As gamers, we have the privilege of experiencing great stories and adventures that put us in control of heroic protagonists, cut-throat mercenaries, bad-ass fighters, etc. We can play through epic tales of battle and war and take control for ourselves. But how much control do we actual have; how much can we actual exert over our in-game avatars? The answer, sadly, is limited. Predetermined paths, limited combat options, shallow choices litter the video game landscape and keep us, metaphorically, chained to a set way of playing.
However, limited isn’t the same as non-existent. In the video game world there are plenty of games and franchises that allow for several different ways for players to take more control of the universe they are thrust into. Games like the Grand Theft Auto series and Bioware’s Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises offer gamers a much higher level of control than the average game. The ability to explore, to demolish, to fight are methods for players to take hold of their games more thoroughly. But all these things are just the byproduct of something else, something that spawns true control in a video game. That something is “choice.” Different games give you choice in a variety of different ways, whether it be choice in exploration, in combat, in dialogue, or in shaping your own story. Below are just of few games and franchises that do these things and do them well.
The Elder Scrolls series is an excellent starting point as its method of allowing choice probably gives gamers the most play time out of other approaches. Skyrim gives the player control over his or her exploration. In truth, The Elder Scrolls series as always excelled at allowing players to simply wander off the beaten path and discover their own adventures, but Skyrim upped the ante with a far more expansive and varied world than its predecessors. Ruins, caves, forts, thieves’ dens, and even more areas can be discovered by merely straying from the main story, many of which provide their own quests and adventures.
By allowing this method of exploration, Bethesda guaranteed that most friends who will discuss their time with Skyrim had a good chance of sharing far different adventuring tales. I myself found it hard to even try and stay on target when completing quests as I could almost hear Skyrim’s landscape calling out to me to explore and discover.
The runaway hit from developer Mojang, Minecraft takes a similar rout as Skyrim, but in a more stripped down, back to basics form, with far more emphasis on crafting and exploring. While Skyrim gave you the option of exploration and rewarded you with hours of enjoyment for it, it still had other aspects that were more emphasized, such as story and character progression. Minecraft on the other hand offers the player a large world to explore and…nothing else. Well, at least not at first. With Minecraft, you have near complete control of this world. You cut down trees for wood or mine for stone and minerals. Collect enough and you can build tools, weapons, houses, castles, the Starship Enterprise.
Needless to say, giving players “complete” control over their experiences does limit the developer to focusing on fewer aspects of the actual game. In Minecraft’s case, like mentioned before, crafting and exploring were the main focus. While such a limit may seem hindering, it made for all the more time to be spent on building your Sky Fortress upon and small yet tall mountain, then crafting a long bridge over to the tower you constructed on a floating island in the distance….or was that just me? Anyway, my time was always well used, whether I was clearing out my mining shafts for more space, sprucing up my three stor—uh, four story cottage, tending my farm for wheat, or solidifying my stone wall perimeter around my base.
Story and Personality
Choosing how you traverse your game world is only one aspect of how players can have more than the average amount of control in video games. The Mass Effect series is perhaps one the best examples of giving players control over the outcome of their games. By allowing players to choose how they react to situations, be they dialogue or actual physical situations, Bioware gives the player the ability to shape how their game turns out. Decisions made can even carry over from Mass Effect to Mass Effect 3, the final entry in the trilogy.
While it isn’t as interactive as exploring or combat situations, the control exerted by making game changing decisions can be just as entertaining and excited. I remember how proud I was watching my decisions from the original shape parts of my adventure in Mass Effect 3. This series also offers control over what type of personality your protagonist possesses. Many games allow choices you make to lead you down the road to good or evil, but the Mass Effect series seems to have more far reaching consequences dealing with your choice of Paragon or Renegade. While most games reward you with different abilities and/or a “good” or “evil” ending to the game, Mass Effect allows your choices to affect the people around you and how they perceive you. It can even change the outcome of certain missions. On different playthroughs I had the choice of saving or sacrificing civilians, team members, and enemies on multiple occasions. The choice you make extends beyond that one moment as some people will view you differently depending on your choice.
Without a doubt, one of the most rewarding forms of control is when you are able to take hold of combat in such a way that it becomes completely and utterly your own. So much so that no matter who you talk to, chances are they have a completely different way of undertaking the forces of evil swarming around. Funny enough, the two best examples of that are two games from very recent. They are Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning and Dragon’s Dogma. Both allow a form of choice and control in combat that I have never witnessed before. Both allow you the choice of going the basic warrior, rogue, or mage path. However, it is after that that you take full control and craft your own unique crusade against your enemy.
In Kingdoms of Amalur, you never actual choose warrior, rogue, or mage. As you level, you have those trees that you can invest points into. These points can give you boosts to attacks or other stats and/or allow for different abilities or techniques to be learned. You are able to invest in any tree you want anytime you gain ability points. If you feel like dedicating everything to one tree, then that is just fine and plenty rewarding. However, if you are like me, you started rogue-like and stealthy, feeling very deadly with your twin daggers. Later on, though, you invested a bit into the mage tree just because some techniques caught your eye, and you needed to level your chakrum weapons. Before I knew it, my battle tactics consisted of slashing furiously at close enemies with my daggers and blasting enemies from afar with my fire chakrums. However, for a bit of crowd control, if I noticed the enemies heavily outnumbered me, I used a technique from the mage tree that allowed me to “tag” several opponents at once. If they drew too close while I was dispatching the more immediate foes, I could detonate the tags and watch the baddies go up in a blaze while I continued my work. So many other strategies were at my disposal if I had wanted. Setting traps, brute force, several different spells with different functions. The possibilities were endless.
Capcom’s Dragon’s Dogma takes a very similar approach that allows you to make combat decisions and strategies that adhere to your own unique playstyle. You choose the basic class as mentioned above, and purchase skills as you level up. The skills are so varied that even people of the same class will most likely respond to battle situations differently. The vocations (classes) that you choose are what open up the surplus of tactics you will have at your disposal, as each class offers a completely unique way to play and the progression of the vocations is not only deep, but extremely rewarding to invest in.
As you progress in the game, you can unlock ascended versions of the basic three classes such as a Warrior who can use two handed swords if you choose, a Ranger which is even more deadly with a bow, or a Sorcery who is far more magically inclined than the Mage. Further you also unlock “Hybrid” vocations quite early on. These include, but are not limited to, Magic Knight which is a melee/magic mix, an Assassin who is stealthy but also good out in the open, and a Magic Archer who can decimate the field with powerful magic based arrow abilities. Each class allows the player to experience Dragon’s Dogma in their own unique fashion. Not only do the classes allow for different outlooks on a situation, but the skills you choose individually add more depth to your unique gameplay experience. And with options already at your finger tips for tackling enemies, this seems to make the possibilities and the need to experiment endless.
Whether it’s dialogue choices, strategizing how to take down a foe, or deciding whether to ignore the quest to explore that cave that caught your eye, control can add some much needed enjoyment to a video game in ways that more limited approaches fall short. While linear games are still a blast and simple mechanics can be a fun time, it is nice to occasionally have the choice to go your own way.