Why Players Go So Nuts Over Choice

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I know, kind of a lot of video game blogs lately. I’m knee-deep in one of the busiest months of freelancing of the year for the medium, so it’s about all I have to talk about right now. That should be changing pretty soon as I start to do some more fiction work and other things. In the meantime, this is going to have to be about video games again.

And yeah, Dishonored is still on my mind. First, the game started out with a bit of a lovefest. Day One reviews for the game were glowing — it is, after all, a game about a supernatural assassin who has a vast many choices about how to approach those assassinations. And the majority of the praise for the game is for its freedom: You can decide to do a lot of stuff, or not do it. You can pick and choose your way forward, you can avoid things, you can strive for other things. You are the decider, or at least you feel like it, because even if your destination is mandated, your journey to that location is not.

A few days have past and now it’s time for dissenting opinions to start circulating. I talked about one yesterday (and its subsequent backlash) and how stupid that all is. But I feel compelled to address some of the negative comments I’ve been reading as they relate to this ever-present idea of choice.

A couple of critics and opinions I’ve read have focused on the idea that choice is really not all that amazing. Choice without meaning amounts to nothing, some have noted (which is true and a very valid criticism when it comes to Dishonored). Others note that there really aren’t that many choices available in a game like Dishonored or its ilk, and yet gamers and journalists tend to heap on the praise when they’re given that little bit of freedom. After all, despite all the options apparent in Dishonored, you really can only do three things: kill a guy; incapacitate the guy without killing him; avoid the guy altogether. Break it down to its component parts and it’s really not all that ground-breaking to be able to choose to take a ventilation shaft into a building as opposed to the door.

Still, here’s the thing about choice: Video games inherently lack it. Nearly all games, with a few notable exceptions, limit your ability to choose what you’re doing, where you’re going, how you get there ¬†or what you do when you arrive. Video games are constructs of rules. They inexorably drive you forward, most of the time, toward events and locations pre-planned by those who created them.

Consider that, ever since Pitfall and Super Mario Bros. and Pac-Man, we’ve been traveling the paths and corridors laid out before us. We have goals not because we decide to pursue them, but because they’re laid before us. For so many years, many video games were so linear that when they started opening up into sandboxes and sidequests and sprawling vistas, they were absolutely incredible. Wait, wait, wait — I get to choose what I do? I’m not just playing along to someone else’s song? Inconceivable.

Games like Dishonored usually garner high praise because of these elements. Dishonored is all about you figuring out to solve the game’s problems using your style. One location you must infiltrate to pursue a target included no fewer than (I believe) nine different potential entry points, each accessible only through a certain ability or playstyle. Many of those you’d never even know existed unless you’d already been playing through the game in a particular way. That very idea, that I can blaze my own trail, is very exciting to a great many gamers — largely because it remains a relative rarity in video games.

More than that, however, video games work on the intention of providing an experience, an escape, a Total Recall-esque visit to another world without having left home. As a player, being able to put some you-ness on that experience inexorably changes it, enhances it, and redefines it. It’s mine now. I took your supernatural assassin and I made him me. He doesn’t kill people because I don’t kill people. He scales rooftops and possesses folks and chooses not to disembowel them because that’s how I decided he should be. Not you, invisible creator who exists somewhere far away. I have taken some ownership of my own experience.

Of course, this is all smoke and mirrors. Dishonored is about political upheaval whether I want it to be or not. Even a game as open as Minecraft, where you can wander around just creating stuff out of blocks, has its parameters. You choose, but the choices available are still those predefined by someone else.

Still, often the most popular and well-loved games are those that allow us not only to drop into a fantasy of being a bad-ass or fighting monsters or exploring new worlds — they’re the ones that allow us to be us. To put a stamp on that world. To reshape it a little bit in our own image. Shooting a grenade launcher in a game is cool: Building your own grenade launcher that fires exploding kittens is infinitely cooler.

So while you might scoff at choice and thumb your nose at the people who get excited about those elements, remember why they’re so exciting in the confines of video games. You give me your cool fantasy world, but I get to me when I enjoy it — not some avatar you’ve invented. That is why “choice” matters in video games.

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Phil

He's like, you know, the guy.

4 thoughts on “Why Players Go So Nuts Over Choice”

  1. Staying up until 1 AM just for your posts, Hornshaw! Living the dream!

    The first real moment of awesome choice-making gameplay for me was the original Deus Ex game. BLEW MY MIND that I could make the game go entirely different ways based on how I felt. From the first mission (sneak in or go in guns blazing) to the last choice (submit or be a dick and disconnect the Internet forever), I had never felt so involved in how the storyline advanced.

    Also Harvest Moon had choice-making elements, but that’s mostly irrelevant and just a chance for me to shoe- horn in my unhealthy obsession with that series.

  2. God, Deus Ex is great. I only got into it recently (somehow just missed it, started with Invisible War), but it still really holds up. But yeah, there’s a legitimate criticism: a choice between shooting dudes and not shooting dudes is not really all that profound. But it still FEELS profound — it’s incredibly affecting. There’s power in that choice. NOT shooting dudes is kind of fundamentally at odds with not only our training as players, but the very construction of the game: after all, there’s a gun in our virtual hand THE WHOLE TIME. It’s like a tiny but incredibly meaningful act of rebellion, even if it’s a planned one. Yeah, you put the gun in my hand, but I’m still in control of the trigger finger.

    Anyway. Thanks for staying up!

  3. Addendum to my thing about Deus Ex:

    My mind just broke a bit. I just realized the ending three choices in Deus Ex are essentially the ending three choices in ME3, just with actual repercussions on how the ending plays out.

    Great. That’s gonna keep me awake even longer.

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