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Note: The following editorial contains spoilers. You have been warned.

“Choices.” “Consequences.” “Engaging decisions.” These are the short and catchy buzzwords of a fast-growing gaming medium that have found a way into the very heart of modern game design. It is almost inescapable in the current market to find a game not touting how much “impact” your choices have, especially in the realm of role-playing games. For each choice we see though, within them is a growing illusion of what they truly represent. Having control and impact on the choices made in games is something of a misnomer, because in the end a fundamental question needs to be asked: how much control does the player actually have over their choices?

It really is a difficult question to answer, mainly because of the diversity of the video game market. On the one hand, the player should have a degree of control, mainly in terms of actual gameplay mechanics. On the other hand, the developers set the rules of the game through those same mechanics, essentially forcing players to operate within the world. For story-driven games,  this also includes controlling the plot through the allotted and limited number of in-game choices.

One could argue that the player should dictate what is allowed by the parameters of the game design, but no game is a full blank slate. This is even more apparent when we see the type of control implemented by the developers that perpetuate the illusion of choice. “Railroading the narrative,” for example, is often criticized for taking away in-game choices. Other choices are often seen as being too broad or never having full weight of their consequences shown throughout the game.

Let’s face it that is all we see in gaming—the illusion is the selection of choices with predetermined consequences, all connected in a defined matrix that can never be deviated from. To think a game is able to offer full freedom to a player’s choices in a storyline is naive, so perhaps the better question to ask is why? Why do we put up with these predestinations? How can developers make these choices and consequences matter when it often seems like they rarely do?

Perhaps we can find the answer to these questions by analyzing some more recently released role-playing games. Since RPGs are often the most associated with choices and consequences, they have the perfect case studies to show not only the inner workings of how choices work but also how similar these games are mechanically in addressing these choices.

When I say mechanically in this case, I am referring mostly to the in-game plot found in RPGs. The first thing to address is how choices are factored into the game plot. For their part, a game’s plot functions mostly like any other form of storytelling: it is the causality of your story, the events which major points are revealed throughout the game itself that lead to the conclusion of the said story.  For example, in The Witcher 2, the player is searching for the kingslayer, an assassin responsible for the murder of several monarchs. The player, controlling the Witcher Geralt, needs to track down the kingslayer with the help of several unconventional allies, some of which you need to decide to follow them. Right there, we see the plot of the game and the overall journey the player will go on. What is not shown in that synopsis are the aspects of the narrative—essentially, how do you get to these points in the plot, and what happens during these moments?

See, these plot points remain unchanged, save for a few deviations and possible epilogues to the endings of such games, the narrative becomes the part of the story where deviations can occur. Narrative in this case refers to the context of the story, what you say and do, how characters react to you, and the choices and eventual consequences behind those choices. The narrative is directly changed by the choices made by the player, becoming the focus, the drive to continue to the plot for most games. Since the narrative is what the players can manipulate through gameplay, rather than the plot, the narrative is often the focal point for choices found in many story-driven video games, as they are moments that can be easily manipulated. 

This also determines what happens during the narrative. It is easy to say  “Geralt will join Roche over Iorveth” because the game demands the player to make a difficult choice, but for that player, the story and overall tone of the narrative takes shape through this action; Geralt joins with Iorveth and makes enemies with Roche and his Blue Stripes. We then stay with Iorveth and receive a new perspective on the Scoia’Tael. This validates the choice for the player through giving them a narrative decision that changes their game, in turn moving them closer to the major plot points of the game.

So it is a subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless that developers typically employ to fabricate a response for the player. In a way the illusion of choice is purposely perpetuated by the developers where the outcome is essentially set in stone in one, two, or in rare cases, three or more different ways; the only thing that changes is how you get there, or what path you take to get there.

It becomes a well-crafted lie that eventually leads to moments of railroading. In The Witcher 2, players will always find themselves in a similar spot in chapter 3 of the game. Some parts may be changed based on choices made throughout the game, but the third chapter railroads the plot back on course after a major deviation for chapter two, which is completely different depending on the Iorveth or Roche choice.

Depending on the game also depends on the response to the choice by the player. For the Witcher 2, it is an immediate change; you have whole chapter devoted to that one choice that validates the consequence of your action. Other games, and even series, often go the long way in creating the same response. The Mass Effect trilogy in turn offers games about choice, with little consequence until Mass Effect 3, where we see those choices employed both through the narrative and the gameplay.

The consequences then become a major aspect of the player’s response to the choices given to them. If a dialogue tree always leads to the same place, then the choices of what you say will, in game mechanics, have little impact in terms of actual consequence. Yet for players who enjoy story-driven games, especially in RPGs, the ability to say or illicit a specific response to a situation become paramount to the narrative experience. It is the narrative that sustains such attachment through the actions the protagonist takes, be it directly through player intervention or indirectly through the plot.

From this, many games walk a tightrope to avoid the pitfalls of an unsustainable narrative, one that is all plot, no character, or vice-versa. Some games, like the Elder Scrolls series, focus their narratives completely through gameplay, foregoing a narrative focus in favor of immediate player agency. Despite the Elder Scrolls games having actual plots, they become irrelevant. In contrast, visual novels often depend on players being fully  invested in the narrative first, with the plot differences possible depending on the choices of the player.

