The Illusion of Choice: How Games Play You!

The Illusion of Choice: How Games Play You

SPOILER WARNING: This article contains references, both direct and indirect, to specific events in both Deus Ex: Human Revolution and BioShock. If you do not want potentially significant details of these games spoiled for you, this is your last chance to back away.

A couple months back, I purchased Deus Ex: Human Revolution (behind the times, I know) on my friend, Dan's, recommendation. He has a thing for games that accommodate a range of playstyles rather than shoe-horning the player into a set role and knows that—though I am certainly of a more straightforward type of mindset—I appreciate such variety in games as a whole. After the tutorial and the opening credits, Human Revolution plunks you down in the lobby of Sarif Industries, with David Sarif calling you up and urging you to proceed to the helipad. There's a situation, he says.

I didn't think much of it at the time, so I futzed around in the building, found a side-quest, and started unraveling that (I'm a little obsessive in that if you present me with a diversion, I will strive to complete it and reap its total benefit before proceeding onto the main storyline at all, just in case something I'm about to do blocks it off to me). Sarif popped in once more to ask where I was. I continued to ignore him until, a few minutes later, he was patched through once again, clearly upset and telling me that the "situation [had] changed." I proceeded to the helipad and flew to the Milwaukee Junction facility.

The Illusion of Choice: How Games Play You

An introductory mission later, I was comforting Josie Thorpe after her brush with death when she informed me that her husband had been among the hostages killed. Then I noticed that SWAT was indicting me for the hostages' deaths. If only I hadn't made them wait, those men and women might have still been alive, they sneered.

"Wait a tick," I thought. "I don't remember a 'dilly-dally' conversation option. How's this my fault?"

Then I put two and two together. I called up Dan right away.

"Dan, is it possible to save the hostages in the first mission?"

"Yes," he responded.

"So if I just take too long getting to the chopper, the game kills them off?"


"Dude, that is awesome!"

Why, though, is this one choice in a game laden with poignant and far-reaching decisions a source of such excitement for me? In part, it's because games are typically constructed around a very, very specific experience.

While a game that doesn't offer you control over at least some of its variables arguably isn't a game at all, most narrative-based titles are primarily focused on getting you from point to point in a linear experience. Even those that offer you choice, such as Mass Effect, typically isolate the individual missions you go on and decisions you make in player-proof bubbles. Your goal is to keep your character and maybe his/her buddies alive and kill the enemies between you and the next cutscene/boss fight/set piece. Then you make a choice that puts you on another branch and repeat the process over again. As such, the variables you control are limited, and you know when you're affecting one of them. Deus Ex: Human Revolution makes the interesting choice of sometimes, insidiously, not telling you that there's a variable for you to control.

Timed missions, and even timed decisions, are nothing new in gaming. In this one situation, though, the timer is hidden, implied entirely through dialogue. How often, though, have you taken what an NPC says at face value? How many games have told you to "hurry over here" and then waited for you, the world static and stagnant until you walk forward or kill the dude it wants you to kill? You, as the player, are the star and the game caters to your whim. Human Revolution inverts this, and then offers no indication that it is doing so. It's an action with real consequence, because the choice isn't made by selecting from a binary checklist. You can behave however you want, and that situation at the Milwaukee Junction facility can change based on your organic behavior. The game is playing with your conditioned entitlement as a player.

In a sense, this is a counterpoint to BioShock's infamous "Would You Kindly" reveal, woven into the fabric of Deus Ex: Human Revolution's design philosophy. In one of BioShock's most chilling moments, the game brings you face to face with your own identity as a gamer. It's not your fault. You've been conditioned to do what is required of you in a game to make it advance, to keep the ball rolling. There are modern games that push you forward with constant pressure from enemies and failure conditions that will occur if you loiter.

BioShock did it with "would you kindly," a polite request for your character to help a man he doesn't know perform a task that is, ostensibly, to help him. Does the player question why he's being asked to put himself in harm's way for another individual? Probably not, as we're used to assuming whatever role is thrust upon us in game, throwing our avatars into dire danger for the sake of the experience. By providing an in-context explanation for your character's behavior—one that unmasks him as a glorified puppet—BioShock confronts you with the out-of-context question of why you so readily accept orders given to you in a game, something that you are—in theory—controlling.

The Illusion of Choice: How Games Play You

Think back to games in which the only marker of success was a high score, indirect competition with your peers. Later, personal success conditions were added in the form of endings. As the hardware has advanced so has the complexity of these experiences, but with that complexity has come rigidity. You may be holding the controller and taking the actions, but the game won't advance until you do what it wants you to do—it's playing you. It creates a relatively fragile immersion, easily broken by a disjointed sequence or a player momentarily disconnecting from the action on his screen.

Does this make Deus Ex: Human Revolution and games like it—the rarities that offer organic decisions with actual and, often, unanticipated consequences—an evolution of the medium? Are they distancing themselves from traditional games and sports, which have always relied on rigid sets of rules to define their play for those involved, and in so doing providing games that can be defined by the player, as opposed to defining play? Is this the first step in games moving away from their current mimicry of static forms of entertainment, such as movies and books, and into a realm where even their narratives are informed by their unique possibilities as an interactive medium? Perhaps, but that leads to an entirely separate discussion on the individual's emotional journey, and how that has been carried over from traditional media into gaming. A subject for another article, perhaps.

Shelby Reiches
Contributing Writer
Date: January 24, 2012

*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*

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