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Player Choice in Gaming: Real or Illusion?

A week ago, I delved into a fresh copy of Call of Duty: Black Ops II, the new blockbuster from Activision and Treyarch. Unlike the massive majority of people who don’t quit multiplayer until they have Prestiged five times, I always look forward to the solitary experience of the single-player campaign. This being the ninth main title of the series and a sequel to 2010’s Call of Duty: Black Ops, I was excited at the prospect of a new feature to this installment; the inclusion of story choices that custom tailors the story for the player in question.

This week, I feel slightly burned by the experience. First, do not assume I didn’t enjoy the game. Each mission was well crafted with multiple challenges to complete. The story was gripping from the very first cutscene. I chose Veteran difficulty, so there was no shortage of enemies or tension in the stealth segments. And even the deeply depressing ending I received for not completing the Strike Force side-missions and making some hasty decisions fit the story I made for myself. I set out on a second playthrough, ready to discover just how radically different the world would be had I done things right, (the so-called “Perfect” ending people will have already posted via Youtube), and found myself stunned.


The differences the second time through were miniscule compared to my expectations. For those of you who read about topics you haven’t explored, and somehow find it someone else’s fault that they ruined it, SPOILER ALERT FOR BLACK OPS II, HEAVY RAIN, FALLOUT 3, MASS EFFECT 1-3 AND KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC. Now that I’ve protected my article from avoidable hate mail, I am sad that there was so little a difference. There are few choices in the game that matter; Woods either takes the headshot or goes for non-vitals. Save Chloe or DeFalco escapes with her. Farid or Harper is executed, leading to either saving or condemning Chloe’s life. Finally, kill or capture Menendez at the game’s conclusion. Though all of these choices do lead to differing endings, the game still took you to the same levels. The scenes play out mostly the same, with some characters absent (or present), one character may have his face burned, and one character may sacrifice himself to save another, making my choice a question of arranging the body count and time of death more than anything else.


I thought, “How could they lie to us? Why couldn’t they do something like ____ did?” And I realized, most games that tout a choice system end up very similarly. Knights of the Old Republic was an amazing game, filled with so many choices it could make one’s head spin, but you still visit the same planets, end up on the Star Forge, and *surpirse* you’re still Revan no matter how many times you play. Heavy Rain touted incredible amounts of world changing potential, but *additional surprise* Scott is always the killer. Mass Effect had three games to work with, and aside from small details like which side you chose, how many Renegade or Paragon points you had and who fought with you in the last battle, you still didn’t get a boss fight at the end, and without the Director’s Cut, some of it made little sense at all. In Fallout 3, you could make a thousand different character builds, but Liam Nee… I mean, your dad dies, President Eden hands you a killswitch and your character is dead (until you pay for Broken Steel DLC, those crafty marketers). Again, let me say that each of these games has a place in my oversized heart and each has been well received by both myself and a majority of critics. Every single one delievered an experience and a story I can tell without looking up the plot synopsis on Wikipedia. Of course it takes me a minute to correct myself for the specific details of my playthrough and it usually isn’t too difficult to make those corrections.


The difference, and counter-point, comes when I talk to people who have played the game before. Each person can remember their multiple playthroughs, but each and everyone recalls their first time the best, myself included. When I recall my Dragon Age: Origins playthrough, it’s as the Dwarven Noble Kruhnk, dethroned by a treacherous brother, who sacrificed himself to end the fifth blight, mourned as a hero by friends. Rachael Shepard took on the events of the Mass Effect Trilogy, respecting life and always doing the right thing, believing enough in the races of this cycle to Destroy the Reapers, uniting the galaxy in the process. (I would say she died, but that last cutscene after the credits makes this uncertain…) And ten years from now, when I’m waiting to get my hands on Call of Duty: Revolutionary Warfare, I will fondly recall the story of David Mason, how he spent too much time looking for Menendez, not enough to save China, lost his contact Farid, couldn’t stop Chloe’s execution, arrested Menendez with his partner Harper, but fell to the Celerium worm, allowing Menendez to kill Frank Woods and then himself when his job was complete.

Final Thoughts

In the end, player choice is simply an illusion. With gaming at the point it is today and the limitations that imposes, developers can only do so much with the time and money they are given. But like George Lucas’ legendary trilogy, (for you non-geeks, the original trilogy), the limitations make the difference. What we have in this generation of gaming are some of the most well crafted stories with just enough variation in playtype, choices and customization to make an experience for gamers that, although similar, are decidedly unique.

What’s your unique experience with David Mason, Commander Shepard or other characters you’ve made your own? Leave a comment below to share it!


About RedGuinness

Andrew Shortall (RedGuinness) is the Writer, Editor, Administrator and founder of Stay-At-Home Gaming. He also suffers from sleepless nights, summer new release withdrawals and trying to behave himself in front of his new nephew.

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