This blog is in response to Irreversible Events on Gamasutra by Bart Stewart.
Accepting as fact that fate does not exist (which is a huge assumption to make, but bear with me), I would wager that the entirety of the human condition rests upon the power of agency given to every human being. This may seem overly philosophical to video games, but stick with me.
One thing that strikes me as a harsh and terrible truth about the world is that while it seems that our ability to choose appears to be nearly infinite, there are aspects of life that limit what we can and cannot do. Money, social status, relationships with certain people, and education level can determine where we end up in life. Skin color, gender, and mental or physical health are all hurdles to personal choice. Government and corporate power structures, the rule of law, and even the very laws of the universe dictate to us the decisions we can make for ourselves and others.
At the same time, this terrible truth is a blessing when applied correctly. Even with the “right” connections and resources, turns out it’s still pretty difficult to get away with murder, theft, and infidelity unless you’ve had some practice (in fact, it’s a pretty big blessing that society as a whole acknowledges at least in some way that those three things are pretty rotten). People overcome their apparent restrictions in surprising ways: not a day goes by without seeing a post on Facebook of a first-generation college graduate getting their diploma or a soldier whose limb was torn off in combat finding a greater standard of living through the latest generation of prosthetics. The same laws that govern the destructive power of the atomic bomb have provided power to hundreds of thousands of people for decades. It lies only for us to choose to use our power, time, and resources towards a particular end. The consequences can be beneficial for many or for few, disastrous for many or for few, or be completely unexpected: even nothing happening can be a legitimate result of choice. Consequence follows choice, whether the effects are immediate or not. What may seem a sudden event often isn’t felt for years, even centuries, to come.
So, with the philosophy out of the way, why is choice so important in video games, whether you realize it or not?
Well, simply put, when the crumbling bridge falls or the unlockable door slams shut, people get pissed when they realize they can’t ever make those choices again!
Continuing on my theme of ‘video games represent an ever-perfecting medium of pure escapism’, it only stands to reason that people get tired of being restricted day in and day out. The circumstances of our lives offer us options, and sure, we make a veritable torrent of choices every single day, but most of them decidedly non-life-threatening and unimportant. Many of them are incredibly boring or even repulsive. Let’s be honest: we make many of the same choices again and again. Why? Because of taste, ease, comfort, or even decision fatigue. Take me for instance: I choose to drink the same two drinks over and over with very little variation (Citrus Energy Sobe and Slim Fast) because I’ve grown accustomed to the taste and effects of both (although I don’t advise drinking both at the same time). Some people (like Mark Zuckerberg) wear the same clothes day in and day out so they don’t have to make a decision about fashion. Some people end up forming relationships with the same person or type of personality because they’ve grown accustomed to it (for better or for worse).
Role-playing games, or at least the good ones, allow you to step into the skin of another being and make decisions that you yourself would never have the opportunity to make unless you were, in fact, the leader of a paramilitary mercenary organization, the ex-head of security at Sarif Industries, the last dragonborn, or even a mute child with spiky hair and a time-traveling ship. These individuals, through hardship or happenstance, somehow found themselves in the middle of world-shaking circumstances, and their video games enables you, the player, to make the decisions regarding how these characters would survive or even thrive in life-threatening situations. In most games, you can make the choice to clothe your character in different armors, use different items like potions or food to boost their abilities, read books detailing the lore of the world, and fight fantastical monsters that real life does not offer.
When these characters encounter choices that suddenly and severely restrict their comparatively god-like abilities, it becomes easy for the player to say, “Well, why don’t they do X instead?” And it is upon the shoulders of the game developer to explain to the player why these options are no longer available to them. I’ll give you some examples.
First, something simple:
Why can’t Mario walk backwards in Super Mario Bros.? That really bugged me as a kid. Did it bother anyone else? If you miss a mushroom or it disappears behind you off-screen, you might as well walk off a cliff, because you ain’t never getting that back. Is Mario afraid to look backwards, scared of what he might find in his past? Or was it just an engine limitation? Well, whatever it was, Mario got over it in later games.
I would call this a mechanical limitation of choice, not a technical limitation of the Nintendo system itself but of the game’s design (whether it was or wasn’t). To use Stewart’s example, this is the collapsed bridge that you can never cross again unless you restart the game from the beginning. Telltale Games centrally structures their games around this limitation, as the major choices you make have irreversible consequences (even minor choices can affect whether the story even continues). Many of these choices are even timed, giving the player no time to think about the decision they’re about to make. Thus, you could actually consider Stewart’s first example as split into two parts: the mechanical limitation of choice (the crumbling bridge) and the plot limitation of choice (the story reason for crossing the bridge).
A prime example of this would be choosing a major faction in the main questline of Fallout 4. If you believe a synth deserves freedom like any human, the Railroad is your faction. If you believe that synths are simply tools that are built to serve humanity, join the Institute. If you believe that synths are weapons that could spell the future doom of mankind, there’s always the Brotherhood of Steel. And if you believe that improving and defending all peace-loving human-looking life in the Commonwealth is more important than all this petty synth business, the Minutemen need a new general. There is a way for only the Institute to be destroyed, and for a while, it seemed like this pathway wasn’t intended by Bethesda – either the Institute destroys the Railroad and the Brotherhood, the Brotherhood destroys the Institute and the Railroad, or the Railroad destroys the Institute and the Brotherhood. Somehow, when the Minutemen lead the charge against the Institute, the Railroad and the Brotherhood no longer have a reason to clash. If you want to experience the whole of Fallout 4, prepare to play 4 different characters and then some with the Nuka-World DLC (choosing to become a raider boss or not).
