Video games are a fun way to pass time. They’re engaging and distracting. They’re an opportunity to socialize, and they can even be educational. But, increasingly, games are becoming known as a wonderful way to tell and be a part of stories, too. Over the last decade, that evolution of stories in games has arguably become as critical to the experience as the gameplay itself.
As gamers, we’ve lived through dozens of varying stories. We’ve explored all sorts of landscapes and made all kinds of friendships.
As developers experiment with the bounds of those stories and the connections within them, gamers have had even grander opportunities to inject themselves into the protagonist’s perspective and into the plot. It’s been a fascinating trip to become ever more invested in the worlds and personalities imagined by talented game creators and storytellers while counting our own input as players, too.
At some point in time, maybe between BioShock and The Walking Dead: The Telltale Series, narrative choices as gameplay constructs became widespread, aspirational goals by people making video games.
Everyone was doing it, or aspired to do it. Playing your own way has been a staple in the industry for years—interactive storytelling is a construct and object of fascination as old as Choose Your Own Adventure books and marathon Dungeons and Dragons sessions. But even that standard of including mechanics that would allow for varying play styles—like, for example, the exacting perfectionism of a no-kill stealth playthrough versus a run-and-gun take-no-prisoners melee—became touted as the importance of “choice," now, a popular gaming buzz-trope.
We’ve seen games with smaller-scale choices, like The Witcher 3, or Dragon Age—games that gave players opportunities to make decisions, played out through side-quests, that’d impact how those specific stories and relationships unfolded. It might even go so far as to impact the fate of an entire race in the game.
Dragon Age: Inquisition
The concept of gameplay choices affecting the end outcome of your story, though, intrigued gamers for its possibilities; expanding the playability of games, and their longevity, too. That players could invest so much time into an elegant, incredible story, and actually leave our mark on it, too, was an innovative, captivating idea. Choices that mattered in this way opened the door to new, seemingly-endless possibilities. Plots, somehow, would be personal. This wasn’t just a massive step forward for games, but for storytelling, too.
The way your game ended might differ vastly from how your friends’ games ended. You’d pore over the shared moments that led you to your ending, and discover where things took a left or right turn—what others did that you didn’t, or what you found that nobody else did. Where your best intentions led you astray. Where you smartly triumphed over others.
As gamers, we’re used to being rewarded in games. Complete this task, and you get money. Complete another, and you get a shiny new weapon. Complete a set of quests, and you level up. Pull off amazing feats, and unlock an achievement. And so on. But the promise of your actions actually changing the course of how a game played out is an entirely different league of reward from those others.
Or, at the least, that was the intention. Because it’s also an entirely different league of risk for game developers, and their players.
As grand an idea as it once seemed, the delivery of a truly meaningful impact from our choices still mostly feels like an unrealized dream. BioShock 2’s system of choices, for example, were too restrictive. You had to decide whether or not to kill off little girls for your own benefit—become a martyr, and the game punished your morality with increasing difficulty. Harvest the girls, and your character becomes that much more powerful.
When your choice comes down to ignoring key components of gameplay or not, it doesn’t actually feel like that much of a choice. One of the most enjoyable aspects of a BioShock game is playing around with your accrued plasmid-based abilities. To spare the little girls, even if it ultimately just throttled your eventual access to those abilities, is to miss out on a huge part of the experience.
As grand an idea as it once seemed, the delivery of a truly meaningful impact from our choices still mostly feels like an unrealized dream.
The Walking Dead and Telltale’s other narrative-based franchises have seen varying degrees of success in storylines impacted by your decisions. Most of Telltale’s games managed to frequently make you feel like your choices mattered. Certain moments forced you to make incredibly hard decisions between, for instance, who to save and who to let die. They felt like big turning points—players would linger on pause screens as they scratched their heads or searched the internet for answers in deciding on the best course of action.
But in the end, it didn’t really add up towards how your story ended. Those choices were there for color—for you to compare against your friends’ decisions, and chat out the moral complexities of what you ultimately went with. Which, to be fair, was always the most fun part of playing a Telltale game.
The Walking Dead
and Telltale’s other narrative games were more about role-playing a character, in a way that felt more like you and your moral compass, than they were about changing the course of the narrative. The conclusion of their games always made it clear that, though your path might vary, your outcomes would always end up mostly the same as everyone else’s. In other words: the illusion of meaningful choice, shattered by a final, shared destination, and a results screen to compare yourself against.
A character may have died or ended up hating you, but there weren’t any major repercussions (or advantages) that would actually impact your story to make it wholly your own.
