False Choice: Bad for Stories, Bad for Games, Inevitable in Story-Games
We at Dinofarm enjoy great things. A screenplay is great when an empathic link is forged between audience and character through a seamless, delicately woven web of plot threads. Eventually, a profound value is revealed after a surprising, yet inevitable climax. Such a screenplay can change someone’s life, or at the very least, lead to weeks of contemplation.
A great game can lead to the same kind of enrichment, but does so in its own ways. After several matches of games like Go, Texas Hold ‘Em or Tetris, the mind is tickled in a way that only great games can tickle it. They too cause contemplation, but not in the same way a narrative does. Great games leave a person pondering over the deep possibility space they have only just begun to see. A true lover of any great game will lay in bed and dream up new, lateral, creative ways to overcome the infinite challenges that lie in this ocean of a game space.
In thinking about it, I have come to the conclusion that both mediums, while inherently very different, do have a strong corollary, and that corollary is real, meaningful decisions. Again, since both mediums are so inherently different, this is going to mean something different for each, but just the same, it all comes down to choice. Real choice.
I’m no expert in fiction, but I am an avid hobbyist, and have taken to considerable self-study. In these pursuits, I have discovered some useful lenses through which I evaluate the stories I take in. I became interested in learning why it is I like a character and why I care about what happens to him.
I’ve observed that “character development” is a term thrown around by every moviegoer age 13 and upward, and every discussion I have on the matter seems to yield a different definition of the word. To many, “Character Development” is simply a combination of backstory, physical descriptions and expository dialogue. Many friends of mine through the years have complained, upon exiting the theater featuring the latest superhero movie, that the story was “okay, but lacked character development.” If I were to ask them what they meant, they too would probably turn to backstory, description and more expository dialogue. I argue that this does just as little, in many cases, to develop a character as the senseless action everyone complains about.
First I should point out what I believe the goal of character development to be. I believe that it’s all about forging an empathic link with the character, so that when the climax arrives, we feel what they feel. Whatever life-changing value they take away from that climax, we too must take. If that is our goal for character development, then character development must lie in the character making ambiguous, tough, irreversible decisions under pressure, the outcome of which is surprising, yet inevitable.
Suprising, Yet Inevitable
This is the holy grail of storytelling. Anyone could do surprising(“and then our heroes were….TELEPORTED BY A MAGICAL DOLPHINOID ALIEN”) which, on its own, is cheap. Anyone could do inevitable(“She gets pulled over by a cop as she speeds to her son’s big game. Her excuses don’t work until she decides to tell the TRUTH and the cop goes ‘i’ll let you off with a WARNING.’*cue 90s orchestra theme*”) which we buy out of because it satisfies our predictions 1 to 1. It’s my belief that only when you get the audience to say “I can’t BELIEVE THAT JUST HAPPENED….but…it couldn’t have happened any other way…” do you have a great story. It’s so… hard to do. I certainly can’t do it! And it only comes from real, ambiguous choice, or dilemma.
We’re all unconsciously familiar with the power of dilemma in our stories, and we’re also unconsciously offended by its opposite: FALSE CHOICE. Somewhere along the line, Hollywood headhunters hired to find great screenplays and spruce them up for blockbuster appeal must have read at some point that “The hero must have a choice to make at the climax.” Apparently not understanding why this is so important to the art of story, they often shoehorn in these choices when there really isn’t a choice to make. It’s the illusion of choice. All the dramatic music and earth-shattering deliveries of an A-lister cannot make the choice real. And our brains know it deep down.
THE FOLLOWING WILL INCLUDE EXAMPLES OF BOTH REAL AND FALSE CHOICE IN MANY CLIMACTIC MOMENTS FROM BREAKING BAD, HARRY POTTER, CONAN THE BARBARIAN(2011), STAR WARS, CAPTAIN AMERICA, and DEATH NOTE.
his section is long, but you only need to read one of each (or all, if you want). I wanted to provide several examples of both real and false choice in story to cover what people may have seen/not seen/don’t care about spoiling.
