A couple weeks ago I was writing my post about story in video games, in a train towards southern France. One of the topics which I tackled was regarding the element of linearity within video games, and this led me to think about the choices that players make. After all, there are multiple perspectives from which we can observe that. Whether it be gameplay wise or narratively wise, games do incorporate choice. Different games can interpret choice differently, but certainly there also are common elements. Let’s dive in!
Video games compared to any other medium
The very first thing I thought was that in video games, there is the element of choice in the first place! Does your choice impact a film or book in any way? In fact, is there the option to have a choice? No. The only choice there is presents itself as whether you’re going to watch/read it or not.
This is because unlike movies and books, video games are an interactive medium. This consequently means that choice can and will be incorporated in some shape or form, whether it be simple, or complex. And those shapes and forms, there are many! I believe that they could be put under two categories: story and gameplay.
I already have spent much time on that other post talking about story in video games, so I don’t think there is any need to add much more. Not all games let you have a choice in regards to the progression of the story, other than delaying it (for instance by messing around with side quests, or whatever is appropriate to the specific game). But there still are many games which do. Some have that element as their “gimmick”, and in that case we could class those games as “story-based games”, in a way. This can include games such as Life is Strange and any game from Telltale Studios, really.
It still doesn’t include just them, though. For instance, games such as Fable do let you influence the story with some key choices that have to be done within the game at some specific points. This is generally the most common way of implementing choice in video games within the story, but there are other, clever ways this has been done. For the recent game that is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the story is influenced by the gameplay (and in a way, so is Fable, since it depends on whether you decide to play an evil or good character). From the very beginning, you can tackle Ganon, and hence you technically could finish it right away, though you would never learn the truth behind Hyrule’s history and meet the different characters. That means that in this case, it is the player that completely decides when to finish the story; not in the sense that it is kept delayed (such as with other open world games), but rather that the player needs to prepare for the final battle by completing the main story.
Ok, well… Not all choices are too relevant. Or are they? 😛
In whichever way it is done, different choices in story should be leading players to have a somewhat different experience when replaying the game, assuming they take different decisions. Even if the difference is small, it is present, unlike for films and books. However, choice in story is only a fraction compared to the whole, which can be summed up as gameplay.
It can be summed up as “every single action you do in a video game”. Whether it be choosing a path to take, clicking or not clicking on something, killing an enemy, talking or not talking to a character, how a puzzle is solved, etc, etc, ETC…
Choice within the gameplay is extremely broad. Too broad in a way, so it is hard to precisely “define” how choice is done in gameplay, other than with the previously stated sum up. After all, different genres of video games with different gameplays will include different set of choices in terms of gameplay. Do you really make the same choices let’s say in Overwatch and any of the Sims games? No. Why? Because they aren’t similar at all. In Overwatch, major gameplay choices would include choosing a hero in a game, while within a Sims game it could include how you create the family, which traits it has.
To go on this weird looking planet or not to go? That is one of the many possible questions players face in Spore… Aaah, the memories.
However, whichever genre of game it is, choices in gameplay always means that the player should feel “responsible” for it, since the consequences happen due to the player’s action, rather than being dictated let’s say by the story, which would be a “story choice”, then.
This War Of Mine is full of gameplay choices which influence whether the character will survive another day in the war or not. Definitely a heart-wrecking game at times, and it’s not even involving a pre-determined story!
In the end, it is the choices, the interactions that players have in the game that makes it “grow” on them, aside from factors such as story. As I said at the beginning this is what separates video games from films and books. The element of choice is what makes players switch from being passive to active, from reactive to proactive. This is what makes players immersed. If there is no choice in the gameplay, why even call that a video game in the first place? While story may have some choices, the meat, for most games, is within the gameplay, and this leads to the creation of a memorable experience, whatever genre the game can be identified as. It is only natural that we find that choice in gameplay broad: it is because this is the whole point of a video game.