Sunday, September 4, 2011

Is that still a choice?

I was watching a video review of Deux Ex: Human Revolution. It showed the same scene played through twice, once using violence, once using stealth. Great! The player gets choice! Not so great: The non-violent way gave twice the xp of the violent version. And the reviewer showed other scenes where the non-violent choice was not only giving bigger bonuses, but was also considerably easier. So that at some point the player has to ask himself: Is that still a choice?

The question reminded me of the previous discussion here on the light side and dark side points and gear in Star Wars: The Old Republic. But ultimately, by comparison with the real world, it appears that the problem is predictability. In the real world your choices are complicated because you don't know all the consequences. You don't know if you will lead a happier life if you propose marriage to your girlfriend, or just the opposite. In a video game your choices result either in no consequences at all, or in some change in stats and points which are usually immediate and easy to understand. If stunning the guard gives 100 xp and killing him gives 50 xp, the choice you make is easy. It doesn't involve guesswork, a conscience, a moral decision, or wondering whether the police will be after you.

I haven't played it yet, but I assume that in Deus Ex there are save games, so if you make the "wrong" choice, you can reload the game and try again. And you'll either learn yourself, or read somewhere, that the non-violent option is *always* better, so soon you don't make those "wrong" choices any more. But if the option to make the "wrong" choice disappears, then that is not really a choice any more. It is like the "choice" in a MMORPG whether you want to accept the quest to kill 10 foozles, or whether you want to those foozles without a quest and miss out on the quest reward.

While in MMORPGs you don't have the option to save and reload, there are a lot of other players around who will tell you what the "right" choices are. That might be on some website or forum, or it might be people you play with. If your raidleader wants to talk to you about the "interesting" talent choices you made when building your character, you know what is coming. Now on the one hand that might be a social problem of in how far others you play with have the right of demanding you playing an optimized character. But the underlying problem again is predictability: If talent A gives 0.3% more damage output than talent B on every possible encounter, the choice between A and B becomes a false one. If encounters were more random, and talent B would be slightly inferior most of the time but much superior in some special cases, there would be more of a real choice to it.

Time to roll out again one of my favorite quotes on game design, Sid Meier's "a good game is a series of interesting choices. In an interesting choice, no single option is clearly better than the other options, the options are not equally attractive, and the player must be able to make an informed choice.". Looking at Deus Ex, Star Wars: The Old Republic, or World of Warcraft, I don't think these conditions are fulfilled. And in a way that is a more general trend: By trying to prevent players' frustration from having made bad choices, developers ended up giving them no choice at all, making games more and more an exercise of following a predetermined optimal path. The consequences of every choice are now predictable and one option is clearly better than another, or our choices don't have consequences at all. Is that still a choice? No, it isn't!

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