The Illusion of Choice

Choice (noun):

1. An act of choosing.
2. The right or ability to choose
3. A range from which to choose.
4. Something chosen

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Illusion (noun):

1. A false idea or belief.
2. A thing that seems to be something it is not.

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The illusion of choice is something that gaming truly thrives upon. Open world genre is a specialist of following through with that illusion. But I will come on to that with more detail. What do I mean by this statement?

Well the word definition above from the Oxford English Dictionary would suggest that in gaming terms I mean it is the false idea or belief that you have the right or ability to choose.

Gaming is built on this very illusion and sometimes, only sometimes, a game comes along that is clever enough to address it. Most times, we don’t even think about it or very occasionally the game surprises us by blatantly providing the illusion.

gta4Grand Theft Auto 4 is my first example of the latter. Of course Grand Theft Auto 5 is littered by choices but its predecessor provides the best example of the illusion. The final mission is a consequence of the choice you make before shortly before. But this choice is an illusion. The character may change that is affected by this choice and the end game of this might be slightly different as to who is still available to socalise with, but essentially, exactly the same thing happens.

A character close to Niko’s life dies at the hands of a betrayl starting a multi layered end mission filled of gun blazing revenge. It is essentially the same drama and this later choice isn’t really a choice that changes anything in the game except who dies. Arguably the dramatic choice is the revenge on Dimitri rather than Jimmy but the outcome is the exactly the same.

So the choice that you make at that later stage is in fact an illusion because you’re not really choosing anything except death and before that, you have no knowledge that the choice defines who dies.

That may sound like I’m clutching at straws but if that decision was placed earlier in the game and the story went on a different tangent of associates depending on that choice then I would be more convinced that it is a choice. Compare it to Grand Theft Auto 5 where your final choice redefines your accessibility to the world and the characters reactions to you.

fallout 3 1Games like the Elder Scrolls and Fallout present you with the massive illusion of choice. It is possible to survive in the world and just live in it without completing a single mission. Of course it severely limits your ability to enjoy the game and eventually you will have to succumb to completing missions so that you can buy things, survive and defend yourself. Which is where the illusion comes in. You are presented with a completely free world open to wherever you want to go. However eventually, you will have to do something that the game intends you to do. You have a lot of choice as to how and when you go about it (apart from Fallout 3’s ending stopping your game).

For example a friend of mine booted up Oblivion on his brother’s computer. Never played it before and after the prison escape, he walked around, found a cool looking gate and when through. What then happened was that he completed the Shivering Isle add on, completely unaware that it was such and hadn’t even touched the main story and to my knowledge still hasn’t. Whilst there has been a choice the game still drive you to complete its missions regardless of how linear it isn’t.

Watch_Dogs on the other hand has practically zero choice. You go through the game in an incredibly linear fashion and you have very little to do in the end game except collecting things. It is in a way antithetical to the genre as there is so little that you can do, compared to other examples in the genre. Alan Wake for example and many other games will force a repeat play through to find the things that you’ve missed which is fun sometimes because you get to relive the bits that you enjoyed and pay more attention to the world around you. These games, first person shooters especially, of course do not even bother with the illusion of choice…

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Except one. Bioshock.

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Bioshock Infinite Burial At Sea 1 featMuch has been written and lauded about the genre defining moment in which that you have been the willing pawn in a sick and twisted game. I mean you specifically, not your character. The universe of this franchise eventually ends completely destroying any illusion of choice by bringing the world into an infinite paradox. But its stand out moment way back in Rapture fully broke the fourth wall and opened up the illusion of choice in both story and gaming mechanics. It’s an amazing moment with some far reaching dramatic consequences. But it is also video gaming’s Magic circle moment where the tricks where shown and explained.

I’ve spent a good hour or so writing these thoughts on choice and I’m completely glossing over lots of games, moments and gaming theory. But I’m stuck trying to think if I can think of a game that is truly free of this illusion. Minecraft instantly comes to mind along with its building contemporaries like Terraria, Starbound and the like. Maybe some city builders too, although games like Sim City and its younger contemporaries still don’t feel completely free of direction. But one game I think really takes away all notion of illusion is a strategy giant.

If I can think of one game that completely rewards your choices, and punishes them too, gives you objectives only and leaves you to the devices of its AI and allow you to glory or failure. That game is Civilization. Arguably the mark of any good strategy game is one that gives you that illusion of your own choice and consequence to succeed how you want to and any iteration of Sid Meier’s classic franchise gives you the option to dispense of the scenario based win and allow you to sink hours and hours in to your choices. It, along with Minecraft maybe, answers as an opposite to the earlier supposition.

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Missing the Obvious: Limited World

Open world games are a fundamental part of modern video gaming.

The technology exists now that vast, incredible, imaginative worlds that a player can explore and find lots of completely ingenious things hidden in every nook and every cranny can be created.

