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‘Would you kindly?’: The illusion of choice in gaming

Making choices in video games is a bit like a cool morris dancer or an ideal candidate for dealing with Brexit – they don’t exist.

Even in games that pretend to offer decision after decision to affect your play, the reality is that you have only two choices. You can keep playing or you can turn it off. That’s it.


That might sound reductionist, and in many ways it is, but think about it. Developers make a world that they want you to explore. Any ‘choices’ you make, for what they are worth, are going to confine you to that world. Maybe you kill somebody you wouldn’t otherwise. Maybe you unlock a different skill or watch a hidden cutscene. Perhaps you do one mission instead of another.

But the reality is you are still bound to the same overarching plot, you will still, in all likelihood, end up at more or less the same place as you would otherwise. You’re not transforming worlds because technology is yet to get to the point where that is possible. You’re not making real choices because no studio has enough developers to preempt what you, as a player, might do.

If you play in the right order, you can unlock a different ending. If you take too long or are too cautious, the 1950s bean counter who lives in your PC or console throws a wobbly and you are punished with the narrative equivalent of Mario falling down a hole. These aren’t choices, they are gameplay styles.

Anything else is just a more complicated version of a choose your own adventure novel. Whatever happens, you are still only working your way through somebody else’s pre-chosen ideas.

And that’s not at all a bad thing. Some of the best games ever made have been strictly linear – and things become barely any less so just because there are multiple paths to take. That is especially true when you can take you choose your own adventure book, take a peek at the pages you missed and go back with absolutely no problems.


There are games that play on this brilliantly. Metal Gear Solid 2 tells you to turn the game off – something that the average gamer will inevitably disregard. But there’s a moment on that first playthrough – a split second – where you consider it.

You have spent hours being conditioned to do what the Colonel says. From the second you start playing as Snake, you trust your advisors, not because they are not flawed characters, but because they’re the computer game equivalent of Clippy. They tell you what to do, you go do it. Would you like any help infiltrating that tanker?

Bioshock is another really interesting case, because the twist relies on you not properly noticing it. ‘Would you kindly?’ is an amazing twist because it is such an innocuous phrase. It’s weird that Atlas says it so often, but in a world where crazy people are pushing guns around in prams, it barely registers.

Finally, the twist is that you never had a choice but to do the things you did because of a magical key phrase. In reality, you never had the choice to not follow Atlas’s commands. You followed the usually straight path, killed a couple of people and then travelled on to the next objective marker.

Your only other choice was to just turn off the game. But you had no reason to suspect that you had to and, even if you did, it’s a piece of entertainment, not an actual attempt to brainwash you.

It’s a twist that works on a superficial level because you can play it again and see that he says ‘would you kindly’ quite a lot. But it’s such a good piece of writing because what the hell else were you going to do? Turn it off?

There are layers to that twist that often get overlooked, just because it’s a whoa moment and, now, a meme.


In Andrew Ryan’s perfect world, every man is free to do what he wants to do. The game does a good job showing why that is an awful idea.

But as a player, you are never afforded that opportunity. You can pick between saving the Little Sisters or not, but, again, that’s not really a choice. It’s a gameplay mechanic. You either kill them or you don’t – it makes so little different that a two minute stint on YouTube can make either effort effectively null and void.

Bioshock is a great game because of its linearity, not despite it. An open world Rapture might work in an RPG, but for the game we got it was important to push the player ever onwards. It was important that nothing was ever too hard or too distracting. That’s why there isn’t some big boss fight with Andrew Ryan. His ending is almost unnervingly simple. In his final moments, he is just a man.

But what else are you going to do? Turn it off?

This has been in my head because of the wonderful indie game Superhot, which was recently added onto the Xbox Gamepass.


There are a lot of ways to approach each level, but the game itself insists there’s no story. There’s no choice but to carry on. Your character screams out for help, but doesn’t get it.

Again, the system tells you to turn it off entirely, but that defeats the point. How are you going to see what happens next if you choose to power down?

And as you make the decision to continue, things get worse and worse. A fun video game becomes something far more terrifying.

You become the narrative. In many ways it is the ultimate comment on linear video games.

Perhaps there will be a time in the future when we truly can plant a seed in a game world and, six months later, come back to find a tree. If that’s how developers want to use processing power, so be it.


But I’d rather see something where my choices actually matter. Not just Telltale-style narrative choices, or even Fallout-style reputation meters. Choices do more than lead to one character living or dying – it even leads to more than dating Barrett, although the less we talk about, the better. Choices have to be random, they have to have truly unintended consequences. Only then will we have a real shot at open world gaming.



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blank Mat Growcott has been a long-time member of the gaming press. He's written two books and a web series, and doesn't have nearly enough time to play the games he writes about.

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Twitter: @matgrowcott