Red Pill? Blue Pill? Asprin?
I was playing Dragon Age: Inquisition recently and the game presented me with a choice. The game played the choice up as a major event and wanted me to know just how important this choice was, but, in the end, it had no effect on the universe outside of the game. No one died, nothing was destroyed, and the Earth continued its persistent orbit around the Sun. The choice didn’t seem to matter at all. So, when it comes to video game choices, who cares?
…Well, we do. Gamers, that is. We agonize over decisions, curse life when something doesn’t go as planned, and reload our saves until we get the optimal result. What hasn’t been answered is why we care and how games are able to turn a totally innocuous environment without meat world impact and create scenarios that will leave us emotionally drained. For that, we should look at why we care about games and investigate the very real consequences of a bad choice.
Games don’t just run lines of code, they build worlds. Whether it is a highly scripted world of a linear RPG or a more open canvas like a 4X turn based strategy, a good game will give the player an evolving sense of history around whatever is happening on screen. As the player plays, they build a narrative that has meaning for them, even if that narrative has little effect outside of their computer. The narrative is a collection of scripted game events (Bill died! WHY?!) and player choices (Which city should I pillage? Hmmmm…). When a game asks the player to make a choice, it is asking the player’s input on a story they care about with an outcome that is likely uncertain and whose results are now on the player. The responsibility for the narrative and, in some small way, the characters in the story are in the player’s hands. Players may not feel like they’re saving the galaxy or establishing a mighty empire, but they do want to see their story unfold well as a result of their actions. Choices matter because players want their story to turn out well.
The above reasoning looks at the conceptual results of game choice, but there is also a real world cost. Video games take time. Going through the entire narrative arch of the Mass Effect series takes about 90 hours. Getting through one of these games is an achievement and a testament to the devotion of the player who often has other priorities they need to get to. Making the “wrong” choice can result in the player having to make another choice: a) to continue on without a character/at a massive disadvantage/having cause total calamity, or b) to start again and getting it right. Neither choice is desirable. Continuing to play through a 90 hour epic having lost a key character in hour 30 is painful. It’s a loss that is felt every time that character would have been present and in the stories shared with friends who kept them around. In some games, that poor choice can be the end of a game run leaving the player with the knowledge that they could have kept going if they had gone a different way. Of course, the player could start again from either the beginning or a saved game, but that comes with its own costs. Starting from the beginning means replaying old content while already knowing what the result will be. It’s dull, repetitive, and no fun. A replay can also take a long time depending on how long the last playthrough went. Starting from an earlier save still means playing old content, just less of it. More importantly, it robs the tension of a difficult choice. It’s hard for a player to be sucked into the story of a game when they are constantly restarting whenever things don’t go their way.
Choices in video games matter, if only on the individual level. They effect the story that the player is invested in. On the other hand, choices that don’t involve aspects of the game the player cares about are generally inconsequential. For a choice to matter, the player must desire a positive outcome and fear the chance that it might not happen. When those two conditions come together, video games are a hell of a lot of fun.