Video games are unique from TV shows and movies due to the sense of immersion they give players. Having the ability to make choices plays a large part in this. It’s not just any old story you get to experience, it’s one chosen and defined by you and that’s what makes it all the more intimate.
Of course, virtual choices aren’t exactly as open ended as you might imagine. Considering how many games rely on the choices you make, there’s a limit to how much you can actually do. The first major restriction is, of course, the game’s programming. You can’t do anything that the game doesn’t allow you to do. But in retrospect isn’t real life like that as well? We’re restricted by the constraints of society, the laws of physics and what not. It’s all for our own good but it’s still limiting to a degree.
Some game choices are bullshit to be fair. Like when you confront a boss and it asks you not to fight it but instead rule with it. Say no and you begin the final boss fight, say yes and it’s game over. But such things belong in the past, and more recent games have more profound choices where there’s never really an easy way out.
It’s accepted that there are a number of checkboxes a video game choice needs to tick off to be truly worth including. You need to be aware of all other choices, you shouldn’t have the opportunity to remake a choice, and you should constantly be reminded of the choice you made and feel the repercussions from it. The games developed by Telltale Games are particularly well known for getting all these factors right. For example, in one part of The Walking Dead game, you’re attacked by zombies and have the option of saving either one of two characters. You can see both of them clearly and both of them are nice enough that you’d rather save them both. The game tailors itself around your decision, maybe not enough to make it a substantial game element, but enough for you to never forget your choice.
One complaint is that choices don’t really matter, especially with Telltale Games. Whatever path you choose, good or bad, there are only so many possible endings and deviations from the story you can have. But honestly, so what? There’s a limit to how much programmers can actually code. And the true fun of choice is the happiness and thrill you get in that moment. It’s never really about the ending, it’s always about the journey and how you get there. If you really want to go beyond what the game will allow you, then go play a tabletop RPG.
Often, the choices are between generic ‘good’ and ‘bad’ choices, usually with the added catch that the evil choices are much more fun. For example, if you’ve played Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, playing on the dark side is always much more enjoyable. Heck, in the sequel, the dark side’s plans actually makes sense. A lot of other games like Bioshock have choices like this; do you save the little girl or kill her and get more powers?
These days, there’s no right or wrong choice, just a large mix of morally grey ones, which honestly is a bit like real life. There’s never really a right or wrong answer, you can never satisfy everyone, you just have to do what seems right to you. This adds another layer of complexity to gaming, and lets you look into yourself and see how you would react in certain situations. This gives gaming an edge which other forms of media don’t have. You don’t see some person’s version of how things are, you see your version and how you want things to go.
Choice, as much as it’s programmed in, is the defining feature of games as a medium. By giving players control, games can intimately engage with their audience and implicate them in deep moral choices or make them feel powerless. With this level of immersion, it’s no wonder we keep coming back to playing video games.