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What makes videogame choices meaningful?

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Video version of this post.

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Videogames are based around choices.

I state this as a fact, because it's fundamentally true. "Choice" is a word that has its own connotations in the context of videogames – it probably made you think of branching narratives, morality systems, or other methods of integrating a player's input into a game's narrative. And not all videogames have those things. Indeed, some titles offer you nothing besides gameplay.

But the act of playing a game is based around interaction. The player chooses to provide different inputs in order to obtain different results – go this or that way, use this or that weapon, pick this or that dialogue option etc. Even if they're simply different means to achieve one end, those second-to-second choices are a necessary part of a game. If your only choice is to continue, it's a walking simulator. If you have no choice at all, it's a movie.

At the most basic level, a choice is an action of picking one of several options, to the exclusion of others.
That implies being aware of those options. You're not making a choice if you're not seing alternatives, after all. And while the options relating to gameplay – movement, combat, dialogue, so on – are practiced over and over, to the point of becoming instinctual, the same can't always be said about narrative choices.
When it's time to make one of those, the action usually stops, and the player is presented with some button prompts. It's a utilitarian approach, but it's functional. You know that it's time to make a choice, and you know exactly how many options you have. But this highlights a different issue.

Freedom of action is the broad scope of things you can do in-game. For some games (sandbox, open world, 4X, etc.) it can be quite large, while in others it's more limited. But for reasons mentioned above, it's a fundamental feature of all games. When you're confronted with choices, freedom of action is what they're nested within.
Now, the issue that I mentioned comes from those occasions when a player's freedom of action is suddenly restricted, because they're forced to make a narrative choice. Whether this ends up being impactful or purely cosmetic, that's another issue. But the simple fact of arbitrarily limiting that freedom is enough to cause dissonance at best, and break immersion at worst.

Let's look at those concepts based on some examples.

During the course of Red Dead Redemption 2, you will sometimes be presented with binary choices. Not to spoil anything, but none of them result in meaningful changes to the plot. Most of the missions don't give you any choices, just a string of instructions. Which raises the question of "why are they even here"?
On the other hand, RDR2 features one of the best open worlds in any videogame yet. You can spend hours roaming the hauntingly beautiful landscapes, coming across random events and sidequests, hunting or possibly just admiring the wildlife, and simply existing there as part of that world. As soon as you sit your ass upon a horse, you’re absolutely free to go anywhere you want, and do whatever makes sense for you to do. That’s freedom of action, and in RDR2, it’s near total.
So when the game takes away all that freedom which you were enjoying just a minute ago, and puts you on a heavily scripted linear path, it’s grating and confusing. The aforementioned binary choices are most likely an intended solution to this problem, but when your range of options suddenly goes from “do literally anything in this big open world” to “go this or that way”, it only serves to highlight how Rockstar’s mission design hasn’t progressed an inch since GTA Vice City.

It’s a problematic aspect of videogames. Every choice that you make has to be foreseen and implemented by the developer – which often results in binary choices, like the one just demonstrated, that don’t feel as impactful as they perhaps could, mostly because of your options being heavily restricted. And I don’t think it’s necessarily a lack of creativity on the devs’ part – though it can sometimes be the case – but more often it’s a problem coming from the fact that games are a virtual form of media, and not literally a simulated part of reality.

However, I don't think that's an insurmountable obstacle.

Fallout: New Vegas addresses this issue much better, and it coincidentally also happens to be cowboy-themed.
Like RDR2, New Vegas is an open-world RPG with an emphasis on exploration. You’re free to roam around the wasteland, which is admittedly less detailed and vibrant than RDR2’s American landscape, but offers more questlines to complete and locations to explore. As soon as you’re done making your character, you’re free to do whatever you please. You might feel compelled to hit the local saloon, and learn about certain troubles that have recently afflicted the quiet little town of Goodsprings. For most players, this is the first quest that they’ll complete, and it’s a good introduction into the different game mechanics of Fallout: New Vegas. There are bad men preparing to roll into town, and you can either face them head on, or demonstrate your knowledge of particular skills to convince various settlers to help you in combat. OR, you can side with the bad men for an easier, if less moral outcome. OR, you can ignore all of that noise and just set off into the wasteland. This situation is pretty much a microcosm of New Vegas.

The game grants you freedom of action from the start, but unlike RDR2, New Vegas takes care to avoid limiting it with overly restrictive choices (or lack thereof) . Every situation you’ll come across has several different ways of solving them, including the main plot: the conflict over the ownership of Hoover Dam, and consequently, Mojave wasteland itself. You can influence the outcome by helping whichever faction you feel deserves to win: there's four to choose from.

