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Free Will Gaming – Choices, Morals, and the Non-Linear in Practice

Free Will Gaming – Choices, Morals, and the Non-Linear in Practice

Nov 11, 2016

I don’t know about you, but I find fate to be a horrible concept. To quote Neo in the Matrix, “I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life”. Free-will is my preferred reality. The question I pose is, how do we apply these models in the video gaming world?

As storylines get more complex, and lore becomes deeper, games reflect our reality more and more. With the next-gen now here, we can be sure that this will continue to evolve in the near future. But what advantages and disadvantages can non-linear games have? And what can be done to overcome such problems, or at least improve the experience of making decisions in our games?

(I’ve attempted to avoid all spoilers as I hate inadvertandly coming across something I didn’t wish to read; but of course there are allusions to certain plot points in recent games below. So be careful if you’re planning to play through any of these!)

Sometimes, choice doesn’t necessarily have to have a huge impact. It’s just a nice addition. Take the necklace in BioShock Infinite for example; it’s quite pleasant to choice which logo Elizabeth sports throughout the game. But this game does offer a number of more important choices, but the ending seems to suggest that fate is inescapable, as Booker clearly has a predetermined path, that I will not ruin for any of you who haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing yet. BioShock 2 allowed you to either reap or save Little Sisters, which inevitably had an impact on you were treated later in the game. But is it enough to offer two different ending cut-scenes?


A nice touch

A nice touch


Yet BioShock Infinite does have some implications. Choosing to toss the baseball at the couple on stage renders you either an abhorrent racist or a good fellow who then gets attacked. And you are rewarded for attacking the couple, but see them later on if you save them. Although not very important in the overall game, it’s a nice touch to see your choice has reaped rewards; yet the choice is hindered because either way you receive a perk for making a choice. Developers are too afraid that gamers would be annoyed for making the wrong choices, so it is now ever-present that choices in games have no true “right” option, as both are equal in  the end. Instead of giving players choice, Bioshock Infinite presents a narrative which revolves around choice, exploring fatalism and free will.

For gaming decisions to be poignant, the player needs to be aware of the fact that you are making a defined choice. But perhaps, not too obvious. Often the best choices are seamless, without having to choose simply between killing a guy or not. When I’ve been confronted by such choices, I’ve quickly Googled which is the best option, or reaps the best reward. There is no right way to do this, as each technique suits the needs of individual games.

So there are of course, some limitations to free choice in a linear game, whereby the narrative is altered most significantly. So then, does the sandbox allow true free choice? You can do whatever you want, whenever you want. But there always comes a time where walkign around an open world gets boring. You need some drive to continue playing the game, whether that be through rewards or narrative advancement. And this is when true free will in video games becomes an issue.

Geth or Quarians?

Geth or Quarians?


Mass Effect allows you to conduct many different approaches; but in the second it all culminates in a huge battle, with a few variants depending on your previous actions. Although the game does grant you an autonomous approach to the world, conversations seem to have little real impact on the overall narrative. However, the series has received a lot of backlash from the public as certain decisions often shut off many options to gamers. Although offering permanent actions as free will should, it also causes irritation as you cannot play certain portions of a game you have paid for.

Fallout 3 also offers some choices, such as destroying Megaton early in the game. Although it affects the quests revolving around the town, in the grand scehme of things it has little impact. But this permanent change in the world of Fallout is a definite step in the right direction for the RPG. You weigh up the lives of the locals, versus your own sick lust of seeing the town go up in flames. And hey, what’s wrong with that?

Fallout: New Vegas took the concept one step further, altering the story completely depending on which faction you side with. The question remains, would a game with multiple narratives benefit from the developers focussing on one sole adventure? Instead of fracturing the concentration into many different storylines, it can be argued the game could be improved greatly. Yet there are many people out there who thrive on making their own decisions, as creating your own character and following your own path is half the fun. For many RPG fans, following a pre-destined path is just not as fun.


Goodbye Megaton

Goodbye Megaton


Games can artificially lengthen the lifespan of their game by encoruaging repeat play-throughs, but would the average gamer be dedicated enough to do so? Did I enjoy the free-will in New Vegas? Yes. Did I replay through the whole game multiple times? No. There’s no doubt many gamers out there have done so; but on the flipside, the game could still be longer, or better, if there wasn’t so much freedom. As bad as that sounds.

