Illusionary Choices in Games

by L.B. Jeffries

19 May 2009

From Grim Fandango, by Lucasarts

From Grim Fandango, Lucasarts

For as much as video games revolve around making choices, it’s funny to consider how much games must also rely on choices that are illusions. Although a game may give you an alternative, like telling the villain you don’t care or being able to backtrack, many times the game doesn’t really validate this option. Nothing happens, you’re blocked off, or you’re just told to try again. What is the nature of an illusionary choice? The question is surprisingly philosophical because the nature of choice is invested in the player, not really the consequences of the decision. Put another way, freedom of choice is a state of mind, not a mechanical problem with multiple outcomes. Your perspective of the decision and what you know decides whether or not it is a free choice as opposed to something forced or arbitrary. That’s the very reason so many games have fake choices in the first place, you can validate the experience of choosing without actually giving them a choice. How do these quirks of game design work?

From Super Mario Brothers, by Nintendo

From Super Mario Brothers, Nintendo

Technically speaking, the vast majority of decisions you make are pre-determined by your subconscious mind. An article outlining the research explains that your subconscious is aware of all your surroundings and is calculating what you should be doing at all times. Conscious decisions are essentially the last check, the final possible veto, before your body acts. This constitutes the majority of player conduct in a game. I should get behind cover because I’m being shot at. I’m going to use the shotgun because I’m at close range. I’m going to line up the red blocks because there’s a combo there. What this means is that every player creates an inherent sense of what is defined as the “correct” choice to make in a game. The subconscious sees a pit in Super Mario Brothers and assumes that falling into it will result in death. The game validates this presumption by having it kill us. The incorrect action is rarely a way to progress in a game and often halts progress. This is the basic structure of how the different values of a decision are generated: you have what the subconscious is telling us to do and then the game validates that impression. You’re not making a choice, you’re performing the correct action to progress through the game.

The first kind of false choice that can be created is when you have a decision that the subconscious can’t decide on or one that is too close to call. The quickest way to induce this state is a lack of information. Blogger Islaskye argues in a post on free will, “In the absence of the fullest details about the consequences of the choices to be made; and without verifiable information about the reality of the options apparently available to you, freedom of choice is just an illusion.” The post concerns the nature of believing in an afterlife, but it does raise an interesting point about the nature of making a decision: your choice revolves around what you know about the consequences of the action. This is a mild spoiler, but we’ll use the choice at the end of Half-Life as an example. G-man offers to let us work for him or set off on our own. If we choose the latter, we’re killed. The game is fooling with the decision making process because death is not the immediate assumed consequence of opting for freedom. Choosing to work for the G-man allows us to live, which validates a sense of victory, even though the game ends either way. Islaskye brings up a theological hypothetical that mirrors this kind of illusionary choice. Hank will give you a million dollars if you leave town and never speak to anyone. People have left town taking Hank up on his offer. You have no way to know if Hank has actually given others the million dollars or if he just takes those people out back and beats them to death with a shovel. The choice is an illusion because we are blind to the consequences of either decision until it is made. The player has not decided anything because they haven’t really committed to something, they’re just picking between two options at random.

From Knights of the Old Republic, by Bioware

From Knights of the Old Republic, Bioware

This then raises the second kind of illusionary choice, which is an informed decision where the consequences are invalidated. The best example of this comes from something like a Bioware epic such as Knights of the Old Republic. John Walker has been doing an interesting series on playing the evil path in KOTOR and one of the things he points out is that the game often drags you along with the plot despite your attempts to refuse. Although there are numerous subplots where you can choose to be good or bad, in order for the narrative to progress you have to save missing Jedi, get off the planet, and so on. So despite whether you choose to be good or bad, you don’t have a say in certain activities in the game. These are nominal illusions or “the tendency for equal magnitudes to sound different when described in different units.” The Freakonomics article cited uses the example of gauging how far you ran in terms of kilometers to make the distance seem longer instead of miles even though they are the same. Another example is a business cutting 4% of your paycheck and phrasing it in a month to month manner instead of yearly because it sounds smaller. We have no real say in choosing to rescue the Jedi but agreeing to help versus saying you don’t care makes the actual act seem different because that choice is “good.” Either way, you rescue the Jedi.

Finally, there are the fake choices that allow us to choose between two things that are exactly the same thing. This is essentially the hypothetical question posed by the Burridan’s Ass dilemma. A donkey is in a barn looking at two bails of hay which are of the exact same quality and quantity as well as the same distance away. It cannot choose which one it wants because they are the same. The split-path portions of Gears of War feature this extensively since either route you choose results in you just going and shooting through a level. Another example of this would be gender selection in games, which often makes no difference for the player’s options later on. These decisions also have elements of the nominal illusion along with lack of information about the consequences. In this way, illusionary choices are often composed of multiple elements that generate a sense of autonomy without actually providing it. If we are willing to accept that free will is a state of mind, then it has to be acknowledged that this sense can be created without actually providing it. To borrow a line from Bioshock’s trailer, if our choices do indeed make us who we are, it is because we believe in them.

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