I have a difficult time making choices in videogames. Usually this isn’t really much of an issue. Most games don’t ask players to choose one path or response over another and thereby close off a particular area or sub-story. On some level, I still cling to the idea that giving players multiple story paths from which to choose and more ways in which to shape their own experience represents an important part of gaming’s continuing evolution. Nonetheless, I have a tough time making choices.
I was reminded of this while playing Mass Effect last week. While pursuing one of the game’s many side missions, I spoke to one of the characters in such a way that the mission became permanently closed off. As soon as I realized what had happened, I felt disappointed. I wanted to be able to go back and do things over, but I couldn’t without starting a new game. The mission that I missed wasn’t crucial to the overall story. So why did it even matter to me whether I completed it?
Many gamers—myself included oftentimes—have a perfectionist or completist tendency. In other words, it’s the desire to experience every single morsel of content a game has to offer. Games cost money. They’re products. We consume them. So it makes sense that a lot of gamers would want to squeeze every last drop of content out of their investment. For me, the completist tendency certainly contributes to my difficulty. But I think there’s more to it than that. In a way, it’s an existential issue.
Life is about choices. If people lived forever, then there would be no reason to think about decisions. In fact, decisions would be kind of meaningless. If we never died, we wouldn’t have to choose between possible decisions because eventually we’d be able to make every decision. I think that making choices in games represents sort of a microcosm of this larger issue. It’s hard for me to choose one path or response in Mass Effect because on some level I wish I could choose every response.
Making life choices is hard, because while it opens up doors, it necessarily involves closing others. But choices are what give life meaning. Of course, videogames aren’t real, and the choices we make in them don’t have significant ramifications in the outside world. But in a watered down way, I think that these existential issues do enter into how we deal with choices in videogames. Confronting players with hard choices may be one of the best ways to make games more meaningful.
Regular readers of my blog already know that I believe wholeheartedly in the artistic potential of videogames as a medium. I’m also beginning to believe that it will be increasingly important for players to develop a tolerance for ambiguity when it comes to making choices in videogames. I think we should all seek to be more comfortable with not following every virtual path or living every virtual life. Doing so may trivialize the experience created by our own unique interaction with a game.