Choice, decisions, options, pathways, variety, open worlds — all are words we use to describe player-driven experiences. Experiences that don’t have much in the way of the very thing they claim to offer — consequences.
“Once upon a time, something happened, and it was better than something not happening. The end.” Dan Harmon, creator of Community and co-creator of Rick & Morty
It’s a reductive view of what makes for a story. But it’s an apt one, because if something doesn’t change then there is no story.
Which if you didn’t see my previous episode, Plot or Story, is the basis for my argument. As it probably is in every episode.
To tell a story, regardless of medium, is to tell of change and its consequences
But for that story to begin we need a character to seek change. That doesn’t have to be the protagonist. Often it’s not. In most cases, especially for stories that follow Campbell’s hero’s journey the antagonist sets things in motion. The protagonist as a result is quite passive in the beginning, being reactive rather than proactive. Think of any superhero, they may be on patrol keeping their city streets clean of crime but that’s only low level efforts. It’s the machinations of a super villain that them doing something more than stopping pickpockets and bank robbers.
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Games often have the same beginning. Call of Duty, Halo, The Witcher 3, and just about every other franchise starts the same way. Someone else does something bad and we have to make to show them how they pissed off the wrong people.
Halo’s a great example of this in fact. In the original game, we as the Master Chief are effectively in cryo-sleep. Lo and behold the Covenant come along and make a mess of things, so we get woken up to set this right. We’re reacting from the very beginning. In part because it’s a start that could be argued as “in media res” because the action and the story have effectively started before we the player come into it. The situation and story as such keep us reacting for some time.
It doesn’t take that long for the Master Chief to take charge. By the time we’ve left the Pillar of Autumn and landed on Halo we’ve switched to an active driver of change. It’s our decisions, our missions determined by Keyes, Cortana and the Master Chief that set the game on a path the Covenant weren’t prepared for.
That change from reactive to active is necessary, it’s a transition that not all games are capable of making. Call of Duty is notoriously bad in this regard, with the player character being led throughout even if they are in a position of command. Sure some games allow you to select which mission to take, but look at who leads in cut-scenes — it’s not the player character.
Video games like to promise more than active participation
They strive to offer agency over not just a character but the world that character inhabits. In short, they promise choice.
But I don’t think most offer any choice. Especially a lot of the large, triple-A, open world extravaganzas. There are exceptions as there always are. The stories these games offer and thus the characters to be played don’t provide choice.
Game design, not story, is the culprit in this case. The writing of any game can side step this issue only so much. Cutscenes, whether in-engine or pre-rendered, give a character power that’s not expressed elsewhere in a game.
Think of Gears of War and how it only took one shot to kill pretty much anyone during cut scenes but during gameplay everyone became a bullet sponge. Or for a more recent example, Destiny 2. The major characters can use their powers at will and accomplish feats a player only dreams of. Players don’t get to down enemy ships with their light or withstand a massive missile barrage. Sure they can whip out their golden gun and down some enemies faster than Wyatt Earp but they won’t be cracking wise.
What players will be doing is using the same verbs again and again. And all of those verbs, with the exception of those regarding movement, end with NPCs dead.
Especially in video games. Time and again we kill, shoot, stab, hit, garrote, kick, blow-up, slice, dice, run-over, drop, push, ignite, implode, eviscerate, eliminate, or otherwise harm other players or computer characters.
Okay, okay, okay not every game has us killing things. Katamari Damacy is all about rolling stuff up. Firewatch is about exploring the world and talking. Rugby is about moving a ball in conjunction with your teammates and being awesome while doing so.
Those games are actually about so much more, but much of my case in this episode revolves around the reduction of the verbs, aka choices, we have in those games to their simplest purpose. Being so reductive is necessary because of how different games are even within the same genre or series. Movement mechanics alone vary when all the player may be doing is asking the game to move their character or avatar forward. QWOP by Bennett Foddy, Grow Home by Ubisoft, or the aforementioned Firewatch by Campo Santo.
In each case the player is focusing on moving their character forward. To do so doesn’t just take a different button press, but a series of thought. QWOP requires coordination, Grow Home needs planning, and Firewatch lets the player simply move. Yes it’s all by design, but it’s also about the characters the games are asking the player to inhabit and the stories they are trying to tell through them.
We could readily analyze each of those on an individual or comparative basis, but for the purpose of this episode that doesn’t help. Hence the need to be reductive — movement is about changing location, regardless of how that occurs. The same is true for combat, because as much as a game like Assassin’s Creed Origins will say it offers a choice — face-to-face fights, stealth attacks, range combat — the result of every encounter is a dead NPC.
That choice is nothing more than flavor
It’s like ice cream, regardless of whether it’s Chocolate, Vanilla or Strawberry you’re still eating cold milk and sugar and getting the requisite energy from it. And you may argue that if face-to-face fights are ice cream that makes stealth Frozen Yogurt, and range combat Sorbet, but you’re still eating a cold sugary treat that results in the same thing.
Those treats are delicious and they keep us coming back for more, but a meal they do not make. And we see that in Assassin’s Creed Origins, because the story doesn’t happen in the flavors of combat presented to the player.
It’s in the cutscenes. The character of Bayek makes choices outside of the scope of the player that affect the game, Bayek’s story and ultimately what players will experience. The only real choice presented players is whether or not to engage in the side quests, because of the consequence of doing so. Namely, players will not explore more of the world, gain wicked loot, or stab more people.
Other open-world games are just as limited in the consequences they present. Just Cause 3, let’s you use a variety of weapons and tools that ultimately end in mass destruction. Horizon: Zero Dawn falls into the same traps in terms of combat choices. Sure there’s flavor galore, but you’re always eating ice cream. The FarCry series, like all Ubisoft open-world titles with the exception of Watch_Dogs, ends in absurd violence on a scale that while enjoyable borders on the perverse.
