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Why the illusion of choice in video games is worse than no choice at all

The Walking Dead and the illusion of choice
The Walking Dead and the illusion of choice
Telltale Games

Video Games used to be pretty simple; it came down to once choice, and one only. Win or lose. Whether you were playing Pong or Pac-Man, you either won, or you lost. Now, maybe winning was a little different in some games, like getting the #1 ranking, as compared to actually finishing the game. But playing the game over again was basically the same experience every time, and any real variation came from tiny differences in AI or player behavior.

But today, video games are an entirely different beast. Ever since the first RPGs came along and started allowing the player to make choices in a video game world, players have become more and more certain of not just a privilege, but a right to make decisions in the game world. Soon, we weren't just choosing whether our bloodstained super warriors were flipping off our enemies with their left or right hand, we were picking how the very game itself ended. Video Game producer Bioware has supposedly been one of the most forward thinking minds in this area, and for a while, it was hard to argue.

Video Games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age don't just let you make a few decisions, they seem to let you make every decision. Your character barely even speaks without you directly telling him what to say, and when he does, it's usually still directed by something you chose immediately beforehand. When it comes time to weed out the traitor in your group, or to decide the fate of the evil monarch who has been ruling over your homeland with an iron fist, you don't just watch your character execute them and walk away. You're the one holding the sword - it's your decision, your character, your life.

But, is it really?

Spoilers from here on.

The Walking Dead, both as a TV series and a comic book, has been known for one thing, and it's not zombies. It's drama. The show portrays the apocalypse as a place where man is far and away a deadlier enemy than... well, the walking dead. Telltale Games' product, The Walking Dead Video Game, promised to deliver that. You play as Lee Everett, a convicted man on his way to prison just as the undead really hit their stride. To make matters more complicated, you travel to your hometown during the course of the game - where you meet a member of your own undead family and stay in the business your parents owned.

You can imagine the kind of tension this does - and by all means, should - cause. You have to decide whether to tell the members of your group your origin, to tell them about your conviction, and many other personal details. This is on top of deciding who to save when the shit hits the fan and there just isn't enough time, deciding the morality of your group, and even down to such minute details as who gets to eat.

Here's the thing: None of it matters. Not one bit.

The first time when the player is confronted with a clear, no-nonsense choice, where you are very obviously making a life-or-death decision and there is no way around it, is at Hershel Greene's farm. Hershel's son Shawn is out fortifying the fence with a man named Kenny's very young son "Duck" 'helping' him, mostly by sitting on a tractor and pretending to drive. Needless to say, zombies attack, and by the time you get there, Hershel's son is pinned under a wheel of the tractor and Duck is being grabbed by zombies, with only a very fragile fence holding them off from either son. You have moments to make a decision - do you save Hershel's son, or Kenny's?

Oh, that's right. It really doesn't matter.

If you choose to save Duck, you run up and attempt to pry him out of the zombies' arms, and when you can't quite get him free, Kenny grabs duck while you pummel the zombies with your bare hands. Because Lee Everett is that awesome. By the time you get Duck free, the fence collapses inward and the zombies start devouring Shawn. Hershel arrives with a shotgun, but too late to save his boy.

And if you choose to save Shawn? Kenny saves Duck without your help, because he never really needed your help. And Lee's help still isn't enough to save Shawn, so he gets eaten anyway.

With his son dead, Hershel blames you, and kicks you both off of his farm. There's no way around it, and even if you actually tried to save Shawn, he still tells you to get off, though he's a little more polite about it. In the end, it's always better to save Duck, because at least then Kenny will feel like you've got his back.

This isn't good game design - hell, this isn't even game design. This is the illusion of choice, where you make the player feel like they can make a difference, then force them down the same path. Maybe, just maybe, if you played through the first time and decided to save Shawn only to have Duck live anyway, you might think it was incredible. Maybe Telltale Games is like the Joker, giving you a choice only for the opposite to happen. But if you play through again and make the other choice (or spend five minutes reading on the internet) you'll very quickly realize that there is no masterminded evil plan - there is only the illusion of choice. Choosing whose life to save only holds meaning once - the very first time you play it. The second your realize that your decision didn't matter whatsoever, you realize that Telltale hasn't provided an intricately woven web at all. They just switched a few lines of dialogue around and hoped you would think you actually mattered to the world.

