There are a host of problems with decision making systems in modern games, and most of them have been documented extensively. Western RPGs, for instance, tend to flounder for their binary handling of the moral compass:
"There are very rarely clear-cut good and bad decisions in real life, and as a modern day RPG, we wanted to reflect that." - Matt Hickman, Producer, Alpha ProtocolDecisions as polar as Bioshock's harvest or rescue options just aren't living up to the potential interest of the context. Playing as someone thoroughly evil might be a valuable perspective, but there's no real decision making going on here - the game might as well come on two discs, one with the good ending and one with the bad. Another common issue is that the motivation to immoral action is generally personal gain. In the majority of games it's viewed as unfeasible to have one path be radically different or more challenging than another, so we're never punished for being good, rendering the decision to be evil unreal. With no small thanks to Bioware, today's games are infatuated with exaggerated, over simplified ethical dilemmas. Don't get me wrong - Bioware's early work revolutionised decision making in games, and I'm grateful for it. I just wish it had moved forward in any sense other than the aesthetic over the past ten years.
Heavy Rain's been criticised for its decision points being largely irrelevant to the overarching plot (the fantastic Emily Short has that more than covered). This is an approach I find very interesting. One of the first things I learnt as a game designer was that the illusion of freedom is often preferable to freedom itself. Unfortunately, as gamers we're encouraged by the inherent challenge presented us to test the mechanics, to play them to best effect - as a result we quickly see through Heavy Rain's tricks. This is another problem - as long as decisions are presented in the context of a challenge to be beaten there will always be ulterior motives rendering that decision unreal. This is, surely, the biggest problem we face - how to encourage players to inhabit their characters, to commit to the game world and to make decisions as they would in real life.
Lewis Denby picked up on this issue after a recent talk at GameCamp (which, incidentally, I'd never heard of - why not?!), and elaborated in his GameSetWatch column. He asks why some players are resistant to fully engaging with the fiction before them.
I'd argue that as long as games render decisions made within them unreal, players will never fully bond with the story.
Heavy Rain's clever trick is to free the player of gameplay-relevant consequences to his decisions. We tend to view decisions very much in terms of how they affect our progress - loot, new companions, new areas - and quite rightly so, but should this really apply to an experience like Heavy Rain? Is there any reason why, for the most part, short term consequences - a hug from a loved one, a telling off from the boss - shouldn't be reward enough? Well, yes - we rightly demand that our actions carry greater meaning - but regardless, Heavy Rain frees us from the video game mechanisms of trial and error, risk and reward, and in doing so explores a rich and unfamiliar landscape where decisions are based on our emotional whims rather than our objective need for more paragon points or a new shotgun.
The bigger issue for David Cage's interactive movie is that the only really meaningful story branches arise as a result of player skill, as opposed to player decisions. There's a special section in hell reserved for games with multiple endings arrived at arbitrarily. Arguably gaming's greatest strength over other mediums - and presumably the reason we provide players agency in the first place - is that the narrative can be as much about the audience as it is the artist. Heavy Rain's endings entirely failed to move away from that win-lose / happy-sad dichotomy. Until our decisions in games affect not just our objective progress, but our subjective experience, those experiences will never be fully relevant, they will always keep players at arm's length.
How do we fix it?
I don't think the decisions we make in games need to be real world decisions. They don't need to be about whether it's steak or macaroni for tea. They do, however, need to be modelled as if they were real world decisions. The world in which they exist can be fabricated, and it can be limited, but within those limitations it has to be plausible, consistent and comprehensible. It has to be real.
How many times have you been forced to reload an RPG because a decision you made had unpredictable consequences? It feels unfair because the game is asking you to make what looks like a real world decision, but is following its own, unreal rule set. More and more I'm beginning to think of storytelling in modern, commercial games as analogous to learning French from a phrase book. You can communicate, you can fool people into thinking you speak the language, but you don't truly understand it the way you would if you'd started with the grammar and worked your way up. Likewise, games such as Mass Effect 2 do a fantastic job of pulling the wool over our eyes - they create a world that looks like a real world, and they give us interactive dialogues that purport to be real conversations. But when the simplified mechanics behind the decision making structure fail to live up to that promise we're disappointed, we end up reloading.
In games like Spelunky or Weird Worlds, our methods of interaction are severely limited - but within those limitations our decisions are 100% real. I've talked about it before, but to my mind, even without the narrative window dressing of more 'advanced' games, those decisions are a lot more interesting, a lot more immersive than any I've made about whether to give back or keep for myself someone's lost ring. Because games chose a long time ago to run before they could walk - because they chose to show us glimpses of a complex freedom they had no hope of truly providing - we've ended up in an unwinnable position; an unwinnable position that alienates players from their characters, and makes it very difficult to move forward without first moving back.