don’t really make that much difference. Yes, you can choose to be nice to or an asshole to the characters you encounter and it does seem to affect which characters you can have in your party (or how much they complain about what you are doing) but in the end you still wind up playing the same story. Again, the actual ending may change but the story is pretty much over at that point. Only the last scene or two varies.

Overall, I am not aware of any game where your actions make a substantial change to the actual story itself. Party composition, the order of completing quests or the ending cinematic, yes. But actual, different stories based on your actions? Not so much.

And, at the moment, there probably isn’t that much we can do about it. Allowing for significant deviations in a story would require that the designers create two or more storylines for every game. This would increase development time and costs to provide something that only part of the audience would ever see. How many people would actually play through the game just to see all the possible stories in there. Some certainly, but not all and probably not even most. The developers are better off creating a second game if there is a story they want to tell.

For now, we are players in a story but it is still not our story. Someday someone will develop a system that can dynamically create a truly individual story based on some set of parameters but until then we are but actors on a digital stage.

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