The Illusion of Choice

“A game is a series of interesting decisions.” We all know this famous assertion made by Sid Meier (does anyone know when and in which context he said it, or do we just have to take it for granted because it has been repeated so many times that it became its own truth?), but what did he mean by “interesting decisions”?

Let’s take strategy games, maybe the more “gamey” genre of game,or at least the one closer to traditional games, and the one Meier is renowned for: they’re a precarious balancing act, where every decision must lead to various consequences, preferably with some degree of unpredictability, or else there’s no strategy at all, just an optimal tactic that will work in every situation. But in a narrative-centric game, what makes a decision interesting is completely different, and is not necessarily coherent with what would be best from a purely ludic’s perspective: for example, it is not always wise to present equally seductive rewards when a player has to choose between a “good” and an “evil” option. The designer would say we should not penalize a player for prefering one or the other path, because who will want to be “good” if the game becomes dull or too hard or too easy? But what does it say, from the point of view of ethics, when a game presents such “interesting decisions”, based on a system of rewards?

In my last article, I deliberately exaggerated the formlessness of videogames (surely, all players will experience a narrative linear game like Uncharted in quite a similar fashion, unlike the players of an open-world game like Skyrim), so now I want to go to the other extreme: there’s no real player agency in a game, because every decision has been design beforehand, and in that sense, videogames are closer to traditional arts than what we generally admit. The critic, then, should not focus on what choice he made and how much fun he had when following this and that option, he should rather analyze the structure of the choice itself, how the designers present these options, and what such a design means. Ken Levine’s Bioshock is the canonic example of a videogame directly addressing this problem of the player’s freedom: with its famous plot-twist, the revelation that the main protanogist was mind-controlled since the beginning by Atlas/Fontaine through certain key words like « Would you kindly », the game tells the player that he never really had any agency, and that he was simply following Atlas/Fontaine/the designer’s will. 1 I’m now playing the recently re-released System Shock 2, from the same Ken Levine, and I’m quite surprise it is never mention in this discussion since one of the first plot-twist is quite similar: when you consider that Shodan is an A.I. and thus a self-aware representation of the game itself, which the player has to defeat in order to “win”, the revelation that Polito is dead look as if the game is exposing its very structure to the player. It’s not exactly about player’s freedom, but it’s still a game telling its player that he has to follow the designer/Shodan’s will in order to progress; I’ll surely come back to System Shock 2 once I finish it.  Whatever you do in a game, even in the most open playground, your actions will always be restricted by what the game allows, and more essentially by what kind of philosophy sustains the game’s experience; in order to progress in Bioshock, the only thing you can do is follow Atlas’ instructions, and espouse Randian Objectivism, or more exactly, the Objectivists’ ethics (which I will summarize rapidly through Ayn Rand’s own words: « My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute ».)

In an oft-quoted article about the ludonarrative dissonance in Bioshock, Clint Hocking analyzed the choice of harvesting or saving the Little Sisters as a manner to present through the game’s mechanics this philosophy of Objectivism depicted in the story. For Hocking, the player can either accept this philosophy (by harvesting the Little Sisters in pursuit of the player’s self-interest) or reject it (by saving them). In the context of the game, harvesting them seems like the “best choice”, so to speak: “The game literally made me feel a cold detachment from the fate of the Little Sisters, who I assumed could not be saved (or even if they could, would suffer some worse fate at the hands of Tenenbaum). Harvesting them in pursuit of my own self-interest seems not only the best choice mechanically, but also the right choice. This is exactly what this game needed to do – make me experience – feel – what it means to embrace a social philosophy that I would not under normal circumstances consider.”


