Choosing to Miss the Point

The unofficial blogging theme of the week is Choice, and while I was not going to comment on it, the sheer force of a thousand bloggers missing the point simultaneously slowed the rotation of the Earth enough to make it necessary. So allow me to clear up a few things.

1) You cannot have “meaningful” narrative choice in MMOs. Nor would you want them.

In case you need a reminder, we are talking about Massively Multiplayer Online games here. Assuming “meaningful” choices existed, who is going to be making them? You? Or the ten thousand other players on your server? You cannot all be making meaningful choices pretty much by definition. Remember the Siege of Undercity? No you don’t. The Siege was completed by Arthasdklol hours before you logged on. If you solve the Arthasdklol situation by instancing everything out, at what point does A) the choices cease to remain meaningful, and B) the game ceases to be an MMO?

The lack of “meaningful” (narrative) choices in MMOs is not a bug, it’s an essential feature.

“What about MMOs like EVE?” I hear you cry. Obviously Sandbox content is a bit different than designer-created narrative content. But it is important to not get too pedantic with pitting player-generated stories against a coherent narrative, the latter of which is what everyone is talking about when they speak about choices anyway. If the headlined EVE scams and interstellar drama is put on a pedestal, why is WoW intra-guild drama not similarly enshrined? Heard that Dragonwrath legendary story yet? If EVE has “meaningful” choices due to nullsec shenanigans, then so does every social game. Which begs the question of whether these “meaningful” choices only exist in the context of social interaction. In other words, the game proper has nothing to do with it. Maybe Game A creates better incentives than Game B for social interaction, but just because you build it, does not mean the horses will drink. Or something.

2) You cannot have “true” failure in MMOs. Nor would you want them.

Raise your hand if you have ever failed an escort quest in an MMO. Now keep your hand raised if you think escort quests get any more interesting or fun if the person you are escorting permanently dies and you can never retake the quest again. If you still have your hand raised, lower it if the reason is because you hate escort quests with a passion and wish you could kill the dumbass you are escorting yourself, for running headlong into unnecessary mobs or how they move with the speed of a narcoleptic 3-toed Sloth that missed it’s insulin injection.

The people with their hands still raised should use it to slap themselves in the face for being a liar. Didn’t your mother raise you better?

The type of “failure” frequently enshrined by these bloggers is the sort of failure that results in a Game Over screen in single-player games. And the difference between reloading your last save after a Game Over and abandoning a failed quest and retaking it is… what? That’s right, there is not a damn single difference. Too Damn Epic asserts:

What happens, though, when your games are rigged so that you can’t lose?  That’s the underlying problem in most MMOs.  You can’t lose.  They’re jury-rigged for success, and as Gandhi said, “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.”  Tweak that a bit for our purposes, and you get:

“Choices are not worth having if they do not include the option to make mistakes.”

[…] After all, in WOW, you can’t really make mistakes.  You can undo talent trees.  You can wipe on braindead PvE content to your heart’s content until you “win”.  You don’t lose anything in PvP.  In an effort to make games more accessible and retain subscribers, we’ve lost the capacity to fail – and in the process – lost the capacity to produce meaningful choices.

“You can wipe on braindead PvE content to your heart’s content until you ‘win.'” Err… so you are saying that you can fail until you succeed? Just like in any game ever made? Maybe there is a serious psychological difference between re-taking a quest and hitting F9 that I am not picking up on. Or perhaps the failure scale these individuals use have only two pegs: Faceroll and Battletoads. And as someone who actually played Battletoads on the NES back in the day, the game did not get more fun when you spent four hours memorizing all the walls in the racing level and the pitfalls in the tube level only to die in the snake level and have to redo everything all over again. That sort of designer bullshit has exactly one function: to turn a five-hour game into a 40 hour nightmare.

The bottom line here is that MMOs having a permanent failure state is actually a worse penalty than any single-player game, with the exception of Russian Roulette. Once you accept that a permanent failure is off the table, we are really quibbling over the length of player time to hold hostage. And honestly, I want to meet the Carebears who look at PvP and say nothing is lost when you get thoroughly owned by a Frost mage that is now teabagging your corpse. Somehow -1 Dignity and +1 Blood Pressure never evened out, in my experience.

3) What is “meaningful” choice anyway?

I have put “meaningful” in scare quotes every since I read SynCaine’s post on choices, and based on the example he used, I think everyone should as well:

A game like Dragon Age is full of ‘fake choice’, where every quest seems to have multiple solutions, but the end result is just different loot or some placeholder NPC switching up one line with another. Not that it really mattered in DA, the game was still fun and its story was good-enough to see it to the end. I’d just never put it anywhere near The Witcher in terms of moral choices and tough decisions.

Err… did we play the same Dragon Age? Assuming you beat DA and/or don’t mind 100% spoilers, just casually glance at the Epilogue Wiki page. Perhaps his point was that epilogue slides are just “switching up one line with another?”  I have not played The Witcher myself although I own both 1 & 2 on Steam (SynCaine must have just missed the deal a few months ago), so I cannot compare the two. What I will do is make a wild assumption that what choices The Witcher does offer the player does not come in the form of mutually exclusive content, which appears to be the gold standard of “choice.” If the Witcher does have mutually exclusive content, it will be in the radical minority of games.