But to quote a line from Star Trek (movie number six if you’re feel feisty) – “Just because we can do a thing, it does not necessarily follow that we must do that thing.”

Just to point out to you that during the Xbox 360/PS3 era alone there were no less than forty, FOUR ZERO, open world games. Off the top of my head I can give you both Dragon Age games, all three Mass Effects, both GTA releases, all three Saints Rows, the Elder Scrolls, another two Rockstar games, the Fallouts, the Far Cry’s and the Fables (including the recent HD remake). That’s twenty-one games there alone, and I haven’t even put in the Assassin’s Creeds, the Mafias, the Godfathers and any other PlayStation exclusive games. Or the Batman games! I’ve criminally excluded three Batman games there too. That’s another thirteen on top of the twenty-one. Dishonoured is another, Sleeping Dogs…

Batman-wrong-1Whilst I’m making a point of the vast quantity of open world titles available, the amount of games isn’t what bothers me. It’s that sometimes a much better game is missed because of the decision to make something open world, in my opinion. So my point of missing the obvious here is that we sacrifice something because we create too much. We lose the quality.

Let me give you a few examples of what works and what bothers me. Sometimes you want to go around and explore a vast world where everything is dynamic and the story is well thought out and encapsulating for the player that the vastness and scariness of the world is put aside. In this case I would raise Red Dead Redemption as the pinnacle of that. Over Grand Theft Auto 5, you ask? Yes, because Rockstar actually did something they are normally criticised for which was providing an ending for the game that was incredibly satisfying and well thought out. A well designed linear game.

I’ve mentioned scariness because some games actually scare me because they are too much. The world is so big, so massive and so populated with things that once you’ve completed the main storyline you are left with an utterly bewildering set of options and to be honest, I have enough trouble organising my own life to worry about finding enough to do to level me up past level 25. In this regard, I offer the Bethesda games, specifically Skyrim. If Skyrim has any fault in its beautiful visuals, epic scope and atmosphere it’s that is was too epic, too overwhelming and too lonely.

bioshock infinite 2Come on now Sean, you’re just being particularly picky now aren’t you? Yes. Maybe I am, but some games actually benefit from not being open world and I also think that helps the longevity of a game. Grand Theft Auto online, for example, has a major flaw in that there is no real narrative or direction to be guided in past a certain point. GTA Online suffers from the fact that the levels are designed around the environment, which doesn’t give me, personally, a full enjoyment of a game.

Now, Bioshock on the other hand is something that has benefited very well from the rise of technology without getting in to the open world bracket. Yes it’s a very open shooter that allows you to explore the beautiful crazy art deco inspired environment of Rapture or the steampunk-esque floating Columbia. But they are levels. Regardless of if you can travel around them, they are all specifically designed levels that have an incredibly beautiful immersive environment. Irrational Games’ nuance at storytelling is (or was) second to none. Could that have been achieved if Rapture was a fully open world autonomous environment? Maybe, but it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as atmospheric.

A second example of this is a game that was originally open world and still retained some open world elements, but discarded them because it made the game too open, too complex and hard to achieve the narrative exposition that they were looking for. That game was Alan Wake. This wasn’t scrapped because it was too much for the technology to handle after becoming an Xbox 360 exclusive, but because the thriller element of the game could not be delivered with it. Frankly, Remedy made the best possible move there. Thriller games (Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Alone in the Dark) benefit more from being enclosed, small and well designed. If the world is too big, it becomes a bit convoluted to program a random scare in to a design with no levels.

Open world games do push you in a directional narrative and you could argue that the Assassin’s Creeds aren’t truly open world compared to the other games. But there are many games that, whilst it is great that they exist, might be better with a scaling back of thought and a better implementation of level design.

south park review 2I’m not saying that open world is becoming an easy or lazy option, not by any means. But there is a tendency I feel to let the world be the level and dictate your moves and personally I don’t like it. I think a good game can suffer because of it.

South Park: The Stick of Truth is an interesting case here and an example of why open world isn’t always the answer. Firstly the town of South Park is small. That makes the open world a bit more limited, but completely able to be explored. Secondly, the narrative of the game does drive you in a quest laden turn based combat game. But to get to these fights, you have to negotiate designed levels. Because of the 2D visuals of the game, this looks like a platform game, but actually it’s quite a designed level as the lampooning of Canada in the Zelda/Pokémon series style neatly shows. Thirdly, everything in the game, the sub-quests and the story, guide you but still allow you free reign to explore and do it on your own terms without being overwhelmed.

Now the game industry has a choice here and I think the rise of independent gaming will make that choice for them. The next two years are going to see heavy lighting/physics based stunning driving games, incredibly smooth and frantically busy first person shooters aimed at multiplayer audiences and vast open worlds full of quests to explore. But would they be missing the obvious if they took a step back from these types of games to deliver a more stable, concentrated and well-designed progressive game?

I think so. But I’m not you so tell me to shut up and go away if you want.

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