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The Dissolution of Choice, How Choices Matter in Gaming Narrative
Posted on Monday, December 17 2012 @ 13:26:13 Eastern


Note: The following editorial contains spoilers. You have been warned. 
 
"Choices." "Consequences." "Engaging and defining your play style." These are the short and catchy buzzwords of a fast-growing gaming medium that have found a way into the very heart of modern game design. It is almost inescapable in the current market to find a game not touting how much “impact” your choices have. And yet, for each choice we see, within them is a growing illusion of what they truly represent. Having control and impact on the choices made in games is something of a misnomer, because in the end a fundamental question needs to be asked: How much control does the player actually have over their choices?
 
It really is a tough question to answer. On the one hand, the player should have mastery of the domain of the video game they are playing, control of the aspects and movements of the protagonist in that diorama of pixels. On the other, the developers set the rules of the game through the same mechanics, essentially forcing players to operate within the world as well as controlling the plot through allotted and limited number of in-game choices. One could argue that the player should dictate what is allowed by the parameters of the game design, but no game is a blank slate. This is even more apparent when we see the type of control implemented by the developers that perpetuate the illusion of choice, the common cries of "railroading narrative" often being the loudest. Let’s face it, that is all we see in gaming, a fabricated selection of choices with predetermined consequences, all connected in a defined matrix that can never be deviated from, at least fully.
 
So perhaps the better question to ask is why? Why do we put up with these predestinations? How can developers make these choices and consequences matter, when it often seems like they rarely do? Perhaps we can find the answer to these questions by analyzing an example from this year. Easily one of most critically acclaimed titles of 2012, this game is perhaps the most emblematic example of how the choices are irrelevant yet poignant at the same time, reflecting this strange dichotomy well. I am, of course, talking about The Walking Dead from Telltale Games. 
 
What, you thought I was talking about something else?
 
 
Without going into too many spoilers, The Walking Dead has you play a singular protagonist, Lee Everett, in his plight of survival against the undead along with a group of survivors in rural Georgia. Within the plot you are given spur-of-the-moment choicestimed responses that offer a way to interact with the number of characters around you, as well as some more emotional choices such as choosing who to save in a given situation or deciding how a character should die before they reanimate into a one of the flesh-eating undead. 
 
These type of choices offer variety, yes, but what do they do for the plot? In many ways, very little. See, The Walking Dead as a plot-based game is shackled by its set narrativeyou are going from point A to B regardless of what you choose, even if the consequences change in the middle. And the moments where the plot does deviate from the choices made would eventually become inconsequential to the final outcome of the overall experience, which is almost railroaded into a pre-determined endpoint for the series. So picking to save the life of one of two characters in Episode 1, in this example Carley or Doug, only to have that chosen survivor dying in Episode 3, is an unavoidable moment in the plot. The survivor is shot and killed regardless of what you do. 
 
But the caveat to this is simple: While the plot remains unchanged save for a few deviations, the story is what becomes the emotional output that people latch onto. The story is essentially what the entire narrative is all about; the emotional resonance behind the moments of the plot. It is easy to say “Lee saves Carley over Doug” because the plot demands a character death. But the story takes shape through this action; Lee saved Carley and the story continues with Carley backing up Lee and his actions. That validates the choice made, and allows the player to become more attached to characters like Doug or Carley outside of who you wish to save. 
 
So it is a subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless that developers typically employ to fabricate an emotional response for the player. In a way the illusion of choice is purposely perpetuated by the developers, where the outcome is essentially set in stone in one, two, or ten different ways; the only thing that changes is how you get there, or what path you take to get there. It is a well-crafted lie that eventually becomes railroaded, because players always find a moment that rings false to the intended message of "choice and consequences." The Walking Dead is no different, with the climatic and, in many respects, somber ending to the first season reflecting such a moment that never fully changes the fate of some characters, but allows the player to feel that emotion because of the story created en route to the ending.
 
But it is through this difference where we see a strong sense of attachment to both characters and actions in many story-driven games. The narrative is what sustains such attachment through the actions the protagonist takes, be it directly through player intervention or indirectly through the plot. And from this many games walk a tightrope to avoid the pitfalls of an unsustainable narrative, one that is all plot, no character, or vice-versa. The Walking Dead, despite the fact that it essentially lies about the choices having consequences in a mechanical sense, is able to surpass any snags the plot may have because the narrative was well-told, allowing an emotional experience that feels like the choices mattered.
 
 
It really is no different than other story-driven games involving choices and consequences. Dishonored locks you out of choices based on how you respond to certain situations, forcing you to deal with the consequences while rarely changing its fixed plot. Sandbox titles such as Skyrim hold sometimes massive repercussions for the world you are inhabiting, despite the consequences behind these earth-shaking plots essentially being invisible in-game. And I don’t think I need to retread new ground regarding the Mass Effect series and how the choices were always huddled into a singular conclusion at the end of each game, regardless of the number of outcomes presented.
 
But this is the primary appeal for choice-based mechanics. Much like those old "Choose your own Adventure" books, you essentially are creating your own story based on the elements available. Is it full control of the games outcome? In pretty much every case: no, especially when you are dealing with a series of games, such as the episodic way The Walking Dead presents itself. Because you have five episodes, each part acts as a building block to the finale, which is always pre-determined to end in one of two ways canonically. But what makes that moment special is the story, as it is what these sequences of events are all about, the very soul of the choices made to reflect the journey you, the player, goes on.
 
The point being, the choices given to the player are almost always an illusion to make it seem like they matter. But what makes them matter is not that they are there, but that they allow the player to feel the impact of these moments through the story. It is within choosing the Stormcloaks over the Imperials, in curing the Genophage over tricking the Krogan, in saving Doug or Carley, where the narrative takes shape depending upon our choices. But because of this seemingly betrayal of trust in the audience to distinguish the two styles, the theme of choice have become a pariah of sorts thanks to this perceived notion of railroading storylines.

In actuality, that is nothing new or against the mechanical design of the choices given in video games. For story-driven games, the choices will always be tied to a plot written by the developers, but controlled by the players. The real value of this is not that the story eventually doesn't matter, but that the journey the story takes, the changes in the narrative because of how the player controls the story, will make the experience worthwhile. It is a gamble each time, and this past year we have seen many games succumb to the wrath of players because the plot ended a certain way.
 
In the end, we need to take to heart the fact that in the end there are no true consequences, no fully changed outcomes to be gained in a fixed plot. But there are consequences in the choices made because of our attachment to them, to the characters and the often moral implications of their predicaments, that allow us to shape the eventual narrative we experience. It is through this illusion of choice where we see the crux of the narrative that gamers become attached to, and in the end the choices matter only because we made them that way. We control the illusion by making the choices, which in turn help us tell the story, the emotional meat of the experience. 
 
So don't blame The Walking Dead or the next game following the buzzwords of "choice" and "consequences" for eventually removing the facade of the choice in an instant. What truly matters in a narrative is not that the plot can change, but that the circumstances of the plot, the actual story behind your actions, dictate the tone of the overall experience. In doing this, Telltale Games, along with many other industry leaders can craft stories with hard choices and consequences for them. But a little give and take regarding what can be influenced, and what can't needs to be recognized for the illusion to work its magic.

It's come to my attention that this article was posted on another site. So to be better safe than sorry, it's been removed from the Vox Pop, but this blog will remain.  ~Ed. Nick
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