These days there is a lot of choice in gaming. You can choose what your character looks like, what they wear, what background they come from. You can be as terrible or nice to NPCs in dialogue options, and you can even change the story you experience with some titles through your own choices.
Choice-based storytelling has been around for decades, but lately it feels like there is more demand for player agency within games. We now know what games are capable of, and so to see an ambitious story that really allows us to save the world or be its destruction is something that many want to see.
However, many of the complaints with choice-based stories are aimed at players who don’t feel like their decisions really matter. Take the Telltale games, for example, where no matter what options you choose, you’re likely to get the same ending, with characters only remembering certain things or perhaps being a little further toward you.
So, even with many people desiring more decision-making in their games, is it actually the best option? If we look at linear titles, for example, they can contain a great story that doesn’t necessarily shift no matter what you do. Take God of War: Ragnarok, no matter how or when you play the story in that game, the events still unfold the same way. Even sidequests don’t give you many divergent paths and offer only a few dialogue changes about whether you defeat them with Atreus or Freya.
Even with what some might even describe as bland story choices, God of War: Ragnarok still managed to be heavily praised for its admittedly brilliant story. It picked up multiple awards for its story, and that’s without giving the player any say in how the story plays out, essentially making it a show or movie that interrupts you with battles and puzzle solving.
I could make this point about some strong narrative games that allow the player’s choice, such as The Last of Us, A Plague Tale: Requiem and Innocence and Hellblade. But then the argument could be made that I only focus on successful linear games and use them to promote that style of storytelling.
There are plenty of games that leave you with a story of your own making, like The Witcher 3 for example. However, instead of just comparing which side has more great games, it is more productive to actually look at how the linear and choice-based elements make a game “better.” In the case of a linear experience, you know what you’re getting on the tin, and if done well, it can be breathtaking to put down your controller and just enjoy the story you’ve seen. But the same can be said for a choice-based story, and if anything, it can be an extremely powerful feeling to know that you created the ending you ended up with.
The problem is that very few choice-based stories achieve this without making you feel like you’ve only been given the illusion of choice. It has to feel like every decision you’ve made has left a lasting impact for a choice-based story to really be based on choice, rather than just giving you an option of a few different end screens ten minutes before you finish (looking at you, Mass Effect 3).
So where does this leave us? Well, I think it’s still fine to wish for the perfect choice-based story in gaming because it’s been done before and will be done again. However, there is no reason to look down on a more linear experience, even if it chooses the illusion of choice, because sometimes the people who are paid to write video games for a living do a somewhat decent job and can make you feel attached to the world and characters without actually being behind dialogue options. Of course, to know that you are the one behind a death or an important decision is a feeling like no other, but it is rare to see a game do that perfectly, so there is no need to push them over a linear narrative.