Choices in Video Games, Do We Really Have Them?
When the first vector scrawl skulked across an experimental supercomputer in the early 50s in the form of the most roundabout way to play a tabletop game like Tic-Tac-Toe since my friends and I tried to play Clue with smoke signals at six points along a beachfront, it opened a kind of singularity. Video gaming and its big brother Cinema got sucked into opposing development cycles. Over the next few decades, film would gradually depart from its story focus and start selling special effects while games would start as nothing but special effects and gradually develop into the interactive narrative trend we’re seeing now.
In order to examine the choice-driven narrative and why it’s always a broken promise, first I need to explain what we mean when we say a game is “choice-driven.”
Let me be clear about something: all video games are choice-driven. While a movie tows you along its set track, a game gives you control over the action. If you move across a room and shoot an enemy, your choices have made an impact on the game, namely, that you’re no longer over there and someone over here is dead. Heck, Mega Man even lets you choose what order to play the levels in. Exploration-based games, which in the 80s meant loneliness simulators, had little or no structure at all. Games like Metroid and The Legend of Zelda let your choices determine how equipped you were to face dangers, in what order you faced them, and whether you’d see or miss whole parts of the world entirely.
Choice in those games was an unspoken agreement between the player and the game, one that was integrated to the gameplay. Dark Souls is an example of this style today, where the choice to explore or level up a specific stat has a lasting impact on your ability to overcome the game’s challenges. It may even squeeze you into a different order of tackling the game’s areas based on your skills, becoming in gameplay the “branching paths” style that many games today promise to do in their stories.
This brings me to what we really mean when we say a game is “choice-driven.” We don’t mean that the game reacts to your playing by reshaping the gameplay challenges or the structure of the world because that hasn’t been new since Deus Ex. We don’t mean complete narrative freedom because an increase in choices always contradictorily makes a game more linear, not more like Metroid. And we certainly don’t mean Mega Man. We mean exactly what it says on the box of interactive Ellen Page simulator Beyond: Two Souls, that you can “Create your own story through your choices and actions.”
But does what you do really have an organic effect on the story?
Well by definition you aren’t creating your own story because a game designer did that already. From a design sense, what the blurb is selling is the promise that a designer created hundreds of stories and your choices direct you through one or a combination of them like the choice options in a create-your-own-adventure storybook. But did David Cage write a hundred differing flashback scenarios for Ellen Page for the player to access by choosing an action or going somewhere and not somewhere else? Of course not.
Heavy Rain, Cage’s predecessor to Beyond: Two Souls, says it best. “Your smallest decisions can change everything” touts the box. But Heavy Rain is a murder mystery in which the killer is always the same, no matter what you do. Maybe you showered first and then played with your kids, or didn’t and had a drink instead. The outcome is the same because the game is more linear than it would be without choices, with dialogue shifts and minor details made in a dozen variations to give off the appearance of organic changes, but with none of the player’s actions linked to gameplay, even to the level that choosing to push jump in Super Mario Bros. makes goombas dead.
But it makes perfect sense because games as we understand them can’t be completely organic. The best they can do in the name of choice-driven story is what Until Dawn does: shuffle the chapters around by making the game equivalent of Friday the 13th instead of Taxi Driver. It doesn’t particularly matter in what order the expendable cheerleaders get filleted so its branching paths kind of work. But when it’s a matter of character development, can the story really change or happen in a different order without having serious negative consequences on the believability of the characters, and therefore on the player’s immersion? Can the climax of Taxi Driver happen before the buildup?
Well no, not if David Cage’s games are examples. This means that the interactive narrative style has two options: do the Heavy Rain thing and give the illusion of choice around a set narrative or do the Until Dawn thing and make such purposely flimsy characters that order and story structure don’t even matter.
See, all of this choice-driven storytelling in AAA today is contradictorily based around the market’s perception that the average players can’t make their own choices. You see this in the increase in cut scenes and tutorials, and the use of the word “cinematic” as a positive when describing an interactive video game, when cinema is always linear (even if you’re in a Tarantino situation and time is wibbly-wobbly, the viewer still experiences its one set path and no others).
Favorably comparing games to cinema means that the market thinks of the player as a passive viewer to be led through a story—the enticing carrot it uses to sell these daily life sims is the idea of control over the forces of production, like what Ellen Page will do or say or what the outcome will be. Games that advertise choices are always more structured than those that promote exploration or freedom because the developers aren’t giving you some kind of narrative freedom, but are carefully and meticulously leading you through its illusion. The controller in your hand becomes a formality based in carefully timed button presses, the game equivalent of those internet windows that open on driver’s ed courses that ask you to click “Okay” to confirm you haven’t nodded off.
Choice-driven games always leave me cold because there’s nothing about the choices that affects my experience with the challenge and the action. Sure the story may change—we may even learn how to change a story quite a lot based on player actions—but what about the gameplay in these games? Quick-time-events have increased in direct proportion tothose set dialogue options. Beyond: Two Souls splayed a body-swapping mechanic all over its gameplay trailers, but is anyone else outraged that the trailer represented the only time that mechanic was used in the game?
Wait a minute. What about just the phrase “gameplay trailer?” Shouldn’t all trailers for a game be gameplay trailers? I think everyone accepts implicitly that gameplay is the first thing to go when games become all about choices or “cinematic experiences.” But my point is that the bigger thing to go is choices themselves!
I mean, look at real-time strategy or tactical games like XCOM, Fire Emblem, or Valkyria Chronicles. You’re making choices every second that affect the challenge and your experience. Characters die because of your actions and stay dead. This is choice-driven gameplay as an integrated part of the player’s experience and the box blurbs aren’t half as obnoxious about any “organic narratives.”
What we’re buying with these new interactive stories is the feeling of having choices with none of the consequences. Sure, I can open the fridge in Heavy Rain and this will indeed change everything about the fridge being closed, but it won’t change the outcome of the game. That Tic-Tac-Toe simulator may seem like cave scrawl today, but the idea that your input changed what happened on a screen was incredibly empowering. The interesting thing about new choice-driven games is not how their motion-captured graphics make them some kind of new frontier of storytelling, but how their shallow gameplay makes them so psychologically similar to that input empowerment that materialized X’s and O’s at the push of a button. And even then, Mr. Cage, your choices actually affected who won.
But hey, I haven’t played Life is Strange so maybe the trend towards episodic series will help interactive narratives become their own thing, something between an audio novel and a film that gives you a reflex test every twenty minutes. I’m not saying they can’t be: I’m just saying they should stop pretending to be video games.