Fast forward to Chapter 2. While at your parents' pharmacy, zombies attack (of course) and start breaking in. Carley, the feisty news reporter with an aim from hell, is trying to free a clip of ammunition from her purse while a zombie claws at her and another one approaches not far away. Meanwhile Doug, the nerdy but knowledgeable and somewhat brave geek, is being grabbed through a few boards haphazardly thrown up to cover an opening. You, again, have to make a decision.

This one actually matters though, or so it seems. There is no fake-out. Whoever you choose lives. And they become a part of your group, weaving into your society seamlessly and quickly growing quite close to Lee, thankful for having their life saved and-

Oh, right. The very next chapter a woman named Lilly shoots them in the head.

Maybe Telltale was just tired of recording and programming two different dialogue trees, and maybe they were going for the drama. But it feels really weak when you realize that all the dialogue choices to get closer to Carley or Doug (and believe me, there are a lot of them) and all that emotional turmoil in deciding which one of them you would save goes to nothing. And no, there is no way around this. Even though this is a full three chapters into the game, no number of decisions, no dialogue tree, no amount of good karma will keep this from happening. You just have to watch as your (potentially best) friend is murdered.

I could go on and on with this. When you really dig into it, you realize that nothing you say or do will change anything beyond a few simple dialogues.

Some of you might be thinking that the dialogue is the whole point. That building relationships is important, and what it comes down to. I agree - to an extent. This really hits home when you reach the end of Chapter 4. Clementine, the little girl you've been guarding and training since the first few minutes of Chapter 1, is kidnapped, and going after her seems like a suicide mission. It's up to you and the decisions you've made to decide whether Lee has allies among the group, or goes it alone.

Until everyone else gets kidnapped and ends up having to help Lee to survive anyway. Yeah, really.

In the end, there are many, many character deaths throughout the games. In fact, Lee is personally at and a witness to the deaths of no less than ten characters, and not one of them you can save. During the game, you usually don't realize this, and in fact the drama can be quite engrossing. But the minute you take yourself out of the world, or the minute you try to play through it again, you realize how little you really matter. And that's one of the lowest feelings in the world, inside or outside of video games.

Kenny, Duck, Katja, Ben, Carley, Lilly (presumably, but it's very likely she could be written into a sequel), and even Lee Everett himself are all going to die, along with many other more minor characters. By the end of Episode 4, I was disgusted with the series and what I considered to be incredibly false advertising about the potential 'choice' in the game and how it changed itself to your individual character. I never even played Episode 5 - I spent five minutes reading the plot on the Wiki, and I don't feel like I missed anything. Because I know that there's only one way for it to play out. In a game whose entire premise is making you feel like you mattered, this is beyond a failure, this is a pathetic result for what could have been an amazing game.

In the end, the time you have the most actual choice in the game are the moments when you are firing your gun. Because at least if you choose to stand there and not do anything, someone actually dies, and the story is actually affected. Then you get a game over and restart screen, because Telltale Games doesn't appreciate you trying to affect their story. If it wasn't for the deep characters and intricate relationships, this game would have been absolutely trashed by the fan base and critics. The fact that this game actually won awards still leaves a bad taste in the mouth of many gamers.

The fact of the matter is, at least if we are given no choices, no opportunities, we feel like we're being told a story. We aren't affecting it, we're just watching it play out, and maybe shooting something in the head every now and then. But when we're given a choice, told that we're creating a story all our own, and then realize that nothing we have done has mattered in either the short term or the long term, it's so much worse. Having the illusion of choice isn't just disappointing, it's being actively lied to by the developers. They want you to feel like you're in control, but then tell the story exactly how they think it should go regardless of what you decide.

