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The Fallacy Of Choice
by Justin Keverne on 01/03/10 07:28:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


The appeal of Nathan Drake is that he is a decisive character. He might be flawed, imperfect and not always able to make the best decisions yet he will always make a decision. He doesn't hesitate, he acts, often with little understanding of the full consequences of his actions but still with an appreciation of the danger he will face. He is heroic precisely because he makes decisions and chooses to act even when he knows the risk. Though described as such, he is appealing precisely because he is not an "everyman"' a real "everyman" would have fallen to his death within the first few minutes of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. We want our heroes to be relatable and fallible, but still heroic, still decisive, still decidedly not mundane.

That's why the most uncomfortable parts of Among Thieves are precisely those when the way forward becomes unclear. For Drake there is always a way forward even if it's not necessary the best choice in the long term. The appeal is in being able to have that certainty of purpose, that knowledge that there is always a way forward even if it might be the more dangerous path. These games are not about the choices the hero makes, but about the drama and emotion of operating in that decisive manner.

It might seem antithetical to the concept of interactivity but the inclusion of more agency into a game like Among Thieves would be detrimental to the appeal of playing as Nathan Drake. Choices lead to hesitancy, and deliberation, traits that Drake might possess but ones that rarely come to the fore when decisions need to be made. Stubborn, yet able to be swayed by the opinions of those he cares about, once he's set himself on a course of action he will follow it until the end, even if it might mean his death. The appeal of playing such a character is fundamentally tied to this focus on the task at hand, this need to not make decisions, to not take orders, but to act.

Even the most limited moment of interactivity creates an immediately closer sense of association between audience and action than existed prior to that point. Even in a heavily scripted game such as Among Thieves players, when recounting their experiences, will not say "Drake..." rather they will describe the events as if they occurred directly to them.

When, after fighting your way through a heavily defended train to try and rescue her, Chloe tells you it was a mistake to come back, the sense that you have just wasted your time is one shared by both player and protagonist, though the intensity of the sensation may be different. Would the reaction have been more powerful if players had been given a choice of whether to try and rescue her or not? Potentially, however in such a situation Nathan Drake, simply wouldn't have made any other decision. No heroic character would, it's the difficult path, the dangerous path, and the only path such a character would ever choose. That's what makes them the type of person they are, the type of person we want to feel like when we start playing. We choose to abdicate ourselves of the pressure of making those big decisions in the knowledge that Drake will make them for us; he is not like us, he is the hero we wish we could be more like.

What good the choice when there's only one path that anybody would reasonably be expected to take? Is a false choice any more meaningful than no choice at all?

If a game features a well defined protagonist then the notion of including the option to behave in a way that goes against the nature of that protagonist is foolish, the very appeal of such a character is that they are already defined, often as a heroic character. Why introduce the seconding guessing and evaluating that comes from the inclusion of choice?

Among Thieves is not a game about the selection of the right tactics, or the development of complex strategies, it's not a game about making choices. It is a game about the tension, fear and drama inherent in being heroic. It is a game about action, the quintessential action game.

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Christopher Wragg
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It's the question that role playing games and a lot of action adventure games need to ask themselves, are you playing a predefined role or are you creating a new role. When given the protagonist in an adventure game with a predefined background then all but the moment to moment decisions are predetermined by that characters personality.

The difficulty is in player adoption of that character, the player will naturally disagree with many of the characters notions, so the trick is aligning the player and the character. Force the player down a track they don't want to go and they feel trapped and frustrated, the reason behind the massive call for much more choice in games.

As much as people rail against them, using cut scenes that involve the protagonist deciding on a course of action play a vital role in this regard. Firstly the player is never asked to form an opinion, second they are given direct insight into the protagonists choice and the reasoning behind it. The player is effectively reminded that they aren't themselves, they are someone else. These could, in many instances, be handled much better than they are these days, but are a necessity unless the player's personality doesn't contradict the characters in any way.

Glenn Storm
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The characters, setting and plot of the Uncharted franchise lends itself easily to the thrill ride adventure conventions of pulp fiction and movies. This familiar territory seems to be well-suited to take control of the decisions, as long as they follow the rules of that convention. If the choices weren't difficult/uncomfortable, the timing of those decisions rapid, the risks dire and the characters been defined as predisposed to take on said risk; and particularly if the results weren't spectacular, the audience wouldn't have the same acceptance of the control being taken away. Another genre of game, a different style of character, some other tone of setting would seem to have less audience acceptance of the false choice; that is, unless it too followed a set of well-defined rules and conventions that promised a pay-off for it.

In the discussion of player choice, and its ramifications for development, it seems prudent to take into account the conventions that the audience will accept; both in making choices for them and in what the audience receives in return.

Neat article, Justin. Thanks!

Scott Snyder
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To me, player choice is much like a card trick. Let the player pick from any of the cards you offer, but you know what they are going to end up with. Give the player options and the illusion of choice, without sacrificing your story and the dramatic tension you need to keep the player interested.

Even "open" games don't allow the player to choose "any" path. There are always restrictions - the key is to allow the player enough lateral movement that they don't feel boxed in, but keep them moving down the story path.