Writing for these games leaves little room for choice
Because the protagonists are always going to have to revert to the verbs available to them in order to solve their problems and change the world.
That’s why time and again we see one of two things happen in a game — 1) there are cutscenes and/or 2) there’s a supporting cast of characters.
Assassin’s Creed Origins, as mentioned before, gives the character Bayek a chance to express himself and do more than murder half of Egypt, but only in the cutscenes. And cutscenes don’t happen without a writer. Nor do supporting characters. Take Alex in Half-Life 2. Much of her role is to accomplish what the player cannot as the Gordon Freeman. Alex’s ability to express, explain, and interact with the world provide depth that a player’s ability to only commit violence doesn’t.
Both of those have their places in games, but they do little to create a player-driven story, or allow for a player-driven plot, because neither allows for choice. You can create a game with a thousand verbs, but that’s not going to guarantee a player has any choice or that there’s a plot.
Choice is consequence
A game offers a player choice if the outcome of a particular decision, a particular verb, is something that none of the other verbs end in. The Witcher 3 and Watch_Dogs 2 offer that very opportunity to players. All because of the Axii Sign and Hacking. Those two mechanics provide chances to avoid combat all together. Not always, but that makes it interesting and the story more dynamic as a result.
Non-combat mechanics or verbs in a game automatically allow create a greater variety of consequences. Those consequences in turn offer a deeper opportunity to explore a character and their world for both the game’s designers and writers. Finally, that ability to explore more solutions to a given problem allows the player true choice.
Right now you may be asking, what about Immersive Sims. Series like System Shock, Dishonored, Deus Ex, and Prey offer a lot of systems and ways to interact with the world. Sadly, more often than not players have to resort to violence to resolve any situation. There may be hacking, stealth and theft as ways of bypassing some scenarios, but it’s rare that violence can be avoid all together to complete a game.
Immersive Sims aren’t offering true choice, they’re just presenting the appear of choice by varying the flavor of interactions. By offering chocolate, vanilla and strawberry combat.
While my whole argument up to this point has been about being reductive in the consequence of a mechanic, there is one mechanic that we can’t be reductive about — and that’s dialogue.
Dialogue choices can result in any consequence the writer so chooses
That’s not to say they shouldn’t make sense. But dialogue offers everything as a possibility. Insult someone and combat can begin. Flirt with them and your character can end up in bed. Beguile an NPC and you can steal their most precious treasures. Or simply convince an enemy their methods are wrong and you can turn them to be an ally.
Mass Effect has one of the greatest examples of what’s possible with dialogue. In the final battle when Sovereign is attacking the Citadel and Saren is leading the assault on the Council, you can convince Saren to kill himself. The player can quite literally cut the combat in half by the very option to talk to the antagonist and show them the folly of their ways. Of course this was tied in to the Paragon/Renegade and skills systems, but the choice was present in dialogue. Not in combat. Not in stealth. Not in crafting.
Dialogue or even story-based choices that aren’t tied to a specific mechanic offer more and avoid reductive descriptions because of the sheer possibility. And that possibility comes from the subtext within the writing. Not every game is going to allow for subtext, generally as a result of design, but sometimes because of the target audience. The latter happens a lot with games geared towards children. If a game tells a player of a pending consequence from a particular choice, then there’s no subtext.
Mass Effect again is an example where the creators walked this line — telling you if a particular dialogue option was a Renegade or Paragon choice but not exactly what would be said. The interactions possible during those conversations are also great examples, where a player knows potential outcomes but not all the consequences. So you know you’re making a Renegade choice in Mass Effect 2 if you choose to pull the trigger while in the tower in pursuit of Thane, but you’re not sure how the interrupt will play out. In this case, it’s throwing an NPC out the window.
Firewatch, as mentioned in the previous episode Plot or Story, is subtle. It never tells the player the outcome of any choice — be it walking in a particular direction or saying something. More than that, there’s subtext to what Henry and Delilah are saying — implications that may or may not be there and only left up to the player to determine if they exist.
Dialogue and the writing it requires, the characters that need to be developed and thought out are where real choice in video games are presented. It’s in telling a story that recognizes not every situation can or should be solved by a single action. Because if there’s a single course of action the protagonist uses to resolve every situation then there’s no character development. If there are no alternatives or drivers to entice them to choose another course of action, then there’s no drama.
Drama needs more than choice
It requires consequence. All of it thought requires storytelling — good storytelling. Because in the end not all verbs in a game are created equal. But more on drama in a future episode.
As far as writing goes, you’ll never be able to have dramatic turns, changes to characters, or other story developments that come from the choices the protagonist makes if the verbs available for a character to express themselves are limited. Everything is going to be relegated to cutscenes or non-player characters. Or you’ll have to take the Spec Ops: The Line approach and code the game for different possibilities at certain points.
The games that make use of the verbs available in such a manner are few and far between. That’s why ones like Spec Ops: The Line stand out so well. Metro: 2033 and Metro: Last Light by 4A Games are another great example, where small interactions that aren’t explicitly signposted affect the story, present choices and result in consequences down the line.
They’re games where you don’t have to kill everyone. Stealth and non-violence are viable options. Not all the time, and probably not at the right times from a philosophical point of view. For more on that listen to the latest episode of Waypoint 101. But there are real choices in these games both in and out of combat scenarios.
It’s never guaranteed you’ll be able to accomplish such nuance in your own game as the time, energy and money it takes to produce them may be better allocated elsewhere according to your game’s director.
For there to be real choice in a game, there has to be an option to not participate in the core loop, to not commit violence, to find an alternative solution. It’s never just a question of how many guns a player has or the style in which they can commit murder. That’s just flavor.