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The Perils of Too Much Choice

Katharine Coldiron | 15 Nov 2011 13:00
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What if you'd never found a single audio diary as you played through BioShock? Would your experience of the world be rich and compelling, or would the world be a pretty set for a decent first-person shooter? What if, in Portal, upon riding into the fire pit, you never realized that the walls' appearance made them portal-able walls? What if you just got dumped in the fire, over and over again, and never got to defeat GLaDOS?

Cues, and a restriction of choice, often lead to the player's greatest enjoyment of a videogame, and it's in this (and this only) that Sleep No More fails. Its embarrassment of choices meant that I walked away with great appreciation and admiration, but little engagement, and for this reason, it wasn't - as I'd believed it would be - a live-action videogame. I didn't have enough of a sense of where I should go and what I should do to get to the final boss battle and emerge with the feeling that I'd completed the experience.

Cues, and a restriction of choice, often lead to the player's greatest enjoyment of a videogame.

Seeing Sleep No More helped me (and my husband, who said he thought every level designer in the industry ought to witness the McKittrick) recognize that limits and signposts in videogames are bad for neither the player nor the designer. If the gamer really could read every book on every shelf, and every book had substance but not necessarily significance within the game, she would have a hard time determining which way was up. Illuminated outlines for key items are not a crutch, not a weakness of imagination, but a preservation of energy, to keep the player moving in the right direction. Would you really want to sacrifice the satisfaction of being sure you played the game as intended? (If you do, well, hack away.)

Be advised, should you decide to make your way into Sleep No More, that you may not come out with any answers. It is an experience like no other, an experience that defies the boundaries of theater, dance, gaming, and even what constitutes an audience. But you may not walk away knowing what you were supposed to get out of it. The artistic director of Sleep No More's theater company, Felix Barrett, notes in the show's program that "There's no one right way to do it." Fair enough, but total artistic freedom doesn't necessarily lend itself to a positive experience for the audience. Sometimes, it's just confusing.

Game designers don't want to restrict your freedom, or keep you from the full spectrum of experience that a videogame can provide. They want to make the world come alive for you, keep you engaged, guide you down a rewarding path. The McKittrick is already alive, by virtue of being real, but there is no easily discernable pattern to the immense detail. Too much choice, as I learned, leads ultimately to disengagement, whether the game is live or digital, and that's exactly what those shimmering objects are trying to help you avoid.

For an immersive experience without certainty, hie thee to New York, or get yourself a copy of Myst. Otherwise, enjoy your seat on the couch, and feel free to find your way through - a benevolent creator is watching out for you.

Katharine Coldiron's essays and fiction have appeared in various print and internet media. She lives in Maryland and blogs at The Fictator.

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