It's definitely a lot to ask of game developers, but I think gamers have earned it.
Every game has a budget, and the content always becomes a question of quality vs quantity. Some games do have very different endings based on your choices, but those tend to have a lot less voice acting, plot, and cutscenes dedicated to each, or just very few choices. It becomes a lot easier if you do away with voice acting and fancy graphics, but that results in a fairly niche product these days.
Having played games like The Walking Dead, Mass Effect, and Life is Strange in the last few years, and having played numerous other games with the same theme/mechanic of "choice" here and there I'm starting to feel as if even though the genre of choice based games is growing and becoming more popular each year, it isn't actually growing as an art form in the development community.
Games like The Walking Dead are first and foremost trying to tell a story. They're not games about replayability, they're going for something just a bit different than watching a really engaging TV show. All the little choices along the way are about defining your character, becoming your character. They may or may not actually change the surrounding world. Are they story-based games, or choice-based?
Almost every choice-based game that's come out this year or previously relies on the illusion of choice and the illusion of freedom and power in the game’s world. This illusion can only carry the game so far. While these games offer you "hard", often emotionally testing decisions to make, your decisions can rarely have any real lasting effect on the outcome of the story. The only reason decisions are hard to make in any context is because they have consequences. When decisions don't actually have any tangible consequence, they lose power over us. They disengage the audience from being emotionally involved in the content.
- Whether you try to save Bob from the zombie mob, or save Jim from the zombie mob, Bob will always end up dying.
- Whether or not you blame Steve for the crime or blame Perry, whichever one is the true criminal still pulls off one last murder.
- Whether or not you choose to study extra hard for that test, or break into the school swimming pool at 2AM, you still get a B minus on the test.
Replaying any "choice" based game doesn't ever show you how differently things could have turned out if only you had chosen differently. Most stick to a rigid storyline that allows for little deviation or player intervention. And that makes a lot of sense from the developer's point of view: allowing the player to radically change future events in their game would basically mean writing a whole different story, one that may never be played by a large percent of the game's audience. This diamond based story structure, where you start and end at the same point while the journey there can change, is not the most empowering form of storytelling for the gamer. While you still have the opportunity to make a few decisions, your decisions do not carry much consequence, so what is the point at all?
I think a big problem is how mechanical games are with how they treat completion. They overload you with information that guides players every step of the way, and in the end it diminishes the sense of exploration and choice. Open world games have lists for quest and side quests, with pointers and markers showing you exactly where everything is. In GTA, every mission is delineated down to the last step, which essentially cuts off player agency aside from those few canned instances of “choice.” Despite the game being open world, it ends up feeling no more unrestrictive than a corridor shooter.
Deus Ex gives you choice without you knowing. Generally, you’re thrown into a level, and the onus is on the player to discover and engage with NPCs and the environment to complete and improve your completion of a mission. There’s so much detail in every level and casual choice in every mission that it feels both dynamic and organic in how it presents choice. Better yet, there’s so much to be missed that consequent playthroughs have players discovering a whole bevy of things they never expected. You start to realize and wonder about all the different ways to do things. What if I don’t listen to him and run away? What if I kill that important NPC hours before the boss battle with him/her?
Furthermore, it doesn’t incorporate a morality system, it doesn’t punish you for playing the game a particular way, and because of this, choices are made based on the predilections of the player, not artificial systems imposed by the game that are tied to rewards. Players are motivated by their own reaction and input.
And yet, I think games that rely on choice as their main gimmick are required to put in that effort - to write a story not everyone will choose to play - in order for it to be a worthy game.
One example for a way to make games with significant, consequential decisions in a game could be Front Mission 3 for the original PlayStation. Front Mission 3 had one seemingly insignificant choice at the start of the game that led to two completely different campaigns spanning dozens of hours each. Each campaign put you on a different side of the same war, which led you to meet new party members, fight against some party members of the other path and overall gave you a very different perspective on events. How did they do that? By having most of the story be told via dialogue boxes, text-only and only having 3D graphics for the small cutscenes immediately before and after a battle.
It completely demolishes the replay value of these games when you find out that none of your choices really mattered - and I don't mean in a philosophic or spiritual way that says "ooh, your fate was always to come to the lighthouse at the end of the game and die tragically!" I think too many games that know they rely on the illusion of choice try to use "fate" as a plot device to hide the fact that they put less effort than was required into making a game actually based around the idea of choice.
Developers are too focused on length of play as opposed to quality of play. A game doesn’t have to be 50 hours for it to be worth the money. Leave the world open to the player without the restrictions and without the complete disclosure of where everything is. Let the game be beatable in 2, 10, 50 hours. Let the player decide how much time they want to spend in the world and how they tackle it. I’ll keep coming back to the game if it has enough there to offer me a unique play through another time around.
If we can't start to offer players choices that affect the future of their story more significantly, we need to stop making so many choice-based games.