The Perils of Too Much Choice

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Sabrestar:
I would suggest that when players feel hamstrung by a lack of choice, it's not necessarily due to a presence or absence of choice, but simply an inability to make the choice the player wants to make.

And that will always happen in a videogame, because no designer can think of everything. (It's one of the reasons I am quick to defend [good] fanfiction, as it often is a reflection of what the player wanted to do in game but couldn't.)

i had that in skyrim a few times where i wasnt given the choice i wanted.

there was a part where someone was asking me if i believed in a god (ingame), and being an atheist i wanted to say no, however my options were limited to

-yes i do
-i can worship whoever i want
-remain silent

where is my option to say "no i do not"?

Anachronism:
I never got round to seeing it, but I was very keen to see Masque of the Red Death when it was on in London, and it sounds like it would have been very similar to this.

This was a really interesting article, and just reminds me how much I miss the articles on this site. I have no doubt that there were very good reasons for the change in direction and the increased focus on video series, but at the end of the day, what I came to the Escapist for was the articles. I'd log in on a Tuesday afternoon and have an hour or two's interesting, informative reading ahead of me; not so any more. There's still the odd article, like this one; they're still good, like this one; but in spite of all that, it just makes me want things to be the way they used to be.

amen to that. RIP escapist articles.

on topic: sleep no more is something i heard about awhile ago and really want to see. i work in theatre doing lighting and sleep no more is exactly the cross between gaming and theatre that fascinates me. also worth noting is that we can learn a lot about gaming and design by studying disneys theme parks. they are a study in level design and are something that we could learn from as an industry

Sonicron:

Plinglebob:
I also find I end up collapsing under the weight of choice in a lot of games, especially RPGs that like to throw millions of quests at you at the same time. I either end up stopping because I no longer care for each plot thread as there's so many to keep track of, or stopping because I can't decide where to go/what to do next. Best example is I ended up abandoning my 20hr save on Skyrim and re-reolling when I had 30 quests in my quest log and completely lost the plot of 1/2 them and couldn't decide which of the other 15 to do 1st.

Heh. Funny you should mention that; this is actually the main reason why I'm not much of an RPG fan. I love good storytelling, and the concept of a game stuffed chock-full of quests certainly sounds appealing... but when I'm actually in the game, seeing a nightmarish tidalwave of NPC demands building up in my quest log is quite intimidating. (And if that doesn't get me to quit the game long before I get to the end, it's the fact that the experience begins to feel artificially drawn out, and I get bored.)
Too bad you say this sidequest thing is a problem in Skyrim as well. Guess that's another 'con' on my 'to buy or not to buy Skyrim' chart.

This is why I've always enjoyed Bioware RPGs. The main plot takes center stage while there's enough side-quests to satisfy RPG purists, but too much so that you lose the plot of them. Bioware imposes another kind of freedom on the player other than the freedom of full-roam. The freedom to affect the plot and character development (to a certain degree). I like this freedom moreso than the freedoms presented in a game like Skyrim. I find that if I don't give a crap about the story or the characters, I don't give a damn for the world. I think this is true for any works of fiction, it's not the world that matters it's those within it.

I've had a bit of training as a stage magician, which doesn't on the surface seem like it would translate to game design, but it has made me realize something; It's not so much the actual choice, so much as disguising the lack of it, that can really help with immersion.

It's like a magic show: If you're the one programming the game, you see the tricks, you see the strings, you know where all the invisible walls and the plot rails and the rigged dialogue trees are, and you think "This is so obvious, no one will ever be fooled." And they just present it so straightforward that the player feels boxed in.

The key is misdirection. It is possible to make the player just THINK they have more control over the world and the story than they do. BioWare does this, and that's why their games have good writing and fun gameplay: They work within their limits and disguise the shortcomings. Use every part of the buffalo, as it were.

Obsidian actually tries to follow through on the promise of massive choice... and wind up making games that are incredibly glitchy and unfinished (which reminds me, I'd love to see Obsidian make a retro 16-bit action RPG. If they didn't have to worry about 3D rendering and voice acting and such, and could just concentrate on writing, programming and designing, they could make the greatest retro game of all time). Like using too many pulleys and wires in a stage show.

