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De-signing the Design: the Semiotics of Choice
by Dave Williams on 10/30/13 02:50:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This blog is a repost of the original text on my site with some modifications


1. the study of signs and symbols as elements of communicative behavior; the analysis of systems of communication, as language, gestures, or clothing.
2. a general theory of signs and symbolism, usually divided into the branches of pragmatics, semantics, and syntactics.

Symbols are the language of video games

If a player sees a red bar near his or her character that has no instructions or label, it is assumed this represents "health" and decreases with damage taken. A blue bar near the character that has no instructions or label is assumed to represent "mana" -- the currency used to cast magical spells. If the cursor turns into a finger or a gear, it means the moused-over object may be clicked in order to interact with it. Question marks or stylized icons means an NPC has something to say, and exclamation points means that NPC is waiting on you to advance his state. When you spend points in a tech tree, it unlocks the next node to be purchased which lights up. And this goes on.




When we play a game, we subconsciously (or consciously) recognize all of these things.  We call good games "intuitive" and bad games "confusing" but really this is a matter of the designer's fluency in the language of games, and also the designer's ability to create novel language for new features that is immediately understood by players. Good writers add to the existing body of language, and good designers invent new symbols which add to the semiotic lexicon.

On a recent play-through of Skyrim I walked into a cave and saw a dead body on the ground, three stone pillars, and a locked gate. Semiotics told me a dead body on the ground means the corpse will have a book with a riddle that tells me how to rotate the pillars and unlock the gate.

I read the riddle, and was stumped.

My girlfriend, who is not a gamer and had never seen Skyrim before, was watching me play. She said "oh the pillar next to the water gets the fish." My gamer brain had completely discarded the background as for-atmospheric-purposes-only, but she was free from my prejudice.

One challange sandbox games a graphical fidelity improves each generation is that there is so much detail painted into a scene the player has no idea what's important. Whereas in earlier RPGs with less sophisiticated graphics, the difference between a "background tile" and a "foreground object" is clear. The limited color palettes and resolutions made it necessary for designers to highlight the semiotic elements.

I never completed Skyrim.

What happened is this: I could be head of the Mages Guild, and head of the Assassin's Guild, and head of a mercenary's group, and get the title of Thane from every lord in the land (even the ones in direct opposition). Once I did a quest for a goddess of light and became her avatar, and then I did a quest for a demon and became his agent. Nobody seemed to question my allegiance, in a game whose main storyline deals with a large regional conflict with many sides and players. When I realized my choices weren't meaningful, I stopped playing. This is despite finding the game a generally fun experience.

Later I purchased the DLC thinking it would get me back into the game, because I geniuinely did enjoy the moment-to-moment gameplay. So I progressed along the DLC quest-line and had the choice of becoming a vampire hunter or a vampire. I knew that once I decided I couldn't go back -- I knew that the choice was meaningful. Was this the remedy?

In short, no.

The game's symbols didn't give me enough information about the choice, and I couldn't decide. After a lot of research on the web, I got bored and moved on to a different game.

I'm impossible to please, right? I'm not happy with meaningless choice, and I'm not happy with choices that have consequences. This got me thinking.

If you break it down, there are a couple of moving parts here: whether the player knows a choice is being made at all, whether the player is aware of that choice, whether the choice is irreversible, and whether the player feels informed enough of the consequences to be confident a good decision can be made (based on that player's playstyle).

Choice or no Choice

The most apparent choice in an RPG is during character creation -- what class is selected during the creation process, how the points are spent on attributes and skills, what feats are selected, and so forth. And for the most part there is an extremely entrenched convention, so RPGs have a default design that works. It is the mechanics of choice during gameplay that widely differ.

The Age of Conan MMO is an interesting case, as it had some fantastic writing that received critical acclaim. But the design of the game was such that the dialogs didn't matter to gameplay. While the player could select dialog option 1, 2 or 3, there is largely no meaning in these choices. It becomes a non-choice. Do you want vanilla or vanilla?

But let's go back to the Skyrim example.