REAL CHOICE 1: STAR WARS
I’ll start with something light and fun and likely something most people have seen. You might think that in archetypal, “hero’s journey” type stuff you can’t have a real choice. It tends to be “kill the bad guys or else die,” which is not a choice(though often it is presented as one.)
Real Choice: However, the climax of Star Wars, while on its face is a pretty straight ahead concept — “shoot the torpedo in the thing or else die” — the curveball is thrown while tension is spiked. The disembodied voice of Obi-Wan says “use the force Luke,” telling him to turn off his targeting computer and use the mystical powers he was taught. “The force” is really just a metaphor for life and the human spirit. You might think it’s just a little fantasy gimmick, but that moment is supported by every mechanical and thematic gesture of the plot. The major theme at play in Star Wars is “man vs. machine”. The death star, even referred to in the film as a “technological terror”, threatens to wipe out life as we know it on countless worlds.
This targeting computer of Luke’s is ostensibly the best shot at making his mark, because his other choice is essentially listening to an auditory hallucination. However, the audience just witnessed the targeting computer failing when Red Leader, their senior pilot, gives it a shot, misses and dies. This increases the feasibility of turning it off, making it a more ambiguous choice. Further, the targeting computer represents this man vs. machine theme, so deactivating it is yet another thematic ripple. The choice really could go either way, and though you may not be conscious of it, you learned something about who Luke is. When tested under pressure, he trusts his instincts and has faith in the force, a personality trait you ascribe to him and see manifest in the following films. If there had been no choice at all, if it had just bee “kill the bad guys or die,” what would we have learned about who Luke is, and how could we have vicariously participated in his struggle or forged an empathic link with him?
FALSE CHOICE 1: HARRY POTTER
Harry Potter is not a character. There are characters in these stories, but our protagonist certainly isn’t one of them. Call me crazy, but if your main character makes practically zero ambiguous or meaningful decisions in seven entire novels, that might be a bad sign… here’s what I mean.
False Choice: In story 5, psycho evil witch Bellatrix LeStrange kills Harry’s only known living wizard relative. He’s pissed. Then he topples the murderer and he is given the following “choice.”
Voldomort is like “KILL HER HARRY! KILLL HEERRRRR” And at first you’re like “She done killed his uncle. What’s he gonna do?”….
…but we know what he’s going to do. Harry Potter is NOT A MURDERER. There hasn’t been one plot thread in FIVE stories that even hinted that Harry is capable of cold blooded murder. Sure, he can talk a big game and has a strong sense of justice, but we can pretty much rely on him to “do the right thing,” ESPECIALLY when it comes to the major turning points of the plot. This is an example of pay-off with no set-up, and it’s very much the illusion of choice. This is subliminally insulting.
False Choice: in Harry Potter 7, the climax culminates to what is essentially “Sacrifice yourself, or DIE!” and it’s dressed up as a choice. You see, in order for Voldomort to die, Harry must die! So Harry must make a sacrifice. One might argue, “Hey, avoiding the ultimate sacrifice is a strong motivator. I mean, what happens if he ?”
“Oh he and all his friends will ultimately be hunted down and murdered.”
In seven stories, we really know nothing about who this person is other than “he’s a good guy,” “he’s a hero,” “he loves his friends,” “he loves his parents,” etc. He gets broody and mad and stuff, but it’s all inconsequential, because when it comes down to testing his will, he never makes any decision that has an ambiguous answer, the consequences of which were permanent and effected the plot in a significant way. Most importantly, nothing forced him to change. The reason we feel something when characters change is because people change. Major events worth writing a story about would shake your average person to the core, changing them permanently. So if our protagonist is constantly in life threatening situations and doesn’t make a change, we cannot relate to them on a human level.
Harry Potter is not a character. He is an empty shell surrounded by people making decisions and antagonizing him. In seven stories, we got very little chance to really know who this person is because he made no ambiguous choices, save for maybe one.
