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A peculiar thing happened on my way to the finale of The Last of Us, and is yet another example of the on and off debate about narrative and decision-making in video games. I'll avoid overt spoilers when discussing specific titles.
At one point Joel's character, whom I was controlling, confronts a particular group. It's filled with tension, both sides standing their ground. I tried to act at range, I think shooting warning shots, throwing bricks or otherwise trying to get them to disperse. Indeed I was wary and wanted to avoid bloodshed and perhaps venturing down a path of no return.
Regrettably nothing worked and, as expected, moving close triggered what turned out to be unavoidable bloodletting. It was an interesting moment, as up till now I was content to allow the narrative to unfold; however, at this point I wanted to dictate what happened next. In my mind, Joel (or perhaps more precisely, I) should choose a certain path.
But his path, of course, was preordained by the developers at Naughty Dog. Now, there was nothing in the entire game to this point that encouraged me to believe I could influence the outcome. Granted, there is limited freedom of movement in each area so exploration is allowed and even encouraged by both hidden and useful items. And various weapons ensure some measure of freedom during combat.
That, however, is the extent that one can exercise free will in a game that is renowned for its story. A story that I likely don't have to tell you is controversial at least in its climax. Here again, as in titles like Mass Effect 3, we're reminded of how a developer's vision can clash with players who have grown so attached to a story and its characters that they feel a vested interest in the ultimate outcome.
The comparison with Mass Effect 3 is admittedly problematic as the controversial ending owes much to the series' famed gameplay wherein player choice figures prominently in the fate not only of characters but of storylines as well. In this context, players (as I understand it, having not finished this sequel myself) were frustrated by an inability to influence the trilogy's conclusion after three games that encouraged such involvement.
That said, the game and series reflect the growing practice of allowing the exercise of player free will in a virtual world. Whether in BioWare's other series Dragon Age, in Bethesda franchises The Elder Scrolls or Fallout, or in myriad other titles ranging from Fable or The Walking Dead to BioShock or Infamous, discussion trees, branching storylines or choices between good and evil dictate game progression.
Such freedom is often at odds with the creative vision of developers who are attempting to tell a particular story that can benefit from a predefined dramatic exposition and carefully planned character development arcs. After all, there is only so much variation that such vision can allow for while still conveying certain truths that are central to the narrative.
For instance, I accept that Naughty Dog could not allow my Joel to pursue a different tack than what they needed his character to do in that moment. But it was still a disappointment that a character I had grown to care about and relate to could not perform based on what I felt was more appropriate behavior given the circumstances.
In fact it's interesting how the character of Joel conflicted with my own preconceived notions and biases to the extent that I balked at playing out his story in the way that it had to. Unlike some others, I did feel that ultimately Joel's actions made sense in the context of his own history and evolution during the story's timeline. Indeed, I thought the conclusion was terrific.
So what to make of the mixed feeling I have for not being able to act as I saw fit in that one situation? It did take me out of the game, reminding me that I only had the illusion of control in this instance. Even Mass Effect 3 appears to have generated the same reaction in fans, whereby as liberating as some choices in the series appear, players still only had the illusion of control in the context of the larger story the developers at BioWare were attempting to tell.
Like the uncanny valley, which can disrupt one's immersion in a game with a distracting production value that undermines an otherwise realistic presentation, an immutable narrative device integral to the story can weaken immersion that's built upon a real world scenario where gamers exercise a measure of control in every scene that unfolds along the story arc.
Free roam, open world games are becoming more common, even in series or genres where single-player experiences are more story driven. This practice seems at odds with establishing a clear plot and adhering to its structure throughout, though thus far developers approach this dilemma in different ways.
Some like Naughty Dog might stick to their guns in The Last of Us and allow little deviation, though perhaps increasing options in other areas such as exploration and combat. Others like Irrational (BioShock), Sucker Punch (Infamous) or Lionhead (Fable) offer choices between good and evil behavior in the context of the larger story. Still others like BioWare or Bethesda present branching storylines that nonetheless have limited impact on the main story.
It's therefore not impossible to offer some measure of free will or freedom of choice in a storytelling structure, but finding the right balance without sacrificing one or the other or the carefully crafted immersion that will keep gamers playing is a challenge that even the most gifted developers can find difficult to overcome in increasingly complex games.
In some ways, developers are victims of their own success, and so long as they continue to expand the choices available to gamers, and improve their ability to tell original and compelling stories, the twin pursuits will meet in ways intended to be mutually beneficial but that are often at odds. To what degree gamers expect or demand both in the same game will influence how successful it is in either regard.
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