There is an interesting and timely blog post over at Gamasutra by Taekwan Kim about the new addition to the Deus Ex series highlighting problems with how the game handles player choice. Kim qualifies his post as an “exaggerated argument” and offsets his criticism of the gameplay with a compliment on the quality of its world (which I take to mean its aesthetic aspects), but it reads to me as a sober take on an issue that is not really isolated to individual games. In fact, we may be witnessing the apotheosis of player choice as a contemporary design tendency.
Since I have not played DXHR yet I cannot speak to the aptness of his criticism of that game, but his concerns certainly generalize easily (all too easily), especially his concern for the meaningfulness of player choice. In a culture obsessed with optionality, customization, and, well, having lots of choices, it is not surprising that the game industry would begin to reflect this. Players have long complained about games railroading play – coding limitations and/or heavy-handed guidance that corrals the player toward objectives – but perhaps the pendulum is about to swing the other way. Having more choices in a game does not automatically mean more fun or more meaningful experiences (often the opposite as Kim points out), let alone make a good axiom of game design.
Games that attempt to include a moral dimension to player choices particularly suffer from poor choice design or overchoice. Dragon Age: Origins was touted as providing a new level of moral complexity, but while it included a lot of choices with a feeling of consequence, often those choices were undermined by another area of choice: the gift system. One moral dimension DA:O tried to incorporate was experiencing the social consequences of your decisions within your party. But you could almost always choose to manage the moral judgments of your party members by giving gifts to evade the consequences of having done something one or more of them deemed unethical.
CRPGs are particularly hard hit by the overchoice phenomena in general, even in their non-moral designs. Take the infamous “prestige class” system addition in the NWN expansions which further diluted the meaningfulness of core classes, or the legacy of Blizzard’s class manipulations and additions to World of Warcraft. The conventional design wisdom seems to have become more choice instead of more depth, or the logic of “and,” as one commenter to Kim’s post put it.
A sinister companion to the design doxa of increasing player choice is the phenomena of “decision fatigue,” a developing area of research in social psychology that reveals that we actually have a limited amount of willpower, and the more decisions we try to consider and make, especially in speedy succession the greater the loss of mental energy (they call this “ego depletion”), which in turn lowers the likelihood we will be thinking about consequences effectively. This is one reason why routinizing out trivial choices like what you’ll have for breakfast, etc. saves mental energy and increases your comprehensiveness and precision in more important choices. One compelling (and horrifying) example the research offers is how the poor are further trapped in poverty by the decision fatigue they suffer in having to struggle with trade-offs in shopping, bills, etc. A lot of their productive, creative, and critical willpower is used up by just trying to survive, so they often make decisions in a condition of exhaustion.
In this context, overchoice and poor choice design in games takes on an eerily (though indirect) moral quality. Being inundated by trivialized choices in games would seem like a recipe for a new kind of disaster, since according to the study the two most common responses to decision fatigue are 1. putting off decisions and 2. impulse decision-making – both unhelpful to a healthy democracy. One way that games can be subversive or “critical” is to simply inscribe within their mechanics design logics that counter the dominant logics of the contemporary media ecology. In our time, limitation would be the radical move in player choice design: fewer options with more depth to consequences.