The problem is, when determining what illusions work, you have to practice, and you have to include an audience member in the design process. Which would mean that instead of hiring beta testers during post-production, they'd need to bring a few laymen in to play through certain processes as they are actually being written, which would be... somewhat troublesome. Still, BioWare does it.

maninahat:
Good article.

I'm reminded of a game called "The Last Express", which was about some mysterious goings on on the Orient Express, prior to WWI. The idea of the game was that everything was happening in real time, with NPCs going to and fro, carrying out their own objectives. How the game ends depends on who you bump into, and what conversations you over hear, and what objectives you complete over time.

It was an interesting concept, but the game sucks.

There was no order or guidance. I had no real idea why the protagonist was still on the train (early on he gets framed for murder, so getting off the train seems like an obvious thing to do), or what he even wanted. At first it seemed like a sensible enough murder mystery plot, but then half way through the game my character discovers a magical golden bird. Oh, so it is a fantasy story now? I just didn't have a clue what I should be doing, or why I should care about what goes on. The final insult is that the game expects you to do many things without any prompted whatsoever; like knowing when to go to sleep, to progress the plot.

Utter waste of a concept, and it was all down to a lack of direction.

Interesting point of view, considering that The Last Express is widely considered one of the best adventure games ever by fans of that particular genre. But hey, to each their own. :)

The bird isn't magical, btw. Just valuable.

Vault101:
how old was that game? it sounds like a very interesting concept...stuff hapening in "real time" thouhg as you pointed out..difficult to pull off

You can draw your own conclusions for $6 if you want:

http://www.gog.com/en/gamecard/last_express_the

(And FYI, they give the release date as March 30, 1997.)

drummond13:
Interesting point of view, considering that The Last Express is widely considered one of the best adventure games ever by fans of that particular genre. But hey, to each their own. :)

maninahat:
snip

Wellll...

To be fair, yes, many people now consider The Last Express to have been quite the thing- whether due to its innovative structure or its remarkable and unusual use of rotoscoped animation. And it got good reviews when it was released. But it's also true that it was a crashing flop when it first came out. Part of that was due to some unfortunate timing with the companies involved (Broderbund and Interplay), but part of that was also that it was a rather strange creature. Whether it was a "Rite Of Spring" strange creature or a "Plan 9 From Outer Space" strange creature... I'll leave to others' judgement.

No such thing as too much choice. i haven't met a game yet where i could say "yeah, i could do everything i wanted"

Sylocat:
I've had a bit of training as a stage magician, which doesn't on the surface seem like it would translate to game design, but it has made me realize something; It's not so much the actual choice, so much as disguising the lack of it, that can really help with immersion.

It's like a magic show: If you're the one programming the game, you see the tricks, you see the strings, you know where all the invisible walls and the plot rails and the rigged dialogue trees are, and you think "This is so obvious, no one will ever be fooled." And they just present it so straightforward that the player feels boxed in.

The key is misdirection. It is possible to make the player just THINK they have more control over the world and the story than they do. BioWare does this, and that's why their games have good writing and fun gameplay: They work within their limits and disguise the shortcomings. Use every part of the buffalo, as it were.

Thats a really good point. Video games and software in general are almost by nature pre-determined so choice is bound to be an illusion at some level. When a choice in a game feels inconclusive or immaterial it's very much like a magic trick gone wrong. Misdirection is probably a big part of it, minor details can make a big difference.

This goes much further than choice and affects immersion in general. If a game claims that I get a sword, it needs to do some legwork to convince me. Presenting an icon of a sword, a 3D model and some sound effects goes a long way to make me feel it really is a sword, when in reality it's just numbers in a model. The graphical and audio hints makes me believe in the sword even though they aren't really related to the internal mechanics.

In the same way choices feel more meaningful if I am presented with the consequences at a point later in the story, in practice it doesn't take much to make me believe my choices and actions actually did something.

drummond13:

maninahat:
Good article.

I'm reminded of a game called "The Last Express", which was about some mysterious goings on on the Orient Express, prior to WWI. The idea of the game was that everything was happening in real time, with NPCs going to and fro, carrying out their own objectives. How the game ends depends on who you bump into, and what conversations you over hear, and what objectives you complete over time.

