The Feeling of Meaningful Choice in Video Games

Several weeks ago, when the topic of Telltale’s The Walking Dead came up, a good friend of mine announced that he did not like the game because “your choices don’t matter.” My shock and hostility has subsided, but I still fail to understand how such a perception could be true. Why did the decisions I made lead me to tears while it only led him to frustration?

Meanwhile, the past few days has seen a bevy of writing about Dragon Age: Inquisition and the choices that it contains. Patrick Klepek of Kotaku asks, “There’s much to ‘do’ in Inquisition, but how much of it is meaningful?” While Rowan Kaiser on Unwinnable says, “they’re really gun shy throughout Inquisition, with barely any choice that threatens a player’s emotions throughout the game.” Austin Walker over on Paste states (quite rightly I think), “What trained us to prefer a branching, long-form story over a series of little vignettes? I think if we ask questions like these, we’ll find our definitions of words like “real” and “meaningful” become increasingly complex.” Likewise, Todd Harper chimes in with an, ahem, “stiff” assessment that size does matter.

I love this discussion. I want to understand how we create impactful art in video games, and unpacking some of these ideas and revealing them in all their complexity is an admirable effort. However, when I try to do that, I feel like I am pulling the wings off a butterfly to document the taxonomy of beauty. I am not trained in such scientific pursuits and do not have the media studies toolkit at hand to develop a universal phenomenology of choice. This article is not that. (Besides, I wrote about player agency years ago, and my thoughts about it are mostly the same.)

Instead, inspired by Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read, I want to explore (meander?) what it actually feels like to make a meaningful choice. Why do I find some choices in games meaningful and others pointless? And when I make those choices, can I tell the difference in the moment? What does that look like?

Peter Mendelsund’s Ana Karenina

This whole endeavor is harder than it sounds. For example, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of what happens while reading. After bounding through the pages of Mendelsund’s book on the process, I now admit to knowing far less than when I started. What does reading look like? As Mendelsund declares, “We perform a book – we perform reading a book. We perform a book, and we attend the performance.”

This sounds a lot like playing a game (others have written plenty on the relationship performance and play), but does it feel like playing? I have spent time on stage, and there are certainly similarities: the shifts in tone I can employ, the refinement of the process, even the mental justifications for a choice made in the moment. Yet this doesn’t seem to provide a good assessment of how I might make a meaningful versus a non-meaningful choice (if there is a clear differentiation).

Maybe it would help to explore how some choices mean differently than others. Take for example, my friend’s statement that your choices don’t matter in The Walking Dead? When, exactly, does “mattering” take place? Is meaning created in the moments leading up the decision? In the decision itself? Or in the repercussions of that decision? When is the deadline for a choice to matter that, when passed, signifies an earlier decision’s futility?

Here, I think, choice matters differently. Is meaning created in Dark Souls each moment you die? Absolutely, because they all blend into an experience that is not unlike chopping off your own arm. Is meaning created in Dark Souls after you make a decision? Absolutely. Dodging a boulder quickly, exercising the agency of movement within that split second, fills you with a sense of accomplishment and expertise.

However, these choices take place within an allowed space. Like the interactive “co-creative” aspect of reading a book, we express agency in cahoots with the author. This is, say, Scott Juster’s gameplay path image below:

Which is not all that visually different than Laurence Sterne’s plotlines for Tristram Shandy:

But these lines all end in the same point.

“When we want to co-create, we read.” Mendelsund writes, “We want to participate, and we want ownership. We would rather have sketches than verisimilitude – because the sketches, at least, are ours.”

Maybe then, one type of meaningful choice is to feel as though you have complete ownership over the story. Maybe when my friend finds choice in The Walking Dead meaningless, he means to say the story doesn’t feel like his own. Of course, he could always turn off the game and write fan fiction, taking ownership to an extreme, but this isn’t the same. You are no longer sailing if you choose to moor your boat on shore and continue your journey on foot.

Meaningful choice for him, in this moment, is a guided tour of his design, a selfish claim over the author. He wants to see an extreme difference in the actual structure of his trip over my own. If he were oblivious that we all take the same trip, would it feel special? Would The Walking Dead be more meaningful if you remained oblivious to the true diversity of its outcomes? Or maybe knowing the diversity of outcomes is why some seek to find meaning in narrative-choice-driven games. Maybe choice feels, in this case, like enjoying the gears of a clock, all moving in motion to a mechanical rhythm or placing the finishing touches on someone else’s painting.

Perhaps the difference is between the decision that versus the decision to. Let’s go back to Dragon Age for a moment. I might make the decision that Stroud dies in the fade. I might also make the decision to mourn his loss by adorning Skyhold with Grey Warden banners and artifacts. One choice has persistent narrative repercussions reflected in the written story. The other means something only in my own process. How these decisions mean for others I cannot say, but they both feel important. The decision that feels like a foundational moment, like deciding the destination of a long road trip. The decision to feels like deciding what to listen to when the road trip actually begins.

Explaining how a meaningful choice feels is difficult. Like trying to describe someone who stands just out of the corner of your eye, or more accurately, trying to describe what this peripheral view looks like itself. The moment you begin to outline the details of my periphery, the blur is gone. It ceases being peripheral and becomes clear, but inaccurate.

Again, I think Mendelsund has it right when he states:

It is not that our narratives necessarily tell us something true about the world (though they might), but rather that the practice of reading feels like, and is like, consciousness itself: imperfect; partial; hazy; co-creative.

This is especially true of my own player-driven narratives. The choices I make are meaningful when they feel like my own, but are part of the world around them. If I feel confused, lost, or uncertain of my decision, it feels more meaningful because the world around it feels real and responsive.

I am reminded by Tale of Tale’s response to choice in games as well: ““For us, interactivity is not about ‘making interesting choices’ or ‘overcoming meaningful challenges.’ It’s about make-belief.” To me, my decisions feel meaningful if I believe others think so too. I have to believe in those around I have to trust the characters of the world I inhabit. I believe in Clementine, and so I cried when I ask her to kill my Lee. I believe my friends in Dragon Age: Inquisition, so when I change the decor in Skyhold while they were in mourning I “make-belief” they notice. Choice feels like faith.