EletiofeThe Real Pleasure and Pain of Making Choices in...

The Real Pleasure and Pain of Making Choices in Video Games


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It’s important to be invested in the story when playing a video game. Sure, there are absolutely times when it’s possible to just step back and enjoy the gameplay and visuals ( Sackboy has been great for this lately), but most of the time, it’s the goal, character, and story arc that provide an anchor. Many of us don’t have a lot of time to play on a day-to-day basis, so gaming time needs to feel consequential. Payoff is paramount.

With that in mind, you’d think that the trend toward actual consequences for character choices in a game would be a welcome shift. Being able to control the ending of the story based solely on the decisions your character makes is incredible for interactive storytelling. It leaves gamers deeply invested in their characters, as they know they are actually making a difference in how the game will play out. I should adore it, but in reality, it sucks.

Why? I have a love/hate relationship with this kind of gameplay. If you’re a heavy RPG player (I grew up on Final Fantasy), then the bulk of games you play end up having some sort of “choices have consequences” framework. Having to make choices that directly impact the kind of ending I’ll get in a game can be very stressful—especially when these games are often 50-plus hours long. It means the time-cost of not getting the ending you desire can be very high.

I’m currently playing (and really enjoying) Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. It took me a while to really get into it—but once the story felt like it got going, it finally clicked and I was hooked. In these games, the decisions your character makes matter. In conversations, you’re often presented with different dialogue options and actions—kill an enemy versus letting them go, prioritizing one goal over another. If you want the “best” ending, presumably the happiest one, then you have to make the correct choice at the right time without perfect information.

Sometimes, figuring out what choice to make is easy: You just choose mercy, or the option that will kill or otherwise harm the least amount of people (a good strategy in video games and in life). Other times, it’s entirely unclear. And, if you’re a person obsessed with getting that gold star, that “best ending,” it can be extremely fraught.

When playing Valhalla earlier this week (a game I’ve put about 50 hours into since November), I was faced with a choice of who to support for the leader of a shire; my end goal was to form a lasting alliance. I knew the decision could have consequences, so I thought about it for a while, gathered as much information as I could, and then I turned to Google. I’d always rather risk spoilers than risk the best outcome.

I discovered that I was, by design, working with subpar knowledge. Choosing two of the candidates would give me a similar outcome, but the third was secretly working with an enemy organization. I’m not sure what the final, long-term implications would have been, but it’s possible that I could have messed up my eternal quest for the best denouement and I didn’t even know it!

You may laugh, but this is a thought that has been haunting me ever since. What other mistakes might I have made along the way in Valhalla without even realizing it? Why does making choices in video games distress me so much? Perhaps because, deep down, I know I can’t control the world, but I can control my game.

Of course it is just a game, and it probably shouldn’t matter whether I get the best ending or not. Games are pastimes, and as long as I enjoy the journey (the gameplay), the conclusion shouldn’t really matter that much (except in Final Fantasy X-2, because I had to see Yuna reunited with Tidus).

But here’s the thing: Right now, gaming is more than just a hobby, more than a form of entertainment. It’s a lifeline for many of us. It’s become central to taking care of my mental health; in a time when the headlines are scary and I’m worried for the future we’re creating for my child and others like him, it provides a much needed escape.

So when I’m sitting down and playing Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, I want that bright, shining city on a hill. I want everything to end well in this fictional, contained world because happy conclusions are rare in the real one. I can’t rapidly deploy Covid-19 vaccines or end hunger, but I can master this video game. And dammit, I’m going to get that gold star, or (Eivor will) die trying.

And I’m going to be honest: Most of the time, it’s not even about what the final act contains. It’s knowing that there’s a better ending out there, available, and that I don’t have it. It’s the blue ribbon I’m always chasing because I want that validation. (Unless that validation requires playing on Extreme Difficulty Mode, in which case, you can keep it.)

People have definitely told me I take this too seriously, that I should enjoy playing through multiple versions of the game’s story to see how decisions affect the outcome. I’m not sure whether these people have a lot more time than me or just aren’t aware we’re in a golden age of gaming where the number of games I haven’t played will always vastly outnumber the games I have. Or maybe they just don’t have my compulsive personality—every time I play a game, I want the best ending. Even if it’s the exact same experience. I replay games for nostalgia, not for new thrills.

This is not meant to be a diatribe against these kinds of choices in games. They’re an incredible way to get gamers involved and invested in a story, and I’m glad games are moving in this direction. I want to see more, not less, of this. But in this dark, troubled, pandemic-stricken real life, when it feels like the character in a video game is the only thing I can control, it can be overwhelming to feel like I have the fate of the virtual world on my shoulders too.

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