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How much control do we really have over video games?

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“Play your own way!” boasts the back of the box. “Unprecedented levels of player control!” screams the press-release. It seems we live in a gaming age where the person holding the controller is King (or Queen), and that we are in total control of everything that happens on screen. Well, to an extent, that’s true--if I don’t press the buttons on my PS4 pad, Willow will definitely starve in Don't Starve--but I’m noticing more and more that some of that control is an illusion, and we may not have the wonderful array of choices as advertised.

In particular, I’m thinking of a moment I recently experienced while playing NBA 2K14’s rather brilliant My Career mode. The PS4 (and Xbox One) versions of My Career have a full-on story that runs through the career mode, which throws up all kinds of ‘random’ events and amusing cut-scenes. Now, I don’t doubt that many of the scenes are set to trigger at certain times to help tell a story. You get your first chance in the NBA, for example, when a player on your team gets injured about 3 games into the regular season. It’s an event that happens every time, and you have no control over it. It’s a story beat.

However, the whole premise of NBA 2K14’s My Career mode is that you are the master of your own destiny: you determine the rise to stardom of your created player. Several weeks after my first NBA game, and I’m getting good minutes as Sixth man. Not only that, I’m out-scoring (and getting good defensive and assist stats) everyone else on the team. Yet for some reason, neither the coach or general manager think I’m good enough to start. In fact, the starting position I’m vying for is actually given to a nobody on my team, when the regular starter gets injured. WHAT DO I HAVE TO DO TO GET INTO THAT STARTING SHOOTING GUARD ROLE?

Turns out, all I need to do is wait. I wait patiently, get my first start against Miami, and have an average game. Not my best, but ok. However, after the game LeBron finds me in the player tunnel, and we have a good old chat about the pressure of being a starter in the NBA, and how he enjoyed playing against me in my first game. Don’t worry, I’m getting to my point here. Fact is, this scene is pre-set--I know that, because they specifically captured LeBron’s voice for it (most players are not voice-captured, and few appear in cut-scenes)--and I’m pretty sure that I’d have seen it no matter how I’d been playing for the last 10-or-so hours. 

Why? Because the game has story beats to hit, and it wants to make me feel special. I’m damn sure that my player was specifically kept out of the starting line up until the Miami game, so LeBron could pop over and tell me how awesome I’d been. Now, I could be wrong here--this could all be a massive, cosmic coincidence conspiring to ensure I have the best My Career session ever--but I doubt it. And that got me thinking about some of the other games that offer the illusion of control, but actually funnel players down a far more linear path than they’re letting on.

Example: Fallout: New Vegas. Open-world RPG, right? Do what you want, when you want, right? Not quite. Fact is, that the first 10-20 hours of New Vegas is largely pre-ordained. Players are encouraged to head south from Goodsprings, and to work their way east through places like Primm and Novac, before continuing north to the Strip. It’s done using a mixture of story-beats and smart world design. Heading north from Goodsprings, for example, takes you through some of the game’s most dangerous areas--sections of the map that will always prove deadly to fresh-faced couriers. 

Other recent examples include The Walking Dead, which--for all its talk of player choice and under-pressure decision making--provides the same ending to every playthrough. See also Mass Effect, which boils down 3 games-worth of decision-making to a simple, multiple choice ending that largely ignores the personal preferences and play-style of the person clutching the pad. One game that famously bucks the trend here is Heavy Rain, which does offer significant player choices, but at the cost of control over actual gameplay. So it's often a trade-off.

See, the majority of games are still holding our hand and letting us make decisions that barely matter in the grand scheme of things. That’s not necessarily a problem (in fact, it can be a great thing), but an observation that we have less control over our interactive adventures than we might think. It’s a tough balance for developers to strike, because they always want you to play games in a certain way, to experience all the awesome stuff they’ve managed to cram onto the disc or download file. Rockstar, in particular, made a concerted effort to guide players through GTA 5 (and sign-post cool stuff) after noticing tiny percentages of players completing or finding half the cool stuff hidden in GTA 4.

There are few games that offer the scale of autonomy you’d expect, and it’s only when developers step back and stop trying to tell stories or signpost content that the player is given true levels of control. Minecraft is a great example of a game with no agenda--it hands a set of tools to the player, enforces basic rules, and lets player create their own stories within the game. You really are in control in Minecraft. The same can be said for online shooters like Battlefield 4. Although the rules are more stringent, the freedom to do whatever you want within each multiplayer sandbox remains. That’s why we see so many videos of people doing insane stuff in BF4 online--they’re in control of everything in the game.

Now, control in games isn’t everything, and often it’s best to let developers take the reigns and tell us a story. After all, they’re the professionals, and they should know what works best in their own gaming universe. I think games are often better with a bit of hand-holding, especially if it leads to more fulfilling stories, and less getting stuck trying to solve certain puzzles or find missing items. Don’t forget that with control comes an enormous amount of responsibility--if the developers don’t point you towards a specific key or quest item, but do abandon you in a huge world, it can take hours or days to work out a solution. And most will quit the game long before that happens.