BioWare’s long-awaited conclusion to the years players spent making decisions in their Mass Effect series was met with heated debates and outrage. Mass Effect 3 was, finally, to be the moment every Shepard was working towards. Every act a player took as Shepard was expected to deliver an outcome, most of which were never followed through in any meaningful way. Worst of all? Players had access to pretty much any of the major ending scenarios, no matter how they played, so long as they completed certain questlines in the final game.
Mass Effect 3
technically had various endings with different scenarios, but it wasn’t the ending your actions necessarily deserved.
2015’s excellent interactive survival drama, Until Dawn, touched on choices reflecting outcomes of the story in perhaps the most mathematical way. Decisions you made chapters back could mean the life or death of one of your friends in the future. Whether you chose to hide or run, explore an area or remain on the path, open a door or not could’ve meant the difference between landing on the “bad” or “good” ending.
It sounds simplistic, but the course of everyone’s fate is up for reassessment so many times that you feel like you have control over their fates and, therefore, the game’s ending. Each character has many opportunities to live or die, and though most of them hinge on successfully landing your QTEs, many of them have to do with preparedness, foresight, and how much of a jerk you want to be.
And then there’s Bethesda/Arkane Studios’ recently released Prey.
I juggled so many thoughts while playing through the many hours of Prey. I was conflicted, weighing options and feelings and trying to decide what kind of person I wanted to be.
A long history with sci-fi movies and games informed my initial thoughts. It reminded me that any level of near-sighted greed leading to a decision like trying to salvage research on a specimen that had just devoured my entire crew would–who could’ve guessed–prove to be deadly.
But as sure of that fact as I was, I couldn’t deny my brother Alex’s efforts to connect with me. He reminisced about times when we were kids. He’d warn me about potentially dangerous areas of the station I was approaching, and would help in what ways he could to ensure my survival. He expressed a longing for the person that I used to be–the person he knew before my memory was wiped.
He never denied the fact that I had apparently, in secret, programmed an operator with instructions using my own voice to convince me to blow up the Talos I space station. He simply offered that the person recording those instructions, because of the experiments I had undergone, was not the sister he knew. He never once actually betrayed or misled me–he let me maintain full control over the big decisions, even if he did try to subtly manipulate them and coax me into his way of thinking along the way.
It wasn’t just Alex who had the opinion that we should salvage our research, either. Dr. Igwe felt similarly to my brother–and who am I to deny a doctor’s judgment? They both had a point. As I walked through the space station, coming across the corpses of fallen crew members, I didn’t want their deaths to be in vain. I couldn’t possibly allow for senseless destruction as the result of natural human curiosity and advancement. Something about all of this needed to be worth it.
Warning! Major spoilers for the ending of Prey follow.
The entire game was a buildup to that one moment where you were finally meant to make up your mind and leave your mark on humanity, on your family name, even on the Earth and potentially the universe. But once the time came, and once you made your decision, your entire story evaporated.
The M. Night Shyamalan twist at the end reveals that not only did your choices not matter, but nothing you did mattered. It was all an illusion–you’re actually a typhon imbued with the memories and empathy of Morgan Yu, likely long deceased. Post credits, you’re face-to-face with Alex Yu, along with operators containing the voices and personalities of the major human NPCs you “rescued” aboard the Talos I station. Your "brother" wheels you around in the chair you sit constrained in. He turns on a set of displays and shows you reality: The typhon threat that you felt you would have some kind of influence over has already spread, long ago, on Earth. It didn’t matter if you blew up the space station or not. Every possible reality is one in which the typhon species has already spread.
While the twist itself is an interesting one–Alex suggests that trying to implant human abilities into a typhon is the solution to the pandora’s box that was implanting typhon abilities into humans–it fails to connect the player to the experience. It’s a fun twist … for a movie, maybe. But not for a game that instills a sense of responsibility in you just to ultimately mislead you.
Developing a solid video game is already difficult work. To then weave in multiple, branching paths that players could decide to follow down for their own, personal ending can’t make it any easier. Even just taking the last year’s noteworthy games as an example, it seems that the industry is slowly discovering that the most mechanically feasible way to employ choice is to focus on the ones that let you craft your world. The most recent Zelda release or Horizon: Zero Dawn are perfect examples. Every player’s narrative story will be the same, but it’s the stories of your own experiences that differ vastly between someone else’s that reflect the power of a player’s choice. It’s an emphasis on the improvisational nature of play rather than the value of narrative decisions. And maybe, for now, that’s what works best.
The value of a game doesn’t necessarily hinge on an ending payoff. I enjoyed Prey quite a bit despite feeling like the ends didn’t meet where I thought they were leading the entire time I played. But the illusion of choice inspires all sorts of ideas and priorities, hopes and dreams. And when they never come to fruition, it feels like a missed opportunity.