The dissonance, then, comes from the freedom of either choosing or rejecting Objectivism through the Little Sisters, while the narrative specifically emphasizes the player’s lack of freedom, which would be quite a patent contradiction if it was true. But I don’t think it is. As Hocking says, the Little Sisters’ mechanic serve to impose on the player a particular mindset, but it doesn’t work as he describes: no matter what the player actually chooses, the game still forces him to see his decision through an Objectivist lenses, because mechanically speaking the Little Sisters are nothing more than a precious resource. Some players probably rescue them without even considering the alternative, because they see them as children and nothing more, but I suspect most people are carefully measuring the two options (I know I did), and probably more than once, maybe each time a new Little Sister appeared: in order to survive, how much Adam do I need? Can I live with 200 Adam, or do I need 300? From the moment a human life can be calculated in such a way, we do not see this individual for what he is (unique thus immeasurable), and we adopt, consciously or not, an Objectivist perspective towards him (he becomes a mean to an end, or, to use a vocabulary closer to Rand’s philosophy, he’s objectified in a manner that suppress his subjectivity). If the game wanted us to be able to reject Objectivism (from within the game’s fiction that is, because as a thinker outside the game I can freely form my own ideas about it, but I’ll come back to this), no rewards would be given when the player rescue the Little Sisters: they would either be a resource or not at all.

And this is precisely the point: in almost every game I can think of, ethical choices such as the Little Sisters’ one are presented in a similar manner, offering different rewards for each possible paths. In RPGs, even the most altruist action will be rewarded, minimally, by experience points: from a design’s perspective, NPCs are resources, and I can never really help them selflessly, because I know that whatever I do will make my character progress. Helping others is first and foremost a way to build my own power, and videogames will constantly show how my actions are shaping the world, effectively demonstrating my supremacy over it – but oh, so rarely does the world affect me! It’s a one-way relation: the world has been build specifically for me, everything in it is put to my service, everyone I encounter has been designed to help me become more powerful (if they’re an obstacle, I defeat them and get experience points; if not, I can help them and get experience points, or they can join my team and help me get experience points, etc.), and everything is a mean for my personal pleasure as a player. In that context, the player’s freedom is quite shallow because whatever I choose will be framed in such an Objectivist’ perspective, where every individual I will encounter can be substitute by a numerical value that I can just add up until I reach the level cap. Outside of the game itself, a player can decide to ignore these rewards, or play a good guy because he genuinely wants to be a good guy, but this is not what the game is thinking itself through its mechanics: this is what the player is thinking despite the game.

Like any other art form, videogames present a perspective on the world, and through this kind of design, of “interesting decisions”, they tell us that every action should be rewarded, and that helping others is good as long as it helps you become more powerful. And like any other art form, I can agree or not with this perspective, but I cannot do it within the game’s perimeter: I cannot refuse to receive any Adam, and totally ignoring the Little Sisters is not helping because they will remain zombies chained to their Big Daddy; the only thing I can do to reject the Objectivism Bioshock forces on me is to quit the game. (I feel like I’m repeating myself a bit, but I think these ideas are not so easy to grasp, or at least I have a hard time defining them properly!)

As it was often said, Bioshock’s plot-twist is a metaphor for the designer’s control over the player, but more importantly, in conjunction with the Little Sister’s mechanic, it states that whatever the player do, he cannot escape the philosophy behind the game’s design, i.e. Andrew Ryan’s philosophy – which is present not just in Bioshock, but in every videogames adopting a similar approach to ethical choices: Rapture, the underwater world of Bioshock, is a vision of the kind of society that could arise out of the ethics currently depicted by videogames (and the visual design references the 50’s, the golden era of this American dream based on individual triumph, and thus tie this philosophy to the American psyche). Sure, Bioshock is also a mechanically Objectivist game, but unlike others, it puts its own philosophy forward and represents its consequences through the apocalyptic decadence of the game world. It’s not hidden behind the design: it’s right there in front of you. By doing so, the player is made aware of his lack of freedom, and of his obligatory adoption of an Objectivist attitude, and can thus approach this philosophy critically (the game falls apart at the end though, after the big reveal, because the player can get rid of Fontaine’s control and regain his freedom in the fiction, but really the player is still under the control of the designer).

