Illusionists of Choice

So you have slaughtered or sneaked your way past hordes of robot orcs and you’re deep in the fortress of the Last Level, with magma pools and electrified drill ceilings and a worrying lack of handrails and fire extinguishers. You are finally given a big choice, the choice that might even be on the back of the box and mentioned in mission briefings from the start, and told to pick door number one or door number two.

And, if the game allows you to, chances are that you’ll save your progress at that point and try both. Don’t try and tell me otherwise!

But surprise! Nothing really changes. Maybe the dialogue is very slightly altered, maybe the boss fights occur in a different order. If this happened in a rail shooter, many might not really care. Heck, I might even appreciate the attempt at variety. But in a game packed full of divergence and alternative routes up until that point it’s liable to provoke a less-than-enthralled response in the players.

In that instance perhaps it’s as much about consistency as it is enabling choice. If an otherwise hectic and involving action title robbed the player of control for one level and made the protagonist perform a series of nonsensical activities in cutscenes, that’s a similarly puzzling departure from what most would consider the genre’s purview. But while things like that can (and have) happened in shooters, generally discussion of choice – and specifically, perceived failures in allowing it – centres around roleplaying games.

The illusion of choice crops up a fair bit in game analysis and commentary (by which I mean a reference to the phrase, not the implementation of the actual concept. I’m yet to see a review trick me into thinking that my reading of said review is deeply significant and unique).

But when it does appear, the terminology is usually used disparagingly. In fact I realize that I just did it in the above paragraph, where the very use of the word “trick ” implies something underhanded and non-consensual, pulling the wool over the eyes of the trusting and innocent.

Illusion of choice is something which is present in every imaginable game to a greater or lesser extent; it’s just something that’s there, part and parcel of constructing an interactive experience. Immersion is a similarly vague precept in game design. Everyone playing a game knows that they’re not really boxing in the ring or talking to vampires or orchestrating the genocide of an entire species. It’s only noticed when it fails to meet expectations; I imagine most people accept the presence of user interfaces and inventory bars and health indicators on their HUD, but find it jarring when a character offers further playtime if you pause your session and download some additional content.

If anything game players are more than happy to be “tricked”. They’re entirely aware that a mad bevy of scripts are toiling in the background and fabricating a busy marketplace for their benefit, and for better or worse they can usually set that knowledge aside up until the moment the town crier spontaneously combusts and the game crashes with an error message. The same goes for film; everyone knows the blood is fake, but there’d be raised eyebrows if a crewmember was seen spraying ketchup on a corpse on the far edge of the shot.

And yet when I really think about it, even adored RPG classics like Baldur’s Gate and Torment were far more linear than we might like to think. The main quest always culminates in the same finale; although the trappings might change, although the final five minutes might differ depending on your last decision, they all hurtle towards the same epilogue. I’ve mentioned this before, but the real meat of such games essentially lied in… uh… essentially lying to the player, but it’s a lie we’re happy to buy into. On closer inspection it’s clear that such titles are prime examples of seasoning the same base dish so that subsequent playthroughs have just enough change in flavour to feel fresh. But it seems to work.

I often don’t pay much heed to the big choice of the game’s finale, if it even has one, as long as I felt that the choices made in the earlier game have had significance either at the moment of making them or somewhere later down the line. But, again, those are my own past experiences colouring my perceptions; going in and expecting the last choice to be arbitrary. It doesn’t have to be that way, and it says more about me than it does the medium.

I’ve debated with people in the past as to whether different cutscenes, be they elaborate CGI or narrated slideshows a la Fallout, actually count as multiple endings. My somewhat faltering answer was yes, of course, but only if the content of those endings actually changes depending on your actions. Preferably actions across the entire game and not just in the Last Level with its horrific health and safety record, but even some of the best titles in recent memory have taken that route.

The illusion of choice is usually invoked in critiques when it’s felt that it’s been implemented poorly, hence why it so often sounds like a negative criticism in and of itself. It’s a bit like the air. If you enter a room and something stinks, you might comment. If not, the atmosphere goes unmentioned. Professional film critics might be able to dismantle a film’s shots on a scene-by-scene basis, but the likes of me just opine on the nature of shaky cam and leave it at that.

I think that while game players might be ready and willing to be tricked and misled and lied to, they still expect the end result to be palatable and not too difficult to swallow. We suspend our disbelief and hang our qualms but we do it because of some unspoken contract with the game developer, that we’ll get what we want out of the deal. Parts of an audience may have unfair and unrealistic expectations of what different forms of media can give them, timeframes and budgets and tech be damned, and others might give developers a pass no matter what.

Enjoyment, entertainment, the notion of choices that “matter”, it’s obviously all subjective. But in short, when the illusion dissipates and it’s a coder behind the curtain, it’s easy to pin the blame on players who refuse to participate, who are pedantic and uncreative and reject everything the game presents them out of hand. And it’d be equally easy to pin the blame on developers who won’t let the player participate properly.

Weaving the illusion strikes me as a little like hypnotism. You can go along with it for your own enjoyment, or you can resent being made into a chicken and resist; there’s a certain amount of cooperation at play, a desire to help create the illusion.

Game developers want to make us invested enough in the game and story to attribute significance and impact to the decisions we make, which is excellent, as that’s exactly what I want too. Is the reward a branching narrative, a completely different area, an unlocked conversation, a change to the ending, a new character, a new weapon…? I’ll play along, but I want a reason to — instead of having me infer that BIG CHANGES have happened, I’d like to see them take place, a reward for having participated. Show me and I’ll immediately replay the title you put years of work into because I want to try the different path. The illusion is sustained if both parties are engaged in creating it and keeping it aloft.

So, yes: ultimately, if we’re offered a choice we want it be a “real choice”. But what is real? To get all metaphysical, anything we want to be.

Clap your hands if you believe.