It was an interesting concept, but the game sucks.

There was no order or guidance. I had no real idea why the protagonist was still on the train (early on he gets framed for murder, so getting off the train seems like an obvious thing to do), or what he even wanted. At first it seemed like a sensible enough murder mystery plot, but then half way through the game my character discovers a magical golden bird. Oh, so it is a fantasy story now? I just didn't have a clue what I should be doing, or why I should care about what goes on. The final insult is that the game expects you to do many things without any prompted whatsoever; like knowing when to go to sleep, to progress the plot.

Utter waste of a concept, and it was all down to a lack of direction.

Interesting point of view, considering that The Last Express is widely considered one of the best adventure games ever by fans of that particular genre. But hey, to each their own. :)

The bird isn't magical, btw. Just valuable.

Yes, I read many of the positive reviews, and as it was on offer, I thought why not. Considering it is a bargain, I'd still recommend it to others for its unique vision alone. Glad that I tried it all the same, even if I disliked it and never finished it.

I never progressed much further than after the discovery the golden bird. It isn't magical, you say? Than how else could it possibly work? The damn bird destroyed my willing suspension of disbelief.

Or maybe you just didn't get it?

Not in a rude way, or in any way looking down on anyone who has been and didn't get it, but maybe you just couldn't connect with the experience.

My sister listens to Lady Gaga the Black Eyed Peas and other such children's albums, and according to her they have changed her life in the same way that Led Zeppelin and Chuck Berry and Bruce Springsteen have changed mine. I don't get it at all, I simply can't understand why she likes the music that she does. It doesn't make the music any less important, or any less well constructed or life changing or whatever, but I cannot connect with it on any level.

I can watch a Shakespeare and be utterly drawn into the beauty of it simply by the language, with everything else acting as set dressing, and I can watch a Frayn and hate every second, not because Frayn is an inferior scriptwriter, but because for whatever reason I don't get involved.

With such a subjective experience as videogaming, or theatre, or reading or music or art, you can't make such sweeping generalisations as to say that all that's needed in games is the illusion of choice.

I completely and honestly want the option to play Mass Effect and not save the galaxy. I don't care if that's the point of the story, I don't care if that's supposed to be the entire reason for my character existing. I want to be a smuggler, or a C-Sec cop, or just spend an entire game living a Sims-esque life in an apartment on the Citadel doing bugger all of nothing. I want those choices, because sometimes that's what I can connect with. Other times it's not and I want to be an immortal badass, but I do want all those choices.

One bad experience with a piece of experimental theatre doesn't even define what you want from a videogame. The experiences are so entirely different in every way that you can't draw a comparison.

MelasZepheos:
I completely and honestly want the option to play Mass Effect and not save the galaxy. I don't care if that's the point of the story, I don't care if that's supposed to be the entire reason for my character existing. I want to be a smuggler, or a C-Sec cop, or just spend an entire game living a Sims-esque life in an apartment on the Citadel doing bugger all of nothing. I want those choices, because sometimes that's what I can connect with. Other times it's not and I want to be an immortal badass, but I do want all those choices.

Then you really don't want to play Mass Effect. Seriously, that's the exact same thing as you going to your job, walking up to your boss and saying, "I'm not going to do the job that you hired me to do. I'm going to do whatever type of work I feel like doing, but I still expect you to recognize me as your employee and give me all of the pay and benefits from your job." Do you really expect your boss, or any boss, to go along with that?

Strazdas:
No such thing as too much choice. i haven't met a game yet where i could say "yeah, i could do everything i wanted"

There's already a game like that, it's called "REAL LIFE". And to play it, all you have to do is walk out your front door.

All I read in this was a Yuppie trying to put on a facade of wisdom by being pretentious.

Maybe it's just me, but I suppose I just have a vendetta against independent theatre.

goliath6711:

MelasZepheos:
I completely and honestly want the option to play Mass Effect and not save the galaxy. I don't care if that's the point of the story, I don't care if that's supposed to be the entire reason for my character existing. I want to be a smuggler, or a C-Sec cop, or just spend an entire game living a Sims-esque life in an apartment on the Citadel doing bugger all of nothing. I want those choices, because sometimes that's what I can connect with. Other times it's not and I want to be an immortal badass, but I do want all those choices.

