Player Choice and Free Will. The Rules of your World

Last week we talked a little about The Stanley Parable and the notion of player choice and the seeming impossibility of implementing true freedom in a video game. Generally, this impossibility comes from the fact that no one can code to anticipate everything. As players, we readily accept this impossibility and often use that impossibility to find humor in aspects that are broken or unaccounted for. But even beyond the fact that the developers possibly could not code for everything, the fact remains that all systems are bound by rules that govern the world. Whether these are simple laws of physics, such as gravity, or complicated rules of society, such as crimes and police in GTA, the worlds we inhabit are necessarily bound by rules. It is from these rules in which puzzles and creative scenarios are made.


The reason I brought up The Stanley Parable is because it exhibits are great mastery of the rules of storytelling, and the addition of player choice into the equation. In total, there are 19 endings to The Stanley Parable. Some of them are entirely expected, some of them require slight deviation from the normal path, and some of them are so utterly out there that you aren’t sure if you found something new, or just broke the game (hint: you just found something new). As clever as you may feel, rest assured, the developers have already anticipated that move, and have coded for it in the game’s programming.

Because every action (and inaction) you can take has been accounted for, the game feels as if it has either the most or least player freedom, depending on your perspective. And one of the reasons this discussion is odd to have is because it’s hard to argue for any one side. But let’s do it anyway. To start, because we’re focusing on narrative freedom and restrictions, we’ll ignore the obvious issues of glitches, physical restriction such as that pesky gravity thing, and graphical or coding artifacts such as clipping or poor design. Instead, focus entirely on the story.

The Stanley Parable has 19 different endings, or in other words, 19 different paths that the player can take, all starting from the same location. Through good design and proper placement of key information, the developers have chosen 19 or so instances, maybe even more, where the player has a choice between at least two options. In fact, several of the endings break the fourth wall to discuss the players choices and their consequences, their lack thereof or even just to make fun of the player. And throughout the game, nothing feels railroaded, nothing feels forced. Out of pure curiosity for what the narrator will say next, and what will happen next, the player will make their choices and discover new things. Yet, the paradox is that everything is railroaded, because everything is accounted for. There is no real freedom because the game is designed in a way to negate any thoughts the player might even have regarding a lack of choice.

That’s the quandary that people face in this debate. True freedom would be allowing the player to do something completely unexpected and working around it, somehow making up for the developer’s lack of foresight. And yet, true freedom is impossible except in Tabletop RPGs. So the worlds that are being built must be built on rules. Whether they are contextual societal rules, such as don’t murder random people on the street, or physical rules such as locked doors and cleverly designed hallways. The Stanley Parable succeeds on giving the player enough choices and options so that they ignore the subconscious railroading that does happen.

Of course, as we return to story structure and world building, the takeaway is to try and account for every possible action. The problem, as always, is in scale. As your world grows in size, as your game gets longer and more complicated, it will be harder and harder to account for everything a player might do. And it’s in those instances where directing the players attention towards specific goals is absolutely necessary. It could take the form of a main quest line, or just rumors of a shiny object of unimaginable power, but when developing a story, your goal, in the end, is to direct the player to your ending, even though they may try to choose otherwise. The mark of the master is in how subtle that railroading is, and how free the player feels in the world.