Illusion of choice is better than choice: choices and illusions as narrative mechanics
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Clementine will remember that
This article is based on my own thoughts and work experiences, as well as ideas expressed by other, smarter people. It contains major spoilers for Mass Effect 3 and Telltale’s The Walking Dead Season 1.
Also please excuse my poor English, I’ve learned it mostly from video games :)
In 2012 two prominent narrative driven games were released: Mass Effect 3 and Telltale’s The Walking Dead. Both games are built on one promise: your choices matter.
This promise is a cornerstone of design philosophy for both of these games. Watch the beautiful “Distress Call” trailer for Mass Effect. It exists to relay one idea: “Many decisions lie ahead. None of them easy”. The first thing you see in The Walking Dead is a black screen with text reading “This game series adapts to the choices you make. The story is tailored by how you play”.
Mass Effect 3 and The Walking Dead are very similar. Both games offer a story that is, supposedly, determined by our choices. Both games lie: no matter what we choose, they end on the (seemingly) same note. One of these games is remembered as an example of broken promises and unsatisfying endings; the other is praised and received an incredible amount of awards, including “Game of the Year.” The interesting part is that The Walking Dead is praised for the same things that Mass Effect is being berated for.
“How? Why? What does it mean?” - these questions have robbed a lot of narrative designers of their sleep.
Let’s try to answer them.
What is choice?
To do that we will first have to define choice. Luckily, it’s not that hard (as opposed to the harrowing question “What is a game?”, which doomed scores of game designers to an early grave), and was done splendidly by the Extra Credits.
A choice is a situation that has several possible solutions, where each solution makes all other solutions impossible. For example, Mario can run left, run right or jump up. If he decides to run left, he can’t run right or jump at that moment. He made a choice and can be proud of himself.
But as designers, we have no use for this definition. From this point of view, every action that the player makes in a game is a choice. And we need to understand what types of actions make games interesting.
To understand what separates interesting choice from other actions we must define different types of actions. There are four of them: autonomous actions, reactions, decisions, and choices.
- Autonomous actions are actions that we make without thinking: breathing, keeping balance, watching Game of Thrones and so on.
- Reactions are actions we make automatically as an answer to something going on in the environment: for example, we pull our hands back after accidentally touching something hot.
- Calculations are situations that have several possible solutions, where one of these solutions is clearly more beneficial than others. For example, there are two assault rifles lying in front of us: one rifle does 12 points of damage per second, and the other does 42. The second rifle is clearly better, so there’s no sense in choosing the first one. Calculations are often presented as real choices, but they’re not. Every MMO players know that despite seemingly endless opportunity of self-expression, there’s usually one (or two in the best scenario) superior build for each class that everyone uses. When player understands that an action he perceived as a choice is, in fact, a calculation, he feels disappointment.
- The absence of a winning solution separates true choice (which I will call “choice” further) from calculations. True choice makes players think. Because choice consists of competing possibilities, it breeds conflict. Good choice, any choice, is impossible without conflict. Choice gives players the feeling of agency - the belief that they have free will and can visit their will on the world to change it. Remember the word “agency”, because the value of agency in game design is impossible to overestimate.
Now that we know what choice is, we need to understand an incredibly important idea: a choice is not a positive thing on its own. To create choices that bring players satisfaction a designer must know the difference between a choice and a meaningful choice. Every positive emotion that players feel when faced with a meaningful choice turn into negative ones if a choice has no meaning. Best case scenario players will feel bored, worst case scenario they will feel like they were duped. If two rifles do different damage but kill an enemy with the same number of bullets choice loses its meaning: players stop feeling good about themselves for making a smart choice and instead start feeling like fools.
Meaningful choice has two simple criteria:
- Informed decision: the player must have enough information about circumstances and consequences of the choice to make an informed decision. That doesn’t mean that they have to know everything - just enough to make an informed action.
- Meaning: the player must believe that their choice changes something, i.e. has meaning. For that choice must have consequences that influence things the player cares about.
There are different types of meaningful choice. For example, there are incomparable choices: their solutions exist in different planes. An excellent example of an incomparable choice is “Bloody Mess” perk in the Fallout games. At some point the game gives players a choice: they can choose perks that increase their damage or choose the Bloody Mess that makes enemies explode beautifully into a geyser of blood, bone and brain matter after death. One rifle does 42 points of damage per second, and the other uses radioactive bananas as ammo! Wow, what to chose? One solution exists in a logic plane, and the other - in the aesthetics plane.