Real Choice?… In the fifth story, Harry had premonitions in dreams that were coming true. He then had one about the Death Eaters at the Ministry of Magic stealing some MacGuffin. His friends and teachers warned him that it could be a trap, and that Voldomort was in his head, influencing his dreams. In that case it could go either way, so we finally have an opportunity to see how much he is really willing to put things at risk to get the bad guy… but WAIT! He doesn’t put his friends at risk! He just falls on the sword…again…and wants to go it alone and then his friends are like “I’m going too!” So really, it comes down to personal risk vs. getting the bad guy, something we’ve seen him do like a million times already for 5 books..so we KNOW he’s gonna do it! FALSE CHOICE!(almost got me, Rawling!)
Think, just for one second, if Harry’s choice in the last example about the ministry necessitated putting his friends at risk. Like, maybe the only way he could go is if he and all his friends did a “go all together as friends” spell and that was their only option. The Harry we all know…he just wouldn’t do it. There’s no way. He’d be like “there’s got to be another way!” And then some other guy would be like “There IS no other way!” Then Rawling comes in and, before Harry has a chance to make an ambiguous choice under pressure, some antagonistic force like Snape’s magical jerk-portal teleports them there anyway and it becomes “kill or be killed!”
But let’s say he actually has to make the choice, and goes “If there’s no other way, then we let him take the Macguffin and we’ll deal with the consequences. I will not put my friends in danger.” Think of how that lets us into Harry’s heart, and how that decision might yield even worse results for him down the road. Think of how it ups the stakes and makes us like him. Maybe, like, another good guy can try to do what Harry couldn’t, and tries to transport everyone there. What’s Harry gonna do? Will he FIGHT this person? What if it’s one of his little sweetheart she-wizard sex dolls and the only way to stop her is to use a prison bubble spell he’s been savin’ for a bad guy, but he knows it’ll give her nightmares for the rest of her life? What kind of PERSON is he?! I get excited just thinkin’ about it! Too bad I still don’t know…after like five thousand pages…
REAL CHOICE 2: BREAKING BAD
This is one of the finest examples of fiction I’ve ever seen in any medium. Breaking Bad is a mature, completely air-tight network of delicate plot threads that set up and pay off beautifully. It is the current reigning king of surprising, yet inevitable decision making, as far as I’m concerned. It’s at the end of the 4th season now, and like him or hate him, you certainly know Walter White, and the more you know him, the less you know just what he’ll do next.
Real Choice: Somewhere near the story’s mid point, the supporting lead, Jesse, Walter’s partner-in-crime and resident screw-up, accrues himself a haunting character of a girlfriend, Jane. She’s a recovering junkie who claims to have a controlling dad. We see the dad who is kind to both her and Jesse, which begs the conjecture “I wonder if he’s abusive behind closed doors.”
It turns out Walter owes Jesse drug money, but is trying to withhold it until Jesse gets clean. Jesse simultaneously falls back into hard drugs with Jane and their self-destructive personalities spiral. When Jesse tells her about the money he’s owed, HER decision under pressure is to threaten to expose and extort Walter, revealing her as a villain. Her father is actually sweet and giving, and she’s a selfish, entitled addict. Only through this decision is her true nature revealed.
The sequence culminates when Walter, having given up the money, breaks into their home to steal it back because he fears for Jesse’s life. He knows this will bring Jane’s wrath upon him, but again, this is what kind of person he is, and is willing to deal with the permanent consequences. As he’s sneaking out, Jane has an overdose in her sleep and is choking on her own vomit. Walter has a meaningful, ambiguous dilemma on his hands. He can save her life and guarantee that she will likely destroy at the very least Jesse’s life and probably his own, or he can simply let her die, which is obviously a moral atrocity but solves ALL his problems. All these running threads can resolve in an instant. It will also provide long term benefit but short term agony for Jesse.
He chooses to let her die. He sits by, sobbing as he allows it to happen. “I can’t believe it…but it couldn’t have happened any other way.” He’s not a murderer(yet) and this is the largest moral atrocity he’s committed until this point. The testing of his will is incremental. A careful curve.
Surprising, yet inevitable…beautiful.
