A lot of games this gen, and even a lot last gen, boast giving you a lot of "choice" or "choices" to progress through the game. They offer expansive "dynamic" dialogue trees, multiple endings, "good" and "evil", and a whole slew of other clever terms to get you to buy their elaborately created titles. In reality these "choices" never amount to much more then a little bit of affirming dialogue from an NPC, or maybe your bad guy meter fills up a little bit more. I'd like to take a moment to discuss the difference between "choices" and "options" in video games.
Options: A series of specific possibilities in a given situation.
Choice: Free will to determine your own possibilities in a given situation.
Sounds similar, I know. Let's examine some familiar titles that boast offering a wide range of "choices".
Pictured: Total Bullshit
The Bioshock Series
Bioshock boasts a huge amount of choice, be it through combat or "deep moral decisions". Neither of which are actually true. You are given options in combat, most of which really don't amount to much and aren't as good as most of the guns, or telekinesis plasmid. When you come up to a splicer, its almost always faster to shotgun them in the grill than it is to light them on fire, and chase them around shooting bees at them until they die. You are given tools to dispatch your enemies, the most effective of which are context sensitive like using electricity on the water, or fire on oil. In the end, you can choose what tools to bring with you, but how those tools are put to use is largely based on circumstances out of your control. This creates an illusion of choice. You can choose to light a guy on fire, or throw an exploding barrel. The end result is the same, and your "choice" didn't matter at all.
The only real reason to ever switch away from a plasmid in Bioshock is your EVE reserves. Deplete that, and you have to use your gun, at which point it turns into "do direct damage to enemy instead of environmental damage". Those are your only two choices in combat. Direct, and indirect damage through the environment. Neither of which effect anything in the game in any way other than how many enemies are coming at you at any given time. It is effectively no different than any other FPS in that regard.
As for the choice of harvesting or saving the Little Sisters, well, come on. That REALLY means nothing. This is a counter that indicates what ending you get, veiled in a lot of marketing and attention that makes it seem so much more robust and important than it is. You gain +1 to good ending when you save one, +1 to bad ending when you harvest. Simple as that. The only time these options (and they are options because you don't have a choice) come into play is when you're hurting for an upgrade or when the ending rolls around.
Disclaimer: I love Bioshock.
Pictured: More Bullshit
The Mass Effect Series
A massive universe to explore, full of wild alien races, space cowboy shootouts, and man on man action. Mass Effect claims to have what pretty much all Bioware games have these days. Expansive dialogue options. All of which are completely stupid and lie right to your face.
The problem with Mass Effect is the problem a lot of games suffer from. It gives you a series of dialogue options that are clearly good, neutral, bad, or informative, all of which are extremely vague shadows of what Shepard actually says, which further solidifies that you have no choice in what is being said. You are presented with options that help you reach the logical end of the dialogue between Shepard and whatever character you're speaking to. Depending on your good, or bad responses, you gain a point in your "rad dude" or "fuck face" meters. Regardless of your choice, often you are still able to fully explore all dialogue options presented in the current conversation, and you still get to complete whatever quest/mission is involved within. Sometimes this isn't the case, but then you just leave and come back later to talk to that character again. No harm done.
The game is almost making fun of you when you choose to say something based on a small preview of what might be said. Its almost like it isn't even trying to hide the fact that its ripping choice out from under you, to shoehorn you into the extremely linear path it wants you to take. Outside of conversation, your "choices" don't amount to anything more than the lack or abundance of glowing scars on your face. Which everybody conveniently ignores.
The big decisions you make outside of dialogue don't amount to anything other than... you guessed it, some shitty affirmation via dialogue that you did or did not kill the giant bug queen. Nothing really changes. Nobody dies except people that have to die according to the story. The game doesn't change. Minor dialogue options change, and sometimes, somebody different will take their pants off.
Disclaimer: I love Mass Effect. Mass Effect 2 is an insult to everyone who paid for it. I refuse to play Mass Effect 3.
Pictured: People who just don't seem to get it.
If you have never played Fallout, or Fallout 2, please go do that and come back. I will wait.
Awesome right? Legitimate choice! Lots of gray area. Nobody tells you what is good or bad, you have no idea what your choices effect most of the time, and the game doesn't make you follow any certain path. Truly outstanding games.
Jump ahead to Fallout 3, and Fallout New Vegas. Then cut your own head off.
Fallout 3, New Vegas, Oblivion, and Skyrim all suffer from the same thing. Everything is an illusion of choice. They say you can choose to wander the wasteland using whatever weaponry you want, wearing a dress, and a hockey mask. You can roam the wilds of Skyrim wearing whatever dress and mask you want, slapping wolves in the head with whatever weapon you want. This is true, sure. Is it choice? No. Again, these are options.
It doesn't really matter what game we are talking about here. They are all the same thing. Other than the setting, and the percentage of the NPCs armor that is made of tires, they are the same game. Make your ugly character, talk to ugly NPCs about their dumb worthless shit, steal worthless junk that you can do nothing with, and fight off poorly animated enemies. Sweet. But hey, you can choose to go to replicated cave a, b, or c! You can even kill replicated bandits 12-16 in replicated camp f if you really wanted to! You have the option
to do so.
For a company that makes games based on choice, you really don't have a lot of choice. A weird culmination of both topics discussed above, your combat options are full of stuff that is just dumb and worthless, and dialogue is an endurance trial rivaled only by six straight days of intense Canadian logging while fist fighting a drunk Gary Busey in his prime. Its fucking mania.
They have even taken out the ability to kill any NPC. You can't mess up your extremely linear path to the end of the game. Just because you have the option to do side quests for 27 hours (that mean nothing) doesn't make the game any less linear. You still have to follow very specific guidelines in each situation. Go here, do this, come back. Go here, do that, go there, complete quest. All of which is conveniently marked on your compass just to make sure you stay on track.
Do I have a solution for this trickery? This illusion of choice? Maybe. Maybe stop treating the players like we are children. Treat us like we can handle a situation. Don't highlight the good stuff in blue, the bad stuff in red, and let me make some real choices. At the very least, just don't lie to me. Don't tell me I have all of this freedom when I really don't. Don't give me a sand box full of baubles that do nothing. Don't tell me there is expansive, expressive dialogue when every interaction breaks down to hug, shrug, stab a guy. I have a choice not to play your game. I have a choice not to buy it, and you have a choice to not treat me like a number on a spread sheet.