The Illusion of Choice

When not raiding Soviet bases to 80s hits in Metal Gear Solid V, I’ve been playing Until Dawn with my roommate. Now, I don’t really do horror, like, at all. But Until Dawn features a supposedly robust choices and consequences system, which I am, of course, a sucker for.

We’ve finished the game and there’s been a good deal of payoff to some of the choices we’ve made. The big thing we’re looking forward to, though, is playing it again and making different choices to see what would happen.

Because right now a lot of what happened feels like a direct result of the choices we’ve made and I wanna know how much of that is really because of what we did. Every little plot turn can’t be the result of our decisions, even though it can feel like it.

A lot of the time, when we play a game with multiple choices, we want everything we do to be impactful and for it to create a tailored set of consequence that are entirely dependent on what we did.

290 Choices-A

Look at all those endings!

Doesn’t that sound cool? Every choice you make has consequences! Siding with Miranda or Jack when they argue aboard the Normandy in Mass Effect 2 could spell disaster down the line! If Walker doesn’t spare that guy in Spec Ops: The Line what will it mean for the future?

The problem is, games are a finite medium. What’s done, is done, and has to have been doable. There’s a limit to your free will, a limit set by the game developers and their bother and/or budget. It turns out that choosing Kaiden or Ashley has no real choice on the rest of Mass Effect, as the survivor fulfills basically the same role in the sequels. Picking Udina or Anderson doesn’t have much bearing on Citadel politics, because Mass Effect 2 doesn’t have much of it, and by the time 3 rolls around, Anderson (if you chose him) has stepped down so that Udina represents the humans and the intrigue on the Citadel proceeds accordingly.

ChoicesB

Those choices could be Red, Blue, or Green

Now, I am kinda picking and choosing some examples, Mass Effect does have some brilliant moments of consequence (whether or not you saved Mealon’s research in the second game has a massive impact on the third – it’s that it’s one of the few choices of that nature that make it stand out so), but a few different playthroughs, the cracks in the game’s design start to show. No matter what, Udina will end up on the council. The Rachni will return whether or not you kill their Queen. Whether or not you sacrifice the Council in the Battle of The Citadel doesn’t mean much ultimately. To quote Eloise Hawking in LOST: the universe has a way of course correcting.

Which is a bummer, because what if, to beat a dead horse, picking Anderson or Udina made for totally different plot lines in Mass Effect 3. Maybe Anderson as Councilor meant that Cerberus never managed to attack the Citadel, but in exchange made the mission to Earth that much harder without him in your corner. It does mean a lot of resources, but it also means a more personalized experience.

I think that might be why I’m hesitant to jump back into Until Dawn. Right now everything happened as a result of my choices. Little tweaks to the game’s horror were because of my answers to questions posed to me (Snake-Clowns with Needles, though the snakes never showed up). Playing the game again (which I absolutely want to do to, why else, see what would happen) will probably show where the seams are and reveal how little impact my decisions had. That it doesn’t on the first play through speaks to good writing.

Because choice in games are an illusion, and will continue to be until you have an infinite number of monkeys typing up an infinite number of outcomes to an infinite number of players’ decisions. But until then, players can be tricked into thinking we have a decision. If the game’s narrative makes the causality feel like it had to happen, like that your choice led you here no matter what, then the illusion isn’t broken. Just spackle those cracks with good writing and we’re onboard.


For the first playthrough or two, anyway. After that it boils down to just gaming the system as much as you can (how can I make sure everyone died in the most gruesome way in Until Dawn?).

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