It’s pandering. To believe that no one would mind the ineffectual choices laid before them is almost insulting. To think that such cursory options are satisfactory is laughable. Living this way is enough to make one indignant, boiling over like a pot of unsalted pasta.
That, of course, is an overreaction. It’s an obscene knee-jerk to a rather inconsequential thing: choices in a linear video game. I say inconsequential because in pretty much any narrative game (or “digital media experience,” to broaden the scope and rope in some buzzword bullsh—err, fun times), the outcome is always predetermined. There may be multiple endings, but they are set in stone, like dropping a ball into a pachinko machine.
Those concrete possibilities are exactly what got the Mass Effect in such deep trouble. Three large, expansive, and mostly high quality games and we got a three-by-three, color-coordinated chart of nine possible outcomes. I still hold that the creative authorship is the key in that debacle, but I also agree the expectations—realistic or not—were absolutely set forth by the developers to believe or hope for something more…custom.
Sometimes games lean into that, though. The ending of The Last of Us (and the game as a whole) works as commentary on choice. BioShock Infinite is a bit more deliberate in that, utilizing it as a theme throughout its runtime, but the result is largely the same. And Spec Ops: The Line actually hangs wholly on the idea of agency. You end up contemplating what it means to make a choice in a video game, drawing metaphysical parallels and philosophical quandaries to real life choices.
But not every game can do that. For one, that is a pretty tough thing to pull off. Irrational Games and Naughty Dog are some of the best in the biz (or were the best in Irrational’s case). For two, that would get boring. Think about knowing precisely how and why a game is doing what it’s doing every single time. Consider how you feel knowing that every Hollywood comedy has to go through the fun -> crisis -> redemption loop. You slog through that middle part to get back to the laughs because you just know how that’s how it works.
The choices that I find more problematic are the ones that seem most superficial. Infamous: Second Son made me think about this when it gave me four options just before protagonist Delsin Rowe was about to deface a sizable DUP-controlled (the enemy organization) outpost. And I just had to wonder: why?
Besides the fact that the interface for it was not obvious at all despite taking up the entire screen (same goes for vest selection in the menus), it grinds the entire thing to a halt. And to do what? Choose between three mediocre graffiti textures and one good one? Paradox of Choice is a fine concept to implement, but when the act of choosing is more or less meaningless, the paradox becomes an annoyance of choice.
Not once when I saw that spray painted embellishment out in the wild again did I think, “Hey, that was something I chose!” It just got logged into my brain as a thing that exists in Delsin’s world, not a conduit (ha!) through which my agency as a player is portrayed in the game. I can’t tell if Sucker Punch intended it to be a point of pride in toppling part of the regime or a highlight that a user can point to and excitedly say that they did that, but nothing close to either of those happened.
I likened it during a conversation with another games journalist to the shaping mechanic in Shaun White Skateboarding. In that game, you can utilize your manifested creativity and freedom from oppression (the story got really weird) to extended real rails and ramps into Green Lantern-esque constructs of pure imagination. This allows you to really jack up your score and liberating influence in the drab, totalitarian world.
The problem is that every rail and ramp shaping sequence has a predefined ending just as they have a beginning. The ability to express your athletic creativity is actually more like a platforming puzzle that has one very obvious, not very fun solution. But the expectation to create as freely as you desire, free from the evil Ministry, is impressed upon you by the game. And that faux choice becomes a bit insulting.
Granted, Second Son‘s graffiti is a real smattering of options with discrete outcomes, but the sensation is the comparable bit: it’s grating. It’s wearisome. Aside from the world customization in Second Son, it purportedly has the legacy feature of a karmic dichotomy, though, as with the case the game picking a canonical ending anyways, your choices are sullied, made worthless.
That is where it becomes just enough to pick at your nerves and make you want to say something. It asks you go forth and give something of yourself, to deviate from a line drawn from point A to B, and then takes it, crumples it up, and throws it in the trash. At least you can choose to just stop playing, I guess.