You are the Dragonborn! The game spends a lot of effort making the player feel special. The character is a unique individual with unique powers that has been selected by fate to save the world. One frequent in-game event is a dragon attacking a town, and the player must "rescue" the town by killing a dragon. Or suffer the consequences of NPCs that offer quests potentially dying (but not the ones critical to main questlines).

So the player kills the dragon in plain view of NPCs guards and all the town-folk, and then the player eats the dead dragon's soul.

But when the encounter is over those very townfolk and guards that were just saved might say something asinine like "Maybe I'm the Dragonborn, but I just don't know it yet." Or they'll warn the player not to steal things, or otherwise treat the player like the same random transient he or she was right before the dragon was killed.

Notice the dragon corpse in the background this guard helped me kill five minutes prior:


Contrast this to the water behind the pillar in the puzzle example, which most certainly did inform gameplay. That small detail was critical to the progression in the dungeon. So how is the player's brain supposed to know what's relevant to the gameworld?

Ignorance is Bliss

I want to compare a design mechanic in Fallout 2 to the corresponding mechanic in Fallout 3 and NV to illustrate a point.

In Fallout 2, as a player I know that if my character doesn't have enough Perception I might not see a dialog choice. Basically, I don't know what I don't know.  In Fallout 3 and Fallout NV, the game informs me every time a given skill check was being made in dialog, even if wasn't skilled enough to select that option. I found Fallout 2's method to be a better design choice.



Both in Fallout/Fallout 2 and Fallout 3/NV there is an up-front choice presented when you level -- which skills do you deliberately increase? Later each game world presents additional options when specific skills are checked within the game mechanics. If the player has a high lockpick, he or she may open difficult safes or locked doors; if the player has a high survival skill certain foods may be created, and so forth. When skill checks occur is clearly telegraphed by the game, so players can comfortably predict what the skills do, meaning they can know the consequences of the choice to invest points in lockpick over survival.

What's not clear is when and how these same skills are checked in conversation, because these checks are arbitrary. And clashes with instances where the same language is used elsewhere in the game -- if I want to pick locks and open safes, I take lock-picking. If I don't care about picking locks, I spend points in a different skill. But what if I'm in a dialog with an NPC whose deceased brother happens to be a thief (which I didn't know before I entered the conversation), and if I want to convince her to help me I have to pass a lockpicking check. Because some designer said "let's check the lockpick skill here, that kind of makes sense?"

It's as if you travel to a foreign country that presumably speaks English, but every word means something completely different and there is no dictionary.

This conflict of use is further exacerbated by the nature of the sandbox genre where the player can (and will) overturn every rock, because maybe they'll be something hiding underneath it. Because the conversation system dangles the carrot of "what's behind this door" and makes the player feel bad for not being omniscient that this conversation will check that skill. Players don't like to be punished arbitrarily.

If you want to give a kid an apple, give him an apple. Don't give him a choice between an apple and candy and then say "Sorry, you can't pick candy because it's after 10 o'clock and the stores are closed on Tuesdays, plus you didn't do these 5 chores I am only now mentioning."

An additional downside of this disparity of choice is that sometimes a consequence will appear in the late-game based on something the player unknowingly does in the early-game, which can be very frustrating.

Putting the "Con" in Consequence

One insidious trend I see in modern game direction is the game attempting to convince the player that a meaningless choice is meaningful, so that the player feels good for picking the "right" option (when both options are equally meaningless). Because games are increasingly designed as psychological reward systems.



Everyone is a winner, and everyone picked the right options, and here is your achievement. Don't you feel good about yourself? Well, if you want to feel good about yourself again, buy the sequel.

That's the con -- not using semiotics to inform the player, but instead to psychologically manipulate reward centers. We crave achievements, even for not actually doing anything, because we convince ourselves that because we got the achievement we must deserve it. This is human nature.

The cynical designer can allow everyone to easily win, and make it feel like this was some great accomplishment. Instead of calling them manipulative, the industry labels such games as "accessible."