Then you really don't want to play Mass Effect. Seriously, that's the exact same thing as you going to your job, walking up to your boss and saying, "I'm not going to do the job that you hired me to do. I'm going to do whatever type of work I feel like doing, but I still expect you to recognize me as your employee and give me all of the pay and benefits from your job." Do you really expect your boss, or any boss, to go along with that?

No it's not. In fact, although I do have something else I want to say I'm going to spend a moment looking at the statement 'that is the exact same thing as etc'. No, it is not the exact same thing. It is not even remotely close to the same thing. Real life is one thing, a game, being played for escapism is quite another.

A more apt analogy would be 'I liked listening to that album by that band, I wonder if they've done anything else.' 'I liked reading that book, I wonder if there are any more in the same series.'

I go to the Mass Effect world for escapism, and I think it's a huge world that's been carefully constructed and put together. I think that there are potentially hundreds of exciting stories to tell, and I want to experience all of them. When I live my life I do things that you have to do in the real world, including work. When I play a game, I want to do things I can't do in real life, or things I would do but in an exciting new setting.

I have quite enough to do in real life. I get to write, I get to do work that I like, I get to go out and act sometimes, I get to go out every week to open mic nights. What I don't get to do is live on the Citadel, or be a cop in Gotham City, or even be a cop in Stillwater or whatever the hell city GTA is set in.

That's what games are for.

Dastardly:
Snip

An amazing and very well written post.
I totally agree with his views and I do hope developers and producers will learn to continuously increase limitations throughout a game to force, or rather to give a reason to the player to use something else than your typical cookie cutter formula adopted at the beginning of the game.

I know that "if it's not broken, don't fix it", but that's where it can be improved on. To an extent, the game needs to break your way of playing a few times during a playthrough so you can improve and think outside the box.
Of course, this must be done in a way that doesn't irritate the player. That is the real challenge.

goliath6711:
Then you really don't want to play Mass Effect. Seriously, that's the exact same thing as you going to your job, walking up to your boss and saying, "I'm not going to do the job that you hired me to do. I'm going to do whatever type of work I feel like doing, but I still expect you to recognize me as your employee and give me all of the pay and benefits from your job." Do you really expect your boss, or any boss, to go along with that?

Actually, what this guy is saying is more like, "I don't so much enjoy playing the Mass Effect story, but I really want the opportunity to play around in the Mass Effect universe."

To go back to the work analogy, it's more like talking to your boss about working in the same building and company, but perhaps in a different role. And that's perfectly reasonable, as a lot of people do that. Not guaranteed, but reasonable.

Phrytar:
An amazing and very well written post.
I totally agree with his views and I do hope developers and producers will learn to continuously increase limitations throughout a game to force, or rather to give a reason to the player to use something else than your typical cookie cutter formula adopted at the beginning of the game.

I know that "if it's not broken, don't fix it", but that's where it can be improved on. To an extent, the game needs to break your way of playing a few times during a playthrough so you can improve and think outside the box.
Of course, this must be done in a way that doesn't irritate the player. That is the real challenge.

Thanks for the reply!

And you're right, it's definitely hard to do it without irritating the player. Of course, part of the realization that should bring us to is that it's impossible for one game to appeal equally to everyone. As we've attempted to create "that game," we've watered down a lot of fantastic features.

If we did that with food, every burger would be plain meat and bun to avoid "irritating" customers with toppings they don't love...

To me, the best way to do it is to allow the player to use their familiar, comfortable answers... but gradually make them a bit less ideal. At some point, they'll decide for themselves to look for a better way -- and then you've got them!

MelasZepheos:

goliath6711:

MelasZepheos:
I completely and honestly want the option to play Mass Effect and not save the galaxy. I don't care if that's the point of the story, I don't care if that's supposed to be the entire reason for my character existing. I want to be a smuggler, or a C-Sec cop, or just spend an entire game living a Sims-esque life in an apartment on the Citadel doing bugger all of nothing. I want those choices, because sometimes that's what I can connect with. Other times it's not and I want to be an immortal badass, but I do want all those choices.