The other type of meaningful choice is the insufficient information choice. Such choice gives the player enough information to make an informed decision, but not enough to fully control its consequences. A great example of the insufficient information choice is presented to the player by a djinn in the Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn:
“You and your sibling are captured and locked in separate cells, unable to communicate. The mage responsible appears and speaks. He explains his sadistic game: In each cell there is a magical button. If you Press your button and your sibling does not, you will die and your sibling is free. If your sibling presses the button and you do not, they will die but you will go free. If neither you nor your sibling press the buttons, both of you will die. If both of you press your respective buttons, both of you will die. The mage says that you have one turn of the hour glass to decide your action.”
There’s enough information to make an informed decision, but not enough to fully predict its consequences.
All the other types of meaningful choice I call the full choices.
The most interesting, deep and emotional type of full choice is, of course, moral choice. Most of the time when someone talks about choice in games they talk about moral choice. Moral choice exists in its own unique plane that is different from logic and aesthetics - ethical plane. Ethical problems are unique to humans because they deal with questions of humanity. Remember: people are only interested in people. That’s why moral choice is so intriguing. It makes us question the very nature of the human condition, empathize with the character, feel their pain. Moral choice is made from our emotions, and for that reason it’s great at creating an emotional response.
Think about the question that is asked of the nameless hero of Planescape Torment: what can change the nature of the man? Think about it like your life depends on the answer.
This question is arguably the best choice ever presented in any game. Planescape’s story (which is considered by many to be the best interactive story ever made) is built completely around it. Every action the hero makes is made either to find or to understand the answer to this question. If you never played Planescape you’ve missed a great chance: a lot of players found answers to their own questions while pondering the question tormenting the Nameless One.
So… true meaningful full moral choice! I hope your head doesn’t hurt yet. Because now it’s time to ask an interesting question of our own: why do we need choice at all?
Why is choice important?
Short answer: because choice is the only form of expression unique to games.
To give a long answer, I’ll need to touch a bit on philosophy and psychology. And I must say in advance that I’m not an expert in neither.
So please forgive me this short detour.
People perceive the world through a prism of death. Relation to death is soaked through our every thought, feeling or action. The most basic feeling a person has is that they are. This feeling is so basic that we physically cannot invoke the feeling of not being. Nevertheless, facts tell us exactly that: that one day we will no longer be. This tragic dissonance creates the second most basic human feeling: the fear of death. That fear in its turn creates the fundamental desire of every human being: the desire of immortality. Immortality is unachievable, so people replace it with the closest thing. This closest thing is a conscious change of the world. The world is forever, so if we can leave a mark on it, we will be forever too.
That’s why agency is so important. Agency is the feeling of having power over the world, of your capacity to mold it with your will. Agency gives us the feeling of immortality. It’s the difference between freedom and slavery, and, indirectly - life and death.
Nothing gives us more feeling of agency than choice. Choice is a direct translation of one’s will into change of the world. And this change is not accidental; we willed it: we didn’t just serve as a tool of change, we envisioned and made it ourselves. Choice makes people feel powerful.
End of detour.
I hope you understand now what colossal emotional potential choice has. Now, remember the short answer: only games can fully use choice as means of expression. That’s why choice is important: it would be silly to have such a mighty tool and never use it.
“But wait! - some will say. - What about The Last of Us? It’s linear!”
Creators of The Last of Us are geniuses of design. That’s why they were able to do a thing that almost no one else can do. They filled their game with lots and lots of interesting, complex, tragic, heartbreaking choices… but Joel is the one making them, not the player. The genius part of it is that during the playthrough players don’t differentiate between themselves and Joel. Joel is so good, so compelling, so alive that players lose themselves in the character. And the character in return makes every choice just like the player would want him to (up until the very end, where the destruction of this illusion is used as a narrative tool). As soon as the game gives Joel a choice, the player thinks: “I want to resolve it this way”, and Joel does exactly that. All the while the game gives the player enough feeling of control during gameplay to keep it in place during scripted cutscenes.
The Last of Us has no choice, but it has a masterfully crafted illusion of choice. Which in some ways is even better.
Why is the illusion of choice better than choice?
Now that I’ve spent so much of you time describing how good and awesome and sweet choice is, it’s time to reveal a horrible secret: choice has no long term merit as a narrative tool.
Oh no! Why?! It’s our magical radioactive banana assault rifle!
Because it requires too much of team resources. Let’s say you, as a writer, gave the player a choice to save either character A or character B. Both characters play a big part in the overall story, otherwise the choice wouldn’t be impactful. Congratulations, you’ve just doubled the amount of work you have to do: for each next chapter, you’ll have to write two sets of dialogue, two sets of reaction phrases and so on. Let’s assume that your dialogue is voiced by actors. They have double the work too. Characters, of course, are drawn and animated by your art team… well, you get the picture.
