Choices, Part II: Illusions and Agency

Happy Monday, and welcome to part two of this three part mini-series about choices in video games. Let’s jump right in!

People often throw the word “choice” around, especially when it comes to video games. They might say they want more “choices” or want fewer “choices.” But what’s interesting about choice is that it’s all around us. We discussed the different types of big choices in video games last week, so let’s break down what a “choice” is even further this week. And I want to send a very big thank you to Very Very Gaming and Lost to the Aether for their fantastic comments and insights last week!

What people often mean when they talk about choice is something called “agency,” which is the feeling that your ideas and actions have an impact on the world (nerd note: I’m referring to the philosophical usage of this word, not the familiar dictionary usage). In a game, this means that you think that the things you are doing are having an effect on the virtual world. It can also mean looking at what you did and thinking, “If only I’d done this or that differently…”

In this post, I’m going to discuss two separate but equally important components of agency. First is the illusion of choice, which is when a player feels they are impacting the story but really aren’t, and second is when the player has actually changed something in the game in a meaningful way (that is, you actually change how the game plays out).

Sometimes games are designed to let you divert a little from the main story line, but then the story will converge with the intended line again at a later point. This is done usually for monetary reasons, since it would be prohibitively expensive to design two or three completely separate paths based on choices players could make. But that doesn’t have to mean the game is going to be a poor experience for the player.

Illusion of Choice

The illusion of choice can pertain to small or large details in a game, but I’m going to stick with small for the moment. In Mass Effect, Commander Shepard has the option of being a “paragon” or “renegade,” which affects the character’s appearance and their interactions with the crew. Or does it?

If you listen to the dialogue for both options, the NPC responses are fairly similar. In fact, some of the comments are so cleverly written that they could be appropriate for interacting with either a paragon or renegade Shepard. This is the illusion of choice; it seems like you are affecting the game and crafting your comrade’s responses to you, but in reality the game is designed to give you enough information for your mind to fill in the details it expects (i.e., that the person’s responses are unique). After all, unless you play the game a few times, you might not notice these similarities.

Another illusion can be in regard to a physical path you take. For example, it seems like a really good idea to run toward light posts in horror games, doesn’t it? They’re usually safe places to be. And how convenient that these lights are around the area where you are supposed to go. But the next light is too far away, right next to a huge lake. The designers could have put an invisible wall there, but instead, you look at the lake and think, “Hm, I can’t go that way, and I just came from this way…” And your eyes fall on the only path left. Seems like you just decided which way to go, doesn’t it? But you didn’t. You were led there, very craftily.

illusion-of-choice
…although hopefully a little more craftily than this…

But agency can be built right into the mechanics of the game, too. In Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, the Nemesis Engine makes every tactical decision you make matter. The NPCs learn from your behavior – to an extent – and at least comment on it, if not exactly respond to it. But the game responds. If Talion (the PC character) dies, the enemies level up. I created a few real demons this way until I got the hang of it, and my poor Talion paid for it.

In this example, the player’s actions really matter. The player might be left thinking, “If only I had…” or “Next time I’ll…”. The player is given a myriad of choices in how you approach and play the game. Do you poison the enemy’s grog? Lie in wait in a bush and pick off the weaker ones one by one? Set off an explosion? Run head-first into battle and hope for the best? (Tip: don’t do that). But your tactical choices really do matter.

But not in the long run. The game still more or less plays out the same way, whether it takes you 200 tries to kill the warchiefs or two tries. This is a game that has balanced choice (agency) and control of the game’s scope.

A little further down this line of examples might be, again, the Mass Effect series, in which your choices follow you from game to game. Ashley or Kaiden? Geth or quarians (or both)? You experience consequences for these actions, and the game gives little nods to your choices down the line, just to make you feel like your choices mattered… so maybe you don’t notice that the choices really didn’t impact much of anything. (Yes, yes, “What about the ending?” I know. But the ending will be discussed at a later time since I haven’t played the extended cut edition thing yet). The point is, the paths diverged to accommodate the player’s choice(s), and then reconverged with the main storyline.

When Choices Matter: Diverging Stories

I can’t talk about agency without at least mentioning The Witcher 2. In that game, the player is given a choice, fairly early on, and the storyline splits. In this case, however, the paths never meet up again. In this example, you will play two very different games, with different missions and loyalties. Similarly, Dragon Age: Inquisition presents a similar choice fairly early in the game: do you side with the rebel mages or the templar? Siding with one or the other will permanently affect the game, as once you choose, you are “locked out” of quests relating to the other group. This decision can influence who will next become Divine (the Chantry’s pope), how different people react to you, and how you can complete different missions. This choice profoundly affects the Dragon Age world, like you actions in The Witcher 2 affect the Northern Kingdoms.

