Tuesday, May 11, 2021

The real pleasure and pain of making choices in video games

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It’s important to be invested in the story by playing a video game. Of course, there are absolutely times when you can take a step back and enjoy the gameplay and visuals ( Sackboy has been great for that lately), but for the most part it’s the purpose, character, and arc of the story that provides an anchor. Many of us don’t have a lot of time to play on a daily basis, so playing time has to be meaningful. The gain is essential.

With that in mind, you’d think the trend towards real-world consequences of choosing characters in a game would be a welcome change. Being able to control the end of the story based solely on the decisions your character makes is amazing for interactive storytelling. This leaves players deeply invested in their characters because they know they are actually making a difference in the way the game plays out. I should love it, but it actually sucks.

Why? I have a love / hate relationship with this kind of gameplay. If you are a heavy RPG player (I grew up Final fantasy), then most of the games you play end up having some sort of ‘choices have consequences’ framework. Having to make choices that have a direct impact on what kind of ending I’ll get in a game can be very stressful, especially when those games are often over 50 hours long. This means that the cost in time of not getting the ending you desire can be very high.

I’m currently playing (and really enjoying) Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. It took me a while to really get into it – but once the story felt like it had started it finally clicked and I was hooked. In these games, the decisions your character makes matters. In conversations, you are often presented with different dialogue options and actions: killing an enemy rather than letting them go, prioritizing one objective over another. If you want the “best” ending, possibly the happiest, then you have to make the right choice at the right time without perfect information.

Sometimes it’s easy to figure out which choice to make – just pick Mercy, or the option that will kill or hurt the fewest people (a good strategy in video games and in life). Other times it is not clear. And, if you’re someone obsessed with that gold star, that “best ending,” it can be extremely difficult.

During the lecture Valhalla little earlier this week (a game i’ve put in about 50 hours since november) i was faced with the choice of who to support a county chief; my end goal was to form a lasting alliance. I knew the decision could have consequences, so I thought about it for a while, gathered as much information as I could, and then turned to Google. I would always rather risk spoilers than risk the best result.

I discovered that I was, by design, working with below average knowledge. Choosing two of the candidates would give me a similar result, but the third was secretly working with an enemy organization. I don’t know what the final long-term implications would have been, but it is possible that I could have ruined my eternal quest for the best outcome and I didn’t even know it!

You can laugh, but it’s a thought that has haunted me ever since. What other mistakes could I have made along the way Valhalla without even realizing it? Why does making choices in video games trouble me so much? Maybe because deep down I know I can’t control the world, but I can control my game.

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