This week’s article is going to be a bit different. Instead of focusing on topics that have come up recently, I am going to focus on something that has been rubbing me the wrong way. It can be something that’s happening in the community, a trend, just about anything. As such, this article should be taken as a more eloquent rant than something worth looking into. With that in mind, let’s get an annoyance off my chest.
While perusing internet forums and talking with my other gaming friends, specifically RPG fans and lovers of more narrow, story-driven games, a certain phrase keeps cropping up by certain people that never fails to get under my skin. It always goes like this, “I made this choice, but it doesn’t matter because the game only let’s this happen.” In some ways, I get it. More often than not, a player’s freedom is compromised by the game in order to progress the storyline. A popular instance of this is the death of Aerith in Final Fantasy VII. But, it’s the abundance of the phrase, “it doesn’t matter,” among so many people I know when it comes to areas not even about narrative that truly annoy me. This section of the game doesn’t matter because you find out the princess is in another castle. This boss fight doesn’t matter because he gets away in a cutscene later. But worst of all, it’s the idea that a player given a choice, only to have it resolve in the same manner regardless of what he or she chose, doesn’t matter at all.
There’s a phenomenon in old pen-and-paper RPGs referred to as “meta-gaming.” It’s the idea of a player coming to a conclusion involving some encounter or dungeon or whatever, not by their character’s understanding of what is around them, but by the player using the rules of the game and extrapolating a conclusion. An example of this happening goes thus. The party of adventurers makes it to a large chasm. The pit is too wide to jump, and there’s not enough collective rope to climb across. There’s a drawbridge on the other side, but there is no lever nearby to lower it.
A player in this situation would normally recall any events or details left behind in the dungeon upto this point and relay this information to the rest of the party in order to figure out how lower the drawbridge. A meta-gamer would roll his or her eyes and immediately jump to the conclusion that the Dungeon Master wants to pad the session out some more with a “find the button to make the game progress” cliché, then go down every single hackneyed way he or she would do to hide a lever then search for those exploits. One method uses knowledge given in the game, and another assumes through knowledge about the game itself on a mechanical level. It breaks immersion, and it’s something most Dungeon Masters either don’t approve, or go out of their way to subvert in game session to game session. I can’t help but feel that this defeatist, “it doesn’t matter,” talk may be a form of meta-gaming.
In a lot of ways, cheating within the rules and meta-gaming has always been something to be applauded in a gaming experience. Level grinding a Pokemon team to take out an annoying foe or Gym Leader is understanding the game won’t continue unless you win. The continuous trial and error nature of Dark Souls is part of what makes it an engaging, if infuriating, experience. Yet, in the case of games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, or Telltale’s Walking Dead, this understanding of game mechanics and structure turns out to be a double-edged sword. So what exactly is the difference?
Part of what makes it different is how games are experienced. If you watch a movie or read a book, the characters, events, actions, and resolution is always the same. The detective arrests the criminal. The superhero saves the day. The arrogant jerk learns a life lesson about others’ feelings. Beginning, middle and end without ever changing. A video game narrative on the other hand always has one ever-present wildcard: the player. There is a story to give a sense of progression, but the player dictates the pace and how it is experienced. In theory, this means there is more reason to return to a game since the player has great influence on events. That is, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the narrative events and flourishes demanded by the game itself to keep things going. A character has to die here, or the special plot-important doodad has to arbitrarily be knocked out of the player’s reach until the final act. The events of the narrative of the game officially become things the player must abide by, rather than be something shared. In every single playthrough, the idea of a scripted event or being lead by the nose becomes more and more intrusive. The choice doesn’t matter, in this sense at least, because the beloved freedom craved by the player has been slapped out of their hands temporarily.
So, the problem is all about the story wanting to play out in a scripted fashion independent of what the player potentially wants. Seems like an easy fix. What about games that have threadbare plots to begin with and focus more on player capability and choice? What about Skyrim, Fallout: New Vegas, and the brand new XCOM? Funny thing is that ear-grating argument of choice not mattering can be applied to those games as well.
My experience of Skyrim was probably the same as most people. I climbed mountains, killed dragons, Shouted myself hoarse at all matter of exotic monsters. Then, a character died on me. It was a support character that helped me raid many dungeons and killed the occasional dragon. She died on me while going through a forest; we were ambushed by Wood Elves. I wanted to carry her body to the sea, give her a warrior’s burial, and even wonder if she had next of kin. Of course, that didn’t happen. The ocean was a mile away, and dragging her body along would have taken too long. Also, there was no preamble or shock to the death. My companion Lydia’s death happened because her health hit zero. I cared about her in a small way, she knew how to fight, but the game as a whole didn’t. Skyrim allows the player unprecedented freedom compared to other games on the market, and it does so because it couldn’t care less what the player does with it in most situations.
The same case can also be made of XCOM: Enemy Unknown. The game allows you to apply names to your individual units. Regardless of one’s personal means of doing so, giving something a name makes it harder to see it go. Inevitably, when you lose a unit, something will be felt, usually leading to quickly loading the game back to five minutes before the death. You will feel something, even if its just frustration, but the game sees it as simply another pawn to take off the chessboard, another cluster of data to be deleted.
What I’m driving at is the fact that a choice is given to the player always carries the capacity for a consequence regardless of the technology behind it. Going back to the meta-gaming pen and paper RPGs, I offer another example. A fight happens between a dwarf warrior and a human wizard. Not to the death, just a duel between gentlemen Both have even stats and complementary abilities, but the dwarf has experience fighting against magic. Naturally, the fight is close, playing off of the strengths and weaknesses of both combatants. But, ultimately, the wizard is victorious. From a mechanical standpoint, the dwarf should have won. It had experience, ergo, it should have won. A simple calculation. So why did the wizard win? The dwarf threw the match to boost the wizard’s morale, a conscious choice made due to a past altercation. Outside of the raw numbers and probability, there is always a character behind it. It’s an element that every player of a game understands, but someone who constantly meta-games might miss the point.
Yes, a story taking control from a player can be annoying, but when the game then offers that player a choice in proceedings, then continues anyway isn’t an illusion of choice, it’s the recognition of vulnerability and humility. Games, by and large love to empower their player, make them feel as if everything they do has a purpose. Hence, why it feels like a betrayal when their alleged sanctified choice of benevolence is snubbed. But empowerment has never been the sole form of engagement for an experience, but living out a role has. Walking Dead gives you a choice in how things play out not because you are the one that will help end the zombie apocalypse, but so that everyone else around you can criticize or agree with that choice. XCOM let’s you name your units to make things marginally more personal when an alien eats their face. Those scripted events. Those moments in the game that you know are coming the second time around may only have two or three choices at face value, but it is what you invest into them with the role you are playing that makes it more than just pushing a button. Whether or not you choose to invest a bit more is upto you.
Every time I hear someone say their choice didn’t matter in a game, I feel like screaming all of the above at their face in a vain attempt to make them understand. Just because you didn’t see the choice as meaningful for you as a player doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter period. So the next time you consider saying that phrase that makes me want to headbutt a wall, choose your next words carefully.