…and that’s not to even begin mentioning mechanics like permadeath, which are poignant and powerful in their scope and scale when used appropriately in games. Yes, that character is gone forever, even in immediate sequels to the games. So be careful with your NPCs! the g

Amount of Choices

Oftentimes, when we as players say we want more choices, or fewer choices, or warnings for choices, it’s possible that the game hasn’t done its job very well in showing us the rules of the game. We don’t want to know that the game is duping us. We don’t want to feel like we’re being strung along. We want to think that our choices matter. We want to think that we can impact our world – even the ones we interact with on the screen.

Let’s face it: our decisions can’t matter in a game that hasn’t been designed for us specifically, because we each will want something different from it. But then it’s on the game to be designed well enough that we still feel like we’re making a difference, that our choices matter, that we have agency.

It is not the game’s illusion itself that is the problem, though. The problem begins when we experience we are being duped. We want a little validation, as all humans do when we make choices.

trophyunlockedheader

I would pose that the best video games, in regards to choices, would have at least these three attributes:

  1. The game must be clear as to whether or not its choices will matter. Perhaps the first time you make decision, you are able to see an immediate consequence, which would tell you that the game is going to take your opinion into consideration. This decision could be a smaller one, so when you’re faced with a big, important decision you’re not blindsided.
  2. When utilizing the illusion of choice, which every game will have to do, the game should acknowledge your choice later in the game, even with one small piece of throw-away dialogue, so the player’s choice, and therefore the player, feel validated.
  3. The game should strive to hide when the player’s choices aren’t game-altering-ly important, again, so the player doesn’t feel like the game is having them on.

Do you have any experiences with the illusion of choice, either implemented well or poorly?  Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!

–Athena Tseta


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12 thoughts on “Choices, Part II: Illusions and Agency

  1. Good stuff as always! When you mentioned games that do a good job of stringing you along without you being aware of it, I think the Silent Hill series does an exceptional job of this, the best I’ve come across in any game. The environments tend to big and open, but somehow the game leads you elegantly to the right place, often without any instructions or directions or anything. It really adds to the creepy feeling that this is a psychological horror game that’s so in your head it’s reading your mind!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you’re enjoying the topic! The only Silent Hill game I ever played was Silent Hill 2 – and it was a very brief foray into that world, because I was a very big wuss once upon a time (haha). I’ll have to give it another play…

      But that’s an interesting observation, since Silent Hill is supposed to be a manifestation of James’s tortured psyche! Creepy that it can get into the head of the player, too…

      Like

  2. The first thing that sprang to my mind while reading this was the first Mass Effect game. There were multiple conversations that you have in the first game where each of the three choices in a dialogue you have end up being the same dialogue in the end. It’s rather irritating to have that choice presented to you, only to realize that no matter what you pick, it’s all the same.

    I think your points about how to use choice or player agency in video games are correct by the way. The key to making a good game that includes choice as a mechanic is to make sure that choices have actual consequences when possible, and hide the times when the consequences don’t exist.

    I’d also say that more games could do better to make decisions less black and white; not giving players the choice between being good and getting paid, or being bad and getting paid. Bioshock could’ve been even better by removing the rewards from saving Little Sisters and presenting a true moral dilemma. Make the game harder to be good.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! I was a little surprised when I found that out about Mass Effect’s dialogue, but it makes sense from a programming standpoint. But you’re right, it’s about the balance between actual choice and illusion of choice, and the way the illusion is hidden, that can make or break a “choice-based” game.

      I actually thought about posting about how the game shouldn’t reward you with goodies exclusive to moral decisions. I use Dragon Age: Origins as an example (of course I do), but the game lets you be good, bad, confused, or neutral, and offers you XP no matter what, and that XP can be used to unlock all the goodies, not the special “good karma” or “bad karma” rewards. And if I maxed out “charm” or “intimidate” I was offered new dialogue options, not if I was a demon or a good-two-shoes.

      While I’ve never played Bioshock and have only seen bits and pieces of Let’s Plays, that seems like a very good/interesting idea! Be good without thanks (or a lesser payment), or be “bad” and get paid for it? I’d definitely play a game like that! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Bioshock does offer lower rewards for saving the Little Sisters, but it’s still half as much as you’d get otherwise. There really isn’t much of a penalty overall.

        I’d definitely love to see more actual choice and consequence in games. One that comes to mind as I’m finishing Mass Effect 2 is the choice to head through the Omega-4 relay after your crew is taken, or waiting to complete other missions. Both are viable options, but to wait means sacrificing your crew. I’d like to see more of that in games. More tough decisions…

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I see what you mean. Yes, I’m all about touch choices that make you pause and think about the story/character ramifications of your actions/choices, rather than making a calculated decision (which I’m pretty sure I walked about someplace else, too).

          Liked by 1 person

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