Another con is to offer red-herring "false choices." These are choices that aren't really choices -- do you want vanilla ice-cream, or to be punched in the throat? Players feel smart for picking ice-cream, and players like games that make them feel smart.



The Player Choice Paradox

The player choice paradox is this:

  • Players want meaningful choices
  • Players want to be reasonably informed of the consequences
  • Players want to always pick the right choice (and for there to be a right choice)
  • If players make the wrong choice they want to immediately know so they can simply reload the game

The paradox is players want choice, and then want the thing which makes choice irrelevant. This isn't every gamer, but in my experience as a designer it's a fair amount who play RPGs. Even -- perhaps especially -- those that don't want to admit it.

So what's going on here?

The Sandbox Narrative Conflict

Narrative in games is still a trigger and state-based affair.

Let's say there are two NPCs -- Bob and Mary. If the player talks to Bob before Mary, it advances a game state and Mary now has a new dialog. If the player talks to Mary before Bob, it advances a different game state and Bob gives a different dialog than he would if  the player talked to him first. If the player walks within 10 meters of Bob (specifically a bounded area that encompasses Bob), he will walk over to the player using dynamic pathing. While if the player is wearing a certain hat, Mary will attack.

These things are typically implemented by designers in a high-level scripting language, after coders have added the functionality to the game editor. Note that quests are just game states which have been flagged to show up in the journal, with all the surrounding icons and text that are also created by the design team.

At a rough count, Skyrim has about 1200 named NPCS. Someone has to dress them, give them an inventory, dialog, whatever. NPCs like "Falkreath Guard" would be cloned to save a lot of time. They're given stock phrases to use when the player click on one-- things that make sense in any situation. If the player has a particular game state set (he's the Archmage, for example), or a given skill passes a certain threshold, or a particular weapon type is equipped,  there will be additional stock phrases added to the pool.

"Light Armor means light on your feet. Smart." -- any guard, anywhere.

This is how it worked in the original Fallout. And indeed, pretty much every RPG from the 1990s. That's right, the fundamental paradigm for quest and world-building hasn't drastically changed for twenty years.

The fundamental challange is that as world sizes grow, and the number of actions the character can perform grows, the number of possible connections between every NPC and every other NPC, and the player, also gets very large. And designers are still mostly implementing these connections by hand.

So there is a fundamental conflict between traditional RPG narrative and a sandbox open world:

As world sizes, NPC count, and player freedom increase, the percentage of the player's actions which register as meaningful to the game necessarily decrease.

In short, the semiotics becoming increasingly dissonant with the gameplay because the semiotics of go-anywhere-do-anything sandbox RPGs is about choice and permanence.

This in turn is simply a function of how games are made. Skyrim is a huge world, and if the Internet is to be believed, it took about 90 developers and $85 Million. MMOs have the added constraint of multiplayer completely breaking traditional quest logic. Which is why phasing, and similar work-arounds were invented. Basically, MMOs have devolved into single-player games to protect quest logic, and single player RPGs are decreasing the meaningful choice as the world gets bigger and the player can do more and more of everything.

AI Candy

This is the part of the article where the author usually advocates The Solution(tm) and then tries to sell you something. He or she might say something vague like "well, what we really need is more AI generated non-linear storytelling," and then just casually slip in there that his or her current project is doing precisely that.

But there is a massive gulf between buzz words and implementatoin.

When you really get down to how the AI solution would look, it's not that easy. For example, most game dialog is (in theory) crafted by serious writers who work to give the NPC a personality and a unique voice. Seems obvious that for a story to flow, a human needs to at least check it over. Or you get dissonant situations like a rash of arrow-knee wounds amongst the guard population in your world.

The proposition of AI-generated non-linear storytelling is to write AI that:

  • picks dialog snippets from different styles in a consistant manner 
  • knows how to construct sentences from phrases based on parameters
  • can dynamically create new game states and connect them to other game states
  • is smart enough to construct an over-arching story

It makes a quest for Bob, a quest for Mary, and determines how the quests interact. If it wants Mary to attack the player on sight, it draws a bounding box around her that doesn't interact badly with the environment. And the writing has to be passable, and it has to feel right (also note VO is out, unless  integrated text-to-speech is used). I want to stress that this is all really, really, really hard. And the mere notion sounds absurd to anyone reading this with a background in computer science.