And that’s really the key here. With next-gen consoles and increasingly powerful PCs offering bigger, more interactive worlds than ever before, developers are getting smarter at creating the illusion of player control. It’s all about the invisible hands guiding us in the right direction, while making us feel like The Boss. So, the next time you do or find something really cool or rare in a game, just think to yourself: “Am I really that awesome at this game? Or was I supposed to do that”? The answer may surprise you…

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15 comments

  • alllifeinfate - March 10, 2014 2:17 a.m.

    I agree with the points being brought out here... it's just that we are so used to that kind of 'interactive' entertainment that it would take time for the developers to find the right formula of balance and provide the right amount of controls for the players as well as constraint by the developers. The recent Mass Effect ending controversy certainly comes to mind when this issue is being mentioned, but that shows just how much the players care about their choices in the games and the supposed 'consequences' they hold.
  • PeppercornJack420 - March 4, 2014 3:57 p.m.

    Finally someone calls out Walking Dead for giving you literally no choice over the ending. Of course things will mingle and mix in between the story, but it will inevitably lead you to the same demise. Absolutely appalling considering they tell you in the very beginning that "what you do will affect the story". What a terrible lie.
  • Baz - February 27, 2014 1:59 p.m.

    I've said it before and I'll say it again (now in fact) the entirety of mass effect 3 is the ending. all of the choices you make come to a conclusion within the game, before the final mission and then to finish off a story developed around choices they offer you one final choice on which way you save the galaxy. i prefer that to an ending tailored personally to me. Mainly because I would have been pissed if in my main play through I'd Accidentally doomed the galaxy through a choice I'd made two games ago. imagine if it turned out that Killing Wrex on virmire was the best way to save the galaxy. and that conveniently leads me to my point on control. as long as we are given enough control to actually enjoy the game what should it matter if by the end we all get a similar ending. and that if we all get different endings would we all be happy that we missed something that in other games we would have been guided to. the best way to think of this is with an example like the Stanley parable, there are plenty of paths to take and ways that one can complete it, but the developer has to have thought of it first. so really we don't have control beyond choosing (maybe by accident) which ending we get from a set field, especially if it is a story driven game. but as i touched upon earlier if the gameplay gives us a feeling of control what does it matter if its all the similar endings.
  • guybrush_threepwood - February 26, 2014 2:34 p.m.

    Really great article, top work. I think we're going through a period at the moment where a huge divide is appearing between those 'computer games' that give the player actual, real control over their character and the progress of the narrative, and 'interactive films' where the player is just there to act as a button-pusher for the next cut-scene. Tomb Raider and The Last of Us definitely fall into this latter category; I never really felt it was me playing a game, it was me occasionally moving the character or following a button prompt to allow the choreographed set-pieces and camera moves to take place. The character would slide, trip, fall etc. with no input from me. I lost count of the amount of times Lara fell down a hole when I'd done nothing wrong, control completely wrestled from me. I still enjoyed them as entertainment experiences, but 'games' they ain't. Super Mario 3D World and Rayman Legends, on the other hand, I would argue are actual 'computer games'. If I push jump, the character jumps. Push crouch, the character crouches. The character is an extension of my hands, and those games feel as if they're built with that in mind. They require real skill to master - unlike the aforementioned 'interactive films' which I completed on the harder difficulty settings without a problem due to the game seemingly not wanting my lack of ability to ruin the story. Unfortunately, it seems as though games like Mario and Rayman are becoming rarer as the potential for profit from games like The Last of Us and Tomb Raider is far higher.
  • GOD - February 24, 2014 9:43 p.m.

    Take the decision making reigns away from, I don't mind, provided that you know what you're doing like Last of Us. As for gameplay, do not hold my hand, do not give my a fixed camera every two seconds, and let me figure things out. I may refuse to use the "you died a bunch of times" power up in recent mario games, but I appreciate that Nintendo only tries to help you like that after it thinks you might need some help, rather than right off the bat in other games where you walk into a room with a puzzle, and then the camera zooms in on the four parts that make the solution. Let me explore dammit.
  • universaltofu - February 24, 2014 12:39 p.m.

    There are all different kinds of choices throughout gaming. It's up to developers and game designers to make compelling ones, beyond morals and ethics. Not just which armor is better, or playing the good guy for better ending problem solving, some incomparable scenarios are needed. Overcoming conflict without all the possible information available.
  • db1331 - February 24, 2014 11:01 a.m.

