Up to You: The Importance of Choice in Gaming
February 6, 2013 1 Comment
Something about the state of the video game industry these days has brought up a lot of discussion of the element of choice in gaming. I think it’s a critical part of the medium, given that it is essentially the only form of interactive fictional entertainment. Many games released recently (Skyrim, Far Cry 3, Dishonored, for example) have been hailed for the freedom which they grant the player. In many cases it seems as though we gamers value that part of design to the point that any game is considered better if it grants the user exceptional control over some part of its experience. I don’t think it’s that simple; approaching the extremes of either too much or too little freedom tends to limit my enjoyment of a game.
A huge part of the attraction of a game with a gigantic open world is that you can do anything at any time (character strength permitting, of course). Your experience is, in theory, up to you. You can diligently follow the central story, or you can ignore it entirely and spend your time looting every dungeon you can find. I think something that is misunderstood about this model, however, is that it’s very important that you have some sort of direction given to you. If all else fails, you can pull up your quest menu and go find the marker for the next part of the story mission. You also usually have side quests which can keep you occupied, and which reward you for completion, giving you new stuff to use and maybe new places to explore. Almost all recent examples of “open” games make sure that you always have a goal to pursue, and that you’re given an incentive to do so.
By far the most open game to recently receive a lot of attention is Minecraft, and indeed its freedom of choice is a large part of what got it that attention. Minecraft is a true sandbox in that you are given tools with which to do things, but no instruction or direction on how to do those things. The driving force in Minecraft is your own creativity. The most important part of the game is that you, the player, have something that you want to make. Your reward is the ultimate realization of that vision.
That said, the game’s freedom is also its greatest weakness. Those who cannot constantly supply creative insight will not enjoy it, because they will have nothing to do. Although I have had a huge amount of fun building stuff in Minecraft in the past, I have essentially “run out of steam;” I can’t come up with any projects that I am excited about enough to push through and finish them. I can no longer really enjoy the game, because I can’t reach the point of reward, i.e. the completion of some cool building idea. If Minecraft did a better job of rewarding you beyond your own satisfaction–if there were more cool things to explore and discover–I would probably still enjoy playing it.
The role of choice in video games is twofold. A game should allow the player to choose freely between clear options, and should make the player feel that his choice matters. Minecraft falls short of both of these goals: there are no defined objectives within the game, and it provides no extrinsic rewards for the player’s actions, so they appear to have no consequence.
Arguments have been made that older games often provide more and better freedom than more recent ones. I will agree that there has been a trend towards more linearity, but not that old games necessarily do a better job of giving the player good choices. Take Ultima, for example, an old RPG favorite of many. This game gives the player almost no direction, forcing him to explore and discover the world entirely through his own choices. Really, though, there is no meaningful choice in the game. You can go to Dungeon A, or to Dungeon B, which will have the same monsters and look basically the same as each other.
Oblivion, the only Elder Scrolls game I have played to any significant extent, gets its choices about half right. Its open world provides a wealth of options, certainly. However, because many of these options rely on the player’s initiative, I don’t find the model as liberating as it might seem. Like Minecraft, there’s just too much going on. While walking through the countryside, I would very often run across several mines or dungeons very close to each other, each ripe for the looting–but after so many, I just didn’t find them interesting any more. They failed to provide enough return to make my time seem worthwhile. Here is the other place where the open-world model, at least in the Elder Scrolls style, breaks down: even when the player’s choices are directed, as by a quest, the system fails to properly reward the player’s actions. Sure, you get some rewards, in the form of loot, or experience, or what have you, but the world never reacts to you. You can attain every important title in the game, and random people will still send you on pointless fetch quests, refusing to acknowledge your wealth and/or power.
Then what is an example of good choices in video games? I’ll start with Dishonored, being a recent example and a game that I greatly enjoyed. Dishonored gives the player choices on two very different levels: First, the game presents a very straightforward dichotomy in how to play it. Killing a lot of people will raise your chaos level, while using nonlethal methods and avoiding detection will lower it. This system is very transparent, and grants the player a clear choice in how his experience progresses. On a slightly deeper level, each mission allows for several different methods of completion. Again, the violent/nonviolent split is used, as each target can either be killed or removed peacefully. Beyond that, the brilliant level design also creates many different routes which the player can take to arrive at any goal. There are optional objectives which may be pursued, leading to different strategies and outcomes, as well as a lot of complexity in the layout of the city areas, leading to a great variety of physical routes throughout the levels. This again provides obvious choices: you could jump to that rooftop over there, and take out some enemies that way; or you could sneak around the corner when no one is looking; or you could just shoot all the guards from 500 feet away. This invests the player in the choices he makes, and provides immediate feedback about how those choices affected his progress in the game. Achieving this kind of player choice makes games much more exciting and absorbing, and is one of the strongest tools for getting lots of people to love a game.
Dishonored focuses on creating choices for the player; it is designed so that there will almost always be some sort of option as to what to do. The Walking Dead, on the other hand, does an amazing job of making it clear that the player’s choices matter. The variety of choices, at least on an immediate level, is pretty limited: which character do you pull away from the zombies? What item should you try to use here? Do you want to sound angry, or not? But as the game progresses, it is incredibly obvious that your choices have made a difference to what has happened in the game’s narrative. The player’s options are still clear, too, so this formula is also a way to maximize the potential of player choice and interaction with a video game narrative. Both Dishonored and The Walking Dead did incredibly well at investing me in my actions and in the story that was playing out around me.
To reiterate part of my opening statement, I feel that use of choices in games is the most important part of defining and developing video games as an entertainment medium. To invest the player through his choices is to take advantage of an opportunity that no other form of entertainment has. Building on that, I think that making the best use of this opportunity will be the defining element of progress in the industry. If it can be done well, and with greater frequency, I think video games can grow into the most potent storytelling medium. If players, developers, and publishers alike can realize what makes these games to exciting and successful, and support them on all fronts, I expect a tremendous future in gaming.