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‘Choice’ in video games: Crude plot device or meaningful storytelling?

December 31, 2010
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A couple of years ago, amid the traditional end of year ‘silly season’ in the game release schedule, something strange happened to me.  I’ll explain all later on in the article, but it was one of those moments that make you stop and think.  And I vowed to myself right then that I would write something about it one day.  Real life got in the way, but following a slightly drunken discussion in the pub over Christmas I’ve resolved to sit down and write the piece.  So here we are!  (This article WILL contain spoilers, you have been warned).

To cut a long story short, the moment centred around being presented with a choice.  It made me think about how modern gamers identify with the character they control in the game and the world that the developer puts the character in.  I was originally just going to write an article about how games now use choice as a selling point, but the discussion in the pub made me think about it on an even more fundamental level than that: are the choices modern gamers are presented with meaningful, in a storytelling and artistic context, or are they simply a crude and simple way of showing how individuals can interpret different fictional situations?

(If you’ve not watched or played Blade Runner, Inception,  Fable 2 or Heavy Rain, but intend to in future, then stop reading now, for there be spoilers ahead!)

The pivotal moment that inspired this whole article came at the end of the main storyline in Fable 2.  The game prides itself on giving the player free reign to choose how to behave in the game world.  You can be good or evil, you can settle down and start a family or you can be a playboy (or girl!).  The world is your oyster.  Anyway, I had chosen to be relatively ‘good’, had a wife and kid and a faithful dog.  Then, just as the story reached it’s conclusion and I was about to save the world I was told (by the bad guy) that my family were dead.  Then he proceeded to try and shoot me, only my dog jumped in the way, took the bullet for me and promptly died!  When I inevitably vanquished my evil foe I was then faced with one last choice.  Did I want to resurrect all the everday folk who had died at the hands of the villain?  Or instead, did I want to leave the normal folk dead but resurrect my family and dog?  Or did I want to ignore everyone and just become super rich?  Up until that moment I hadn’t really thought I’d ‘connected’ with the characters and the game world, but that choice was ultimately a difficult one.

Skip forward a year or so and a game called Heavy Rain was released, amid much hype, for the PS3.  It was billed as another game where the world, and story, were shaped by the decisions taken by the player.  In the game you control four very different characters in a single overarching plot (trying to uncover the identity of a serial killer, and the location of his next victim, before it’s too late).  In the run up to the game’s release, it’s creator David Cage told journalists that ideally people will only play it once, with that then becoming their interpretation of the story he’d laid out.  (And I have to admit, I’ve only ever played it through completely once, partly because of that reason and partly because I’ve just not felt the urge to return to it).  There is one character in particular in the game who has to make some difficult and harrowing decisions, and that’s Ethan Mars, the father of the boy who the killer has kidnapped to become his next victim.  Along the way the player has to decide whether Ethan should make sacrifices to gain clues as to the whereabouts of his son.  These sacrifices run from driving the wrong way along a motorway to (apparently) drinking a poison that will kill him, but will also give him enough time to receive the final clue and rescue his son.  (I chose not to drink the poison, but apparently it’s not actually poison).

The game itself is well made, and I felt a certain attachment to the characters, but it does show up the fatal flaw with this kind of gaming: the decisions are arguably only crude attempts by the writers to force the gamer to feel for the character(s) and interpret the story in their own way.

As I’ve already said, when I was playing Fable 2 I didn’t really feel connected until I had to make the choice of what I wanted the rest of the game to be like, and you could argue there that the decision was based more on my gameplay preferences than any feeling I’d developed for the characters in the story.  In Heavy Rain the decisions I made ultimately prevented Ethan from finding his son in time, but two of the other characters had worked out enough to stop the killer before it was too late.  Again, this then rendered the decisions I’d taken when controlling Ethan as ultimately (and arguably) irrelevant.  Despite having apparent freedom in the game I still felt constrained by what the developers wanted me to feel and experience.

And at the moment I think that this is the difference between gaming and more established media such as film and literature.  A skilled director or author can present you with a very precise and controlled set of circumstances (everyone who watches a film at the cinema sees the same 2 hours of footage, everyone who reads a novel reads the exact same words in the exact same order) but still let the viewer/reader impose their own feelings, thoughts, prejudices etc on the action, which ultimately gives the film/book some personal meaning which is potentially very different from that of another person who has experienced the same thing.

Two examples of this, which I feel are quite similar in many ways, are the films Blade Runner (the Director’s and Final Cuts) and Inception.  In both films the directors (Ridley Scott and Christopher Nolan respectively) show the viewer a very precise vision but ultimately leave the viewer open to interpret the questions at the centre of the films in a very individual, and personal, way.  In Blade Runner we are left wondering whether Deckard is human or replicant and in Inception we are left to ponder whether we can be sure that any of the film took place in ‘reality’ or whether it was all happening in Cobb’s imagination.

In some respects these two questions don’t really matter and it can be argued that neither have a definitive answer (though the directors might have something to say about that!).  The importance lies more in the fact that I could quite easily come to a different answer than you, even though we had seen the exact same thing.

And I think this is where we can see the decision making element of games falling down a little.  Compared to the subtlety of films and books, a decision as to whether you want your digital wife brought back from the dead or have £1m in the virtual bank does seem a little crude.  (Credit here goes to my mate Dave who opened my eyes to this line of reasoning after a few beers).

Or is it the case that the decision making in games is just a different, less subtle, way of getting the audience to think about the events of the story and use these thoughts and feelings to influence the very story itself, in a way that films cannot do?

Whatever the answer, I think games like Heavy Rain are starting to show that video games can have something to say and aren’t all just about mowing down hookers in your car or pretending to be JFK and shooting zombies in the Pentagon.  I just think that games have a lot more maturing to do before they can be appreciated in the same way as other more established mediums.  I do think, though, that we are at the end of the beginning of the evolution of video games and things are looking good for the future (as long as publishers are willing to take risks, but that’s a whole different kettle of fish!)

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