Choice. It’s something that nobody really considers to be a “bad” thing in gaming. However, it is also something that is fundamentally misunderstood by a lot of people in gaming. I’ve seen people complain about how “linear” a game is, despite the fact that they would then comment on it being engaging and feeling well-written, while other times I’ve heard people lament that they just couldn’t get into an open world experience. In fact, when we intentionally implement choice into games it’s often a fallacious exercise, actually forcing players to conform to standards they don’t accept.
One of the things I’ve noticed as a critic and as I’ve gone through training in order to become an English teacher is that the narratives of games are often simple to an extreme. Here’s the big bad guy, and here’s what he does. The modern reboot of Syndicate, for example, was considered a huge failure with a lot of people complaining about the game’s break from its strategy roots. I hated it for the exact opposite reason-I loved Starbreeze’s interpretation of the gameplay concepts, and I actually felt it was one of the best designed games of the year, with a stunningly cool AR overlay and a satisfying cyberpunk shooter experience. However, I found myself enjoying the cooperative play more than the single player, even though it was the single-player experience that had some of the most awesome action scenes. This was a simple consequence of one thing: I hated every NPC through the story. Every. Last. One. Not because they were necessarily “bad guys”, but because they had lied to, deceived, and generally been mean to my character.
The issue was one of choice. Highly linear games have succeeded in the past. Nobody fried DOOM for being linear, because DOOM was a self-driven experience; you clear one level of hellspawn and you move on to the next. I grew up playing roguelikes and JRPG’s, and while they certainly offer a fair degree of exploration they are all for the most part linear and allow very little player input on the actual game. However, the important thing to note is that I chose how to drive the game forward. However, in Syndicate I was a supersoldier with the safety on, and it just felt wrong.
A rather startling examination of gamers showed that about 10% of people who played Red Dead Redemption finished it. I haven’t played it, in part because it hasn’t come to PC and my consoles see about as much use as my gym membership, but it’s well-received. This is not a game that people hated. However, what we see is that they didn’t finish it. In Skyrim, as of the time of writing, 90% of people have completed the achievement for “Unbound”, the introductory quest, on Steam, while 35% of people have finished the one for “Dragonslayer”, the final main storyline quest. The reason for this is simple; I’m willing to bet that 35% of Skyrim players actually felt like playing through the main storyline. That’s not a game designer’s fault, especially with the massive amount of content in Skyrim and the fact that there’s probably a portion of gamers out there, even a good chunk of time later, who are still going to complete the main story but just haven’t gotten around to it yet.
However, we don’t see people hating on Skyrim or Red Dead Redemption because they haven’t beaten them. The matter is one of choice, and this is where massively unpopular linear experiences come up. If a game has only one path, whether there’s multiple orders to complete it or you always go through the same way, it will fail. Hitman: Absolution had a rather weak storyline, but it wasn’t too bad because at least it felt like 47’s motives should be aligned to the story. Everyone else, on the other hand, made some really poor decisions. 47 was handled well – while in Syndicate everyone in the narrative made the decisions they should have made, and they felt realistic, but Miles Kilo, the player avatar, was forced to do things that were dubiously aligned to his interests. Nonlinear and sandbox style games don’t have to worry about this nearly as much, because if the player doesn’t want to do something they don’t have to, and they have more chances to reach a satisfying conclusion.
I’ve been playing through the Game of Thrones game recently for a review, and one of the most interesting things that I noticed is that for all its lack of polish it actually does a really good job of making me feel like my decisions are the ones I’d choose to make. Some of this is accomplished by providing good dialogue cues, but for the most part it’s the fact that the game doesn’t judge an appropriate path through every situation, providing alternatives for consideration that have meaning but don’t massively impact the plot. Sure, it was harsh to have the peasants call me a butcher for failing to peacefully resolve rioting, but I deserved it. When I showed mercy it was a choice I made, and when I enacted bloody vengeance it was also my call. It had no impact, at least as far as I could tell, other than a few throw-away lines down the road, but it was something that helped me define my vision of the characters I controlled, rather than forcing me to portray them in a way I didn’t want to.
So what’s the takeaway? We don’t need to have nonlinearity or a sandbox to have choice in games, but we do need the opportunity to make a meaningful decision with our characters, even if that decision is to follow the linear plot of the game.