It can be easy to think about video games as being all about choice, but that’s not exactly the case. One might contend that other forms of storytelling lack the element of choice found in games, and that is certainly true. Conversations about the medium do, however, tend to inflate the significance of player choice. While player choice is certainly huge and important, it’s not the end-all-be-all of what this medium provides to storytelling.
The way Ian Bogost’s lesson last Monday about the game Chipotle Scarecrow ended up being framed should have raised some red flags. This game was a propaganda game, pushing a particular message with the ultimate aim of advertising Chipotle. That is quite contrary to the idea of player choice. The game was described as manipulative; it gives you particular goals towards a particular end, allowing you to succeed, fail, or do anything in between except choose to object to the scarecrow’s actions. If we think the game is letting us choose to sympathize with, support, and participate in his cause, we’re fooling ourselves and completely buying in.
One way to look at choice in games is to say that some games are more about choice than others. Many of BioWare’s games such a the Mass Effect series, for example, fit that mold. Even these games, however, do not give the player choice in the way we like to think. Because of time, budget, and other such restrictions, what these stories give the player is the illusion of choice. And as Extra Credits argues in their episode about the illusion of choice, that’s not necessarily a problem; they argue that the brilliance behind creating choice in games is creating an effective illusion. The goal is literally to trick the player into thinking they made a choice when they either didn’t or the change in outcome is less than what is perceived.
Are games inherently manipulative, then? No, not at all. While what games do can be geared towards manipulation, the same can be said of any medium. But if Chipotle Scarecrow is not using player choice to manipulate, that calls into question what it is using.
The answer: the role the player assumes.
What ultimately sets games apart from any other medium is the fact that games put the player in the shoes of a particular character or characters. The point is not to give the player control over how the story plays out, but for the player to experience the story playing out from the standpoint of a particular role. The import of player choice–or the illusion of choice–is subsidiary to that of role assumption: the illusion of choice, well-disguised as actual choice, contributes to the experience of whatever role the player fills.
What happens, then, when we do want to make a game all about actual player choices? Extra Credits raises the concern of volume of content. The recent Fire Emblem Fates gives the player a huge choice towards the beginning of the game, and the result is quite literally three different games. Undertale, without giving any spoilers, allegedly provides an entirely different game should the player choose to kill every enemy. When player choice is taken to a certain extreme, the result is games like Minecraft, which has no identifiable story. As degree of choice approaches infinity, story starts to disappear, because choice never was the central purpose of game storytelling.