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Meaningful Choice doesn't Mean Multiple Endings

So, I finally started playing Undertale. Everyone’s been talking about it. I knew nothing about this game when I went into it. Totally fresh, I played the game as I would play any RPG, I killed some monsters to keep my quest going. I soon found out that there are ways to avoid fighting in a battle by showing them mercy. That’s neat. I’ll try that out. So I let some go, I fought some others. I’m playing the story my way. After playing for a bit, I told a friend about it, and then—like every time since that I tell a fan that I’m playing—they asked, “Are you doing a pacifist run or a genocide run?” Would I show mercy to every enemy or kill every enemy?

Suddenly my experience is cheap. My way of playing is barely valid. I want to make choices in each situation but the game is asking me to make a choice at the beginning and stick to it. Sure, there’s a neutral ending, but why bother? Nobody is interested in the middle. Nobody is interested in the story that I want to tell. My story is the wrong story.

It makes me think about player choice, and specifically about the type of player choice that’s necessary for a player to feel like they are driving a story. When we think about how to design a game that makes player choice “important” we have the tendency to think about branching narratives, and the infinite possibilities that lie at the end of the of a player character's journey. These, however, can get out of hand quickly. If every major action of a game leads to three separate paths--a good, a bad, and a neutral--5 major actions deep makes for 243 different endings. There are choke points and bottlenecks that can make the thing more reasonable, but I can’t help but wonder if we’re going about it the wrong way. If Undertale had 243 different endings, I’m not sure that solves the problem. Maybe the point isn’t about the different destinations, but about the different journeys. It’s not about choosing the path; it’s about finding my path. I’m sure there’s an inspirational in a high school guidance counselor's office that preaches the same thing, but it doesn’t mean it won’t hold water.

Since I’m still playing Undertale, let’s take a look at two very different games: Telltale's Game of Thrones, and thatgamecompany’s Journey.

First of all, I realize that there seems to be a consensus that when compared to each other by critical acclaim, Journey might be the better game in general. However, what I’d like to get into is the underlying narrative design of these games and the emotional weight that they convey. That said, let’s take a look at Game of Thrones.

Game of Thrones follows the Telltale game framework, which asks the players to make choices that will inevitably guide the player down a somewhat unique path. There is no doubt that these games offer quite a bit in the way of meaningful choice, whether that’s done in a subtle way or not. The games are seen as revolutionary because of the way they incorporate player choice into the mechanic and the myriad of ways that they account for it. However, I would argue that it’s not about the many ways that they account for players choice, it’s most important that they leave room for it at all. And in a way they do.

They leave just enough choice for the game to account for and yet still move beyond player expectations. However, I would argue that this leads to a bit of a hollow experience. If every one of your choices is given to you like a multiple choice exam and each outcome plays out as totally anticipated by the game, then maybe this choice is arbitrary--not arbitrary in the way it affects the game outcome, but arbitrary in the way it affects player experience. By making me acutely aware of how my decision affects the game outcome, the game exposes that there are finite possibilities, and my choice is just one of many that were accounted for. The story that I tell my friends after playing the game isn’t an emotionally charged one. It’s “I made such an such a choice, because I thought that it would lead to such and such an outcome. I was right/wrong.” The story is absolutely about the choices, but there’s something missing in the attachment to those choices. There’s so little emotion in it because there is an awareness that the game is predicting your actions.

Journey might be the exact opposite. There is one goal, one ending, one path to get there. In the sense of Game of Thrones’ multiple decision trees, at first glance there’s not much in the way of choice. I would argue, though, that there is a lot of player choice in Journey; it just doesn’t change the destination. The choices in Journey are about how you get to your destination, but this is not to say what path you take, it’s about the manner in which you play. You could speed through the game, you could take your time to explore and take in the environments. Sometimes the game throws something at you that’s unpredictable, and you need to deal with how you react. With the online element, you can choose whether to help a struggling player or leave them behind. You can also see how another player’s choices affect you.

Player choice in Journey doesn’t affect the outcome of the game, or even the destination of any level, but, to me, the choices are more meaningful than in Game of Thrones because they change the player’s experience with the game, and the player has ownership of them. The goals of the game were always prescribed but the path was meaningful because I defined the pace and the interactions within. The story that I tell my friends after the game is an emotionally charged one. It’s about the beauty of the world and about the strange language that my companion and I used to communicate. It’s “I was doing so well, but I was surprise-attacked! My friend came to rescue me and he was attacked, too!” The game doesn’t predict these moments, it just allows for them to happen.

A system of outcomes is just inherently heavy-handed. Game of Thrones hits you over the head with, “Soandso will remember that” after an important dialogue choice is made. Immediately the player is reminded of the system behind the game. The worst-case scenario is a player says, “Oh, that’s the decision that was important? Now things aren’t going to go how I wanted.” The best-case scenario is they’re able to evaluate it as a success and say to themselves, “Yes, I knew that was important. I’m doing well at this game.” Even without those pop-up indicators, the multiple endings have the same function. And there’s the rub. First of all, you still tend to think of it as game, separate from the narrative. And second, the best-case scenario still has you seeing the game system as having tracked you into actions that it predicted you would take. It’s weird and unsatisfying. I don’t have this emotional reaction to my story; I’m just unlocking someone else’s.

I came to this discussion because while playing Undertale, I’ve been learning a lot about Dungeons & Dragons. I’ve been absolutely fascinated by it. The game allows for infinite choice, and those choices can result in different “endings,” but players don’t feel like they are choosing between a bunch of options, they’re just acting and reacting. What surprised me most about it, however, is that the player experience is so rich that I found myself describing other players’ adventures to friends. And it’s not because of the amazing treasure they found or the boss they fought, because those things are predefined in a book. The DM makes sure they always get to the goal as it’s defined in the mission, but the way they go about getting the mission accomplished is where the player experience gets interesting. It’s not super interesting that they got to the big boss and it turned out to be a huge spider. It is interesting that instead of fighting the players decided to charm him and have him hand over the treasure. Just like in Journey, the game didn’t predict for this to happen, it allowed for it. However, the surviving spider could cause trouble down the road, a separate “ending” like in Game of Thrones, and that might be very satisfying to players.

D&D is based on the idea that a human game master can allow for all types of unforeseen situations based on personal choices, and that is tough to code for. Games like Game of Thrones attempt it by brute force, but in doing so I think they lose the fun of the situations being unforeseen and the stories become impersonal. Journey doesn’t give the player the ability to have far reaching consequences in their choices, but it leaves room for those choices to affect the player experience. In that way the journey feels deeply personal even without a chance to change our destination. The story in the player’s head rings with a certain kernel of emotional truth, because it was a personal journey through the wide gamespace.

I’ll have to see now where Undertale goes with this. Maybe now, since I’m locked into the “neutral ending,” I’ll be able to forget about the paths I could have taken and think about my personal story in the game. The game just has to acknowledge that my choices are valid from here on out, and that I didn’t squander my run by sparing a monster and killing another. I can’t help but think, though, that I’m missing out on one of the “cool endings.”

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