The Illusion of Choice
1. An act of choosing.
2. The right or ability to choose
3. A range from which to choose.
4. Something chosen
1. A false idea or belief.
2. A thing that seems to be something it is not.
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.
Grand 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.
Games 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…
Except one. Bioshock.
Much 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.