It’s no secret: videogames are for the most part a power fantasy, and Bioshock is a cautionary tale against this fantasy. The game tries to underline the philosophy at its foundation: videogames are Objectivist tools that serve to provide an illusory power, while foreclosing any possibility of thinking about individuals as if they were, well, individuals. At least, that’s what most videogames do mechanically, through the game’s design, but it doesn’t mean that the fiction cannot be emotionally resonant. This is the real ludonarrative dissonance inside most narrative videogames: a conflict between a plot that tries to depict real human beings (it’s not always convincing, but it’s the intention anyway) and a design that reduces these characters to resources available for the player engaged in a quest for power.

One of the rare games that successfully sidesteps this dissonance is The Walking Dead (it has its share of problems too, but at least it got its human relationships right, which is a huge accomplishment). No rewards there, no experience points, no quest for power, no kind of numerical values whatsoever, and the only possible reason you can help another character is because you think it’s the right thing to do. The game tends to over-emphasize its choices (at the end of Episode 4 for example, when the guy on the radio ostentatiously tells Lee to carefully choose his next words), but it’s never as annoying as it can get in most games (you know, when time freezes and the game screams at you: YOU HAVE TO CHOOSE! but take your time, it’s the end of the world and all, but we’re going to suspend it until you decide). More importantly, some seemingly crucial decisions have no real consequences: the player cannot change the world through his actions (Lee is going to end up dead anyway), and the diverse ramifications of the plot are mostly superficial. The player does have an influence on the world (surely we all do), but it’s a small one, not one of those save-the-world-before-it-falls-apart or see-how-all-the-places-you-went-have-been-radically-changed-by-your-presence affairs, which serves only to emphasize the power fantasy; mostly, in The Walking Dead, the player can only affect the characters around him. And even then, it remains unusually ambiguous: we don’t know how Clementine is going to turn out.


Videogames are often quite solipsistic, because who you are as a player shape the world around you, as if the world was only an image of your own self, or as if this world wouldn’t exist without you (which is true, technically, since the game has been designed for the player). But in The Walking Dead, the world is quite indifferent to the player’s presence – not always though: some moments at the end are quite ridiculous, for example when all characters were waiting for my one-arm-soon-zombified Lee to find some solutions, because “only you can do it Lee”. I’m crippled! Why are you all standing there, waiting for me to move? Anyway… The game asks you who you are, sure, but in order to find the answer the player has to look inward, and use his own thinking. The only morality guide here is the character’s reactions to the player’s actions (which is the most valuable one, a dialogue between the diverse experiences of the Others and your own, something Objectivists can’t understand with their pretense of objectivity). This absence of a paternalistic morality gauge (paternalistic in the sense that the game judges your actions for you, like the Paragon/Renegade system in Mass Effect) is coherent with the narrative: in this dying world, where even death is not what it’s used to be, you must find your own meaning. Instead of Objectivism, The Walking Dead offers agnosticism: there’s no definite answer, only a constant doubt.What is an “interesting decision” then? Mechanically speaking, the choice between a “good” option that will boost my healing abilities or a “bad” option that will increase the amount of damage I can inflict is an interesting one, if the two options are adequately balanced in the gameplay. From the point of view of ethics though, there’s nothing interesting there (even if the choice is less binary, more ambiguous, than this banal example), because, as demonstrated, the structure underlying this kind of choice implies an Objectivist philosophy (someone could always argue that Objectivism is a good thing, but frankly we should not take this hypothetical detractor too seriously).

The ethics of videogames is a difficult problem, and I will come back to it from another angle at the end of this series. For the moment, this situation may seem unfortunate (well, it is), but the appeal of videogames lies precisely in their unique form, oscillating between these two extremes of player’s agency and designer’s control. And if videogames possess any artistic possibilities (as I like to believe), they will arise out of this duality.


Notes   [ + ]

Sylvain Lavallée Écrit par :

"Car une chose est d’apprendre à regarder les films « en professionnel » - pour vérifier d’ailleurs que ce sont eux qui nous regardent de moins en moins - et une autre est de vivre avec ceux qui nous ont regardés grandir et qui nous ont vus, otages précoces de notre biographie à venir, déjà empêtrés dans les rets de notre histoire." Serge Daney

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