And the real magical aspect of this is that nobody’s telling you to do any of it.You can play the main questline like most modern games are supposed to be played – by agreeing with the last thing you heard, and just doing what you’re told without question. And I don’t fault you for playing like this if you want to. But by always having the choice of going against your current order – including the option of ignorring the main narrative entirely, since there’s more than enough optional content to justify that -Fallout:New Vegas manages to make the transition between its exploration and its narrative content, as seamless as possible. Just like you always have a wealth of places to visit in the wasteland, you have many options for dealing with problems you come across. Not to mention that during exploration you can find certain resources and factions which can help you during the final showdown. There is less of a gap between freedom of action and narrative choices, and I think that it makes for a more interesting and cohesive experience for the player.
Fallout:New Vegas is one of the best examples of branching narratives done right. The choice between different factions is left only for the player to consider – with the independent ending always available for players who don’t take a liking to any of them. At each point of the story, you know that you’re there only from your own volition, and that’s just good narrative design.
Contrast this with RDR2, where the choices you make are largely insignificant, with only the ending offering a change in the otherwise static, linear story – and it’s not even that big of a change! You could argue that Red Dead has the better plot – because of its focus on strong, complex characters and the relationships between them. To some extent, I agree – it’s a great movie story. It doesn’t afford the player any meaningful agency.

You could argue that it’s deliberate – that this lack of choice is supposed to reflect Arthur Morgan’s (the protagonist’s) longstanding loyalty to Dutch and the gang. To show that despite living a free life, camped out in the wilderness with no one to answer to, he is not a free man at all, bound to the people he cares about, putting their needs above his own. But there is already an in-game system that’s supposed to reflect that. Members of the gang depend on you (and only you) to keep the camp supplied with food, ammo and medicine – all of which you can either purchase or procure by hunting or fishing. Without your input, the levels of these resources will decrease over time, which results in…basically nothing. On low food level, you get a few new conversations with people urging you to find some for them – that’s basically it. There’s also an option to donate money and valuables to the camp’s funds, which lets you purchase some upgrades that don’t do a whole lot, and some items…which you could already purchase yourself, in any town. Those systems are safe to ignore completely, and that’s a shame, as they could’ve resulted in interesting gameplay situations.
What if, for example, ignoring the needs of the camp resulted in you being temporarily kicked out to go solve those issues, and be unable to progress the main story until you do so?
Or better yet, to reinforce the main motive of the story – make the camp consume a set amount of funds daily. Then, when they run out, make one of the gang members announce that they’re going out to get some money, one way or another. If the player doesn’t either donate a significant amount then, or doesn’t help the character with their time-limited mission, they have a high chance of being killed or captured.

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This might sound like an arbitrary annoyance, but consider this: by having to keep the needs of the camp constantly in the back of your mind, you’d be engaging with the story even when you’re just riding around the open world – similar to Dead Rising 2, where you have to balance free roaming against the clock, or you’ll be locked out of completing main story. Those are just examples, I’m sure there are many other ways to make the existing systems work to reinforce the story of RDR2, instead of just being…there. And by making the camp more dependent on you (and perhaps, the other way round too), the developers could create an intentional disconnect between the player’s lust for freedom, and the gameplay obligations needed for completing the story – to emulate the internal struggle of Arthur Morgan, torn between the people he loves and the knowledge that the lifestyle he shares with them is bringing him to an early grave.
I’m going to spoil some endgame stuff in the next paragraph.

During the course of the story, Arthur is contacted several times by Mary, his old love. Should the player choose to pursue this storyline, it will culminate with Mary begging Arthur to leave with her, and leave his criminal life behind. You can see how torn Arthur looks in this scene, but you know what he’ll say even before she asks. Mary leaves without him, and the player can only observe and empathise with Arthur’s grief.
How much more powerful this scene would’ve been if you did have a choice? Stay with the gang, and the plot continues as normal…or leave with Mary. We can only imagine what could’ve happened next – maybe things wouldn’t have worked out, and Arthur would have to return to the gang anyway. Maybe it could’ve been an alternate ending, where Arthur and Mary get to live happily ever after in a cottage somewhere, not too dissimilar to what happens to John and Abigail in the epilogue. It still would’ve been a bittersweet deal- because it’d require Arthur to turn his back on the rest of his family. But by making it a tangible choice, you could turn this sad little movie scene into a visceral, agonizing dilemma for the player.

You might think that I’m splitting hairs here. That it’s pointless to pursue branching narratives because it dilutes the intended experience. That it’s better to focus on a scripted, linear narrative, because those are always easier to make, and waste no time and effort on side content.
May I remind you that this game has an entire chapter set on a tropical island, in which no plot development happens. It sounds like a joke, but it’s real. This place is filled with unique assets, models and sounds that aren’t seen or heard anywhere else in the game. There is a lot of work on display here…and it’s all for seemingly no purpose. This entire chapter could’ve been replaced with a text screen reading “a couple weeks later” or something, and the game as a whole would’ve lost nothing. What if Rockstar, instead of padding the game’s length with nonsensical adventures, put the work into an alternative ending for Arthur? Wouldn’t that make for a more interesting experience?

