Choices are common in life, and in Videogames. The power of choice in life is what truly defines each of us as individuals, with the choices that we make reflecting our own selves. Why is it so then, that Videogames often neglect this facet of choice? Choice in Videogames often whittles down to shallow attempts to provide false agency or padded replay value. What can we do in order to provide stimulating, stirring choice? What is it that makes choice so important to Videogames? Well, let's take a look.
Let's Take a Look: Choices and Introspection
In life there are big decisions that guide how we live; what we will major in, what career we pursue, what we study, etc. If we look to roleplaying games, we see rising similarities. What race, class, and skills you choose will affect how you play the game, in turn defining either you or your character's play style. Team Fortress 2 and even the dreaded Call of Duty games exercise this kind of choice by allowing players to not only select a class, but also specific weapon loadouts that change how each class is played. This allows players to have a sense of agency within the game and lead to further enjoyment. Players are allowed to craft their own unique way of playing, and in turn are allowed to craft their own fun. This is why many different people can enjoy Teamfortress 2 in many different ways, and why Call of Duty has such a large demographic as it does.
There's a reason why World of Warcraft is played by millions of people across the globe.
However when this kind of choice is done wrong, it is usually when available bonuses and skills only affect gameplay in such a marginal amount as to not change it at all. This is one of the reasons why "roleplaying elements" are frowned upon in shooters, as a 5% bonus to reload time vs a 2% ammo storage rate does not actually give you much choice in a game. While percentage tweaks in variables may be an easy way for designers to fundamentally change gameplay, percentages are only effective past a certain point. Should gameplay effects not be noticeable, all you do is create an illusion of choice, frustrating your players by making their decisions lack weight. Nobody likes to finally reach the carrot dangling in front of them only to find out it's actually made out of cardboard.
Besides selecting classes, Team Fortress 2 also lets you customize weapon load outs.
Of course, there are other choices in life besides how we live it. You found your girl/boyfriend cheating on you, how do you handle it? Your child was suspended from school for fighting, what do you say? You see someone being mugged, what do you do? These questions do not have clear answers. Every single person will behave to each one in an endless variety of ways. These choices are also a part of what defines a person, which makes it no surprise that RPGs use choices to help you define your own character.
Yet, unlike real choices, videogame choices tend to be very binary. Picture this: You find a basket of puppies; you can either, A: Save the puppies, B: Sell the puppies, or C: Eat the puppies. While choice can define characters, giving a good, neutral, or bad option does not make for deep character building. In these cases, designers most likely either didn't put much thought into the philosophy of choices, or simply put shallow choice in to increase replay value of a game. When choice is done right in RPGs, it serves to help provide a personality to a character. Fallout 1, 2, and New Vegas did choice wonderfully, as while there were good, neutral, and evil options, over-all alignment was weighed more heavily with individual settlements than on a scale of good/bad. A player's alignment with each of the individual factions gives a much deeper character personality than simply having a character be "good" or "bad", resulting in characters with their own afinities, personalities, and even prejudices.
One of the worst offenders of binary choice used as replay padding.
This leads us to observe even deeper and more complex choice. The further downthis rabbit hole we go, the more our choices can teach us about ourselves. What's the most complex series of choices we experience on a daily basis? Social interaction. Social interaction is a series of simple and complex choices that define us to ourselves and to other people. Thus, surely, social interaction is the best way to make commentary in a video game, right? Well, one might not think that after looking at a Halo or Call of Duty lobby, BUT, if one looks instead to the game Journey, one will find that this may indeed be true.
In Journey you, well, journey across a desert all by your lonesome. Eventually, you run into a player-controlled partner with whom you spend the rest of the game exploring and solving puzzles. The catch? You can only speak through a variety of chirps, or calls, or whatever you would call it. By holding down a button for various amounts of time, you can adjust the length and power of your "call". This simplifies social interaction to it's very basic format, leaving players to have to interpret eachothers messages. He chirped really loudly three times in a row, is he mad at me, or just happy? I just chirped randomly in a sing song pattern, will he get that I'm singing, or does he think I'm bugging him? By analyzing your reactions to situations and how you interpret your own partner's messages, you will walk away from the game knowing a little bit more about your own personality. I personally learned that I'm observant to a fault, I worried about how every gesture was taken, I always assumed the most negative connotation with my partner's chirps. I endlessly worried and felt that could not trust my own partner, reflecting personal issues I had until then ignored.
Journey is a beautiful, engaging, and well designed game. It's only 15$ on PSN, go buy it now!
The kind of subtle choice that is required of Journey's social interaction provides a great template for games of all types. Elegant and deep choice can make it possible for art games to better explore the human condition, or for RPGs to craft more vivid fantasies, or for shooters to cater to even more types of players. While choice may be hard to implement, and requires many more resources than linear decisions and stories, allowing players to put part of their own tastes and personalities in a game is priceless. The interactivity of videogames is what makes our medium unique, and is why players should be allowed more freedom with their own personal narratives, with their own choices.
What exactly have we learned about choice now? Choice not only affects story, but gameplay, with RPGs and class based shooters presenting prime examples of genres that use choice to affect individual enjoyment of a game. Agency stems from the power of choice, from both gameplay choice and story choice, with false choice only serving to frustrate and discouraging the player. Morality cannot be measured using a dualistic approach, but rather on a situational basis. Social interaction is the deepest form of choice and shows us more about ourselves than it does other people. Most of all, we've learned that choice is what makes our medium special. Videogames thrive off of choice, and if Videogames wish to be further respected as a mature art form, deeper and more complex choice must be made. Just remember, it's always an acceptable choice, to simply take, a closer look.
Addendum: I am not a professional designer, just a struggling indie sharing his thoughts on games, so why don't you share your thoughts too? Regardless of your experience or background, feel free to add any points of contention I may have missed! Argue with me, correct me, provide examples of what I've missed. Remember, observation is better in groups!