But out of the 100 people who directly develop a modern game, a large portion of the coders are working on the technology around the game. Instead of what players think of as "the game." This is everything from writing shaders, to implementing features on graphics cards, to helping the artists get a pipeline from 3dMax to the game.

Game features just tend to be engine capabilities which allow designers to make something in the editor or native scripting language. So for example, the Skyrim bookshelves are functionality that some coder probably added to a container, and I'm guessing it relies on very specific parameters for the bookshelf 3d model for it to even work.

All I'm saying is that maybe games could live with less of the latest-and-greatest-in-graphics-technology and neat little widgets like bookshelves and instead spend time reinventing how narrative gets implemented. Graphics have gone through literally a dozen revolutions in the last 20 years. Because the industry cared about it.



Bandwidth on graphics cards have increased by a factor of 16 since 1999. In 1996 the Diamond Monster 3D was a revolution -- a 3d accelerator on a card! (in those days, you had separate 2d and 3d cards). Then the GeForce 1 changed it all again with on-board GPU. We've been through several different form-factors. SLI was popular, and then it was unpopular, and now it's popular again.

We are doing things now that seemed laughably impossible in the 90s. Go Google search any video game from the mid-90s and realize that pixel art wasn't there to be cute, it was there because VGA graphics were all you had. It was made to look cute, because really good artists can use art style to compensate for low quality graphics. You had to do it like this.

And VGA itself was a revolution from the world of 16 colors -- where there wasn't enough graphical fidelity to even have an art style. We have revolutionized graphics numerous times in the last twenty years, but we're still making state-based quests and scripted dialog basically the same way we always have.

Obviously, no sane AAA studio is going to start a revolution with an $85 million game -- that's too much money to be risky. And to Skyrim's credit, it has taken baby-steps in generated stories with the Radiant system for dynamic content. And (again, if the Internet is to be trusted) it made $450 million during the first week of sales, so I'm obviously not saying the current RPG formula doesn't appeal to the market.

Daggerfall was released in 1996. It had spell-creation, enchantment, and a political system. It had a great story. Does the narrative and open-world gameplay of today's sandbox Action/RPGs really represent a 15 year evolution?



I just think we can do better as an industry. Especially in sandbox games that are supposed to be about freedom and choice, where everything in the game but the narrative is giving you freedom and choice.

But without consistency in permanence, you get a game filled with semiotic dissonant moments. Because can something really be permanent if it doesn't register with the very NPCs that the game is trying to convince the player exist in its living, breathing world?

And yeah it may take us 20 years to get there. But then shouldn't we get started?







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Bob Johnson
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Why I hate about choice is not knowing what is going to be the most fun or most enjoyable or most well done.

It is being asked to choose door 1, door 2, or door 3 by the guy who put the prize behind each door.

He only made up 2 other doors because people complained 1 door wasn't enough. But the joke is on the complainers. Now either 2/3rds of the time you miss out on the best prize or every time you get a deliberately watered down prize to reflect the extra cost of adding 2 more doors with prizes.

The way I see it is I am paying for the prize. Why do you then hide them behind doors and ask me to blindly pick the best one? Give me your best one. I paid for your best. You probably know as much as anybody which is the best prize. I sure don't.

That's how I feel in these types of games. I'd rather you craft an adventure as fun as you possibly can and forget about asking me to make all these retarded choices that I am at best just blindly selecting.

This whole class and abilities choice thing are always retarded. Over half the time I end up regretting the choice I made. I can't blame myself. I had no warning if my choice was going to be fun to play. How do I know how relevant each of these abilities is to your game world? I don't. And I am not stupid enough to believe that each matter equally.