And most of what you do will never be seen by the majority of your players. They will never see alternative dialogue, see the blemishes on the armor of character B (except a very small number of hardcore fans that will finish your game multiple times). The team does more work, but players do not receive more content. And since all game developer teams, without exception, are in deficit of resources, the math is simple. Why spend precious time and money on something that only a part of players will see if you can spend it on something that all players will see?
Choice works as an avalanche. With each event in a game with choices variability increases in geometrical progression. Choices combine with each over into an endless chaos that makes writers lose hair and consume too much alcohol.
Here’s what one of the Mass Effect 3 writers said about its development:
“Imagine that you have to write a scene where one potentially dead character talks to another potentially dead character about an event that might have happened of might have not.”
In Mass Effect 3 writers had to juggle more than half a thousand different story variables (656 to be exact) and their combinations. Jesus Christ! No wonder that one of Bioware founders now makes craft beer, and the other is into making furniture.
Luckily, the illusion of choice is here to help.
I wrote earlier that choice gives the player the feeling of agency. The key word here is “feeling.” Because agency is an ephemeral thing, it’s more important to feel like you have it than to actually have it.
Don’t forget: game’s value is not in what the player does, it’s in what the player feels. If they feel like their will affects the events of the game, we’ve done our job.
Let’s come back to The Last of Us. It’s easiest to explain how the illusion of choice works using its level design as an example. The Last of Us levels are, for the most part, linear. But they are designed in such a way that creates a feeling of open space in the player’s head. If he turns the wrong way and finds a dead end, this feeling will be weakened and eventually destroyed. But Naughty Dog’s designers are the best in the industry: using composition, lighting, color coding, camera movement, character animations, enemy AI, director’s work and a lot of things that I can’t even begin to imagine they make sure that players almost always go where they want them to and do what they intended them to do, while thinking that they decided to do that on their own. That way they create the feeling of freedom in a closed area and make sure that this feeling, for most players, will remain intact.
While running away players immediately go to the broken section of the wall, because it’s accentuated with lighting, color and placed in the middle of the scene, with the scene composition itself being controlled by the scripted camera movement. Players won’t turn right, because the designers put an approaching enemy there, and won’t turn left because it’s dark. Game direction makes players feel that they have to make fast decisions, and for that reason they run to the breach without a second thought, feeling like they’ve made that decision themselves, although in reality it was determined by the designers.
Using the illusion of choice instead of actual choice is a smart design decision.
This is what the decision tree of The Walking Dead Episode 1 looks like (you can see the decision tree of the whole game here):
As you can see, all story branches created by the player’s decisions are quick to return to the main stream of the story. No matter what the player does main twists and the ending remains the same. However, the game itself is made with such mastery that the player doesn’t understand that: they believe that their decisions have dramatic consequences.
But the game always ends the same.
Now let’s look at the Mass Effect 3. This game offers the player three distinctly different endings. In one ending Shepard destroys all complex synthetics in the galaxy and sends the civilization into a new dark age. In the second ending, he places the Reapers under his control… or maybe they put Shepard under their control and destroy his mind with indoctrination. In the third ending, he starts a process that overwrites the DNA of all inhabitants of the galaxy and creates a new half organic, half synthetic form of life.
But these endings were poorly realized. The players weren’t shown the consequences of their choice, which rendered that choice meaningless. The promise was broken. As you remember, meaningless choice causes only negative emotions.
Now we are finally ready to answer the question of why one of these game was met with rage, and the other - with adoration.
Mass Effect 3 gave the players a choice but didn’t create the feeling of choice. The Walking Dead, on the contrary, created that feeling without giving the players an actual choice. Mass Effect 3 is considered to be a disappointing game, and The Walking Dead is considered to be a masterpiece.
The illusion of choice is better than choice.
...Or is it?
Why is choice better than the illusion of choice?
Despite all the pluses of the illusion of choice, it has one fatal flaw: as soon as the player realizes that the choice presented to him doesn’t have any meaningful consequences, the illusion breaks, leaving the player with bitter disappointment.
I was completely mesmerized by the first season of The Walking Dead. The first playthrough of that game is one of the most memorable experiences in my gaming career. But from the first minutes of the second season, I could clearly see where the story was held together with duct tape. If one of the characters could die, I knew that they wouldn’t be able to play any major role in the story later on: it would have been too costly to create such degree of variability. Most likely this character would die at some point anyway, to explain the lack of said variability. For that reason I didn’t feel much emotion when deciding whether or not to sacrifice something to save a character. I knew that my choices didn’t matter. Sooner or later any twist of the plot would inevitably return to a predetermined path.