The only other game to even compete with this kind of outright lying was one of the biggest controversies in all of 2012. Ladies and gentlemen, Mass Effect 3.

Now, this game has already been bashed beyond recognition by anyone but its own mother, Bioware. Even I've already trashed the game, crowning it the #1 Most Disappointing Game of 2012. This will be a brief, and hopefully new viewpoint.

Mass Effect 3 should have ended after the Quarian v Geth conflict.

Now, as silly as that may have sounded, one has to look at the evidence and what the Mass Effect series as a whole should have been.

Mass Effect is about choice. And unlike The Walking Dead, your choices actually mattered. You chose whether the Council lived or died; you chose whether Cerberus got a Collector base intact or obliterated at the end of the second game. Even down to such minute details as whether Garrus Vakarian got his revenge or learned to move on after watching his squad die, or whether Tali'Zorah was banished from the fleet, allowed to stay, and whether or not her father was dishonored among the Quarians. So many things were affected that, we thought, surely even against a force as mighty as the Reapers, our decisions have to add up to something.

Nope.

Mass Effect 3 leads you into the final moments of the game a happy, unbelievably satisfied gamer; we've watched characters return from previous games, plot lines carry over, and entire worlds live or die based on our decisions.

And then the little brat Star Child takes a dump over all the decisions you've made, and tells you exactly how it's going to be. No amount of Paragon or Renegade points will change this - it's all about how much military strength you've earned, which is related to your decisions in exactly zero ways. Half the time, no matter which way you lean (Paragon or Renegade) you earn virtually the same number of points toward the end of the game, you just feel more or less evil about it.

But the Quarian v Geth conflict was exactly what the ending of Mass Effect 3 should have been. I'm going to assume most of you know the plot, so I won't delve into too much explanation for the sake of keeping this brief.

There are three endings (sound familiar?) to the war between the synthetic Geth and the organic Quarians.

1. Legion uploads the code, causing the extinction of the Quarian race when the newly empowered Geth start fighting back with enough force to destroy them. The drama is only increased when you watch Tali'Zorah throw herself from a cliff to join her people.

2. Legion attempts to upload the code, but Tali and Shepherd force him to stop. He won't surrender easily, and in the end, you have to kill him to stop him. The Quarians overpower the weakened Geth fleet and take back their home world, while you and Tali live with the guilt of having essentially murdered a comrade.

3. If, and only if, you have imported a save from Mass Effect 2, if - and only if - you have made the correct choices through the second and third game, and finally if Shephard has a high enough reputation, you can convince both sides to stand down. The war between the Quarians and Geth comes to a surprisingly thrilling ending as the Quarians and Geth both agree to put aside their war and work together. The Quarians return to their homeworld, the Geth are reunited peacefully with their creators, and perhaps, in time, true peace is established.

This isn't a perfect ending. There aren't many variations - for instance, you can't shut down Legion (or something equally clever) rather than killing him. You can't save Tali when she heads for the cliff.

But unlike the actual ending to Mass Effect 3, this situation provides real, true choice in endings. It takes into account whether you have played the previous games, and what your choices were - and guess what? If you haven't played the past games, or if you haven't made the right decisions, you don't get a happy ending, and you have to make a very difficult choice. But that's the way it should have been. Gamers should be rewarded for playing the rest of the games, or for having made the right decisions when it mattered. And perhaps most importantly, there's actually a satisfying, happy ending.

Maybe it doesn't resolve the conflict with the Reapers, but for me, Mass Effect 3 will have always come to a conclusion at the end of Tali'Zorah's personal story. Because that moment was what Mass Effect was all about - decisions, choice, and watching them unfold in a way that felt meaningful. It didn't just give you the illusion of choice, and then throw away everything you'd decided up until that point. It didn't take the Telltale route and provide you with a choice, then tell you what decision you should have REALLY made. Whether you got the good ending or had to make a hard choice, this one moment gave you complete control over three very different endings.

And a true choice - no matter how hard it may be - is always better than the illusion of choice.

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