Bob Johnson
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The choice thing bugs in a game like BF4 too. I already have 8 options on what kind of anti-vehicle weapon I can equip. and there seems like another 8 are greyed out right now waiting to be unlocked. Some are true choices. mines vs rpgs. But most of the rest are essentially the same thing as another. I got rpgs, laws, draws, iglas, stingers, ... I know they have all these models in real life but do I need 4 other choices of flying shells that launch through the air and hit tanks?

That's only that aspect of my equipment. Then I have 15 guns or so to choose from as my main shooting weapon. ~15 pistols. And then I can equip each of those guns with 5-6 different options with 10-15 choices each.

And there's more. 20 choices of camouflage. All kinds of abilities. Options to equip another secondary weapon of multiple choices with choices on those choices.

Then on top of that you have 3 more classes with a similar staggering number of choices.

And then players want games balanced on top of that. lmao!!!

The game has been out a week and I have probably unlocked 20 choices that I haven't had time to check out yet. Do they want to play the game or to read about the choices I have?

To me, the one choice they haven't really given me is to not spend all my game playing time researching choices so I can be as best equipped as possible when I do play the game.

Go back to the 1942 days when we had 5 classes with no choice. On some maps the main weapon was slightly different. And then go up from there a bit. Give us some true choices and differences.

AT the very least the people at Dice could have given us about 3-4 pre-packaged variations of the 4 classes to choose from based on what they found best in play testing. Seems like I am just going to eventually get to what they already know. That most of the stuff is crap and meh and there are a few handfuls of meaningful choices. Why not just cut to the chase?

Am I supposed to feel like I am getting so much more for my money because every game I play I get 50 ribbons, 4 unlocks, watch 3 or 4 different bars move forward? IT is insane. There is little to no substance behind it all.

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1. display Dwarf Fortress in glorious 3-D.
2. add the ability to directly control an individual dwarf.
3. add a robust social layer a la The Sims.
4. proceduralize quests for the player to complete (in an economical way), similar to State of Decay.

The important part here is to start with a solid simulation to break away from scripting everything, and then carefully blend in the gameplay elements you want. Using your example of killing the dragon in town, you'd merely need to simulate fear, and provide rules for how NPCs react to another character eliminating their fear (trustIn[character2314] += 30, fearIn[character51231] = 0).

State of Decay is particularly interesting to me in this regard. It blends together a handful of simple-in-their-own-right systems to create an open world that's highly engaging - randomly placed hordes and special enemies, procedural quests that must be started within a certain time limit, a simple stealth system, a constant depletion of resources forcing you to keep moving, and NPC permadeath. The design decisions in that game are highly economical and play off of each other very effectively. They sacrificed "deep" NPC interaction / quest chains, but at the end of the day, I don't think that matters, because the stories it creates are quite unpredictable and exciting.

Matt Jahns
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I think the real challenge of choice is that the size of possible worlds decisions create is exponential. In the real world, we can undo most decisions with enough effort. But undoing them isn't just a matter of reloading life and trying again. When we make a decision, new decisions open up to us - some of which lead to undoing the original decision. That's why we feel that decisions are important even though they can be undone.

For example, I might choose attending college X over college Y. A month after classes start, I realize that I hate X. If I want, I can transfer to Y. I might have to suffer through a semester at X, but I can eventually get to Y. I didn't reload life to get to college Y. I made the decision to go to X, then a new decision opened up to me (transferring) that got me to Y.

The problem for video games is that this process is, like I said, exponential. Each decision branches off into a set of possible worlds, which themselves branch off if they are actualized. Procedural content generation could definitely populate the worlds decisions create, but just as important is saying what the decisions should actually be. Choosing to be a mage shouldn't give me the option to own a pet dog, for example. Those two things just aren't related in any way. But telling a computer that they aren't related is a challenge.

Roger Haagensen
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When it comes to puzzles like your example, I tend to ignore the bodies (they are ,mostly just canon fodder), due to this I tend to miss searching a body and need to often backtrack. I have a habit of looking around (at murals and such for clues).