I think that videogames should aspire to be more than just interactive movies. They can be used to tell singularly personal stories that feel intimate to the player because he actually participates in them.
Fallout:New Vegas’s main story doesn’t have as many vibrant characters as RDR2 does – but it remains memorable after a full decade, because it makes you the protagonist in more than just the title. It feels personal, because of the agency you have within it.

So, by exploring these two games, we’ve considered how choices, or lack of them, can have an impact on the emotional weight of videogame narratives, especially in the way they limit the player’s freedom of action. But they can also have a different aspect, where they don’t influence the story itself as much as the player’s perception of it.

Let’s take SOMA for example. It’s a sci-fi story about a modern day man suddenly transported into the near, post-apocalyptic future where the last remains of humankind live out their days on a subnautical research base called PATHOS-II. The game deals with existential themes like personal identity, consciousness, artificial intelligence or perceived reality. I’m going to spoil the entire game to make my point, so if you haven’t played it yet and that description sounds interesting enough that you want to give it a try, please skip to the last paragraph.

During the course of the game, weird stuff happens. You meet robots that seem convinced of their personhood. You can breathe underwater, despite being ostensibly human. You interact with technology that can create and store a perfect digital imprint of a person’s memories and personality, by scanning their living brain. You use that technology to observe and interrogate a real person inside a simulated virtual reality, and your main goal is to put as many of those imprints as possible inside that reality, running on a solar-powered server and yeet it into space.

It’s a deep and fascinating premise that’s designed to make you think. Early in the game, you’re served a questionnaire asking for your opinion on the topic of transporting your consciousness outside of your biological body – into a simulated reality. Your answers don’t seem to change anything about the game itself, but this sets you up to keep those topics in mind as you proceed. During the course of the game, you’ll come across many examples of those ideas, such as robots that seem to think they’re human.
You’ll discover that, in some sense they are – as each of them is controlled by the mind of a person, in the form of the aforementioned digital imprints. Unfortunately, all of them are malfunctioning in some way – either being immobile, unable to communicate, or just not at full mental capacity – and all but one seem unable to grasp the new reality they found themselves in. Stuck in a cold, metal shell, with no limbs, no purpose, and nobody to talk to, until you come along. You can talk with those robots, convince yourself of their personhood or not, and either leave them be, or kill them. There is nothing telling you to do this, besides two occasions where you have to kill a robot to proceed with the plot. You’re free to make up your own mind on what to do about them. You can pull the plug from that robot, shutting it down for good – was that only a machine, or did you just kill a person? If you think that’s murder, do you think it was justified because they were otherwise condemned to a lonesome, meaningless existence?

If those choices aren’t hard-hitting enough for you – how about the option to consensually euthanise the last surviving biological human on Earth? Better yet, if you decide to do as she asks, would you choose to accompany her during her last moments? Can you bring yourself to listen to a dying woman talk about her life choices and regrets, or would you just walk out of the room, and leave her to die alone?

In the epilogue, you’re confronted with the exact same questionnaire as before. You answer the same questions you answered some hours ago, but now your opinions might have started to change, and perhaps your answers will, as well. The choices you came across in game aren’t there to provide you different gameplay opportunities, but to make you think. Is a digital copy of a human mind really equivalent to a person? If it’s put inside a self-sustaining server, is that a form of afterlife? What happens when two instances of you exist simultaneously?. If the player wasn’t presented with opportunities to act on their beliefs, those questions – and subsequently, the game’s themes would hold much less weight.

And I think that this is a universal rule of videogames. The less options you afford the player, the lesser the impact of the game as a whole. Especially if what few options you offer end up contrasting with a much wider freedom of action. The bigger that gap is, the larger the dissonance when that control is taken away from the player. The bigger the disappointment when the means of creative expression are gone. After all, choice matters most when you no longer have one.
The same works in reverse. Unlike the first two games analysed in this video, SOMA doesn’t feature an open world. At most points in the story, the player’s options are very limited, with only a single path forward. This makes it so that any choices you do have, stand out in particular, which is why I consider linearity a strength of SOMA.
I don’t think that every game necessarily needs earthsplitting choices in order to be enjoyable. But I do think that offering meaningless choices, or a complete lack of them, is simply not taking full advantage of an interactive medium which videogames, self-evidently are.
Every human story ever told requires the audience to relate themselves to it on some level, in order to enjoy it, and draw meaning from it. We’re more engaged by tales of people when we see a bit of ourselves within them. Imagine then, how powerful could a story be, if it was about you?


Thanks for reading and/or watching. Please share your opinions in the comments here. I'd like to see whether I'm the only one that expects games to be more interactive than they currently are.

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