The Fallacy of Choice (In Games and Real Life)

Molleindustria's Unmanned
Molleindustria’s Unmanned presents unclear choices in unconventional scenarios.

Games love to make a big deal about choices. Unfortunately, most of the time your only options boil down to either saving the helpless baby lamb from starving wolves or punting it to the pack leader, with nary a shade of gray in between.

With such shoddy ‘choices’ to pick from, any savvy gamer can easily size up the predictable ramifications for later gameplay, then depending if he’s playing through as a saint or a shithead, make the corresponding selection.

How is this really a choice? More than anything else, choices in most games resemble a metagame that game designers play called something like “Stay in Your Lane.” Lawful Good, here’s your lane. Chaotic Bad, here’s your lane. Want to switch lanes? Go right ahead, but in most of these D&D wannabees, there’s simply no option to carve out a mixed path.

You’ve made your decision about how you’ll play, and though you can stray or even change philosophies, your choices amount to on/off switches throughout the game as opposed to real decisions that ripple out nuanced consequences.

Sounds like a pretty poor imitation of what real life choices are, right? Here’s where it gets interesting. Take this hypothetical scenario: It’s early in the morning, and you’re getting ready to go to work. Do you open the door and walk outside? Kick it down and leap out head first? Break the window and rappel out with tied-together sheets? Unless you’re a stuntman or a psychopath, you open the door like a normal person because it’s the minimal necessary action to take.

Lionhead's Fable 3
Lionhead’s Fable 3 strives to give players meaningful choices.

Think about it – all of the small decisions, or ‘choices,’ that you make in a given day are simply the minimal necessary actions needed to accomplish what you want to do.

Note that the definition of minimal necessary action can fluctuate wildly based on a few key variables: your overall character and morals, current mental state, and the information available to you at the time. If the morning you got ready for work, you discovered your house was on fire, then damn straight you’d bust out the window and get the hell out of there. But if you couldn’t smell the smoke yet? You’d walk out calmly like any other day.

(Aside: Simply put, if something gets in your way, then you step up the minimal necessary action required – this is the heart of dramatic tension, and the core to good storytelling in any medium.)

What I’m trying to say here is that every ‘choice’ you make in your life is simply based on these variables, which combine to point you to what amounts to the best choice at the time.

So if your choices in real life are not technically choices but more like confirmations of your character and morals, mental state, and information at the moment – how do we make choice meaningful in games?

One way is to break the constraints of the good/bad/neutral metagame by opting out of such bland logic completely. Molleindustria’s Unmanned is an excellent example of this. In the game, you play as a US-based remote operator for an unmanned combat drone patrolling in Afghanistan. Core gameplay consists of choices that range from the mundane to life or death matters, but always in the removed setting of the pilot who is never in danger himself.

Outcomes for each choice aren’t necessarily clear, and the results come across fuzzy – kind of like in real life. In a way, your choices in Unmanned are almost a reverse of what the industry typically considers cutting edge.

If sharper, more detailed graphics and increasingly complex mechanics are a measure of technical progress, then maybe fuzzier, murkier choices are the way to bring more sophisticated emotions to games.

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