If we promise the players that their choices matter, we have to fulfill that promise. Otherwise, they’ll feel that they were deceived and stop buying our games.
What to do?!
So, now we know what choice is, why it’s important, why it’s so costly, why the illusion of choice is better, and why it’s dangerous to use it.
So what are we supposed to do?
Find the happy medium
When you’re explaining something, it’s easy to inadvertently describe the most extreme cases, because strong examples are more likely to make an impression. But in reality, there’s a lot to be said about the happy medium. Yes, choice is costly and it’s impossible to create it in the desired amount, and yes the illusion of choice can misfire and cause negative feedback.
Combine them. Decide what choices are important to your story and spend resources to realize them. Fill the gaps between those choices with illusions. Make your illusions masterful: the better your illusions are, the fewer people will realize their existence. If the player doesn’t realize that they are experiencing an illusion, it’s the same as if they were experiencing a choice.
Really it’s not important how many choices a game has. What important is if that amount gives the player the feeling of control. For each game that amount differs. Ask yourself: does my game give me enough choices to make me feel that my decisions matter?
Nods are one of the most simple and effective tools of a game writer. Players want to feel that their choices matter. That feeling develops when the consequences of their choices affect the game world. However, more often than not, the scale of that effect doesn’t matter. To make the player believe that the game remembers and values their decision it’s often enough to mention that decision in one line of dialogue.
Let’s look back to Mass Effect 3. Most of the monstrous amount of story variables (656 for God’s sake!) are really only used in one or two dialogues. It’s not difficult at all to write two alternate lines of dialogue and make them appear according to the corresponding variable’s state. For that reason the task presented to Bioware writers was merely impossibly hard as opposed to just impossible.
A game I was working on presented the player with a choice: they could either send a particular character to prison or not. The character in question was innocent but wanted to to be arrested to protect a loved one. This decision was played out in a corresponding dialogue, and after that the character was never seen in the game again. We thought that that wasn’t enough, that players will enjoy experiencing the consequences of their choice and see its effect on the game world. I wrote two paragraphs of text: two short letters from the person whose fate was decided by the player. In one letter he described his life in prison and thanked the protagonist for his benevolent lie. In the other he described how hard it is for him to come to terms with his freedom.
It took me ten minutes to write these letters, but they made the player’s choice meaningful.
Some of my favorite moments in games are such nods. I like them both for their effect on the meaningfulness of my choices and for the elegance of their design. The two most powerful dramatic moments in Mass Effect 3, from my point of view, were simple nods. One is the “Blue Rose of Illium” poem, and the other is a couple of lines of dialogue that Shepard and Garrus exchange in the event of Mordin’s death. When I think back to Mass Effect 3, I think about these moments before anything else.
Make your choices interesting on their own
The compelling power of choice, as you might have already understood, is not in the choice itself but in the process of making the decision. Make that process interesting on its own. Propose variants of solution that will make the player think, that will make them inspect themselves and their values more closely than they’re used to. If the choice is interesting by itself, the scope of its consequences is less important.
A while back we decided to test an early prototype of the game we were making on a few unsuspecting victims. The key moment of the prototype was a moral choice presented to the players. We noticed that almost all of our testers chose the same solution. We weren’t discouraged: more important to us was the fact that all of them stopped for a couple of minutes to think about the choice they were about to make. We wanted the choice to be interesting on its own and not only for its consequences.
Mass Effect 2 (which is considered to be the best game of the series) is full of such choices. The best example, in my opinion, is the fate of the hostile faction of synthetic Geth. At a certain point in the story, Shepard is faced with a decision: she can either destroy them or overwrite their programming, eliminating the religious fanaticism that makes Geth hostile to organic races. I couldn’t decide what to do for a better part of the hour. I thought: “Destroying a whole race is horrible. But overwrite their identity… that’s just evil”. While thinking about this choice I understood that people value their free will and individuality more than their lives. As you can remember the fundamental feeling of a human being is “I am.” The thought of “I am” turning into “I am not” scares us. But the thought of “I am” turning into “I am, but I’m not me” is truly terrifying. And all that self-reflection was caused by a question posed in a video game! After a while I’ve decided that destroying the Geth was more moral.
But I still don’t know how to answer the djinn from Baldur’s Gate 2. Sometimes I ponder his question, although it was fifteen years since he asked it.
Truly interesting choice can be more important than its consequences.
Not all games need true choice. But games with choice have an immense emotional potential that no other genre, no other art form has.
So use it, use it well, and make games that players will remember tens of years after they’ve played them.
A page from Blue Rose of Illium by Grey Carter and Henry Huang