Side Quest

Mass Effect: The Illusion of Choice

By Geoffrey Bunting

In a lot of ways we are a strange people. We demand better for and of ourselves but are more than happy to settle for less. We crave variety but are made uncomfortable by changes in our routine. We are encouraged by film and television to follow our dreams, but heavily admonished if we don’t reach for safe and money-secure careers. Our lives are so often a bizarre dichotomy and, for the most part, we seem to accept this without any real action. While there are many factors at play in this relative capitulation, there is one that stands out in our lives as something we so often miss as a common denominator in our unhappiness: the illusion of choice.

We make choices every day. What time will I get up? Will I walk or drive to work? What will I have for lunch? Where will I pick up groceries on the way home? Will I buy this shampoo or this one? Our lives are laden with choice. And yet, so few of our choices are really under our control. What time we rise in the morning is often governed by daily responsibilities, walking or driving to work by distance, lunch by what is convenient – groceries too – and products are advertised with such ferocity that sometimes we don’t even know we’re buying what we’re told to. We go through life with few options in our daily choices, meaning we’re unlikely to fall on anything but a single answer. Were we to make different choices; to pull away from that mainstream, it would spell dramatic changes in our lives. These might not necessarily be bad – for instance, someone making a different choice on when to get up can start a process leaving work and following a passion. But deviation from what we are supposed to choose is fraught with risk, danger, and the scorn of those still locked in the cycle.

It is the epitome of a culture driven by “you are free to do what we tell you”. In tricking us into believing we have a choice, when there is really only one option, the rules and measures that control our lives are giving us access to a fake sense of satisfaction. It is a risky game they are playing, for it banks on all of us buying into the concept; all of us voluntarily living under this illusion of choice. But, given human nature, it isn’t much of a risk at all. By keeping us in a constant bubble of supposed free will while enforcing their own world upon us and persecuting those who attempt to break free, they have created a profitable world in which productivity and profit override happiness on a daily basis. All of which depends on the idea that we are happy with our own decisions.

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All of which feels somewhat heavy for a Tuesday morning. But this ethos of being free to do what other people tell you is found all over video games. It is a lie that has landed some companies in trouble as players have realised that this illusion isn’t as strong as it seems.

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The end of Mass Effect left a lot of players disappointed.

Bioware came under criticism for their sprawling space opera Mass Effect, a series sold upon the idea that all of your choices make a difference. When it turned out that all those choices, rather than carrying any great amount of meaning, all led to the same endgame, many that had played through the entire saga were understandably disappointed.

In fact, the series’ choices amount to very little but personnel by the end of the trilogy. Yes, there is the question of whether protagonist Shepard will be a benevolent super-soldier or a bit of a shit, but choices are limited to those that influence Shepard and those immediately around him or her. You cannot, for instance, make a choice that would lead to the failure of the game’s main objective; you cannot fail to save the galaxy.

This lack of meaningful choices is found in many other choice-driven games. In Life is Strange the player is driven to make choices both large and small, all with the general proviso that one can reverse the flow of time to counter any mistakes. These choices influence the flow of the game and the credence with which protagonist Max is treated. However, the end game – that one final choice – is always the same. Much like Mass Effect, the choices of the game influence the journey but not the end. With its themes of fate and the inevitability of death, Life is Strange somewhat gets away with employing this illusion. But it also suffers from the drop-off in its final throes that afflicts so many choice-based games. While the final decision is emotional due to the narrative that precedes it, it still smacks of the kind of inevitability that compromises the choices that came before it.

Of course, there are limitations to just how much choice you can offer in games. After all, how much memory might it take to implement enough endings to really make choice appear to matter? However, the endings of choice driven games so often illustrate how pointless choices preceding them were because there was no choice about where you end up. This feeling is exacerbated when these endings are unsatisfactory narratively. Whereas the ending of Life is Strange may not make one question the importance of their previous decisions – especially as it always seemed to be heading in that direction anyway – the lacklustre end to the original Mass Effect saga drove many to question what the point of previous decisions was.

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These instances serve as microcosms of the overriding illusion of choice we face in our daily lives. Much as we are given small choices that ultimately don’t make a difference in games, so too are we presented with such choices in life. On the face of things, it may not seem as if deciding what to do at the weekend and deciding which squad mate to save and which to let die are similar choices in any regard. But they are both small choices we are afforded in an inevitable whole.

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The finale of Life is Strange had similar issues to Mass Effect, but these were masked by a more involved narrative.

When we reach that inevitable end in games; greeted with one final choice or that final narrative come-down, we are moved to wonder whether our choices meant anything at all. We are moved to ask what the point in all that work was. Coming to the ends dictated by society – the end of the working week, month, or year – and accounting short-term games as is expected of us, it is easy to ask the same of ourselves in reality. What is it all for? What is the point in all these decisions? Only to realise there may not be a point at all.

But there is one keen difference. In games you are placed within a foretold narrative. You are given over to the whims of fate; set on a track that may or may not have choices to make along the way, but fundamentally ends in the same way every time. There is no way out of this cycle. You’ve made an agreement by entering into this world that you will adhere to the story set out for you. But in reality, there are other options. There may be a generally predetermined course for us all, but there are also choices to be made to deviate from that path and lead better lives.

In a game, you are fettered by invisible walls, either in a linear way or within the illusion of free-roaming, but these do not exist in real life – not really. There is nothing stopping you breaking free from the illusion of choice and making your own path with your own decisions. In truth, the technical limitations that make game choices so pointless do not exist for us. So why should we still adhere to that kind of thinking? Why shouldn’t we break free of the cycle of profitable decisions that seem to govern our lives? Why should we be driven to use our free will to decide to live within an illusion of free will?

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