I Want My Choices to Matter

I Want My Choices to Matter

Way back when this blog was young, I wrote about my love for video game choices that actually impact the outcome of the story. That was before the Mass Effect 3 debacle where the entire outcome of three games worth of story came down to the single press of a button. It was also before the creation of The Witcher 3, back when branching narrative was still gaining momentum.

The more I leaf through those old posts, the more I want to revisit some of those topics. And this is probably the one I think about most often. For me, it isn’t enough just to be offered a choice to go left or right. I want that choice to matter.

Yet many of the choices video games offer us are still arbitrary. They might allow us to choose between a good ending and a bad ending. But how much impact do our choices really have if a game only has two endings?

Choosing Between A and B

A few years ago I played Tormentum – Dark Sorrow. This point and click adventure game lets you chose to solve the puzzles easily – but immorally – or take the time to search for a positive solution, which makes the game more difficult. I loved every moment I spent playing that game. I agonized over each of my choices. The game did a good job of making me question who was trustworthy. And if it was worth the extra work to avoid negative outcomes.

But at the end of the day, the games’ narrative structure was very simple. Choosing the easy, immoral actions ultimately changed the ending, but it didn’t change your path through the game. Something always happened to ensure the next choice is the same whether you’ve chosen the good path or the bad path.

I’ve never tested what happens if you chose a mix of morality in that game. Overall, I was satisfied with my experience. But it’s interesting to compare that experience with other branching narratives such as Mass Effect 3. The first two games in the series had a plethora of endings based on player choices. The latter installments even allowed you to load your saves so your choices would continue to shape the story.

Yet the game’s ultimate outcome comes down to a single choice that directs you to one of two endings. Perhaps it’s appropriate for a game sporting the theme that your actions are ultimately meaningless to the greater universe. But many players still found the outcome disappointing.

The same could be said of Life is Strange (and its subsequent DLC prequel); do any of the choices you make really matter if the outcome is based on only one of those decisions?

The Illusion of Greater Choices

My favorite games are the kind that I can replay over and over, make different choices, and see where they lead. Dragon Age is the one I’ve played the most. But in recent years, I’ve become fascinated by games like Tale of Two Souls and Detroit Become Human. Branching narrative is the sole focus of these games. Unlike RPGs, which also have side objectives like leveling up and gathering items. Story becomes even more important to a game when it is the sole focus of the experience.

But the more variations of this latter type of game I witness, the weaker the branches of their narrative become. Most of the scenarios play out the same way no matter what you chose. On the one hand, there needs to be a core foundation of events the player experiences or the narrative would be incomplete. On the other hand, simply losing one character or another doesn’t provide a large enough variation in the outcomes that each choice feels meaningful. And the more you play around with the decisions presented to you, the more transparent the illusion of choice becomes.

Especially when you compare a game like Detroit Become Human with a game like Chrono Trigger, which has so many branching choices, it would take dozens of playthroughs to experience everything the game has to offer. Even the games official strategy guide missed information locked inside the cartridge for discovery. How different, then, does each playthrough need to be in order for our choices to feel meaningful?

Branching Narrative Means Variable Experience

Perhaps the answer doesn’t lie with the number of choices you make, but in how heavily they impact the outcome of your experience. When I played Tormentum – Dark Sorrow, I had two distinctly different experiences, even though all the choices I made were binary. And I felt differently about each playthrough at different times. When I chose the positive outcome, I was highly invested in my interactions with other characters and the world they inhabited. But when I chose the negative route, everything was just an ends to a means, a method to move myself forward.

I notice the same thing when I watch different people play games like Detroit Become Human. Depending on how the player identifies with each character, it shapes their decisions. The way they imagine a character’s personality shapes the way they interact with the world when they control that character. And while the experience is largely the same for me, the viewer, it does seem to be different for each individual, provided they don’t repeat the experience too many times.

So perhaps the key lies with creating variable experiences. If the paths through a game branch enough to create a different experience each time you play it, perhaps the number of differences becomes less important. Or perhaps it’s most important that your experience differs from someone else’s, so that you can each discuss how it affected you.

Of course, branching narratives can be particularly difficult to write, especially for multiplayer games. In MMOs, for example, game creators tend to want every player to have a similar experience. Which means player characters have to be written in a generic fashion that forces their players down a generic and often arbitrary path. It doesn’t matter how you imagine your character if none of your choices allow unique expression.

Perfecting the Choice Formula

But if a game with fewer outcomes can feel more satisfying than one that boasts several, that suggests another element to the formula; expectation. Encountering only a dozen outcomes when you’ve been led to expect twice as many will disappoint the player more than encountering two or three endings when they only expected one.

Transparency may be another important part of the formula. Detroit Become Human, for example, presents the player with a flow chart indicating options they may have missed during the recent scene. But many of the options lead to similar outcomes, even if they occupy different areas of the flow chart. Which suggests that the true number of meaningful differences is obfuscated from the player. And what’s the point of doing that, when it’s easy to uncover the truth through repetition?

While I was growing up, most video game stories were located in the instruction manual. If you didn’t read the little blurb, you’d never know there was a story. So it’s great to see how far video game narratives have come. But at the end of the day, I still want to feel like it matters that I chose A instead of B.

What do you think?

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