Does Choice Inhibit Optimal Video Game Storytelling?


Michael questions whether the best stories can be told if the player is the one making the decisions. 

This question ran through my head as I was playing Persona 4 last night, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether video games use choice as an excuse for inadequate storytelling. For those unfamiliar with Persona 4, it’s a JPRG set in a rural town, where you play as a character who has many different choices when it comes to the various aspects of the game, such as time management, gameplay abilities, and resource management.

One of the primary parts of the game is gaining social links with your party members, and requires, as you might imagine, the player to interact with the members of your group to increase your relationships. By becoming closer to your party members, these social links level up and benefit certain parts of the gameplay.

At first, this really intrigued me, and although it’s a very well-run mechanic, the more and more I have continued on with the game, the shallower it becomes from a narrative perspective.

On paper, it should work flawlessly, but the issue lies in the fact that all of your party members (at least the ones I have met) are so damn likeable. To the point where I don’t even feel an inclination to be anything other than the most kind, caring, and thoughtful individual the world has ever seen.

While that may make me feel better as a person, and offers exceptional escapism, it doesn’t make it a good story. There’s nothing realistic about it at all, causing almost no conflict in the interactions I have with the other characters.

While the characters are different, with distinct personalities and personal conflict, because that conflict doesn’t really affect you in any negative way, the choices seem to be there just to have a choice, not to make the story more compelling in this part of the game.

Mass Effect and other BioWare games are in a similar situation here, because they hold many similarities in terms of getting to know your squad mates. I will admit, however, that BioWare tends to make these choices centered more around the narrative of their games, because they actually hold weight.

…when first playing Mass Effect…I was completely taken aback by how significant some of the decisions were…

To be honest, when first playing Mass Effect (the first BioWare game I played) I was completely taken aback by how significant some of the decisions were, whether it be as drastic as choosing one party member to be killed versus another, or having to choose which squad member I wanted to romanticize, these decisions actually added depth towards the narrative rather than just putting it in the game to have it there.

Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead, also come to mind in this aspect, because once again the choices you make actually impact the narrative in concrete. Both of these games have decisions that will actually eliminate characters all together. Heavy Rain takes it a step further, as each protagonist you play can be killed at certain points of the game, and with over 20 different endings, this might be the closest a game has to showing that choice can make for better storytelling.

Yet, I hold my reservations in saying that Heavy Rain is a distinct example of a game beating out a linear-driven story, and to that I ask: Do certain choices in a game provide for a better/worse narrative?

This is where it starts to get weird because it’s a pretty abstract and subjective inquiry, but I suppose the best way to answer this question would be with some hypotheticals.

Would The Last of Us be better if you had to choose how to talk with Ellie?

For instance, would The Last of Us be better if you had to choose how to talk with Ellie? Or even taking it so far as to choose what ending you wanted?

Similarly, would a game like Hotline Miami’s story become less meaningful if you had the choice of being able to get through missions without killing anyone?

These questions could be applied to any number of games that provide a linear story development, and while people may gripe about them because they don’t provide the choice that other games do, I would argue, based on my experience, that they present the best opportunity for optimal storytelling within games.

Granted, there is choice within most of these games, but they are less noticeable because, usually, they are only applicable to certain gameplay elements.

When I play games, I make ideal decisions rather than compelling ones.

Notice that I said “based on my experience,” because I’ve noticed that when I play games with choices affecting the narrative I make ideal decisions rather than compelling ones.

Maybe it’s the fact that I’m self-conscious of what I would really do if I were in that position and want to feel better about myself, or the fact that it’s really impossible to act how I actually would in real life because there isn’t any major harm that can be done to me, but nevertheless I think a lot of these stories with choice could be a lot more interesting if it were a character tailor-made for that game, in turn making the narrative the best it can possibly be.

Going back to the hypotheticals, I know for a fact that if I were making decisions for Joel in The Last of Us, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting of a story, because simply put, I’m not him. I don’t share the same motives, the same views on the world, or have all of the traits that made him such a good fit for that narrative.

This further expands on the argument presented earlier, and shows that it might be simply impossible to tap into the best possible story in a game when the player is in charge of making the decisions. So to answer the initial question, I would say yes, choice does inhibit games from telling the best story for that game.

