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Friday, May 27, 2016

There’s more to meaningful choices than outcomes

Opinion by Matt C. 

In the ongoing push for more open, player-driven game stories, we’re seeing more and more focus on “meaningful choices” – or, more often than not, criticism of games for presenting choices that aren’t “meaningful”. This is something I see frequently, especially in response to games like Telltale’s where dialogue choices are central to the experience, and it highlights what I think is a very narrow and limitation definition of “meaning” in games discourse: that it wholly and exclusively relates to narrative outcomes.

Consequences are, of course, an important aspect of dialogue and moral choices, but they’re not what gives a decision meaning. Rather, they’re a means to an end – meaning comes from the act of making a choice, and consequences are just one of many ways to inform those decisions.

Case in point: how often do you know the outcome of a choice you’re about to make? In games that have a clear-cut moral divide, like Mass Effect, “good” and “evil” choices may be marked, giving you some idea, but for so many games, moral ambiguity is the order of the day. Not knowing the outcomes is what makes such quandaries work, because you’re forced to try and predict and anticipate what will happen. The actual outcome has no bearing on your decision making; it’s your perception of what could or should happen that informs your choice. Yes, the consequences of past decisions may factor into this, and games can dilute the decision-making process by giving too much of a glimpse behind the “illusion of choice”, but this is just one piece of contextual information.

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There’s more to meaningful choices than outcomes
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