Nowadays, there’s a lot of choice in gaming. You can choose what your character looks like, what they wear, what background they come from. You can be as horrible or as kind to NPCs in dialogue options, and you can even change the very story you experience with some titles through your own choices.
Choice-based narratives have been around for decades, but recently it feels like there has been more of a demand for player agency within games. We know now what games are capable of, and so to see an ambitious story that really allows us to save the world or be its destruction is something that many want to see.
However, a lot of the complaints with choice-based narratives are centred around players not feeling like their decisions actually matter. Take the Telltale games, for example, where no matter which options you pick you’re likely going to get the same ending, with characters only remembering certain things or perhaps being a bit more distant toward you.
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So, even with a lot of people wishing for more decision-making in their games, is it actually the best option? When we look at linear titles, for example, they can pack in a great story that doesn’t necessarily shift no matter what you do. Take God of War: Ragnarok, no matter how or when you play the story in that game, the events still turn out the same way. Even sidequests don’t give you many diverging paths, and only offer a few dialogue changes on whether you beat them with Atreus or Freya.
Even with what some may even describe as lacklustre choice in its narrative, God of War: Ragnarok still managed to be heavily praised for its admittedly brilliant story. It picked up multiple awards for its narrative and that is without giving the player any say in how the story plays out, essentially making it a show or movie that you interrupt with combat and puzzle-solving.
I could make this point about a bunch of strong narrative games that ditch player choice, like The Last of Us, A Plague Tale: Requiem and Innocence, and Hellblade. But, then the argument could be made that I am solely focusing on successful linear games, and using them to promote that style of storytelling.
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There are plenty of games that leave you with a story of your own making, like The Witcher 3, for example. However, instead of just comparing which side has more great games, it’s more productive to actually look at how the linear and choice-based elements make a game “better.” In the case of a linear experience, you know what you’re getting on the tin, and if done well, it can be breath-taking to put down your controller and just revel in the story you’ve witness. But, the same can be said for a choice-based narrative, and if anything it can be an extremely powerful feeling to know you created the ending you finished with.
The problem is that very few choice-based narratives accomplish this without making you feel you’ve only been given the illusion of choice. It needs to feel as if every decision you’ve made has left a lasting impact for a choice-based narrative to have truly succeeded at being based on choice, rather than just giving you an option of a few different end screens ten minutes before you finish (looking at you, Mass Effect 3).
So, where does this leave us then? Well, I believe it is still perfectly fine to wish for the perfect choice-based narrative in gaming, because it has been done before and will be done again. However, there’s no reason to look down on a more linear experience, even if it does opt for the illusion of choice, because sometimes the people who are paid to write video games for a living do somewhat of a decent job, and can make you feel attached to the world and characters without having you actually be behind dialogue options. Sure, to know you’re the one behind a death or major decision is a feeling like no other, but it is rare to see a game pull that off perfectly, so there’s no need to push them over a linear story.