Illusion of Choice

Freedom and choice are increasingly considered markers of a great game. They add realism and complexity, and give the player agency in how the plot and characters develop. Players can have control over as little as the appearance of the main character or as much as affecting how the plot unfolds. Regardless of what form it takes, giving the player power makes it easier for them to become invested, which in turn lends greater impact to the overall experience.

The Stanley Parable is a case study in player choice. As Stanley, the player wakes up in an empty office building with only a disembodied narrator for company. The narrator directs Stanley, even breaks the fourth wall to address Stanley, but the player is free to ignore these commands and forge their own path. Both the narration and the plot are dynamically affected by the player’s actions, putting incredible power in the player’s hands.

Image courtesy of Kyle Labriola, twitter @kylelabriola​

Except that the player’s choices are still limited. Early on, Stanley comes to a set of identical doorways and the narrator instructs him to enter the one on the left. The player can now choose to follow the direction, progressing as the narrator has dictated, or they can also choose the right hand doorway, disobeying the instruction. No other options exist: it is a simple, binary choice. Returning the way you came is an option, but it only delays the choice. At some point, Stanley must pick a door.

Faced with an entire office building mysteriously devoid of human life and with a disembodied voice narrating your actions, other people might feel the need to look out an external window, call someone, or head for the exit – breaking any locked doors or windows in the way. Stanley is unable to do this: he simply plods on, deciding whether or not to listen to the voice in his head.

Being free to act how you want in a video game is liberating. But, however ideal that pursuit might be, true freedom is impossible. From a strictly technical standpoint, developers cannot account for every single whim a player might have and can’t make allowances for every possible action to every possible situation. The attempt would give games an impossibly long development cycle, with the end result invariably being a real life simulator in a different setting. Not the most enthralling experience. So although Stanley’s inability to break down a door might be a limitation, it doesn’t ruin the experience.

At a narrative level, too much freedom allows the player to undermine a carefully constructed story. Without the plot holding it together, The Stanley Parable would be about a guy just… walking around. Give Stanley too much freedom and he might never go through the doors he needs to; instead, he might end up holidaying in Fiji or giving it all up to join the circus. For the narrative to make any sense and have a point, the game needs to restrict the player – even if it is a game with multiple endings or branching storylines.

By gently steering the player towards restricted choices, the actual limitations can be “hidden”. Sandbox and open world games like Grand Theft Auto V and Skyrim celebrate their sense of freedom and choice, which immediately makes every restriction obvious and jarring. Franklin can’t hand in his life of crime and go to college. The Dragonborn can’t become a store vendor or a guard, regardless of how many arrows he takes to the knee.

The Walking Dead is another example of a game based around choices that, although limited, give the player agency and help to create an unforgettable experience. Even though TWD’s Lee lacks the ability to punch people in the face every time they annoy or insult him – or just whenever he’s feeling bored – the decisions he makes have weight and affect how the game unfolds. People – spoilers – will die and he will have to live with the consequences of his actions and inactions.

Linearity cops a bad rap in gaming. Exactly why is unclear. Perhaps the concept of what constitutes a video game hasn’t evolved far from early titles. This distaste for linearity seems strange when video games are examined alongside film and literature, two strong narrative-driven entertainment mediums that are both entirely linear – Choose Your Own Adventure books notwithstanding. Linearity can enhance a game in ways freedom cannot.

Freedom and choice are seen as important elements in contemporary video games, but perhaps more important is the need to mask what freedoms and choices are being kept from the player. While exhaustive options are certainly a nice thought, there are simply too many possibilities: every person is unique and will have their own way to approach a situation. Spare a thought for the poor game devs trying to cater for as many of us as possible.

Players want to be able to make their own choices, and they want to be able to feel ownership over the choices they do make – nobody wants to realise that they’re simply selecting from pre-programmed decisions somebody else came up with, especially if the ideal solution is absent. That fact can be easily and effectively hidden behind strong narrative and characterisation.

Maybe the only choice we really have is whether or not to play. But not playing means going back to the real world, and that doesn’t sound like fun at all…

Originally published in HYPER #250.