The Illusion of Choice And Video Games

I started playing Cyberpunk 2077. I have a lot of thoughts about the gameplay (as some of my friends have seen or heard) and even more about the themes of the game, all of which ignores the various controversies of the game from long before it came out, as it was expeirence the last few delays, and then as it crashed and burned during launch. I need to play the game way more than I have to really talk about the first two and the last bit has been written about so much already that I really don’t think I have anything to add (though I will link an article that sums up my feelings pretty neatly without going on a long rant about proper testing and the state of AAA gaming today). What I have to reflect on, a day after discovering that my computer CAN run the game for two hours without an issue when I forget to close it after going to make myself dinner and fold laundry, is how it has made me feel about the idea of open-world gaming.

Honestly, the idea of a game being open-world is pretty presumptuous in my opinion. I routinely create worlds for players to explore via Tabletop Roleplaying Games and even those rarely feel “open world” because we all know there’s a story everyone wants to tell and we’re all going to (voluntarily) stay focused on it. Video games rarely have that much potential because they’re not just constraining you to a single story or series of stories, but also constraining you to a specific outcome of that story most of the time. It’s a rare game that has the potential to play out incredibly differently in ways that feel consequential and impactful, but most of the time your choice amounts to “save the world” or “save the world while being an asshole to everyone you meet.” I mean, the only change in Knights of the Old Republic when you’re evil or not is who survives to the end. Sure, as you’ve spent the whole game getting to know all those people, those choices can feel incredibly impactful, but you still show up to the final boss ready to throw down because either you’re both power hungry assholes or because he’s a power hungry asshole and you want to stop him. Either way, characters you’ve spent the game learning to love die and you have climactic final battle surrounded by clone tubes being drained of their life force.

And that’s one of the better examples, where I felt like the story shifted depending on the choices I made and when I made them. In Skyrim, it’s just which side of the war you join and who you’re talking to for quests. The world doesn’t substantively change because of who sits on the throne or which warring faction you’ve decided deserves your patronage. And you can’t even ally with the dragons. You just kill or control them all until you can go fight the big bad dragon and then you kill that one and the story is over. The world is saved so it can…. continue going about its business the same way it went about its business before, without even a reduction in the number of dragon attacks. After all, there’s a bunch of dragons now. Enough that the game can keep shooting them in your direction even after the being supposedly bringing them back to life has been destroyed. Nothing changes.

Most games are like this. It’s isn’t really a failing so much as it is a limitation of the medium. After all, everything comes down to ones and zeroes in the end. Things are one way or they’re another way. You can make the list of ways things could be longer by including more ones and zeroes, but you have to build each and every one of them before a player ever comes into the picture. Hell, most games don’t even do that, instead trying to fool you with the illusion of choice (which is the idea that people believe themselves to have more control over their lives than they do). Even Breath of the Wild, one of my favorite games for the freedom it gave you really isn’t giving you a choice on a macro level. Sure, you can pick which direction you wander in, when you do quests or specific dungeons, and how to solve puzzles or engage in combat, but you don’t really get to choose not to do that stuff. You have to do it in order to keep playing the game. Sure, you could choose to not play the game or to put off playing the game, but ultimately you’re going to go save Zelda. The game will always end with Zelda saved, Ganon thwarted, and the world attempting to recover from whatever calamity befell it. You don’t really get a choice about the way the game goes.

Even games lauded for their freedom and openness, for the sheer complexity about the systems in place for tracking your choices and actions, and then playing out the resulting consequences, are still giving you the illusion of choice. The Nemesis system in Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor and its sequel, Shadow of War, is lauded as being one of the most revolutionary methods for generating enemy NPCs because of the way that they never forget what you’ve done to them. Except all it’s really doing is tracking the ways you killed them that didn’t trigger the “can’t come back from this” response and, the longer you play (or perhaps the better you are at figuring out how to trigger that response because you test software for a living and wanted to see how the system handled someone trying to break it), the more you start to see the holes in it.

