"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference."
Always leave it to Robert Frost to make an article sound classy.
Choice: as gamers, we like it. There are generally complaints when we don't have it. And it seems like every game nowadays gives you something to choose in how the plot of the game progresses, or how you want your character to grow. Sometimes it's to amp up a title's replayability; sometimes it's about a moral choice system; other times it's just about picking an axe over a sword to fight enemies with. But is this actual choice? Sometimes it seems more like we've simply got wool pulled over our eyes. The question is, of course, who's doing the pulling? The answer: we are.
On December 17, 2009, the thirteenth game in the Final Fantasy series was released in Japan to anticipatory crowds everywhere, and was almost immediately met with mixed feelings. Some of the apparent disdain came from a combat system that some felt was too repetitive, but much came from the idea that the game was far too linear: a post by a Japanese player of the title that showed the maps of the first few hours of the game gained popularity as it displayed what looked like a single straight line, with a few branches here and there that would inevitably return to this one single trunk, a linear path that seemed to offer no player choice, simply battle after battle.
Ask yourself: how is this different from nearly any other game released (obviously, not every game fits this description)? Using the Final Fantasy series as a grab-bag of examples, it's nearly impossible to find a title that defies the description of 'linear to a fault'. One can chart out the gameplay of each iteration, drawing a number of nodes to represent plot events and locations, and simply draw one single line that leads from the beginning of the game, whether it's Terra marching across a frozen tundra, Cloud jumping off of a train, the warriors of light exiting a city, or the escape of Lightning and Hope from a prison transport, straight to the end. Sure, there are branches here and there: sidequests to complete and extra treasure to find, but there aren't any examples of 'choice' in the series at all. So why did so many gamers revolt against what Final Fantasy XIII was doing?
It's simple: it doesn't seem like gamers crave choice, we simply crave the illusion of it. There are genres where this doesn't apply, such as action titles, story-driven adventures, and of course sandbox titles (where there is often so much choice that some are overwhelmed) and so forth, but when we think we should get it, we like to see what we think is an option. Even if it means a simple ten minute detour to get a sword, or the ability to find a powerful, secret boss to defeat for no purpose, we enjoy that suspension of disbelief, the idea that perhaps what we are doing is having an effect on the heavily-scripted game we are playing. RPGs in the west, whether it's Europe or America, tend to do things differently, though often with the same result.
Mass Effect (we'll be going with the original here), was a familiar sight to anyone who has played a Bioware game in the last decade or so. Every so often, your character Commander Shepard would be given a choice, whether it's about doing something for the good of all or doing something for the good of himself (or humanity, if you play the race card). Punch a reporter in the face, or answer her questions with virtue; risk the life of humanity, or watch the governing alien body of the galaxy perish; release an alien beast into freedom, or burn it to eliminate a possible threat: these are just a couple choices given to you. It was a hit. What's obvious is how the game immediately gives you the result of the choice, without changing much in the grand scheme of things. Watching the alien council perish may affect your morality score, but little comes of it beyond the briefest mention. Whether you decide to make love to a human, an alien, or none at all doesn't change anything except developing a relationship that is barely ever mentioned again. And whether or not you become a paragon of virtue or a rebel without a cause (but with a laser rifle and a badge) is only ever reflected in the amount of points you can place into Charm and Intimidation skills, respectively. The choice is there, but it really isn't: choice without consequence is pointless. You may as well be walking down a corridor, where two paths diverge for only a split second before merging ten feet down the line.
Now, of course with the third game in the series set to come out in the nebulous future, this may all change. Maybe something you do significantly affects something that occurs later in the series. Hopefully this will be more than just a sidequest for some loot or another party member, but that has yet to be seen.
A good number of western RPGs generally have a much more non-linear approach to their gameplay, allowing you to wander the world or galaxy, performing various missions in the order you prefer, though generally the results are the same: story missions are done in order, and they end more or less with the same resolution: the death of the big bad, saving of the world, all that. If a game really mixes things up, then you'll get a choice near or at the end to become a bad person, regardless of what you've done in the past: the game Jade Empire comes to mind, where you could become the embodiment of evil and betray all your comrades, despite how you've acted before, all from a single choice. It felt cheap. This wasn't a diverging road, this was simply flipping a coin when you reached your destination, and punching the first guy you saw if the coin showed heads.
This thought does not apply to all RPG titles, however. Alpha Protocol, for example, has incredible amounts of choice, allowing you to take on missions in almost whatever order you please, altering various aspects of each depending on what you've done in the past, in what order, people you've spared or killed, and so forth. But despite this clear showing of options, the game had some severe issues in the areas of balance and enemy intelligence, and fell very short of very many reviewers' expectations.
I'm not saying all games are linear journeys through a corridor, but most are, even more so when the veneer of 'choice' laid upon them is stripped off. They may still be fun, well-polished, exciting titles with good writing, but it's still a game where you must run in a line to get to the next objective. So, Final Fantasy XIII: here is a game that presented the ur-example of linearity to a gaming populace, a game that didn't show a map, didn't have an airship and didn't allow you to walk more than fifty feet away from the main path, and this populace did not like it. Because the illusion wasn't there. For all of its top-notch graphics and late-game hunts and sidequests, it just wasn't much of a game without the ability to walk off the beaten path. So gamers became disillusioned with it (and I have heard many grumblings from gamers of abandoning the series entirely, though be fair this happens with every iteration), once they saw that the embodiment of many RPGs, despite the accolades of choice and non-linearity, was exactly what Final Fantasy XIII showed: a walk through a corridor. Why? I don't know. As the industry has proven, a walk through a corridor, linear and straight as it may be, can often be just as nice as a stroll through an open expanse. With cutscenes.