FALSE CHOICE 2: CAPTAIN AMERICA
There were things to like about the recent Captain America. Good performances, some nice charm, but false choice rears its ugly head here too. Again, since Screenwriting 101 says “the hero must have a choice at the climax,” a meaningless false choice is shoehorned in.
He defeats Redskull and the plane full’a nukes is gonna crash into New York! He can jump out and save himself or manually steer the plane into a glacier or something. Then a woman who he’s had like 3 minutes of screen time developing a relationship with is over the intercom going “You have to come home so we can have that dance!” and he’s like “I’m gonna have to take a rain check…” and she’s like “No!”
So it comes down to “Sacrifice yourself or let New York be nuked, killing millions.” Well…since this WHOLE film has been about him risking life and limb for strangers, I don’t think there’s much of a choice. So what — he SUDDENLY becomes this selfish coward? FALSE CHOICE!
REAL CHOICE 3: DEATH NOTE
Death Note is an amazing blend of the “howdhecatchum” open mystery format and a rich character study. It follows a megalomaniacal high school student named Light who discovers a magical book that, when a name is written in it, the person who bears that name dies. He takes it upon himself to cleanse the world of criminals and crown himself the new god of the mortal realm(like I said…megalomaniac.)
Real Choice: He eventually provokes the super-detective master of deduction named “L” who zeroes in on Light. Since Light is committing his murders by magic, all “L” has to go on are suspicions, hunches, and circumstantial evidence. He gets closer to Light, who knows he’s being pursued. He poses as a peer in Light’s new college. They sit together during opening ceremonies. This is their first meeting. Light is cool and crafty but unaware of who or where L is. L has the advantage of anonymity. He is in an ideal position to observe and slowly build a case on his suspect. However, in a sudden move, during a casual conversation with Light about the famous murderer’s investigation, he turns to him and says “I want you to know… I am L!” and stares at Light’s face!
We, the audience, know and appreciate L’s element of anonymity and surprise. So when he does this, for a second we’re like “NO! WHY would you DO that?! But then it settles in and we realize… it’s probably his best and only opportunity to read the reaction of his suspect. Maybe if he waits too long Light will get hip to him. Maybe Light will move away, fall under the radar once he suspects this strange man to be L. If you think about it, it couldn’t have happened any other way. L loses his anonymity but gains something he believes to be far more valuable. You also learn that L will do eccentric and high-risk things to catch his man. He’s not cautious, and he’s not timid. Only through this decision making can that really be demonstrated.
Real Choice: Light is now faced with his OWN dilemma. His inner monologue delineates his predicament. “If I flinch, he’ll suspect me. But if I act too casual, he may suspect me too.” What will Light choose? What kind of person is he? Will he take the challenge head on and gloat at L’s lack of evidence? Will he withdraw and act suspiciously, venting out his rage and embarrassment later? Will he panic? Who is Light? NOW, as we sit in his chair with him and share this EXTREME amount of stress he is feeling, not only do we learn who Light is, but we are light. It’s one of the finest dramatic moments I can point to, I think.
FALSE CHOICE 3: CONAN THE BARBARIAN(2011)
Yet another example of “by the book” screenwriting (while not understanding why the principles are even in the book) is Conan the Barbarian. Conan is a one- dimensional story about revenge. He hits his problems with a big sword and they go away. If they don’t go away, he hits them again. If he’s driven by violence and the climax involves him choosing between “saving the girl” and violence, you must first demonstrate how he values love above violence in the plot! Which…they don’t do.