    I'm currently playing through the Tomb Raider reboot, and the majority of the time I am painfully aware of how little control I have over the game. The game decides when I crouch, when I stand, when I light a torch. When I'm just exploring an already cleared area looking for salvage and artifacts, I'm having a blast. When I'm working on the story though, I feel like the game just grabs me by the arm and pulls me along, like it can't wait to show me the next set piece or cutscene. Most times it feels like the game doesn't need me there. It can get frustrating. The last time I played, I got on a motorized lift to cross a big gap. As I was moving across, I looked back to where I came from and saw a tomb I didn't explore. Just as I start looking for a way to get back down to it, another cutscene starts. Now I'm stuck on the other side. I don't feel like jumping down and climbing all the way back up to it, so I just leave it for later and trudge on with the story.
  • Manguy17 - February 24, 2014 11:48 a.m.

    Surely there must be a fast travel camp nearby to speed things up?
  • Vonter - February 24, 2014 9:40 a.m.

    I think that like in a movie the key difference to enjoy a story either linear or diverging is being able to get invested in what it is presented in the first place. But also as games they need to give incentive to the player to care if they're playing good or bad, I mean many games tend to rely on checkpoints to keep players engage but it can make the player become lazy or uninterested because if I die I just reappear a few meters back from were I died. I remember in Uncharted 2 how uninterested I got in the jeep set piece because I died and then reappear at the start of that sequence. I mean I know people can get frustrated with dying especially in a game that is more cinematic but still it breaks the immersion when dead really doesn't have consequences. Also games with multiple decisions in where most of them not have an impact breaks the immersion since you're not in control and therefore you can't make mistakes. I'll also add the health packs in shooters but at this point I think is more meaningful in a survival game or item management experience rather than a shooter.
  • ryanjohnson - February 24, 2014 9:23 a.m.

    I don't like "branching storylines." Give me open world or scripted, but this halfway junk is just annoying. A side quest is one thing, but when there are multiple options through a game it's just frustrating. Let's say that a movie has an alternate ending, but the only way to see it is if you are forced to watch the entire movie again with mild differences just to reach the final point. If you are a huge fan, yes, but in today's market there are so many games vying for my time that I want to play a game, experience what there is to it, and then be able to be done with it, without the knowledge that there are multiple endings. Heck, maybe if games journalism could let something be secret for a while, it'd be neat to run across someone with a different experience in a game, like when the Clue movie came out with three endings, but general Internet existence, trophies, and percentage completionists won't allow that to happen. It becomes more forced, as you are forced to go back and play the game again, changing SPECIFIC choices just to see the entirety of the game. Therein, we are allowed less choice, as the only way to complete the game in its entirety is to go against our original choices by taking extra time that could be spent in another realm. Would you go to the Louvre if you knew it was full of pictures of Mona Lisa with slight differences alone, or would you like to see all the art from the different artists throughout history? Just my two cents. I rambled, but I hope I got my point across.
  • Manguy17 - February 24, 2014 noon

    You could just accept that you dont have to see everything in the game. As long as what you did experience felt worth your money what's the issue?
  • shawksta - February 24, 2014 9:03 a.m.

    Interesting article. It really depends at times, as Bladed falcon mentioned is to atleast buff up when we get to make the choices. I would argue some games do encourage some gamer's to be curious about something to find something Rare and make it feel it was their control, but its hard to really tell if it was a "guiding hand" especially in more bigger games like say Skyrim and trying to find say the Headless Horseman which is a random spawn.
  • BladedFalcon - February 24, 2014 8:18 a.m.

    Personally, I have no problem with letting the developer have the control of what I'm supposed to play and experience; After all, I'm paying to play on their created world and universe, on what THEY came up with and wanted to tell or design. If I want to create my own stories or gameplay experiences, I'd do it myself without the need of a game. The only realm of control I wish did open up a bit more was in the meatiness of when we're offered choices or branching paths. I know designing entirely different scenarios takes a ton of effort, so realistically speaking, I don't expect nor want a game to offer tens or even half a dozens multiple paths. But making 2 or 3 scenarios that felt completely different would be fantastic, and shouldn't be that hard to make possible.
  • GR_AndyHartup - February 24, 2014 8:23 a.m.

    I think we'll see more meaningful choices in this new generation of consoles. More power, more storage, more connectivity - it should make for more persistent worlds, with a greater amount of variety in them. What we don't want is - as you say - are more A / B choices that lead to very similar, crowd-pleasing endings.
  • BladedFalcon - February 24, 2014 8:37 a.m.

    Ehh... I am sadly not as hopeful as you are- I mean, if more power and storage meant more meaningful endings and choices, then the games of this and past generation should have had way more branching paths and meaningful different endings, right?? ...Except they didn't. Like you mentioned, most of them this gen either gave you the illusion of choice, and most "different" endings had either minor differences, or were shallow, narrated outcomes. (ala fallout 3 or Dishonored.) Compare to decades old games like Contra: hard Corps, Chrono Trigger and PC games like TES: Dagerfall, and it's kinda depressing to see how much more effort it went to design different ending, scenarios and levels compared to the vast majority of today's games.

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