The Illusion of Choice

SPOILERS: If you didn’t play Life is Strange, first off… What the hell is wrong with you? Secondly, don’t read anymore. Or do it. Whatever. Your choice.

Over the past five or so years, episodic graphic adventure games have risen from obscure genre to mainstream staple. The name is pretty wordy, but you know the games. TellTale style. More interactive movie/TV show than video game. “What the fuck do I do?” games minus the ball shatteringly cryptic puzzles. Released periodically with each episode ending on a cliff hanger, it’s all about progressing and enjoying the story, rather than any use of skill. Do what you’re supposed to do and you’re golden. The big draw is making choices that alter the story.


Like this, but it’s a video game. And unfortunately, you are not a shark.


But do they? A little, but not to a particularly significant degree. You’ll get different lines of dialogue, characters behave differently for a bit, events are referenced later… Some folks live or die, which you’d think is a huge deal, but the ending is still basically the same regardless. That character you chose to save? You’re just delaying the inevitable; they’ll get the boot a little later. When playing Life is Strange, I couldn’t believe it when Kate Marsh committed suicide. I didn’t think saving her was even possible because it would be such a drastic change. Turns out if you talk her down from the roof, she just spends the rest of the game in a hospital, so she’s out of the picture either way.


Seen here: leaving the picture


When Steve and I talked about this, he called it “the illusion of choice.” I think that’s fitting. We think we’re making a decision and impacting the story, but in reality, we’re all ending up at the same place no matter what. Going back to Life is Strange, only one choice in the whole game matters; the very last one where you basically just pick which ending you want. Due to time travel, every decision you racked your brain over is wiped from existence and essentially never happened. But winding up at the same outcome no matter what makes sense. If every little thing we did led us down a different path, the number possibilities would be damn near infinite. And, like we learned from No Man’s Sky, that’s just not possible for a video game to pull off.


Though it did prove a game can create infinite jokes.


Making these “meaningless” choices feels so empowering. But do they really matter? Yes. That “illusion of choice” does make a difference. Even if the outcome remains the same, you FEEL like you’re affecting the story. And that goes a long way. Not to mention, the journey is slightly different along the way. Having characters treat each other based on what you decided to do, even for a short time, gives the player the sense that they have a minor bit of control on the in-game universe.

More importantly, they shape the way you, the player, view the main character. They already have set personalities, but making decisions, both critical and minor, for them along the way builds on that foundation. In the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, you can make Lee Everett a good man who happened to make a mistake just before the zombie outbreak, a cold-hearted, selfish asshole, or anywhere in between just depending on how you treat Clementine. That doesn’t factor in how you decide to treat Kenny’s family, Lilly, Larry, and the rest of the cast. You determine how you see your character at their core. And that’s a big deal.


If you could be a jerk to little Clem, that tells me more about you than Lee, you soulless monster.


I’m not a master of the genre. I don’t know if this holds true with every game. Truth be told, I’ve only played a few: Life is Strange, The Walking Dead: Season 1, and The Wolf Among Us. I dabbled with the Game of Thrones game and plan to give Tales from the Borderland a go at some point or another. But I’m pretty sure I get the gist of the formula and how the mechanics work. You don’t have the power to control the story. But you do have the power to control how you feel. The ending might not change, but it’s the journey, not the destination, right?


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