Even the briefest glance away from the slew of glorified rail-shooters that comprise the contemporary catalog of modern, triple-A actioners reveals that the world of gaming narrative is bound up by the question of player choice. This is hardly a new phenomenon–indeed, the player’s freedom to impact a fantastic world according to their will traces its ancestry back a quarter of a century–but with the burgeoning indie development scene ramping up its popular market saturation, we’re beginning to see more and more experimentation and urgency, along with a swiftly maturing dialogue, in regards to freedom and consequence in the virtual realm. No longer will simple branching narrative do the trick. The gaming community is hungry for new models that emphasize intricacy and nuance. Players are seeking truly personal, unique experiences from games, and developers are scrambling to provide for them.
It hardly takes intense research to turn up evidence that consequence driven narrative in gaming is just reaching a rolling boil. Both Dontnod’s Life is Strange and Red Thread’s Dreamfall: Chapters go out of their way to prominently catalog players’ choices and clearly demonstrate when their effects are in play. Indie titles such as Home and Kentucky Route Zero offer the ability to define the characters’ interior thoughts and perceptions, leading to a variety of subtle outcomes. BioWare and Obsidian are consistently refining an approach to CRPGs that has been cultivated since the Black Isle days, while inXile attempts to recapture and supercharge the lighting-in-a-bottle that was Planescape: Torment with the new installment, Tides of Numenera. Eidos, for their part, are holding down their old stomping grounds, keeping the legendary Deus Ex franchise alive with more or less success.
It’s tempting to get caught up in a purely mechanical discourse surrounding choice and freedom in games. Such was the way with the divisiveness of the Mass Effect series, where the tripartate system that had served as a staple of player input for all three games was considered insufficient for the finale. This perceived inadequacy was especially glaring when set up against the “Suicide Mission,” the intricate masterpiece of user agency that closed the second installment of the series. It seems to me, however, that the common meme that reduces the problems of the Mass Effect saga’s final act to a mechanical question of colors is a bit of a red herring. After all, what made Mass Effect 2’s ending so special wasn’t the ending itself, which plays out essentially the same regardless of which beloved characters live or die (with, of course, one glaring exception). Rather, it was the way in which the relationships played out over the course of the game that lent impact to the events of the finale and changed the way you experienced a standardized set of events. For me, it wasn’t that Tali died during the Suicide Mission that broke my heart, but the relationship I had developed with Tali that imbued her death with meaning. Perhaps, then, Mass Effect 3 would have been better served with only a single ending, so that emotional investment could be focused on the journey to the ending–how Shepard navigated the tensions between the Quarians and the Geth, how she played out her relationships with her Liara and Garrus, and how she rallied the galaxy to face the Reapers.
I’m not here, however, to defend or decry Mass Effect 3, but rather to draw a distinction in the discourse of choice-driven gaming between the mechanical and the substantive. Simply put, I claim that what makes player choice significant is not choice itself as a mechanic, but powerful and significant narrative contextualization of the choices and the consequences they yield. Narrative strength, which allows a player to become meaningfully and emotionally invested in the game world and the characters that inhabit it, is what allows for the weight of consequence that we experience in response to our choices in the real world to be felt likewise in the virtual. A mechanical system of choice, no matter how intricately it branches or how many variables it takes into account, has no meaning without its context, a singular narrative drive. To put it another way, your effect upon a story is only as meaningful as the story itself. Let’s return to the list of developers I discussed above: Square Enix, Red Thread, Obsidian, etc. Who’s missing? Give up?
No developer so singularly personifies decontextualized choice as the legendary creators of the Elder Scrolls and ascendants to the Fallout throne. In so doing, they demonstrate the limits of sandbox gaming and offer a caveat about the nature of player freedom. Indeed, they are not the sole perpetrators of these shortcomings (I mentioned Home above, which I would argue is shamefully guilty of luring the player along with delectable tidbits of story before determinedly marching up its own ass and obscuring any profound meaning it had the potential to offer), but so prominent is Bethesda in the contemporary RPG discourse that they serve as the primest of examples.
Bethesda crafts its games as sandboxes populated with standalone questlines, none of which have more than a superficial bearing upon each other. In Skyrim, for instance, you are capable of rising through the ranks of countless organizations, joining in a civil war, and ultimately saving the realm from a scourge of dragons. Needless to say, the political implications of a solitary God-warrior escaping from the executioner and becoming the leader of essentially every major faction in the nation would probably manifest itself in a plethora of ways for each of the parties involved. Because of the cut-up approach to the plot, wherein the player must be able to complete most questlines without interfering with most other questlines, an Imperial soldier moonlighting as the Dark Brotherhood assassin who, you know, murders the emperor, will never be confronted with any representation of how these intimately entwined groups are affected by such an epic deed. Bethesda puts the knife in your hand and lets you murder the monarch, but robs you of the sense of power that comes from seeing the ramifications of the assassination play out.
