A Matter of Choice: Player Agency in Video Games

Gaming | Opinion

By Benjamin Ferrarini

A popular mechanic in many video games is having the player make choices during gameplay.  These choices can range from something as inconsequential as deciding what to say in a conversation to as momentous as judging the fate of characters, cities or even whole civilizations.  Sometimes outcomes are the summation of choices made over the course of hours of gameplay.  Other times the effects are felt more immediately and don’t reach beyond a single serving repercussion.  Like any device choice can be implemented well or poorly.  At their best games take the choices made by players into account using them to shape the narrative or build the characters.  At their worst games offer an illusion of choice but don’t use them in the narrative to any meaningful degree.  Of course all choice in games is, to some degree, an illusion.  There is no path that hasn’t been preordained by the developers and writers.  Every option, every “choice” has been meticulously created by someone, each guiding the player along a number of paths.  However, this time I want to expand on this concept and show how this can be done well.  Giving enough freedom that players feel a sense of ownership over their choices and offering enough variations to make their journey feel unique.  “Mass Effect 2” is a brilliant example of this concept.  Warning spoilers ahead for “Mass Effect 2” and “Life is Strange.”

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The second entry in the prestigious “Mass Effect” franchise “Mass Effect 2” is a sci-fi action RPG released in 2010.  It casts players in the roll of Shepard a commander in the Alliance Navy.  Shepard takes on a mission which everyone says is suicide.  Whether they are right actually depends on the player and the decisions they’ve made.  The core of “Mass Effect 2” is gathering resources in preparation for this final suicide mission.  The resources range from collecting upgrades to Shepard’s ship and arsenal to recruiting team members and earning their loyalty.   How much you explore, which characters you interact with, how you interact with them and how you choose to build your resources all have an effect on the final mission.  If you’ve failed to collect the necessary materials to upgrade your ships shields it is more vulnerable during the mission.  If you haven’t gained the loyalty of your crew they won’t fight as effectively.  Further during the mission Shepard must choose crew members to perform different tasks.  For instance in order to get into the enemy stronghold someone must be sent into a crawl space to bypass security.  Some of Shepard’s companions are better suited to this task then others.  Knowing which will be most successful comes from how much time you’ve taken getting to know them.  In “Mass Effect 2” it is possible to fail the mission and loose every member of the crew including Shepard.  It is also possible to succeed in the
mission but loose some or all of the characters.  Finally it’s possible to succeed and keep everyone alive. Not only does the end reflect choices you’ve made but the depth that is added when you explore the relationships between characters adds another layer to this extraordinary game.  What you get out of your experience with a game like “Mass Effect 2” depends on what you put into it.

life is strangeNow that we’ve looked at an example of player agency done right let’s look at a casewhere it’s done poorly.  In 2015 polish developer DontNod released the episodic adventure game “Life is Strange”.  Telling the story of a young high schooler named Max Caufield “Life is Strange” takes place over 5 episodes spanning around 10 or 12 hours of gameplay.  Max is a photographer who discovers she has the ability to go back in time, which is quickly dubbed a “rewind”.  Max discovers her ability upon witnessing a friend, Chloe, get gunned down.  Max rewinds time and saves Chloe’s life.  This touches off a harrowing adventure much of which rests on the friendship between Max and Chloe.  During their adventures Max can undo most of the games choices and try another option.  In this way “Life is Strange” heavily emphasizes player choice.  Credit where credit is due, for the majority of 4 episodes this holds true.  The choices you make due seem to impact Max and the world around her.  Unfortunately episode 5 “Polarized” undoes pretty much everything the first 4 episodes built.

Throughout Max has visions of a massive tornado laying waist to their coastal Oregon town.  Max believes this to be a premonition of an impending disaster.  Feeling her foresight makes her responsible to prevent it.  So Max attempts to help Chloe and prevent the storm.  Each of the decisions open to you in some way work toward one of those goals.  Only in “Polarized” it is revealed that you cannot do both.  The game wants you to believe that the storm and the tornado come as the result of Max keeping Chloe alive when she should have died.  It ends with the player being given two options.  You can go back in time and allow Chloe to be killed thus putting things back the way they were meant to be and preventing the storm.  The other option is to do nothing, allowing the tornado to wipe out the town with untold numbers of casualties.  Not only does this ending boil hours of decision making into a single unsavory binary choice, but it betrays what is supposed to be the foundation of the game.  “Life is Strange” reiterates over and over again the importance of your choice on the past, present and future.  Yet, the message it leaves you with is the immutability of fate.  If you are to save the town and the people in it you must acquiesce to the belief that Chloe was always meant to die. Further that every choice you’ve made as Max to save and value Chloe’s life has been wrong.  It dictates fate cannot be changed, at least not without some terrible penance to be paid by innocents.  Either way Max’s final choice is to do nothing.  To do nothing inthe past while her best friend is murdered or in the present do nothing and allow the
tornado to destroy a town.  Fundamentally both options are counter to the whole rest of the game.

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Visual forms of entertainment tend to be a passive experience.  Even in video games which require some amount of interactivity, players only follow preset paths limiting their level of involvement.  The best games that feature choice as a mechanic, hope to engage players on a deeper level and make them feel like co-creators shaping their own personal experiences.  It is important though as this medium is developing to point out when this is done well and when it is done poorly.

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