The subject of choice in games has been a topic that is brought up time and time again, whether it be a game giving you too many choices or not enough, your choices changing (or not changing) the outcome of a game, or the sheer lack of choices presented. Having a linear game is more than fine but at what point does it becomes too linear?
Linear games, for those a little lost, are those who play out in a very specific way each time you play through it; they lack any choice in what order the events play out. There’s no deviation in path or story, it’s just from point A to point B, win. This has worked for many games, including large ones such as the original Super Mario and Sonic games, as well as newer ones such as the Halo and Devil May Cry series. While there may be choices along the way, the game plays out in the same order every single time.
Nonlinear games, on the other hand, are the opposite: you can play the game through six times and end up playing it six different ways. A great example of this is the Mass Effect series (which I will touch on more in another article). Did you save person A? Well, person B is now dead and you have to deal with that for the whole series. Even little things like completing side quests in the first game changes things in the second and third game. It’s an amazing orchestrated dance of characters and dialog that I can say that I haven’t found anywhere else.
So back to the topic at hand: choices, or sometimes, the lack thereof. When given two clear choices, whether or not you know the outcome, you at least know you have two choices; they’re right there in front of you. You can pick either or, no catches, and that’s how most games present their player options, which is great. Some games, on the other hand, lead you point by point with no option to do anything other than what the game presents to you at that given time. This, too, is fine. But what happens when a game gives you two choices, and you go to pick one, and get your hand slapped and told no, you have to pick the other one?
Eddie Izzard has a great skit that reflects this lack of choice despite being given a choice. The illusion of choice does not help a game come through as well constructed and it hurts the story. The biggest offender with this is the MMORPG The Old Republic with their extremely linear storyline and illusion of choice throughout the game. While some choices do persist through the story of the game (it’s a Star Wars game, you have to pick good or evil), there are major points in the story where the game says, “You can do X or go do Y.” Despite what you want, the game forces you to do what they want, and make it seem like it’s your fault that you didn’t do that other option, even though they wouldn’t let you. A major example of this is for the Bounty Hunter main storyline. You participate in a massive hunting contest and are told that your first two targets are on different planets. They pat you on the head, tell you, “Go get them slugger”, leaving you to think that you can go after either of the targets. Instead, you don’t have a choice, you have to go after one first then the other second, there’s no two ways about it. My question is why even tell me that I can go after either or only to tell me that there’s only way to go?
This is frustrating from many different points. First, if you’re going to tell me I can only do thing at a time, don’t start off telling me that I have a choice. I would rather you just say, “Hey, there’s a lot that’s going to be happening, but we’re going to take it step by step, no jumping around, okay?” That is more than fine in my book. But don’t sit there and tell me that, “You can do whatever you want…” and when I go to choose something, hit me in the head, send me to the corner with a dunce cap on and tell me I was wrong for wanting to do something that apparently wasn’t in your big plan. Second, why even say that I have a choice when I don’t? It feels like sloppy game design, as if you’re afraid that I’ll say, “Fuck it, don’t want to do this anymore,” so you tease me with what is to come, but don’t allow me to get to it until I play along with your little song and dance.
I understand it’s the company’s game, they can do whatever they like, but if you’re using the illusion of choice to rope players in hopes that they’ll stick around to see everything through to the end, then the confidence you have in your product isn’t very strong, and players will see that. We’re not blind to such things, and patronizing us will only turn us away quicker.