In the first game, on my first clear of the game years after it came out (like every assassin’s creed game I’ve ever played, I have to be in the right mood for the game and it almost never lasts long enough for me to beat said game in one mood), I wound up with only one nemesis at the end of the game, a villain who I’d fought a bunch early on and then who never came back after I cleared the first area until it was time for the endgame battle, who died like a chump pretty much instantly because the game couldn’t take away the only weakness he had at that point because otherwise he’d become unkillable (which was a vulnerability to Finisher moves, which meant he died almost as quickly as any other foot soldier). In the second, they removed that restriction and every battle turned into a slog because apparently orcs could survive just about anything at that point and one guy just kept coming back because the game was set up to make sure you had at least one Nemesis who would follow you around no matter what. It felt awful and incredibly boring to fight this guy over and over again because he couldn’t die except from basic attacks and none of those could ever trigger the “can’t come back from this” response.

At no point in time was I ever give the option to do anything other than kill or mind control these enemies. I couldn’t show mercy. I couldn’t release a captive. I couldn’t contemptuously send them away except in very specific circumstances that were only ever designed to be a ploy to make them easier for my underlings to kill. I didn’t ever get a choice about how to handle these enemies. I just had to fight or flee until they found me again. I want to be clear that I have enjoyed and still enjoy these games and the Nemesis system works great when I’m not using my years as a software tester to find ways to deliberately break it, but there’s a vast difference between having a lot of prescriptive options and truly being able to choose whatever you want. Most games, thankfully, recognize this and don’t sell themselves as some kind of radically open, anything-is-possible style game. Cyberpunk 2077 did.

The article I linked at the beginning of this post does a pretty good job of going over my main criticisms of what Cyberpunk 2077 said it would be and what it actually was when it released, but the only thing that’s changed between now and when the article was published almost two years ago is that you can now go change your appearance whenever you want. Which is a pretty big deal. Any of the body-mod specialists can do it and you don’t have to pay for the the choice to do it. Unforunately, there’s still an extremely limited set of options constrained by which voice and body type you’ve chosen. Which you can also change in the editor, but you still can’t put feminine body hair options on a masculine body, nor can you change the pronouns you’d like the game to use for you.

And while I understand the complexities of representing the various non masculine or feminine pronouns in the many languages the game was translated into (I work for an international company and a non-trivial reason I’ve not come out to my coworkers is because I’m still trying to figure out what pronouns I’d like to used to refer to me in the various languages of my international coworkers), I don’t think it’s that difficult to included the ability to write in your own pronouns. I’ve worked in software text translation and usually you know ahead of time where things should be singular or plural, so I know it’s technically possible for a game to give you the ability to write in your own case and plural/singular/various pronoun options. I have literally done that for the “English Translation” of the software I work on every day (as a research project I did a couple years back).

I think that open-world games that emphasize the fact that you can do anything the game contains in whatever order you like are fine. They get a pass because they’re not trying to make themselves out as some ultimate expression of individual freedom. Skyrim never pretends you can do ANYTHING you want, just that there’s a huge amount of stuff you can do and very little of it is stuck behind quests and none of it is stuck behind quests that you can’t start from pretty much whatever locked door you’ve managed to find partway into the start of a quest you never picked up. Breath of the Wild keeps you in one spot until you’ve got all the tools and enough mechanical knowledge to do everything else in the game and won’t stop you from skipping everything else to go fight Calamity Ganon immediately, but it also never pretends that the end goal is anything other than defeating Calamity Ganon or that Link is going to do anything other than go on a wild adventure. I’ll give BotW points for letting you set up a fun domestic life in a village and to help rebuild the world via Tarrey Town, but most of the breadth of the game mostly resides in the stuff you discover as you explore. And Knights of the Old Republic absoutely isn’t an open-world game and never pretends to be one.

I guess I’m mostly just disappointed by how restricted I feel as I play Cyberpunk 2077. I can’t even make my character taller or shorter, wider or slimmer. Dragon’s Dogma has a better and more inclusive character builder and that game is over a decade old. Sure, I can’t pick my pronouns in that game either, but I can at least have pretty much any body type or build I want, regardless of what base or voice I choose. Some Cyberpunk future this is.

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