Note: There are ending spoilers in this column for Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Mass Effect 2, Mass Effect 3, and Red Dead Redemption, starting after a large break in the page about halfway down the column. Proceed at your own risk.
At their best, games are a unique art form that offers a narrative unlike any other form of media. Agency of the consumer (that is, the ability of the consumer to effect the story) is something that is wholly unique to gaming (choose your own adventure books notwithstanding). Films and television shows are passively viewed and books are passively read. The story is going to be the story regardless of what the consumer wants. However, many games (especially RPGs) have given players the chance to make their own stories, promising complex decisions that produce unique outcomes for every player.
By and large, games have failed to keep those promises.
The term “uncanny valley” has been used to describe non-humans that look so similar to humans that any deviation from being human is immediately noticeable. I’d argue the same is happening for game narratives. The breadth of the stories are so fantastic, and the choices seemingly so personal, that when it doesn’t work exactly as a decision should, it’s immediately jarring to a player and pulls them out of the experience.
The basic problem is one of determinism. What is determinism, you ask? Determinism is the philosophical idea that, if there is a God that is all-knowing, that it would be impossible for human beings to have free will, as their future, already being known, cannot happen any other way (the distinction between “hard” determinism and “al dente” determinism is made because players have very limited freedom in decisions). I’m not here to debate whether or not that’s valid, but it is an important idea when you consider the relationship between developer and player. By the very nature of crafted experiences, it would appear impossible for games to actually have meaningful choices. Sure, I can choose one choice over the others, but those choices (and their consequences) are all scripted out by the developers well before I actually come to make them. In fact, the choices (and consequences) are tested and designed to make sure that players get a satisfactory result from pretty much any of them. Beyond that, having save states renders those decisions even less meaningful. Even in the rare event that I don’t like the result of a given decision, I can always just go back and pick another one.
The thing that players seem to forget is that their choices are limited not by their own imagination, but by the imagination of the developer and writer. I come across plenty of situations in RPGs where I feel as though the best response to a given situation is a firm “none of the above.” It’s only because the writers and developers cannot obviously account for my thought process and perspective that this happens, and of course to try and build a story based around every individual person’s perspective would be impossible.
Compounding the problem are “morality systems,” a gaming trope that needs to be done away with (sorry BioWare). It “gamifies” the decision making process, and allows gamers to “min-max” decisions. There are situations in Mass Effect, for example, that give you an option to find a compromise (whether negative or positive) only if you’ve been sufficiently good or bad up until that point in the game. If I’m being allowed to make decisions, none of them should be hidden because I didn’t “earn” them. That’s not how real decision-making works.
Most problematic in games based on player choice is the ending (SPOILERS START BELOW).
For example, in Deus-Ex: Human Revolution, the player finds themselves in a room at the end of the game, and they are given three options. They can choose to A) broadcast information that would ban the game’s augmentations, B) broadcast the same information in a different way, giving more control to the shadowy figures behind the scenes, or C) doing neither and leaving it up to chance. The problem with this system is that it’s completely arbitrary and none of the decisions are given the same heft. The idea behind choice B is given to you very late in the game by the supposed villain, and it seems to fly in the face of everything the game stood for up until that point. The other problem is that the mechanics of the decision are obvious and apparent to the player. It’s an inelegant way to design a choice, and it pulls the player out of the narrative immediately. It’s as “gamey” as games can possibly get.
A game that handled this situation well was Mass Effect 2, from BioWare. In that game, everything you do leads up to the final mission, and everything that happens in that mission occurs as a result of the things you’ve done in the game up until that point, as well as the decisions you make in the heat of the mission itself. If you don’t have the trust of your comrades, some of them will die. Even if you have their trust, some of them will still die if you don’t use them properly, or if your ship isn’t outfitted properly. It’s all done behind the scenes based on decisions you made over the course of the previous 30 hours. It’s much more organic and realistic, and actually allows the player’s personality to be expressed in the decisions. It would be even better if being extreme Paragon or Renegade wasn’t a get out of jail free card.
In Mass Effect 3, BioWare completely abandoned that design, instead going to the “decision room” for Mass Effect 3. I had other problems with the ending that I won’t get into here, but I could have dealt with those problems if the game wasn’t so obvious in what it was doing. I made plenty of decisions in the game prior to the ending, so why couldn’t the developers have a system that calculates which decision I would make based on what I’ve done in the game, then just have that ending automatically happen? For example, I did everything I could to protect the Geth in Mass Effect 3, and I had a good relationship with EDI. I chose the “control the reapers” ending in ME3 (because I valued the “lives” of synthetic beings, a huge theme of the series), but I shouldn’t have had to actually select it. I gave the game all of the evidence it needed to recognize that it was the decision I was going to make before actually getting to that room.
My top 3 narratives in games this generation are Red Dead Redemption, Enslaved, and Bioshock. All of those games have a scripted story that doesn’t offer much choice (the little sisters are pretty much it in either of the 3 games), and they soar for it and pack an emotional and tonal punch with their endings. Imagine if Red Dead Redemption had an option to go with Dutch van der Linde and not go back to the Marston ranch. The game would completely neuter its thematic importance (similarly to how you can undercut all of the themes in DX:HR and ME3 simply by making one arbitrary decision).
If games want to tell important stories with lasting power, they need to resolve the player choice mechanic with maintaining thematic integrity. Otherwise, game narratives will continue to have half-baked thematic resonance, and they will never really be able to be taken seriously as a storytelling medium.