Choosing The Illusion of Choice

Choice and consequence have become some of my favorite game mechanics recently. Something resonates within me about the idea of influencing the story.

I think this is why I love Telltale Games.

My introduction to the genre was with Telltale Games’ Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People. Because of my frugalness and refusal to buy WiiPoints cards, I only ever purchased the first episode. I enjoyed myself, but the game didn’t really stand out to me as a “must complete” game. I think the majority of my dislike came from my intense frustration of the need to purchase more episodes to finish the story.

And then came my reintroduction to Telltale Games.

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Some of the Writer’s Cohort had started a gameplay of The Wolf Among Us, and while we were hanging out and supposed to be working on an assignment of some sort, they started the second episode of the game. Instantly, I was drawn in to the interesting characters, dark world, fairy tale premise, and the dialogue mechanics. And I wasn’t even playing!

Something sparked in me as I watched. Every time the “(Insert Character Name Here) will remember that” notification popped up in the corner, I got goosebumps.

Had we made the right decision?

We spent minutes arguing over which major decision to choose at each of the major branches, weighing the pros and cons to each possible outcome and what it would mean to make each choice. By the time the episode came to an end with an amazing, television-caliber cliffhanger (naturally), I couldn’t contain my intrigue.

Just how deep did these games go? Could something we said in episode two really change what happened in the last episode of the season? Would choosing that option really make a difference in the big picture of the story? What was different in this playthrough because of choices they had made in the first episode? Question after question flooded my mind, and all because of a simple choice-based play style.

The answer? The illusion of choice.

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So what is it?

One of my favorite YouTube channels, Extra Credits, describes the illusion of choice as “any moment in a game where you as a player feel as though you are making a choice, when, in reality, there is either no alternative option actually being presented or the consequences of that choice are negligible.”

Basically, what this means is that regardless of what you choose, you’ll get the same result. Every option leads to the same point… eventually.

This sounds pretty terrible, but it’s actually an amazing interactive storytelling technique. The Illusion of Choice allows for the story to progress along the same plot points, regardless of the player’s choices. And, if done effectively, the player doesn’t even notice. Everything flows well.

It’s choosing between Duck and Shawn in The Walking Dead – Season One. Being nice to Victoria in Life is Strange. Using the shield, the bread, or the table for a wheel in King’s Quest.

All of these choices ultimately lead you to the same place. The choice doesn’t have a significant impact to the plot points or the overall story. They don’t really matter.

But, they often do have smaller effects. And these smaller effects are what make the playthroughs unique and specific to the player. Usually these are only reflected in single lines of dialogue or quick remarks by side characters…

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And sometimes they have even bigger effects. Like choosing between Kaidan or Ashley in or Doug and Carly. Ultimately, it doesn’t make a huge difference (Illusion of Choice), but things in the middle area tend to work a bit differently. Even if they end up the same.

To me, I look at this as the ultimate Writer’s Challenge. Even bigger than that, the ultimate Game Designer’s Challenge.

Here, not only do you have to work each angle to lead to the same goal or plot point logically, you also have to have those minor reminders or references to the choices that were made.

This requires a TON of pre-planning. Outlining. Character understanding. Creativity.

The Illusion of Choice may not change the overall story arc. I mean, it may even nullify all of the player choices into one finite ending – cough Mass Effect 3 cough cough – but ultimately, in the end, the choices that we make in these moments do play into our experience.

Our bond with Clementine matters. Our connection with Kate Marsh matters. Whether or not TJ is scared of us in the end matters. Even if it doesn’t in the overall plotline.

Originally posted on The Writer’s Cohort, February 18, 2015