Does that make choice driven games any less valuable? No, because that’s not what they’re there for, they’re there to promote an experience that cannot be matched by any other medium today.

It’s the feeling of seeing your choices make a direct effect on the narrative that makes the user so emotionally attached to decision-driven games and their stories.

That’s what makes them so appealing, It doesn’t matter that choice prevents games from telling the best stories, because they tell the story that the player wants to tell.because even though they don’t tell better stories than linear games, they don’t need to because the ones they tell are some of the most personal you can find in any medium.

From that perspective, it doesn’t matter that choice prevents games from telling the best stories, because they tell the story that the player wants to tell (to a degree).

In that way, I find myself feeling spoiled, because video games are the only medium where you can find such a variety of ways to tell a narrative.

If anything that shows how strong of a case video games makes for its storytelling ability, not because they can match ones found in books and film (let’s be real here, they’re miles ahead of video games at this point), but because of the variety in which they can be told within video games.

In the end, just like everything else in the creative world, it comes down to what you or I like, and while it’s fun to analyze and categorize these types of things, all that really matters is that we enjoy what we engage in.

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There are 8 comments

  1. Osharlequin

    A very interesting point. A suppose a similar argument could be made for ‘blank slate’ characters as opposed to actual developer defined ones?

  2. Nick Verboon

    It’s all about execution. I tend to favor choice because that’s where interactive fiction is on a level that other entertainment mediums can’t touch beyond shallow choose your own adventure stories. But to carry off a Heavy Rain or a Mass Effect, you need an immense amount of talent and resources. I think it’s much easier to have a deep linear narrative that focuses on the character as he/she is rather than a character avatar who has to be open to many different play styles and philosophies. But I’d argue that, done right, the latter is more rewarding for me as a gamer and is probably the future of the medium.

    1. Michael Giles

      I would actually agree with you, I also tend to prefer games with choice, which is what really fascinated me with this topic: the fact that I find a game more compelling even if it means missing the single, best story said game has to offer. It seems that games are the only medium with which that could happen, which is really cool.

  3. goseebananafish

    video game storytelling is at an extreme disadvantage to other storytelling mediums: the author(s) does not control the pacing of the story. Imagine a book where right before the conclusion, the protagonist goes off to gather 500 collectible items hidden throughout the world.

  4. ceekyuucee

    I think Alpha Protocol managed the choice and pacing and tight storytelling fairly well. Its… gameplay was wonky, to be sure, but the choice aspect was great. Compared to Mass Effect, where most of the choices were rather superficial (at least up until the end of the trilogy, which I think is neat in one way and also weak because the choice aspect of the games doesn’t exactly stand alone), Alpha Protocol had several branching storylines that were handled well because the amount of information divulged to the player was small. This meant that one choice could radically alter the story for the player. Not just the story, either. Small things would be influenced by what order you did levels in and things like that, making the game easier or harder. Also, it played by levels from a minimalist hub, so you couldn’t exactly take time off saving the Galaxy to go “dancing” with your crewmates.

  5. Jorda

    Reblogged this on Jorda's Blog and commented:
    I love video games and one blog I follow is Gamemoir. I have nothing but good things to say about the content- my favorite being the posts about old school games you can play on the Internet for free. The post I chose to reblog is one that questions storytelling and how that aspect of gaming is influenced by players being able to make choices within the game that will eventually control the outcome. I personally think story lines should never be less of a priority regardless of how significant the player’s choices are to a game’s ending,

  6. CompGeekDavid

    I find extreme choice somewhat difficult. For instance, a game like Skyrim, there is so much to do, so little guidance, that I never get very far. I come up with new plans, create new characters, over and over, rather than get anywhere. I set a goal, to become Archmage. I did. I haven’t touched the game since.

    Then there are heavily story games, with minimal choices. Like Bioshock Infinite. I was more than okay with working my way through the story – I was excited to do so. I think a lot of people would agree. There is absolutely a place for games with less choice, especially when they still give you time to explore, and reward that exploring. When they have pace and plot and are telling even a halfway decent story. A video game can be a fantastic way to tell a story.

    Too much choice, and can you give the players a game they are happy with the story of? Mass Effect 3 is of course the perfect example. How do you please the gamers with the story while also providing a choice for every action? The amount of writing, of coding, of possibilities… The production time on such a game would be a bit much. Could it ever be made?

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