InFamous is another sandbox game which allows you to make good or evil decisions, but in many instances it has the same implication. I found myself looking up the alternative cutscenes to each good/bad action, to find the result was the same. This took the fun out of each choice, knowing whatever I chose did not matter.


Evil = red lightning... How exciting

Evil = red lightning… How exciting


Choices need to be permanent. GTA V doesn’t truly achieve this, as you can replay any mission. However on the last mission, there is no turning back (I will avoid any spoilers). So choose wisely. But it’s this kind of bold move in a relatively mainstream game that makes the choice so effective.

So if you are merely making choices for the sake of it, and it has no real impact, could it be argued that moral choices are the better option? Instead of prompting the player to do one or the other, you throw them into a situation to see hwo they react. Take Modern Warfare 2′s infamous “No Russian” level. You choose whether or not to kill innocent civilians in an airport, as an undercover spy blending in with terrorists. In Japan and Germany the level prompts a game over if you choose to kill anyone; but for the rest of us, you can do as you please. It has no difference which you do, but the experience for the gamer is very different depending on which method they choose. It remains linear, but the emotions attached to the situation are enough to bring about distinct good or bad moral decisions which you care about as a player, rather than being asked to choose a good or bad path which you are largely apathetic about.

Remembering your previous choices can also be an effective technique of ensuring the player learns from mistakes. In GTA V you can choose different people to take on heists, and if you choose to save some cash and hire a less able guy, you may come to regret it. And on the job, oh how you will regret being stingy. But if you take the most expensive guy, you will just never know if the cheap guy could have been fine.


No Russian created a moral dilemma in us all

No Russian created a moral dilemma in us all


Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic allowed a huge amount of choice, with different endings depending on whether you learn towards the light or dark side. However the problem with free choice in a world such as Star Wars is, everything relates. What good is choice and free will in this aspect, when it doesn’t relate to canon? Only the light side ending is considered canon in the overall universe, so it kind of feels empty if you finish with a Sith orientation.

Civilization V allows players to dominate the world in whichever way you choose. Is this the only way in which freedom is truly available in the gaming world? Of course, without any “choice” as such, it is pure free will. There’s no real result of your actions, but you can create your own story.

One of the first games to offer a real good or evil scale was Black & White, whereby your actions are reflected in how people respond to your god-like abilities, alongside the interface and land adapting to your approach. Truly revolutionary on it’s release, many games have attempted to use a similar design, but often fall short due to other limitations such as narrative.


Are you a highly-praised or merciless God?

Are you a highly-praised or merciless God?


Heavy Rain had the tag line “Every single choice you make will change everything”, due to the fact the game has 18 different endings. This is probably the best example that overcomes all the problems that non-linear games have had. It’s not sandbox, and it is intent on narrative. But the narration is splintered into so many paths, with emotive decisions at every turn, that you truly feel like you are creating your own story. However, the same guys created Beyond: Two Souls, which has taken a lot of criticism for not including these aspects; instead following the path of the characters with very little input. Any choices you do make have little impact, with frequent dead ends in narrative if you take the wrong option, meaning you must take the correct one. This removes any point in free will, creating an all too passive experience overall.

In our reality, everything we do is permanent. there are no checkpoints, or reloads. So games which can reflect this do certainly implement free will the best. But the matter of fact is, video games are entertainment. Why would we choose to play something which irritates us? Where our choices are punished? Developers need to balance the “fun” factor of making choices, and also the results of said action.

It seems then, even studios that pioneered true freedom in video games, have a lot to learn about how to implement it in the future. Surely the industry will evolve to offer more than the sandbox or 10 hour narrative format soon, right?


 Adam Barsby is a writer for Gaming IQ, alongside running Social Media. If you are partial to stalking, you can follow him on Twitter @barsby3, or read his articles here. 


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  • Billy Soames

    Taking GTA5 as example, when I destroy something in the game, I would rather it remain destroyed, rather than me driving round the block and returning to discover everything magically mended like I’d never been present. I want npcs who supposedly owned the stuff I destroy to be majorly pissed about it, and their future lives affected by it, and their time and resources spent on putting things right. When I “discuss” this point with game developers, they simply turn and say “It can’t be done”, but until things like this can be done, I’m not spending money on these franchises again.