Then you really don't want to play Mass Effect. Seriously, that's the exact same thing as you going to your job, walking up to your boss and saying, "I'm not going to do the job that you hired me to do. I'm going to do whatever type of work I feel like doing, but I still expect you to recognize me as your employee and give me all of the pay and benefits from your job." Do you really expect your boss, or any boss, to go along with that?

No it's not. In fact, although I do have something else I want to say I'm going to spend a moment looking at the statement 'that is the exact same thing as etc'. No, it is not the exact same thing. It is not even remotely close to the same thing. Real life is one thing, a game, being played for escapism is quite another.

A more apt analogy would be 'I liked listening to that album by that band, I wonder if they've done anything else.' 'I liked reading that book, I wonder if there are any more in the same series.'

I go to the Mass Effect world for escapism, and I think it's a huge world that's been carefully constructed and put together. I think that there are potentially hundreds of exciting stories to tell, and I want to experience all of them. When I live my life I do things that you have to do in the real world, including work. When I play a game, I want to do things I can't do in real life, or things I would do but in an exciting new setting.

I have quite enough to do in real life. I get to write, I get to do work that I like, I get to go out and act sometimes, I get to go out every week to open mic nights. What I don't get to do is live on the Citadel, or be a cop in Gotham City, or even be a cop in Stillwater or whatever the hell city GTA is set in.

That's what games are for.

I'm talking in the context of the game's narriative. You're saying that the Mass Effect game that came out in 2007 should've had the option to abandon what you yourself admitted was "the point of the story" and "the entire reason for my character existing". Not remove the storyline from the game, mind you, just an option say, "I don't feel like saving the galaxy. I'm going to be a cop or a smuggler until the Reapers come and then join up with them. You guys are on your own." If I'm wrong, then explain it to me.

The author begins this article not understanding the difference between restrictions of choice and a lack of guidance, and proceeds, erroneously, from there.

Kwil:
The author begins this article not understanding the difference between restrictions on choice and a lack of guidance, and proceeds, erroneously, from there.

Yeah, I was thinking something similar.

I really like the article, it was very interesting... But it seems to spend pretty much the entire article talking about lack of guidance or communication, and then referring back to choice, without (IMO) ever actually making any points to suggest a link between guidance and choice.

Its an interesting and quite thoughtful read about how lack of guidance or purpose can cause feelings of disatisfaction. But the mentions of choice feel like they are talking about a separate section of the article that got accidentally left behind when the section got removed during editing.

You can't really take this play as evidence that gamers don't want more choice in their game. Yes, a game that's a crafted, guided experience that's similar to a movie or play can be a fun and entertaining experience. But a properly open world game, like it's namesake (sandbox if you need me to spell it out) can be just as entertaining. Not in the same way, mind you, but also entertaining.

The fact that the play didn't work out because you missed a lot doesn't hold true for a sandbox game either. I mean, most of the time in sandboxes, sights to be seen will be forever, waiting for you to encounter it, rather than happening with the player.

vxicepickxv:
The example for the illusion of unlimited choice I would have used would have been Minecraft myself, but I can see why Myst was used.

Fallout 3//Skyrim, too much choice, no real impetus to finish the quest.

ThunderCavalier:
Huh, I hadn't thought about this. This truly was a bit of an enlightening article, and definitely something that I wish the Extra Credits team was still here to comment on.

Thanks for the little insight into the bits of choice. This is really an interesting thing that I hadn't thought about.

Find them on PATV!

It's a fascinating article, though I'm not entirely convinced of the point in makes. I guess you expect games (or theatre) to give you some kind of guidance as to what's going on, and while that makes sense as an experience with a specific intent, it gets to the core of what makes something entertainment, rather than just some kind of experience.

You know what's confusing, unclear and has no obvious direction or purpose? Life.
So if a game does that to you, it's kind of failing at being a game, but it's making a reasonable approximation of life. (Whether you consider that a good thing or a bad one is obviously up for debate.)