Sure, there are simple examples of mutually exclusive quests, usually involving picking between two fundamentally identical sides or killing someone who would later provide another quest, but even these fail to meaningfully affect the structure of Skyrim as a living, breathing place. The most you get is dynamic background dialogue, whereby random people in the world will comment on what you’ve done, essentially amounting to commoners and guards saying, “I heard you completed this questline,” or the more intriguing variation, “rumor has it someone completed this questline.” Wink wink, nudge nudge. This is a common criticism of Bethesda’s worlds: that they are vibrant, but ultimately flat. This is quite literal, for there is no grand forward progression within the game experience, only so many quests to check off. Ben Croshaw puts it nicely, saying that a game in which the player can do anything is a game that is about nothing.
Now, I don’t wish to make a sweeping generalization about the quality of Bethesda’s games, which I enjoy immensely. I easily clocked 100+ hours in both Oblivion and Skyrim, and in many real ways I even count Morrowind as an exception to many (though certainly not all) of the my complaints. However, the lack of driving narrative context bringing all the threads together leads to encounters like the comically awkward moment in Fallout 3, where your father gently chastises you for obliterating an entire town of innocents with a nuclear bomb.
By way of contrast, in BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic, some companions will jump ship or come for your throat depending upon how virtuous or despotic your behavior is. In Mass Effect 2, you’d better act quickly to save your kidnapped crew, or they’ll be liquefied by the Collectors. This is a far cry from Skyrim‘s civil war, which is more than happy to stop everything while you go spelunking for a few weeks. Imperial, Stormcloak, who really cares? The difference is just as superficial and aesthetic as the colors of Mass Effect’s finale, but the latter bears a greater emotional weight. Perhaps this is why Bethesda is able to get away with this narrative thinness while Bioware is passionately taken to task for any infraction.
Fallout: New Vegas can serve as a near perfect side-by-side comparison. Obsidian, made up of several of the original Fallout and Fallout 2 designers, took Bethesda’s engine and applied Avellone & Co.’s fierce storytelling to it. After sinking hours upon hours into the political machinations of the Mojave wasteland, you feel every bolstered alliance in the final battle, or perhaps wish you’d have thought twice before destroying all the SecuriBots. All of your actions have a perceptible effect on the final battle. The reason you can experience these consequences is because everything builds to a climax. A real climax, not the poorly realized empty sacrifice Fallout 3 offers. The difference is the sense of power derived from the feeling that you are making history in a living world.
The point here is not that BioWare, Obsidian, and Bethesda use drastically different mechanics. In fact, the point is that they don’t. Mass Effect has moments where you can choose between two functionally interchangeable factions, like the Quarians and Geth, which allow the plot to continue unhindered on the mechanical level. The difference is my personal story. If a character dies, I feel it because I have a history with them. When I choose between the Quarians and the Geth, my choice is loaded with history and meaning and informed by my personal relationships with Legion and Tali. Thus, even if the game continues mechanically, my experience is personally meaningful.
For developers, this means an increased emphasis upon writing. A great deal of discussion is devoted to the technological advancement of gaming, and while literary advancement is frequently mentioned, it is at best relegated to a sideline discussion. At worst, the notions of video games as a literary art form is reacted against, apparently afforded by a willful resistance to deeper meaning, a result perhaps of conservative anti-intellectualism. Dedicated writers are still a relative rarity in the development world, especially among the financially strapped indies.
However, freedom and consequence are the logical battlefields upon which an interactive literary medium should stake its claim to legitimacy. Already games like Dreamfall: Chapters are striving to present stories that allow for us to affect worlds meaningfully in thematically rich ways. Dreamfall’s Zoe Castillo and Kian Alvane are central players in the living history of the twin worlds, Stark and Arcadia. Each action they take, each decision they make, all of their choices are reflected back at them through fully realized and beautifully written narrative arcs. For instance, if you want to save Zoe’s relationship with her boyfriend Reza, you must actively work to heal the rift between them, or else experience the melancholy disintegration of their romance. Such a model demands that the player take ownership of their agency, and this ownership extends from the intimately personal relationships to the grand, sweeping politics and spiritualities of Stark and Arcadia. The choices build, the consequences compound, and you occupy a living world that reacts as you touch it.
This sense of agency, delivered as a rule through strong narrative, more than anything, is what draws players into a universe and makes choice driven gaming the truly magical thing that it is.