I am making a point of this not just because what is “meaningful” is subjective, but also because I think this usage of choice is dumb. Flavor choices are inexplicably dismissed as shallow or meaningless by bloggers, when they are absolutely critical in developing an identity, or affinity to your character or the narrative as a whole. Planescape: Torment is brought up a lot as the pinnacle of storytelling, for example, but how much “real choice” does Planescape actually have in comparison to, say, Dragon Age? Very little. The brilliance of Planescape came from the depth of the “meaningless flavor choices” (all 800,000 words of them) which otherwise pulls you into the narrative in the wholly unique way that only video games can.

Besides, if you believe flavor choices are meaningless or have no consequences and therefore are not choices, how do you explain the apparent success of the F2P cash shop model? Or the likely fact you have things hanging up on your wall right now that you paid for and yet have nothing to do with the structural integrity of your domicile?

Individual expression is, indeed, the most interesting choice you can make despite – or perhaps in spite of – the likely fact that no one else cares.

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Posted on September 9, 2011, in MMO, Philosophy and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I don’t understand your train of thought in 1) here; are you basing your entire argument on “narrative choices”?
    I agree that some players probably expect too much in terms of meaning from trivial choices in MMOs, that the focus should lie on rolling with a choice, rather than making the process of choosing an artform or science. I disagree however that there are no meaningful choices for players at all – of course choices can have more or less meaning in relation to game flow or progress. maybe you expect too much if you ask that this meaning must be totally game-altering and dramatic?

    the meaning(fulness) of choice is relative to the game’s design – the consequences a choice may or may not have vs. flexibility. in a game where gold is horrendously scarce for example, it matters if I vendor my trash or not. in a game like WoW it doesn’t matter either way pretty fast. this small difference goes back on how restrictive the game is or whether it requires me to make gold or not. the same goes for the spec-debate; choosing the right spec for the right situation becomes a meaningful choice the moment the game a)installs several, viable options b)asks you to employ the correct one for every encounter c)will increase drastically in difficulty if you don’t. you can freely add more possible ways for a player to feel penalized here (loss of time, loss of group, loss of reward, loss of opportunity etc.)

    maybe that’s still not a “fatally meaningful” loss and no, you won’t “lose” everything in the long run over failing once or ten times. but: do you have to? it seems to me you’re the one who defines things with a classic “single-player game mindset” here.
    it still constitutes failure that moment in time and it can have smaller or bigger consequences for the individual (for ex. we have completely left out the adding social factors here). if it did not, then the opposite effect, the feeling of success or achievement would not exist either – nor would challenge, if none of my choices ever carried weight / the potential to frustrate me via outcome or not. but maybe you’ll claim that there are no challenges in MMOs either? that would be a consequences of your reasoning.

    p.s. As for your escort quest analogy (which I find a rather isolated example);
    – an NPC that can actually die is a lot more interesting to me than one I do not have to watch anyway, making the escort purpose obsolete.
    – if I knew the quest was one-time only, or let’s say had a reset timer of 1 week, you can bet I would pay A LOT more attention to what I am doing!

    you’re making it sound as if we somehow could only ever decide between extremes; really dull, fool-proof escorts or horribly annoying ones. we don’t, but let’s say we had to – yes, I choose the game where watching the NPC is actually tricky and not watching him has consequences.

    • Sorry if it wasn’t clear, but yes, #1 was aimed at “meaningful” narrative choices (e.g. ones that ultimately result in mutually exclusive content). It is a rebuttal to an argument that, strictly speaking, no one is specifically making… but I thought it important to point out anyway.

      I absolutely believe in meaningful choices in MMOs generally, and even include flavor choices as being meaningful (per #3).

  2. Syl corrected me on my blog – I used the term “lose” very loosely, but what I’m really suggesting is that there needs to be room for failure and mistakes that just aren’t present in a game like WOW. Personally, I had fond memories of games like Pitfall and Ghosts n’ Goblins because they were so challenging. They made you want to pull your hair out, but they forced you to really “work to win”. WOW, in contrast, doesn’t make you really work to win. Everything is handed on a silver platter, everyone wins, and everyone is special. It drives me nuts.

    Contrast WOW to a game like Prime:BFD that’s coming out, or DAOC for an old-school reference. You could “lose” in DAOC and the consequence of your mistakes/loss would be losing keeps and bonuses for your toon. That’s more in the vein of what I’m getting at.

    In either event, I’m not suggesting that these ball-breaking “Battletoads-esque” issues reappear in MMOs, but we need something more than the “here’s your epic crap on a silver platter, you win just for showing up” mentality that’s all too common.

  3. Good post, and I just wanted to elaborate a bit on Witcher vs DA. Witcher very, very much has mutually exclusive content-based choices. Dramatically so.

    But what I thought it did really well is in how it presented those choices and ultimately their ‘conclusion'; it’s not direct or immediate. A simple, low-impact (at the time) choice made in chapter one ends up being a huge plot point in chapter three (just an example). When you were making it in chapter one, you did not know it was a big decision, and when chap three rolls around, it gets you thinking. DA really did not have any of that. I think You really see just how it all works the second time you play through the game, though it’s a pretty amazing experience the first time as well.