So there’s this bridge, and the bad guy is about to get mondo god powers because of this magical helmet. He’s like 98% locked and loaded god power, and Conan is hanging off a bridge and holding the love interest…who he met like two days prior and promptly banged. She is pleading with our psychotic marauding hero to just let her die. She’s like “LET ME GO, LET ME GO!” So, you’re thinking, “what a tough choice!” But since there was no time dedicated to him having to make moral decisions in the WHOLE plot, what should have been a NON choice was a false choice. If the movie was about killing and revenge, he should have just dropped this skank-with-a-death-wish and then the bad guy is like “OH SHIT!” and then Conan HITS HIM WITH A SWORD! *roll credits*
“Oh right, the hero needs a CHOICE” — which of course doesn’t matter because he ends up saving her and then hitting the bridge(and not even with a sword), causing it to give way. The bad guy still does the “oh shit” face, but come on. If you’re gonna do THAT you might as well have had aliens come down and laser the poor bastard. In any case, don’t insult the audience with false choice. You can’t throw “hit things with swords OR save the girl” into two hours of footage dedicated to “hit things with swords or hit things with swords again.”
False Choice in Games
So this Similar to how false choice can be underhanded and unconscious in narrative, it can also be so in games. Modern digital games are like, off the deep end with this issue right now. I’ll pick a couple from the pile and delineate, with the same lens from above: examples of real and false choice in games.
REAL CHOICE 1: GO
Go is a beautiful game which you can learn the rules for in five minutes and spend ten lifetimes trying to master it. The depth and complexity emerges endlessly from a simple system of territory control, surrounding and capturing stones.
If you place one stone, the state of the board changes permanently. Every move ripples into the next, and there are innumerable, creative ways to have battles, solve problems, to win and to lose. Not only are your choices real, but they matter. They are tense, they have endogenous meaning(meaning within the context of the gamestate) and they are permanent, like the consequences of a character’s tough decision in a great story.
When you’re attacked in go, you have several significant choices as to how to respond. You can try to push him into one of the corners, to make him keep his territory there. You can try to sneak behind him and force him to try to make territory somewhere in the middle (which is inherently more difficult to do than making territory along the edges). Or, it’s a completely legitimate strategy to simply let him take that area, and focus on establishing strong foundations elsewhere on the grid. Go is a great example of a game in which there are tough decisions which you can never take back, because pieces stay on the board forever (unless they are captured, but even then the placement of your piece is still meaningful as there is an enemy-controlled hole there now).
FALSE CHOICE 1: MASS EFFECT
Any Heavy-duty story game will do, but I chose Mass Effect, because it’s new, popular, and heavy on the dialogue choices. As the title suggests, false choice is inevitable in story-games. Because interactivity is kind of, well, required in a game, it can’t help but get in the way of the story. This usually happens by means of a glorified “choose your own adventure novel” renamed “morality system.” It’s essentially two stories that you can choose to follow. You can make neutral choices(which nobody does because they don’t give you the stat boosts that either being Mother Theresa or a child molesting Nazi do…which is another form of false choice), and sometimes there are more than two endings, but that’s what they are: “endings.” As in, it’s all prescribed and hard coded. If it has three endings, it was a choose your own adventure out of three. No matter the case, the “choice” you’re really making is “which of these stories do I want to watch?” Either way, you win. It’s “consume the game and then throw it out.” The only way dialogue could possibly be incorporated into a system in which the gamestate-changing choices were relevant would be a SUPER-intelligence that could generate human, believable and compelling dialogue on the fly that reacts to your decisions. Much like Mass Effect, this is science fiction. For now, we’ll have to settle for false choice.
If you insist on having stories tied to games, any claim that the things you decide to do actually effect the game beyond the story that has been prescribed to you is a LIE.
Like Keith pointed out in a previous article, this is the inherent conflict between stories and games. A story’s greatness is determined by the carefully planned, meaningful and ambiguous decisions of the character. How we come to know the characters we love is specifically by NOT being able to control their decisions. Only then can we suffer with them, or yearn with them, or love with them. We want them to know the dramatic irony of their situations; we want to save them, but we can’t.
If there’s a game with a story, and you actually control the decisions of the characters, you’re not experiencing a character, you’re experiencing yourself. The compromise made in story-games is to give you the illusion of choice by letting you “choose your own adventure”. When you activate a dialogue option, you’re not “making a decision” as much as you’re pressing the play button of a movie. If you choose the other option, it’s the play button of another movie.
