Freedom of Choice
Last week I discussed how an excess of choice can bog down a game, force players into disappointing situations and take too long reaching them in the process.
Choice is not the enemy of fun, quite the reverse. Being led by the nose down a long and bland railroad is just as bad as standing in the middle of a wide open plane being told to get going. Choices, when done right, empower the player, make them feel as though they are important to the world, and to give them greater control over how they choose to play.
Here’s some games that got it right, at least in my opinion…
Much like Borderlands: The Presequel, The Witcher suffers with high quest density which has made it a little hard for me to enjoy it quite as much as everyone else. Unlike B:tPS, the story-quests offer cement choices that alter narrative points as you go.
Now I base this on my limited playtime of the first game, but I do my research, and it doesn’t take long before your descisions in The Witcher start to have their impact. Where you make your stand at Kaer Morhen leaves elsewhere under-manned, meaning that one of your enemies is free to reappear elsewhere later; your attitude toward the rebel group Scoia’tael in the opening chapter changes the way they behave, their strength, and numbers.
Even better, the choices are far reaching, and echo throughout the game, making them feel more impactful. They span games in the same way that a choice might in Mass Effect (but I haven’t even started on Mass Effect so I shan’t go into it) so that your choices give you the sense that the way you guide Geralt changes the whole world. It’s just good design, it makes for a far more powerful narrative, and makes all of those sidequests feel less wasteful.
The very format of the typical Telltale format is entirely based on choice. More often than not your only interactions are choosing what you say, indeed whether or not to say anything, and more often than not those sections in which you are not in discussion then there are no choices to make, actions to survive. By the end of the Walking Dead you have changed the life of the little girl Clem; your every conversation in Borderlands changes your party roster in the final fight; who knows how the Batman series will end.
Many times those choices are ultimately pointless, perhaps taking a slightly meandering path to reach the same destination, changes made only to a few stops along the way, but even if your choices have no impact whatsoever, there’s a little feature that leaves you with the illusion of influence:
“Clementine will remember that.”
Those words seem to echo with every character expression, given that Telltale’s gameplay is it’s narrative a character’s reaction to your descisions is often your win/lose scenario. It’s pretty clear when you’ve hurt a friends’ feelings, and sometimes no decision feels like the right one. Choice as gameplay is an interesting descision but it’s a format that’s working for them.
Slightly different to the other two, Shadowrun is better example of agency, the power of the player. In its’ efforts to simulate a real pen and paper RPG, you have a full battery of choices regarding your character’s creation and style of play. It has little to no impact on story but gives you a wider scope on how you engage, especially when taking into account choice of other party members. Do you build for a high-damage gang of mages? Keep the balance of tank/control/damage? It’s a lot more nuanced than your average strategy game where you have clear roles, respond directly to your situation.
You have various approaches to solving puzzles, hacking, deducing, talking or just plain killing your way through obstacles. Conversations yield different information and alter NPC opinions of you depending how you approach them, and your choice of quests and who to take on those quests can have little impacts on the overall narrative, not a lot, but enough to feel as though you have some kind of power in the world.
While it can’t quite capture the illusion of limitless options that you have at the table, it offers you diversity in a way that similar games – like your isometric hack-n-slash or more action-focused RPGs – simply can’t, and it’s a radical departure from the decision-focused game styles listed above. Your choice is in your approach, not so much your outcome, and that’s where replay value comes from.
Power and freedom stem from the ability to make choices, and while in our modern society we may find ourselves dizzied by the multitude of choices we have, within a well made game we have choices that give us agency. A good game should make us feel important, make us the hero or villain that can change everything with one choice.
Although a really interesting game would be one that shows us how little our choices really mean…