As to Skyrim and being the head of this and champion of that... Yeah I agree.
In games where you become that "powerful" it would be nice to see some reaction due to that "I am the champion of the nine demons of hell and you dare question me?" but nothing even close to that pops up in games like Skyrim. (they are too open gameplay wise)

As to your vampiric choice. I have had similar issues in games.
You are given a choice but there is no way to question for more information.
I have also noticed dialog trees in games that collapse/vanish after you have picked certain choices, even though there is no reason narratively speaking to remove the other NPC Q&A dialogs.

The issue of decorative and interactive object will always be there. Some games might have a button that temporarily highlight items, but while that is useful it also breaks immersion.
Glowing items have similar issues. While you could glow items when you focus on them this can quickly turn into pixel hunting (old 2D adventure gamers should know what I'm talking about)
Ideally any object would be a interactive object, the drawback to that is it's wasteful (from a designer perspective) and bloats the game, and it also makes it difficult for the player to know what is junk or not).
Some games do however actually label junk as junk in their description. A few games even have a "Sell all Junk" button when interacting in shops.
There is no magic solution in how to deal with this. It is game dependent.

NPCs not reacting properly to the "reputation" of the player is something many games fail at, where such would actually help improve the narration even further. If a NPC gives the illusion of a character rather than appear as just another NPC then that is a worthy goal.

As to skill check during dialog. Never Winter Nights 2 does this rather nicely, in many cases it has Lockpicking, Intimidate, Perform, Bluff/Lie, Lore, and so on and many times 2-3 such possibilities in addition to the normal dialog choices. And for example [Lore] is used at the start of those lines that rely on Lore so you know which skill it's based on. Mass Effect did something similar with it's extra Paragon/Renegade based dialog lines.

NPC ambient dialog like in Skyrim can be annoying.
One way to fix this (take note developers) is to limit the generic lines to areas instead.
This way it will be less annoying when only the guards in the upper left of the map near a town say a certain line often, for all you know it could be a local joke among the guards etc.
It makes no narrative sense for a guard on one side of the map to say the same things as a guard on the other side of a map. The same goes for other NPCs.

Also, we are beyond the point of "Guard" being a NPC name, given them a name from a random pool of NPC names, and when they are dead you can change the name to "dead guard" for example.
How do you avoid the issue of quest characters vs generic NPC
named characters?
Well you don't. Just like in real life, unless somebody wears a name tag or you have their description, you have to ask people who it is or where to find them.
Just looking around for the "named NPC" is a old shortcut.
I'm also not a fan of seeing all the NPCs names before I actually know there name, if you look at somebody on the street do you know their name before you know it? Obviously not.

Also the achievement thing, make that an option. Only people who want the notification of an achievement should have it shown. The rest can see it/them on either a statistics screen at the end of a level. Or on a character info page (list the achievements a player have). In Never Winter Nights 2 this is called "History" and actually gives character bonuses at times.

"The Player Choice Paradox" is not that much of a paradox. All the player need is a choice that means something.
The issue is that few games actually make failure or the wrong choice a part of the narrative.
In the real world one can easily turn around and say "I completely misunderstood what you meant, could you repeat that please?" in a game you cant (normally).

False choice is even worse, if all the choices in a dialog lead to the same point, then unless those choices actually add to some alignment, reputation stat then the are just a waste and it would be better to invest the time in a nice cutscene there instead.

Everything I've mentioned here is technically possible (and have even been done in the past), so why it's not done in so many modern games I have no idea, maybe the designers focus too much on looks and the "plot" and fail to look at the narrative and the ambiance of the game world.

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I think it's the complete lack of consequences that make many games (Skyrim included) feel meaningless, not the plethora of choices they offer the player. While I agree it would be awesome if NPCs' opinion of you shifted as you became the leader of every major guild in their country, there are more simplistic design choices that can add weight to my decisions. Permadeath comes to mind. A single game save file, perhaps.

I can't speak for Skyrim, but I know using Oblivion as an example, there was no real sense of danger for me once I realized that the world leveled up with me. I'd never run into a dungeon I couldn't beat, nor would I ever find an awesome piece of equipment that wasn't scaled to my player level.