Also, ever run into an invisible wall or boundary that brings you unwillingly back to a certain point? The edge of the Great Ocean in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask comes to mind. Whether they’re necessary (such as a world border) or not (like certain dumb ones in Fallout: New Vegas), these barriers limit where you can go and how fast you can get there.
The next example Stewart mentions seems to be the limitation of choice using in-game items. To use Final Fantasy as an example, you never quite know how many megalixirs you’re going to be granted, causing the player anxiety over using them now or for a tougher challenge later on. Did you know that, technically speaking, there are non-renewable resources in the nearly infinite world of Minecraft? Anyway, this isn’t quite what Stewart is solely referring to; it’s a limitation of overall resources available to the player, not just of items, but of abilities and stats that makes your player unique.
Ever play the Bioshock series? Then you’re probably familiar with the Little Sisters, the genetically-modified little girls that accompany the iron-suited Big Daddies in the city of Rapture. Choosing to sacrifice them for their ADAM or saving them and receiving a lesser reward for a better game ending is a perfect example of a game designed around resource limitations. The game actually becomes more challenging if you choose to be heroic, and you get the bad ending if you choose to sacrifice even one Little Sister in a moment of desperation.
A good example of a limitation of ability would be the conversation cutscenes that occur in Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Mankind Divided. A lot of the simplest pathways are restricted to those that have the sharpest tongue. If you don’t have the social enhancer and upgrades related to charisma, you’ll find yourself blundering through conversations and end up with much fewer options. Worse, you can fail even if you have these upgrades like I often did, restricting yourself even more when stealth or direct combat remain the only avenues of progress. Further, if you do prefer the stealth approach over direct violence or persuasion, you’ll often miss many items and upgrades that would be available to you otherwise. In my first sneak-only playthrough of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I played the entire game passively without ever knowing how to use a P.E.P.S. gun, as the ammo was very rare and heavily guarded. And that’s all besides the fact that bosses were violence-only affairs before Eidos patched them with non-violent solutions.
A special example of resource restriction that comes to mind is when a temporary character comes into your party in an RPG that has surprisingly buffed stats and abilities compared to your regular team members. These characters often leave your party just as quickly as they arrive unless progress is stalled in some way or the player outright cheats to keep them available. Examples include Sephiroth in Final Fantasy VII, Edea and Seifer in Final Fantasy VIII, Beatrix in Final Fantasy IX, Seymour in Final Fantasy X, Larsa and Reddas in Final Fantasy XII… Do you sense a trend? While these team members are in your party, you can pretty much wipe the floor with enemies, and can often demonstrate the kind of potential your characters will achieve by the end game. You’ll suddenly feel very naked when they have to say goodbye.
One notable inversion to this that I can think of is Cidolfus Orlandeau from Final Fantasy Tactics. He’s incredibly powerful, and once devoted to your cause, will never leave your side. Unless you force him away. But why would you? His nickname (and his theme music) is ‘Thunder God Cid’!
The third example of the limitation of choice Stewart mentions is less about gameplay and more about the mistakes a player can make while playing. I’ll call this the limitation of accident forgiveness. This can happen after important events when the autosave will kick in and force the player to accept the change or revert back to a previous manual save…
And when do we perform a manual save, children? “All the gosh-darn time,” that’s right, you’re so smart!
Even in games with autosave systems, every gamer is going to make mistakes and regret not saving when they had the chance. These times come more often when the game is a new experience. The worst of these is when it’s time to choose a dialogue option in the game, and the game itself doesn’t describe the choice very well. Hilarity can sometimes ensue, but most of the time it will piss off the NPC and the player. Fallout 4 was known for this until the introduction of mods that expanded the dialogue options.
One of the best games I’ve seen avoid this limitation of accident forgiveness is actually Into the Breach; its time-travel mechanic made it possible to reverse already-made movements and attacks once per battle. This handy tool saved my bacon many times. Even then, however, I was in the midst of my next turn and regretted not being able to turn the clock backwards just a little further. In a similar game like Final Fantasy Tactics? No such accident forgiveness. If you move or act, it’s set in stone, whether you’ve made a mistake or not.
Another game that avoids this limitation is Fallout: New Vegas, which warns you with a text box stating that if you continue working with a certain faction, you’ll soon be unable to work with an opposing faction. Unimmersive, sure, but helpful.
Also, have you ever made a mistake while playing a permadeath character? This isn’t fun.
So, in the end, we have:
- Limitation by mechanics (programmed barriers to backtracking)
- Limitation by plot choice (plot choices that restrict options)
- Limitation of resources (items, abilities, stats, and team configurations)
- Limitation of accident forgiveness (ability to backtrack after making a mistake)
Which ones are allowable, which ones should be better designed, and which ones should never see the light of day again in today’s role-playing games? I think they all have their place, although I am seeing a shift from finite resource limitations in RPGs past to games with unlimited but difficult-to-acquire items that only require time and skill. It’s a good trend to follow. But in the end, it’s up to the designers and developers of each game to establish and explain the extent of each of these limitations.
Will video game choice ever become like real-life choice? I hope not. Games should be games, not real life. The idea of a game with full and realistic agency is like this 365 gigapixel portrait. While technically impressive, you realize that one day this technology will be used to create a high-resolution portrait of an overweight politician. And no one wants to see the pits and pores and ingrown hairs of obese public servants in perfect crystal LED clarity. Limitations never hurt anybody no way no how.