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Monday, April 22, 2024

Commentary: How video games improve by limiting the routes a player can take

A look at how constraining choice opens up storytelling possibilities


By ELI KELLEY — arts@theaggie.org


Gamers will often praise a game for the breadth of choices it offers. This makes sense —  interactivity is key to the identity of video games. Many gamers fantasize about the most extreme form of interactivity, what in their mind would be the Ultimate Game. This would take a form similar to the “Star Trek” holodeck. Like the holodeck, it would allow the player to do absolutely anything and respond in more sensible and engaging ways. However, as with the holodeck, the Ultimate Game lies squarely within the realm of science fiction. 

Even if this game could exist, its players would inevitably feel a level of disappointment. While there’s an inherent appeal to the promise of unfettered freedom and choice, video games are often most impactful because of the ways that choices are limited. Rather than culminating in some all-encapsulating mega-game, video games are better understood and appreciated in light of how their boundaries give shape to the player’s experience.

Video games can’t simulate everything — video game designers need to choose what actions players can perform. “Mario” would be a very different game if the eponymous protagonist could abandon his quest against Bowser to instead take out a mortgage on a home. It would be equally disruptive if in “Animal Crossing” the player could abandon their island home to fight Bowser. These examples may seem ridiculous but they highlight an essential truth in video games: a game achieves a unique identity through the particular, specific ways that the player interacts with it. 

On a more granular level, having limited options imbues choices with specificity and meaning. Imagine a hypothetical video game where the player controllers a college student named John. At one point John has to decide how to spend a Saturday afternoon. If the player’s only options are “knit,” “read a book” and “study,” that would suggest, among other things, that John spends most of his time indoors. If the options are, alternatively, “go hiking,” “hit the gym” and “play basketball,” John would come off as someone who enjoys physical activity. The limitation on the range of possible choices grounds this hypothetical game in the specifics of the character.

In this example, there’s a trade-off between expressing something about the game’s characters and the player’s ability to express something about themself. If instead of being John the player were playing as themself, and they personally find knitting and reading dull, they would chaff against a range of options that didn’t include alternatives. However, even in games centered around the player expressing their personal desires, having too many options can be detrimental. 

Research has shown that past a certain number of options, it becomes extremely difficult to make well-considered choices (numbers vary but 12 is a conservative estimate for what qualifies as too many options). People spend less time thinking through their choices and are ultimately less satisfied with their decisions. With a certain number of options, each potential outcome begins to blend together. Would players really benefit if, for instance, they were given the choice between knitting a scarf or a shawl? Perhaps in a game focused on knitting. Otherwise, having a choice between the two only muddles the player’s ability to make a firm decision.

In the real world, decisions are infinitely granular. Video game choices are much more discreet. Instead of trying to mimic the granularity of actual life, video games should and do benefit from only presenting options that are meaningfully distinct. What qualifies as “meaningfully distinct” varies according to the game. The important thing is identifying what choices prompt actual decisions and which choices prompt mindless button presses.

Options don’t have to be radically different to be distinct. They can be largely similar while remaining meaningfully different. In fact, some of the most powerful uses of choice lie in exploring the nuances among similar options. To illustrate this idea, consider a scene from the game “Kentucky Route Zero.” The player controls Conway, who had, in a bout of drunken irresponsibility, caused a young man to die. During a conversation with the dead boy’s mother, the player decides how Conway describes this death. They can call it “an accident,” “a tragedy” or “a shame.” 

These choices don’t impact the narrative going forward. Instead, they let the player explore different facets of Conway and the death he had a hand in. Calling the death “an accident” could suggest that Conway doesn’t take responsibility for the death — that it was truly an unfortunate bit of happenstance. To describe the death as “a tragedy” brings to mind the tragedy genre and how Conway is a tragic figure crippled by his tragic flaw of alcoholism. Conway calling the death “a shame” emphasizes the guilt he feels from his role in the boy’s death. 

This moment works so well because even though the choices are similar, each suggests subtly different shades of Conway’s grief and guilt. Furthermore, all are simultaneously both true and latent. The player only picks one option, but that doesn’t make the other possibilities false. Conway on some level believes all three. Choices like these can make the player aware of the multipotentiality of the world and of people by considering not just the significance of their own choice but what each potential choice entails. 

“Kentucky Route Zero” doesn’t present all possible actions a player can think of. Instead, it makes the player think through the plausible actions characters can take and has them decide which outcome feels the most true. What’s important isn’t the choice itself, but how making a choice prompts the player to think deeply about the situation. 

Choice is one of video games’ strongest tools for crafting engaging, resonant, important experiences. It’s understandable then that gamers sometimes treat the ability to make choices as an end in itself. However, choice is not an unalloyed good. Like any tool, choice in video games works in particular ways and is effective only under particular circumstances. Choices are powerful but are most effective when implemented judiciously and sparingly. In limiting what options are available, video games give the player space to not merely pick one of many options from a list, but to actually ponder and, eventually, decide.


Written by: Eli Kelley — arts@theaggie.org


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