Games Are About Choice

So, I don’t want to sound like I’m countering Cae’s argument, because I really like what they said, but I felt kinda differently about their argument. I was going to write this anyway, but now I kinda have a comparison. So, I guess my point is, this argument stands on its own, but I think it’s a good contrast to what Cae already said if you read both (because what they said is really interesting, so you should read it).

As a narrative writer for video games, I would readily argue that games are strong when they give the player choice. Yes, there are powerful games when choice is completely removed, like The Beginner’s Guide or Presentable Liberty. Those games are experiences, and I think the lack of choice in those case make them extremely powerful. And if you want a real punch in the gut, I highly suggest either of those games. The Beginner’s Guide personally knocked the breath out of me for days, and my fiance can say the same for Presentable Liberty. They are both marvels because of how they constrict choice. And in all honesty, there isn’t any.

Yes, there is something to be said about development in a game when there isn’t 100% free choice. Unless it’s an open world sandbox like Minecraft, with limited to no plot, there isn’t really a 100% choice. That’s a technical setback that we just haven’t overcome yet in terms of development. But we are getting there. My point is though, is that saying games aren’t 100% is unfair because on a technical level we haven’t gotten there. We already have games like Life Is Strange, Oxenfree, and Until Dawn that have pushed the boundaries of what we thought games centered around choice could do. Those game have so many choices and outcomes in them that we’re still finding combinations not yet explored.

But in the end, I have no better example about games using choice than The Stanley Parable.  If you’ve never heard of this game, I would highly suggest you play it. And again. And again. And then a few more times just for fun. This game is hilarious and you will not be disappointed. There is so much dialogue programmed into the The Stanley Parable though, that the player can choose to completely ignore the plot at any given time in the game. Granted, they are limited by the game world, but there is no instance where the player has to follow along with what the game is telling you to do.

I said that video games as a medium are about manipulating choice. While on a mechanical level all choices and outcomes are constructed, the player deciding which choices they want to make makes the game about choice. There are some plots that take this deeper than others. If you picked up a Legend of Zelda title, no, the game would not let you decide whether or not you wanted to kill Ganondorf. That is part of the plot. But, the game does let you choose how you want to fight him in the gameplay. You could do the easy thing and use your sword. Or you could decide that for a certain battle you were only allowed to use the bow. This is obviously limited because this series isn’t known for choice, but there is still some remnants in there. If you want a fantasy game about choice, you’re probably playing an Elder Scrolls games.

On the other hand, if you picked up a game like Harvest Moon, you would be presented with an entirely different set of options. For this comparison, I’m going to use Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life in specific. Yes, there are a limited number of overall outcomes, but there are a number of ways to get there in this game. For those of you not familiar with the franchise, Harvest Moon is a farming simulator, for lack of a better comparison. The game is typically about having a successful farm, but there are some underlying plots in these games. In my particular example, your choices determine what your son will grow up to be. And there are all kinds of things that affect this. Primarily, it’s based on who you marry in the game and what you give your son once he’s born. But there are some more subtle effects as well. Some of it comes from where you get your money. And there are a lot of ways to get money in this game. You can farm, ranch, fish, cook, mine, forage, or be super lazy and just plug your Gamecube controller into the third slot and hit Start and Z a bunch of times to cheat in yourself a bunch of items and gold. Whatever you end up doing, what you sell affects what your son wants to do as well. So you can run a “farm” entirely on mushrooms you find in the forest, if you want to, and the game will just keep going plot-wise.

The Scarecrow game falls into the first. Obviously there is no choice to join the crows, and you have to play the way they say you can play, but it is a matter of choice how quickly you do it and in what order you do it. A minimal spectrum, but it is one. I would say though that this game would have been better just serving as an experience game. It would have made its point and felt far less forceful in its delivery. But at the same time, it is the player’s decision to pick a game up and play it in the first place or to just leave it alone and never delete it. See Pony Island for a better example of that, but another game with massive spoilers.

Games definitely have choices. Some of them are just as simple as choosing to play the game. But if the player does interact with a game world and how they choose to interact with that game world, is a choice, because they are sculpting their experience in the game based on how they play it.

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One thought on “Games Are About Choice”

  1. First of all, side note, my pronouns are they/them/their.

    I think we might mean slightly different things by the word “about” in our titles. I perhaps should have said “all about.” My point was more about how much games are about taking on a particular role or proverbially filling someone else’s shoes; player choice, to whatever degree it’s present, is a part of how the player takes on that role. That’s how the player’s choices are typically given meaning. It’s true that even the games with ostensibly the smallest amount of choice still differ from other media for the presence of player choice. My argument is more that that’s just a piece of the puzzle. I would not, however, include the choice of whether or not to play a game as such a defining feature, only because that’s such a basic level of choice that games do share with other media.

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