While the plot rarely changes, divergent pathways in RPGs often present an illusion of the plot changing. Developers need to be convincing storytellers in that regard to showcase possible deviations to the games plot, and this is a feat often achieved by changing the games narrative through choice. Take the Witcher 2 as an example again, the choice between Iorveth or Roche doesn’t change the game’s plot because it fulfills the causes that make up the plot—the promise of finding allies to find the kingslayer. Who you ally with is inconsequential to this point, as making that choice is the narrative choice that happens to coincide with one of the games major plot points,.

This also affects more than just actual story as well. Titles like Dragon Age: Inquisition have been criticized for not giving players full agency with their choices in the proper narratve, yet every action taken—whether or not you explore a new area, complete a given quest, interact with hidden ruins—are narrative choices in the end that give the player long-term agency; they are decisions on how to budget your time in the game as you progress through the plot.

Despite the fact that games essentially lie about the choices having consequences in a mechanical sense, they are able to surpass any snags the plot may have because the narrative was well-told, allowing an emotional experience that feels like the choices mattered. It really is no different than other genres involving choices and consequences. Dishonored locks you out of choices based on how you respond to certain situations, forcing you to deal with the consequences while rarely changing its overall plot. Sandbox titles such as Grand Theft Auto hold sometimes massive repercussions for the world you are inhabiting, despite the consequences behind these earth-shaking plots essentially being invisible in-game at times. Adventure titles like The Walking Dead constantly railroad players to a foregone conclusion, but the choices made throughout the game become the narrative weight of your entire experience.

This is the primary appeal for choice-based mechanics. Much like the classic “Choose your own Adventure” books, you essentially are creating your own story based on the elements available. Is it full control of the games outcome? In pretty much every case: no, especially when you are dealing with a series of games, such as Mass Effect or The Witcher. Even multiple endings to a game or a game series do not effectively change the games plot; remember the plot is the fixed point of the game itself. The narrative, once again, is what changes in a games epilogue, often showing the consequences of the choices made throughout the game in a catch all moment.

For example, in Mass Effect 3, the plot of “stop an alien menace from destroying the known galaxy, by recruiting allies for one last assault,” does not change, even though the tone of the ending does, depending on the choice you make. The final decision in the game becomes a narrative-based one because of that; the last decision hinges on the players psychology, their beliefs and how much agency they put int the character of Commander Shepard—in other words, how they role-play the character. The final choices in most games often lead to the same conclusion, but the narrative context of that conclusion is what players can manipulate. The reapers will always be defeated, the question the player answers is how.

The point being, the choices given to the player are almost always an illusion to make it seem like they matter, but what makes them matter is not that they are there, but that they allow the player to feel the impact of these moments through the story. It is within choosing the Stormcloaks over the Imperials, in curing the Genophage over tricking the Krogan, in sparing the dragon over killing it in Witcher 2—the narrative takes shape depending upon our choices. Increasingly though, many players have begun to rebel against such design. Due to the fact that the plot must be, at times, railroaded to fit into a specific conclusion, players have cried foul of the degree of control they don’t have story-driven titles, especially role-playing games.

In actuality, that is nothing new or against the mechanical design of the choices given in video games. For story-driven games, the choices will always be tied to a plot written by the developers, but controlled by the players. The real value of this is not that the story eventually doesn’t matter, but that the journey the story takes, the changes in the narrative because of how the player controls the story, will make the experience worthwhile. It is a gamble each time, and these past few years we have seen many games succumb to the wrath of players because the plot ended a certain way against the tastes of the player.

In the end, we need to take to heart the fact that in the end there are no true consequences, no fully changed outcomes to be gained in a fixed plot. Everything, from the games opening to the ending, are plot points wrapped in narrative decisions, and the narrative decisions are what shape our experience.  See, the consequences of these moments is a the summation of the choices made, the ability for the player to agree with the philosophy or morals of the characters around them in the game, or the situation they are in. It is through this illusion of choice where we see the crux of the narrative that gamers become attached to, and in the end the choices matter only because we made them that way. We control the illusion by making the choices, which in turn help us tell the story, the emotional meat of the experience.

So don’t blame the games or the next game to use buzzwords like”choice” and “consequences” for eventually removing the facade of the choice in an instant. What truly matters in a narrative is not that the plot can change, but that the circumstances of the plot, the actual story behind your actions, dictate the tone of the overall experience. In doing this, many role-playing games, along with other genres, can craft stories with hard choices and consequences for them. A little give and take regarding what can be influenced, and what can’t, also needs to be recognized for the illusion to work its magic.

Thank you for reading this weeks Playing Roles. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below, or send me a tweet at @LinksOcarina. See you next time. 

More About This Game

Robert Grosso

Staff Writer

A game playing, college teaching, erudite-minded scholar who happens to write some articles every so often. Have worked as a journalist, critic, educator and blogger for over five years now, with articles published (as user editorials) on Game Revolution and Giant Bomb as well as a contributor for the websites Angry Bananas and Blistered Thumbs. Now making TechRaptor my home.