REAL CHOICE 2: Roguelikes
Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup, POWDER, NetHack, Shiren: The Wanderer and our own 100 Rogues are all Roguelike games. It’s a genre based on the primitive, but long-lasting and beloved turn-based computer game Rogue in which you explore a randomly generated dungeon, fighting monsters. Once you die, it’s back to the beginning. Try again to discover new things, improve your skill and maybe get a new high score.
Every attack, every potion you drink or scroll you use is a commitment. Unmarked potions can either give you a leg up, heal you, or kill you. Killing the wrong kind of monster can anger one god or please another, sometimes yielding unpredictable effects. All the while, you have precious little resources you must manage. Survival is key, but near impossible. You must be creative and patient. It’s a very exciting feeling to play a roguelike for these reasons.
Envision yourself surrounded with four hit points. You know the two orcs on your left are asleep, and the skeleton above you has five hit points. Your weapon does a max of six, but you don’t know if you can survive another attack. You could cast a spell, but you risk waking the orcs. You could drink an unlabeled potion and hope it heals or teleports you, or you could try to run and hope the skeleton misses you. Maybe something else even more reckless and high-risk might pay off big.
Gamasutra columnist and roguelike expert John Harris writes about a concept in roguelike games called “the critical moment”, a moment which, if you miss it, you will be doomed. Possibly next turn, possibly several turns from now, things will happen and you will have missed your chance to have done something about them. For this reason, coupled with the fact that because of “permadeath” (aka: losing is a possibility, not just winning) you have to be extremely careful anyway, good roguelikes constantly force you to make difficult decisions.
Imagine all the emotions of that scenario….then imagine it with an unlimited save/load function…
FALSE CHOICE 2: SKYRIM
Again, I could have picked any modern game with RPG elements, but since I personally gave Skyrim a healthy go, I picked this one. There is no actual choice in Skyrim. It’s all the illusion of choice or false choice.
“How would you like to win, sir?” is the refrain of the “choices” in this game. It’s false choice on many fronts. First, the slopped-on gobs of inherent complexity that busy up the skill, item, weapon and armor systems are just a bunch of false choices. For all the hundreds and hundreds of little nick-knacks and toys you can clutter up your inventory with, none of it matters, endogenously speaking. It’s not as if choosing to play with a mace of +9 lightning damage provides any kind of profound impact on your game that a +7 longsword of drain mojo or whatever can’t. You’re gonna win either way.
Hey the world is so big and open but 99% of it’s a complete snooze and you can instantly teleport to the “smash X to win” sections, so… I guess I’ll “choose” the clearly optimal use of my time. Oh I can “choose” between the weapon that does 69 damage and the weapon that does 68. That’s a real brain teaser. Oh but that’s right. This monster is weak to fire damage. How DEEP! I can “choose” to use the weapon that does fire damage but not if I have another weapon that still nets me more overall damage.
Oh…and if I happen to actually stumble into something that causes me to die, or pick any dialogue option other than the one that most benefits me, oh yeah.. I’M IMMORTAL AND OMNIPOTENT BECAUSE I CAN SAVE AND LOAD WHEREVER AND WHENEVER I WANT AS MANY TIMES AS I WANT ON AS MANY FILES AS I WANT.
Yeah…I think this one goes under false choice.
Don’t Waste My Time!
To be constructive among my railing, though it’s my opinion that meaningful choice is essential to both games and stories, I understand that some people don’t want to be tested or apply creative, deep thought to their entertainment. I crave that kind of leisure sometimes as well. I’m down with it. What I’m arguing against is the ILLUSION of choice. Skyrim would be way better if it didn’t put on such a pretense and insult the player with false choice. When you find the +29 sword, just make the +28 sword break or disappear, or at the very least default the player to equip the best weapon. Don’t make the map so big. Fast travel instantly to the action. Use cutscenes instead of “choosing” between no brainer inconsequential dialogue options. If you can save/load, why not take out death altogether? If the only tension you could possibly derive from the game is when you accidentally forget to save before every fight, what are you really losing by eliminating death?
In short, don’t waste my time and insult me with false choice. Give me meaningful choices, or no choices at all.