Michael Pianta
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I also struggle with this. I like Skyrim (and other similar games) but I don't love it, and I'm not quite sure why. A lot of it has to do with the fact that all kinds of annoying immersion breaking things happen. You already detailed a lot of these in your post. I would add to that the sense of time never passing and the lack of any semblance of an economy (despite the continued presence of bartering as some kind of skill). But I think I have even more fundamental problems with the game, and I think some of these problems get to the nature of "choice" in game narratives.

I think Skyrim sits awkwardly between a truly open game and a heavily structured "designed" game. Compare Skyrim to Minecraft or Zelda - it is less satisfying than either of them at least to me and I think the reason has a lot to do with the way Bethesda tries to simultaneously give me all this freedom and also tell some kind of compelling story. They are mutually exclusive goals. And what you wind up with is a game in which the freedom isn't really free and the story isn't really interesting. The moment to moment gameplay is fun and interesting for the first 20-30 hours or so (which would be an entire game for any other genre) but it grows stale long before the game runs out of characters and quests and these characters and quests are not interesting enough on their own to sustain my interest.

I feel like the main selling point of an open game is the creativity it affords the player. Minecraft is a fine example but it's not just the building that's creative (although that clearly is creative in an obvious way) - it's the whole way you approach the game. How do handle your first night? What do you build first? Do you dig a mine to find resources or do you scavenge an open cave? The reason Minecraft videos are so popular on Youtube is that there is so much creativity afforded the player, that watching someone else play is like watching some kind of interesting theatrical performance.

On the other hand, Zelda is a very structured game with relatively little player agency (although there is still some, usually). But because of that structure the whole game can flow with satisfying pacing and escalating design, pulling you forward to see the next dungeon, the next area, to face the next boss and so forth.

Meanwhile in Skyrim you have none of this. Despite all of its promises, it is not a very open, creative game. For example, you basically HAVE to play a fighter. You can fight with magic or you can fight with swords, but you will fight. But more than that, you obviously will fight with both magic AND swords. The whole leveling system, doing away with major and minor skills and all, encourages you to do that. And what will you do with all your fighting prowess? You literally can't kill anyone important. Furthermore there are really only three quests - the go here and kill this thing (or all the things) quest, the take this thing over there quest, and the go over there and get that thing and bring it back to me quest. Talking to people is exceptionally uninteresting - the thing is, it HAS to be because they don't know what you've done and what you've not done. Thus the dialogue is quite generic and it doesn't change over time or in response to anything. After the first five hours or so, when the newness of the world has worn off, the only reason to talk to people is to get a quest, but the quests are quite uninteresting (see above). Despite all this, the game is so huge that they cannot make personalized, hand crafted dungeons. After the first 10 or so caves, I never want to go into another one. They all look the same, they all feel the same, they all feature the same basic game play. Every cave, dungeon, castle, keep, fort, tomb or ruin is essentially identical.

It probably sounds like I hate the game, but I really don't. I actually like it quite a bit, but it's one of those frustrating games where I am constantly thinking "Oh man, if only this, if only that." And I don't think there's a good solution really. The entire philosophy of the game would have to change, probably, in order to side step these issues.

Jean Baptiste
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My two cents : I'm not sure the article is really about player choices, it's more likely about game consistency which has steadily decreased as only graphics & music improved. When you have almost photo realistic graphics, you expect everything else in-game to be realistic, for instance Skyrim with an 8bit soundtrack would have been shocking. And it's the same about IA, game design, story telling, etc.
Therefore the problem is deceiving players with false expectations : when I play Mario, everything is consistent and I just expect everything to be fun quickly, I have a very limited set of possible actions and then I'm not disappointed by the lack of depth or meaningful choices, everything's clear from the beginning. On the contrary, when I play Skyrim, I also expect everything to be consistent, and here comes disappointment as everything looks good but is really dumb, meaningless and lacks depth.
That's why I think what really matters is consistency before anything else.