There is a trope in many RPG-like games that surfaces its multi-faceted time and again: the narrative choice. Will you do this, or will you do that?
Will you choose to aid the kindly old woman, or will you blow her head to smithereens with your shotgun and loot her house?
Although extreme, these choices illustrate just one of the many that developers will go out of their way to offer up to the players – yet do they matter at all?
Before we get down to the nitty-gritty, we’ll need to look at the perception of what giving a player choice does – because, ultimately underneath it all it’s merely the illusion of choice.
Despite however many branching paths the developers can craft and implement, the tangled webs they weave will ultimately come to the same pre-determined point – and it doesn’t matter how many of them there are. No matte how many variations, the end is always pre-ordained.
But is it the “end” that matters at all?
Is it the journey that takes you there far more important?
When it come to giving players the sensation of choice, what matters most is not one’s actions but how the world the player inhabits reacts to them. To illustrate our point, let’s take a look at the following example:
A player kills an innocent NPC in a friendly town. They then loot the former inhabitants quarters and acquire a substantial amount of stolen goods.
Upon attempting to exit the town, the following happens A) they leave unimpeded B) their contraband is noticed by the locals and their actions are reported to the local authorities, leading to a situation where the player must decide if they will stay and fight (further damaging their relations with the townspeople), make a break for it, or simply just pay the fine and do the time in a bid to restore their tarnished image.
Now, the true end result will be the same in both of these scenarios: the player will merely gravitate to another in-game activity after having completed the previous one. For as interesting as any well-written story element can be, it is only as effective to the proportion of engagement and fun that it generates for the end-user. Anything else is just the writing team patting themselves on the back.
The focus of in-game choice, then, should not be on creating a false sense of consequence through “varied endings” but rather of giving the player the maximum amount of choice – and consequence – that they can possibly have when interacting with any particular game world and its inhabitants.
Yet, some concession must be paid to perhaps one of the largest factors of why the tried-and-true method of giving players “branching narrative paths” is still seen as the hallmark of video game design: it makes for damn good marketing.
Slap a “over 100 possible narrative options!” onto the box and most players will readily eat it up without even taking a moment to think about what such a statement implies. And until most of the bigger devs feel the monetary pressure to change their game up – figuratively and literally – there’s nothing that indicates we’ll see a major shift any time soon.