The Agony of Choice

Originally published August 2016 in Cubed Gamers, Issue 8

If things are shit, how much choice do we have to make them not shit? It wouldn’t surprise me if most of us have been questioning our free will of late. But before the hellscapes of Brexit and Trump, it was the Sandbox that made us really understand the feeling of all choice being illusory.

The ability to move freely within a game’s environment and story has always been a vice and virtue of the genre. It’s the pure definition of the Open World genre, originating in the ancient era of text-based games. But when a game is reliant on its narrative prowess (like the ones we will be looing at here), the only things you really choose are which direction to try first before getting stuck, and who to kill off first in a long list of people who eventually kick the bucket. Sorry to sound cynical, but it is quitefrustrating to think that all that time you spent choosing whether to join Sabal or Amita in FarCry 4 made no significant difference. Even during the more dramatic choices you made in games such as LA Noire and Heavy Rain, it’s hard to ignore that the outcome was already pre-coded onto a disc: floppy, digital versatile or otherwise.

The inevitable linearity of these games is, in some instances, becoming a self-conscious narrative trope; the ultimate punch to the stomach is Bioshock Infinite’s circle of powerlessness, which not only forces the protagonist to die at the end, but makes you spend hours choosing jewellery for your companion. And if we’re talking about style choices, The Sims could also slip into the category of ‘Why do I have to make decisions for no playable reason?’ One day, I dream of seeing a realistic representation of a Sim trying to get on a bike after deciding to put them in a pencil skirt.

In a successful attempt to be ‘meta’, The Stanley Parable taught us the same, very valuable lesson. Even the Telltale forums are filled with disillusioned players asking, “Does it matter if I choose [person/object/severing off my arm] over [another person/object/not severing off my arm]?” And the answer is always a ‘meh, not really’. So if this ‘free will’ paradigm is such a load of crap, why are developers (and we) even bothering?

When trying to keep the faith, I can see two reasons. It’s hard not to want to sod the whole thing off, but for one, developers have created a much more engaging experience this way. Choice means empathy. Whilst ‘thinking things through’ could arguably be a novel concept for many players of Call of Duty, decision-making means taking on the persona of the protagonist, and playing that persona in a way that involves you completely. With virtual reality falling behind, it seems like developers such as Telltale have beaten them to creating a completely immersive experience. And this way, you don’t have to sit with a cardboard box on your head.

But what I feel is of the most benefit, more than any aesthetic or self-conscious ‘manipulation of the form’, is that these games create a dialogue. Admittedly, it’s hard for any of us to be open to different choices than the ones we’ve taken ourselves; in the ruthless worlds of politics, religion and Love Island, the human race is naturally inclined to choose a side and stick to it. Most of us believe our choices in the real world do mean something, and if that’s so, we often refuse to discuss how a completely different way of seeing the world could be just as accurate.

So: in a medium where you singlehandedly can make the worst mistake ever but still live (in real life) to tell the tale, maybe we’re a bit more open to rethinking our choices. We may have died whilst drinking irradiated toilet water in Fallout, but we also created an entire forum discussion based on the cons of obtaining nourishment that way (also- why is there always the option to ‘use’ the taps and toilets in games? Surely there’s a conspiracy there). When we lose the significance of our choices, we allow ourselves to see that it’s not so black and white. And some of the ‘insignificant’ choices presented in these games are horrifically tricky.

The successful use of the ending screen in The Walking Dead, where you can see the percentage of the online community who chose the same decisions as you, is testament to the fact that using decision-making in games can inspire interesting results and interesting conversation. It also often highlights that there isn’t a straightforward consensus, with most ‘this or that’ choices in Telltale creating a 50%-ish split within their players.

Everyone knows that an open discussion is, a) something that doesn’t happen much these days, and b) the only thing that will really help us to understand different thought processes, different opinions, and give us a well-rounded perspective good enough to make an informed decision for the future. Maybe the dialogue created by these games may not impact our offline lives, but the encouragement to start these kinds of conversations gives these games an admirable, unique purpose.

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Samantha Fielding

Writer, creator, communications specialist & researcher. Advocate for better ads and being bad at video games. Views my own.