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Craig Stern

April 12, 2009

5 Min Read

James Portnow recently wrote a piece explaining the difference between what he sees as problems (decisions with an optimal solution) and choices (decisions where the consequences of the options presented are not better or worse than one another).

His essay clearly involved a good deal of thought, but I nonetheless find some of his conclusions  disagreeable. This blog post is my attempt to explain where I think Mr. Portnow has gotten it wrong.

1. "The Human Experience" Involves Very Few Choices, and Lots of Problems

"In order to become an art we have to be able to address 'the human experience'. There are a whole range of human experiences that are better expressed through choices then through problems."

--James Portnow, Opinion: The Problem of Choice

Real life is positively filled with decisions between two or more options, one of which is likely to produce objectively better outcomes than the others in light of one's personal goals. Should you do drugs, or not? Should you flee from the police, or just pull over to the side of the road? Should you be kind to other people, or should you be apathetic (or needlessly cruel)?

These are all decisions that appear regularly in video games, and these are all decisions that would have obvious disparate consequences in real life. It does not illuminate the human experience (or otherwise make games closer to art) to pretend that there is some unrealistic parity between all of the options presented.

It is exceedingly rare that one will be faced with a true "choice" as Portnow defines it, except where the likely outcome is not decisive precisely because the decision is itself so utterly inconsequential (e.g. choosing between an apple or an orange, or deciding whether to watch Wall-E or Monsters vs. Aliens). Here too, presenting a parity between the options does nothing to advance games forward as an art form.

I can only think of one example of real-life decisions of consequence that are actual choices , and those are...well, life choices. For example: should you go to college, or should you take over the family business? This sort of problem appears in real life, and it also appears in games: what class do you want your character to be: a fighter, a thief, or a wizard? A heavy, a sniper, or a medic? Do you want to play as the Terrans, the Protoss, or the Zerg? Etc.

To the extent this decision needs to be a choice rather than a problem in games, however, it needs to be a choice purely for the sake of game balance. Where certain classes are objectively more powerful than others, it will often produce lopsidedly dominant strategies, effectively eliminating viable options from the player's repertoire. But this is a gameplay consideration--it doesn't have anything to do with whether the game addresses the human experience.

2. Problems Are A Necessary Tool For Indicating Authorial Perspective

But I don't think that apple vs. orange (or heavy vs. sniper) are the kinds of choices Portnow envisions as moving games forward as an art form. Rather, he seems concerned with "ambiguous moral choices," decisions of consequence where there really is no easily discernable right answer.

I would suggest that there is actually nothing wrong with the game designer providing disparate outcomes based on the decision the player ultimately makes in these situations. Portnow clucks disapprovingly at the makers of Bioshock and Mass Effect for presenting the player with "something that should be a choice but instead [i]s simply a problem with a clear right answer." But he is missing the point.

If the player makes a decision, and uniquely negative or positive consequences follow from that decision, then that "problem with a clear right answer" serves a purpose within the game as a work of art: it communicates the author's perspective.

This not only not wrong, it is exactly what we should expect of art! Art is a means for the author to convey his or her views on matters central to the human experience. If game designers are expected to provide serious moral choices in games, and are simultaneously expected to then provide consequences where neither is worse than the other, then game designers will have been stripped of an important tool in communicating their message. It does not further games as an art form to force game designers into communicating a message of moral equivalency.

Of course, by the same token, this does not mean that game designers should feel free to bludgeon players over the head with "the moral of the story." Subtlety is the name of the game, and I fully agree with Portnow that it is often better not to intermingle the consequences of moral decisions too tightly with other parts of the game, turning what should be a moral question into a question about how best to maximize in-game resources.

But here too, whether that holds true depends on what the author is trying to communicate. Sure, it's stupid to give one player 500 XP for stopping to help an old man being robbed by the side of the road, and another player 0 XP for passing him by (or vice versa). But that is because XP is a ham-fisted tool for expressing the author's views here, not because both players should get 500 XP.

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