However, I was somewhat expecting this article to mention the science experiments about choice.
These experiments are actually bad news for capitalist ideals, but that's a slightly different matter.
The conclusions of experiment come down to the fact that people like having a choice, but too many choices are so overwhelming that people tend to become paralysed by them.
Not only that, but the more choices there are, the more likely you are to feel unhappy with whatever choice you actually made.
(Incidentally, the research suggests the optimal number of options is about 6. Less than that and people tend to feel restricted, more than that and they start to feel overwhelmed by it.)

There is never too much choice.
What there often is, lack of information to make that choice with.
Also, lack of consequences which make the choices you do meaningless, making them less of a choice.

Also, on story based games, you can either force people to play the story through as there is nothing else to do (Final Fantasy games are this to varying degrees, as are almost any non sandbox games), or, you can make the people want to find out what happens next (Morrowind is a good example of this, Oblivion and Fallout 3 not so much).

Also, as was previously stated, it's not whether or not there is choice (some limitations are necessary to make a game), but how arbitrary they are, less arbitrary the limitations are, the better (inability to kill certain npc's without explaining story elements in sandbox is more jarring and arbitrary than same in non sandbox game which already limits who, what and when to fight).

goliath6711:

Strazdas:
No such thing as too much choice. i haven't met a game yet where i could say "yeah, i could do everything i wanted"

There's already a game like that, it's called "REAL LIFE". And to play it, all you have to do is walk out your front door.

Can i mod real life? can i stop time in real life? Can i fly in real life? Can i turn stones to gold in real life? so what are you on about again?

While this article definitely has a point, a very important one, you have to recoqnize that, in placing signposts to guide the player along the way, the designer is not restricting the choices he can make, just helping him make the right one. The problem with Sleep No More, at least as it's portrayed, is that there's too much information to absorb, and no way to tell which information is important and which is not without absorbing it all. This is not like if the player could read every book, but rather, as if the player could read every book, every area contained dozens of books, there were no titles on the books, and the only way to get any sort of information was to find the appropriate book.

tl; dr: Pointing the player in the right direction doesn't mean restricting his options of going in a different direction.

You know, I'm glad you said "Myst" at the end of this because that is exactly what I thought of when I read through the article. The Myst series is one that I personally could not get into because of its blatant lack of direction. And by that I don't mean "there's no point to playing this game," I just mean there weren't enough cues to help me feel like I was getting anywhere. I even tried playing the online version for a while, but when I reached a point where I realized I couldn't play without looking things up on gamefaqs.com every other step of the way, I had to stop playing.

So yeah. I definitely agree that too much freedom in a game can be just as frustrating as not having enough. My personal preference is for games like the most recent Legend of Zeldas (OoT, MM, TP) where there's an obvious storyline to work on, but a series of side tasks you can complete to breakup the routine. And not a seemingly unlimited amount of them, either. Because I am such a completionist, I want to do all the little side things but I don't want it to take a million years for me to beat the game because of it.

Dwarf Fortress, Minecraft. These are pretty much the ONLY games that allow you to do whatever you want in the game. Dwarf Fortress does a pretty good job of weaving a narrative into the experience. Better than Minecraft. too bad no one wants to play it because it looks like a text editor.

Even Myst is pretty linear. Branching, but you gotta stay on the path. If you decide to jump in the water and swim after the book in the sunken ship, nope.

GamemasterAnthony:
Personally...I'm surprised Pokémon wasn't used. With 649 critters to choose from, the argument can be made that's there's too mcuh choice in that particular game.

I can definitely see the argument for why some constraints are necessary. Sleep No More looks like the kind of play where you almost need a walkthrough to figure out which areas to go to just to see some semblance of plot. (If there is any.)

No, you're doing it wrong! You're supposed to catch all of them!

I personaly prefer my games to have a completly open world free to do anything at anytime game. I enjoy exploring new places and finding new things and you cant do that in a heavily scripted linear game.

For people that prefer less choice they can still enjoy games like Skyrim or Oblivion, the issue is the player does not focus on the main story and lacks self control when it comes to collecting new sidequests. If you prefer more linear games then play in a linear fashion, theres nothing stopping you the player from choosing to ignore the NPC's that ask for help and infact could be done as part of the plot. you say no thanks because the main story is too important and you dont have time to help.

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