Choice is the central tenant of all video games. In fact, as the Extra Credits crew recently argued, the choice of input from the player is the defining feature that separates a game from all other kinds of media. As a result the implementation of player choice has been debated often in the past, and with the recent release of David Cage’s Beyond: Two Souls it has risen once more among both the consumer and journalistic community.
Cage’s work has always been marketed by the developer himself as putting player choice first. 2005’s Fahrenheit put players in control of Lucas Kane as he is in the process of murdering someone. From there players could choose to cover up their crime and move carefully out of the building or (if they preferred) to run away as quickly as possible, before in either case partaking in a long and interesting branching storyline with multiple player characters and 8 possible endings. Similarly Cage’s next title, 2010’s Heavy Rain allowed players control of multiple protagonists as they hunted down and were hunted by the mysterious Oragami killer, complete with 22 possible endings. The key to both these celebrated games was that player choice impacted on the story.
Now in 2013 people were expecting the same kind of experience of cages new Beyond: Two Souls, but they appear to have been disappointed. To give just one typical example, in Lucy O’Brien’s IGN Review she writes:
“Beyond’s choices feel small, and the story will storm onward no matter how they are played out, never pausing to toss you a crunchy moral quandary to change its direction in any way that feels significant. It’s disappointingly unadaptable.‘ So what went wrong?”
The game still has 23 possible endings and it still has branching storylines (albeit with harder to find routes), so where is this criticism coming from?
I believe the answer lies in the concept of free will and choice itself. A cursory assessment of the problem seems to support O’Brien’s claim, the ‘choices’ made by the player feel hollow because we are still led down the same linear lines as if we had made a different choice. Crucially she is arguing that we cannot have acted otherwise in any given situation. However this cursory assessment is flawed and I would argue, due to the flawed definition of freedom it employs.
To understand why we will need to enter the realm of philosophy and scrutinise the definition of freedom to see whether it actually holds up. Fortunately centuries of philosophers have done most of this work for us, allowing us to neatly categorise O’Brien’s definition. The reason I italicised “we cannot have acted otherwise in any given situation” is because this is more or less the exact definition of freedom given by Hard Determinism, the view that there is no such thing as choice (in this case ‘player choice’).
The philosophical underpinning behind Hard Determinism is summed up perfectly by the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume in his book An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Hume writes “the scientist easily perceives the same force on a spring has always the same influence on the wheels,” “Philosophers form a maxim that the connection between all causes and effects is equally necessary.” In other words; the universe is governed by physical laws which always act the same way, and since we are within the universe it follows that we must also be governed by those same laws, meaning the fundamental workings of our brain and our perceptions of the universe were all determined from the moment the universe began. Similarly less fundamental determining factors such as family and societal influence or genetics further enforce the view that our choices are made for us by our circumstance. What O’Brien is doing is extrapolating this argument to Beyond: Two Souls. The laws dictating the game world which prevent Jodie from veering too far from the set storyline determine our player actions and any choice we might make is therefore completely illusory.
Now, while O’Brien’s Hard Determinism seems a very compelling case, I believe it is in fact unfair criticism, due to the flawed definition of free will it uses. The definition she uses, is again wonderfully summarized by Hume; “by freedom then we can only mean a power of acting or not acting according to the determinations of the will.” The key part of this definition is “acting or not acting,” the idea that freedom is constituted by being able to have acted otherwise in any action freely chosen. This idea seems natural to us, but when we really break it apart it is far from it.
To understand this we must identify the reason anyone makes a choice, to do this I will use the simplistic example of why Cage chooses to cover up the body when playing Fahrenheit’s opening rather than, for example; washing himself and running away quickly. One answer would be that he is a perfectionist, but isn’t this a biological or psychological facet handed down to him – a determining factor in other words? Under the current view of freedom determining factors prevent free choice, so this cannot be the case. Instead we may say he chose to because he is squeamish and wants to remove the blood. Again however, this is down to him being psychologically or genetically predisposed to be squeamish. The truth is when you start to think about it all choices are based upon reasons which are themselves either one or many determining factors. If one removed all of them for a ‘free’ choice then all one is left with is random chance, which is surely about as divorced from the concept of freedom as possible.
The view expressed by critics of Beyond: Two Souls therefore boils down to the criticism that it lacks choices which are fundamentally random. Choices which the player has no and cannot have any investment in, as any level of investment would constitute a determining factor. I believe this view of freedom is not correct, as Descartes put it; “nor is it true that in order to be free I must be capable of moving in either direction […] the indifference I feel when I am not moved one way or the other is a lower degree of freedom.” In other words the choices advocated by O’Brien, which Beyond supposedly lacks are those choices akin to deciding what breakfast cereal to eat. Sure we are not determined, but we do not care about the choice in the slightest. The fact that we could have chosen differently makes it feel less free because we aren’t invested. Instead Descartes suggests an alternative definition of freedom “The more inclined I am in one direction, the more freely I choose it.” Under this view the choices we make in Two Souls cannot have been different, but because we are invested in Jodie and her story they are nevertheless freely chosen in a way the random choices asked for simply cannot be. In this way the choices in Beyond: Two Souls create a far more compelling narrative then the choice-on-a-whim style of previous Quantic Dream efforts.
In the end your view of Beyond: Two Souls and the wider issue of choice in video games comes down to which basis of free will you believe in. A choice as it were, between the definitions of choice. Either we side with the critics against Beyond and base freedom on chance or we side with Descartes with Beyond and base freedom on determined investment. If I am right, you cannot choose incorrectly.