Power to the Player: Where is the Value in Player Choice?
Who lives and who dies? Should I save the damsel or rob her blind? Should I lie if it gets me what I want or only if it’s for what I need? Although player choice matters in every genre, it matters most and has the largest impact in story-based games. Choosing what weapon to use or what playstyle to follow certainly impacts an experience; but there is no better way to give a player pause than to inject morality into the equation.
Questions of right and wrong have power in gaming because they make you feel something. Making the wrong choice can sit with you and even keep you up at night. Knowing your bad decision cost the life of a friend in a game like Mass Effect 2 is an unparalleled feeling that only story-based games can provide.
What I really want to talk about, however, is whether your choices need to make a visible impact in-game for them to be impactful to you. Over the years many games have received endless criticism for providing player choice without it amounting to much. Telltale’s games like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us often receive this criticism. Criticism often cites the games forcing choices that have little to no effect on the outcome of the story as a major issue.
Mass Effect 3 also receives this criticism. After three games of moral choices, many players were upset with the three rigid endings of different coloured explosions the game provided as a conclusion. But is this criticism justified? When players encounter choices that they do not believe pay off in the long run, is this an issue with their expectations or the payoff itself?
This is the most important question when it comes to player choice. To me, a moral quandary is good or bad based on how it impacts you rather than how it effects the story later. While it is always admirable to see people you save pop up in a game later on, this never matters as much to me as the decisions that force me to step away from my keyboard for a minute to think about what I’m about to do.
In Telltale’s The Walking Dead you are bombarded by decisions left and right, but few of them impact the game later. Many of the decisions are quite trivial – choices like who to give your meager rations or agree with on how to approach an issue. But one of the most horrific choices in the game happens very early on, and has no impact whatsoever on the rest of the game.
In the second chapter of TWD’s first season Lee, the protagonist, discovers that the farm his ragtag group of survivors is resting at is run by cannibals. The discovery is shocking, but amplified by the fact that the survivors are currently dining with the newly discovered cannibals. As Lee races back to the dining room to warn his group about the farmers being cannibals he sees his surrogate daughter, Clementine, about to eat some possibly-human mystery meat. You are given the choice of warning Clementine about the meat, or watching in horror is she takes a juicy bite out of the probably-definitely-human meat.
The choice is fascinating. Clementine is very young, only 8 years old. Scaring her with warnings about cannibal meat is not something one wants to do to an already traumatized girl (zombies and dead parents would weigh heavily on anyone, let alone a child). Additionally, the cannibals are likely biding their time before picking off Lee’s group – likely in their sleep. The moment Lee reveals to his group and the owners of the farm that he knows that the farmers are cannibals all hell will likely break loose.
Of course, knowing the repercussions of warning Lee’s group about the cannibals means little alongside watching the person you’re devoted to protecting eat human mean in blissful ignorance. To make matters worse, the choice of starting a commotion or keeping silent is timed: you only have a few seconds to act before Clementine takes a bite and unknowingly commits a horrid atrocity.
This is a wondrous, weighty decision that has no impact whatsoever beyond the immediate. It will never come up again, and yet it is the kind of decision you may find yourself wondering about days after making it. It bothers me that in Telltale’s The Walking Dead, so much buzz around the game is devoted to the longevity of the player’s choices.
The perception that choices matter, to me, is misinterpreted. Do choices really require ham-fisted acknowledgements to be effective? I would argue that making the choice should always be the most important part – not what the choice effects down the line. Obviously, when a game manages to effectively bring up your choices later it is an accomplishment. But I do not believe this is necessary to make a choice meaningful.
Maybe our perception needs to change, or maybe games need to stop masquerading with the notion that every choice will shake the world. In either case, I know what I value when I make my tough choices.