The Illusion of Choice

One of the fundamental components of a game is that it offers choice. The ability to choose is what allows us to interact with the game at all – you have to choose to have Mario run to the right and jump up to the next platform. The consequences of your choices progress the game forward, or end it prematurely – if you choose not to jump to the platform, Mario falls into the perilous pit and loses a life (repeat action to get to GAME OVER). But the games that intrigue me the most are those games that offer the illusion of choice as a means of storytelling.

One game that continues to haunt me is The Stanley Parable.

The entire game is fixated on the concept of player choice. In this game, you play as an average office employee – Stanley – who is unhappy in his monotonous life. Every day starts off in this office with no windows, entering numbers into an old computer. And in this game, a very helpful narrator clearly lays out for you what you must do, as Stanley, to achieve a satisfaction yet unknown to this sad employee. You can choose to follow the instructions of the narrator, and reach a quick (and ultimately unsatisfying) ending to Stanley the office employee’s story,, you can choose to ignore or directly contradict everything the narrator says, follow some of his instructions, or go exploring into random corners of the game, trying to find “glitches” (warning: these are intentional). Each choice you make has some sort of consequence. This can be in how the narrator speaks to you, what areas become available to explore, and, of course, what kind of “ending” you get.

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The fascinating thing about The Stanley Parable is that it constantly reminds the player of the choices you make in any game; to start, continue, and to end it. As the player, you are both Stanley, and you are not Stanley. The game will only “reset” when you reach an ending, or shut it off and boot it up again. All these endings are a fascinating glimpse into the relationship between player and game. One is a museum of all the possible endings you can reach, along with some really interesting “behind the scenes” exhibits that give you a really interesting perspective on how much work went into the game, and what the creators feel about whether or not you can call this a game so much as an experience.  In another instance, the only way to end the game is to either turn it off, or make Stanley climb a set of stairs and leap off the top of them multiple times until he dies, all while the narrator begs you not to, darkly highlighting that in The Stanley Parable there is always a choice, but that doesn’t mean you have full freedom.

And, ultimately, that’s the illusion.

In all games, not just The Stanley Parable, there is some degree of “choice”. This might be “are you a boy, or a girl?”, choosing a difficulty setting, or defiantly stepping away from the main quest (or a narrator) to explore what else can be found. But what it comes down to is that you don’t have the freedoms you do in reality. To some extent, you do have to play by the game’s rules; the choices you’re given are a part of the game, a part of the experience, and a part of the story. The games that achieve this illusion to the best effect are those that make us feel like we have full choice, but we’re just as railroaded by the story as ever – like “choosing” to continuously jump from a high place just to reset the game. So the next time you find yourself praising a game for its extensive “choices”, perhaps instead praise it for its mastery of illusion.

Are there choices in games, or is it just an illusion? Share your thoughts in the comments, or on any of our social media pages. You can also email us at sosimplyverygood@gmail.com and tell Jessica exactly why she’s off her rocker.

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2 thoughts on “The Illusion of Choice

  1. Another game that gives a great illusion of choice is Undertale. No real spoilers, but once I figured out what was going on in the Undertale world, I really felt like I was making a choice in how I proceeded. Sure the game is programmed for only certain things, but if you’ve played the game and know about the endings, then I think you’ll agree that the player choice matters in Undertale. 🙂

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