Monday, June 28, 2010

Video Games and the Illusion of Choice

As you may have noted from my two previous entries, aside from tabletop gaming, I also enjoy video games - most often of the RPG or action/adventure genres, though sometimes something different. Which brings me to the topic of my entry today. In video games of the RPG genre, we, as players, are often offered choices. Or are we? Sometimes we are given things that seem like meaningful choices, but do they mean anything? Do they meaningfully impact the story in any way? I've got a few examples in mind; they may or may not be entirely correct.

Final Fantasy XIII came out a few months ago; as you can tell, it is the 13th FInal Fantasy game numerically, though there are a number of spinoffs. While I did not play it personally, I was present when a goof friend purchased it, and watched while he played for about 30 hours over 5-6 days. Now, as they have been in the past, Final Fantasy is on the cutting edge of graphics; the visuals are beautiful, the FMV (full-motion video) is great, and the characters look stunningly real for people in often ridiculous costumes. The story, while often terribly complex and bizarre, is long and intricate. But my biggest problem with Final Fantasy games, even though I love a number of them, is that they really offer the player no choice. There is one singular path you have to take, one story to follow, and there is no real, meaningful deviation; only after playing the game for more than 30 hours are you even given a chance to choose which area you want to go see - until then, you are shuttled from one beautifully-rendered locale to another, put on a linear path, and run through the paces. This is especially ironic, given that the main story is all about whether or not the characters have any choice in their lives. You have some minor choice in how you characters progress, but you never choose their dialogue options, you never make any goal choices, and often it doesn't feel like an RPG, but more of a virtual novel in which you take a very minor part.

Then we have a game like, say, Mass Effect 2. It's an RPG game by Bioware, and while the visuals aren't quite up to par with the latest that Squaresoft puts forth in Final Fantasy games, they are quite nice. If you played through the first Mass Effect, you can carry over your saved game and thus the choices you made in the first game, so some things will change. If you were mean or nice to a reporter in the first one, it will note that and she will respond appropriately when she meets you in the second; if you took the time to save a particular member of your team, Wrex, in the first one, he'll show up as an NPC in ME 2. There are a lot of little moments like this in Mass Effect 2, but the thing is, they really don't mean anything that pertains to the plot. Whether or not you threatened a reporter or saved Wrex won't impact the greater story; it just gives you the illusion that all of these choices, interesting though they may be, actually have some sort of greater meaning. Now, there is supposed to be a 3rd Mass Effect game eventually, and perhaps Bioware is building towards that, and maybe all these choices will culminate in something meaningful and concrete, but right now, Mass Effect 2 goes to some effort to make it look as if you have a choice, and while you do have more say in what you do - dialogue choices, where you do your missions, which weapons you upgrade - the story remains essentially the same.

Most recently of all, we have a game like Alpha Protocol. I don't know if this really qualifies as an RPG, but it does have a number of RPG elements, and so I'll toss it in there for the purposes of this entry. In Alpha Protocol, at a number of points during the game, you can make choices that actually, meaningfully effect what you do. If you rough up a Russian info broker, he'll inform on you to your enemies. If you let a leader of a terrorist group who has information you want live, he'll provide help later on, in the form of information and assistance - you won't be attacked by members of his group in a later mission, for instance. In one of the most notable instances I found (this will have spoilers, so you may want to close your eyes if you haven't played), there is a boss in the Moscow mission hub who is a truly ridiculous character - he worships the 80s. When you face him in his fortress-like home, you face off in his giant room with a stage suitable for an 80s hair band, with 80s hair band metal playing in the background, a full light show going, while he dual-wields gold-plated submachine guns and wears an 80s jacket so loud it hurts. After you injure him enough, he then snorts cocaine, which makes him a ravening, nigh-invincible death machine whose physical attacks will brutally maul you. Unless, of course, you went to the Taipei mission hub first, and made contact with a 'secret agent' named Steven Heck, and made a favorable impression on him. If you did this, and then go to face the Russian arms dealer/cokehead, you have the option of giving him a shipment of poisoned cocaine, which will slowly kill him every time he partakes of his wonder drug, making the battle far simpler. This is a choice that actually has some effect on the game. It is one of many; often, the amount of info you can gather on important personalities will give you different avenues of action or conversation with them, and this is sometimes the only way to get certain things done.

Now, all three of these were good games, though my friend who played Final Fantasy XIII was getting bored of the lack of impact he had on the story when I last saw him play. This same guy tore through Mass Effect 2 twice over the course of a couple weeks. He hasn't played Alpha Protocol yet, but I think if he does, he'll have a number of things he'll want to replay. So, is choice, or the illusion of choice, in a video game really so important? Does it have anything to say about the player, or about the game developer? How will it effect the future of video gaming, if at all? All questions I find myself wondering about at night sometimes.

1 comment:

  1. I think there's a fuzziness about the term 'choice.' There's tactical choice which definitely comes into play in almost every game. If you choose to tear through a game or try to explore every locale or finish every side quest. These all lead to very different play experiences.

    If , however, what we want by choice is to have an almost fractal experience where what we do closes doors and opens others, we're in trouble. Not many games have this, I believe, because it's so darn difficult and expensive to program a game where players only experience a tenth of it through each playing. It's easier to just have a different ending animation based on if you played "good" or "evil."

    The other option is god games like Sims or Spore where it's nothing but choice but that's a whole other kettle of fish.