Random result from google image search for "stupid jerk"
Player choice is one of the most debated topics in video games, especially when it comes to RPGs. The war between fans of "free" WRPGs, which let you act out your personal decisions and the "linear" JRPGs, which force a fixed story upon you, is not looking to end anytime soon. But I don't really have an issue with a game's positioning along the linearity-freedom-axis, but a more deeply rooted problem with the usual execution of interactive storytelling.
I believe it doesn't really matter if there's only one option at a given time, as long as that option can be presented as a plausible act to the player. A movie where every single character is a miserable piece of shit I can still enjoy, because I'm free to pity, despise or ridicule them all, whereas in a narrative-driven video game, I'm supposed to be one of the characters. It is implied and enforced in the interactive action scenes, that I, the player, am responsible for failure or success of the mission. So every time my character does something really stupid or despicable in a non-interactive moment, it feels a little bit like the game is trying to force stupidity on me.
But it's even worse when the inevitable brainfart is wrapped in a seemingly interactive sequence, when the game seems to cry for attention: Look, I made you do this! I found, for example, Bioshock's highly critically acclaimed premature climax with Rapture's architect Andrew Ryan one of the most horrible interactive storytelling moments bare of any understanding of the medium. That kind of plot twist may work in a movie, where I have an outside look at the character, and can declare "yeah, that guy's out of his mind." But when I'm looking through the eyes of a character I'm supposed to be in control of, and I'm told that I am supposed to be conditioned (or was it genetically programmed?) to obey commands while I'm perfectly mentally stable and able to consciously decide that I'm not going to put in the commands to the fatal deed, suspension of disbelief becomes an impossibility. No player at this kind was even the slightest bit conditioned to any automatic impulse in reaction to the catchphrase.
That's not clever interactive storytelling, that's trying (and failing) to impose your sick megalomanic fantasies on your playership. You didn't make me do it by cunningly messing with my mind, you simply presented me with the two options of either pretending to be a goddamn imbecile or quit playing your game.
Admittedly, making him shut up maybe was enough motivation to bash his head with a golf swing after all...
The same vice is commited in the 2008 Prince of Persia and in Shadow of theColossus, at the very end in the former and through the entire length of the game in the latter. The worst of it all: To the attentive player it becomes crystal clear early on that the worst possible paths are chosen, yet a motivation the player can relate to is completely absent or gravely insufficient, little more than a it's love. In Shadow of the Colossus, the object of that emotion is dead from the beginning, and the player is given no reason at all to care about her the least bit. We only go out slaughtering the beautiful creatures and condemning ourselves to damnation because there would simply be no game if we didn't. In non-interactive fiction, this has long been detected as one of the most lazy kinds of storytelling devices: Villains that always postpone killing the protagonist simply because it's the protagonist and the story would end with his death, for example, have long become a domain of hacks and satirists. In Prince of Persia, we're given at least a bit of characterization to the princess (although of course it's much too short and hardly enough to even justify a crush, much less immortal love), but since the last steps the game demands of the player are a complete betrayal to the deed that was consciously done immediately before, and, even worse, drawn out in a painfully slow, almost slow-motion-feeling scene that the player is forced to enact, the result is even more cringeworthy. (Let's disregard the DLC ending for now, cause DLC endings should just be disowned and it doesn't really change much about the status quo at the end of the main game.) I don't even want to start to talk about the highly acclaimed Braid and its "plot" twist....
She's not the most likeable character ever, but at least she is a character.
The impotence of these devices can be amplified even more when perceived in the context of otherwise non-linear games, whenever the inevitable story bottlenecks arise, as the retarded original ending of Fallout 3 (fixed by DLC), which forces the player into suicide (or killing the love interest) despite much more plausible options being available and painfully obvious, or just recently the chose the color of your explosion climax to the Mass Effect trilogy (that spawned the probably most escalated fan outrage about any video game ever and might or might not get fixed by DLC in the future) demonstrate. Most games that try to achieve an illusion of "freedom" have to struggle with them. For another example, let me just quote my own review of Alpha Protocol, which stumbles over them especially badly:
Whenever there is a really stupid decision to be made that happens to be convenient to the plot, Thorton won't hesitate a second to ask for your consent. Like when he pisses subtlety away by assaulting the hideout of the crazy Russian mafia boss with a military unit in a armored attack vehicle (complete with dull turret gun sequence), or when he constantly agrees to meet the guy with the wet dreams of being a Gestapo investigator on his terms, and eventually gets Madison Saint James, the perfect blackmail bait bimbo, involved in the troubles. And of course she ends up getting abducted and used as a device for the tired old "moral dilemma" mission. In a pathetic moment of "We force the player to make hard decisions! Look how deep we are!", Marburg forces Thorton to either go rescue the chick or disarm some explosives that threaten to blow up a museum wing full of civilians (of whom you never see a single soul should you decide to go that route). That plot device not only has been beaten to death by now, the execution also makes no sense at all. When you go to rescue the woman, you have to use your inhuman super agent skills to headshot three guards that use her as a human shield within 1 second from 150 feet away, or she ends up dead anyway. When you go for the explosives, however, Marburg shows up with her and sends her towards Thorton, only to shoot her in the back for him to watch her die. That this situation would have been much easier to resolve in-engine than the rescue mission variant, with the villains less than 100 feet away and a clear line of fire to all of them, the writers didn't care.
It's not an easy job, but Mike Thorton does his best to make him look smart.
This should be a simple rule for all interactive storytelling: If you want to force players to a certain action without giving any other options, make it possible for them to accept that action as a reasonable thing to do in that situation. Deceive us, lie to us, but don't just assume we enjoy pretending to be stupid just to make your weakly-constructed interactive narrative work.
Actually, it doesn't even have to be the big cinematic epics. In Project Gotham Racing 4 you may chose to be insane and race sports cars on a motorcycle. Of course you're pretty much asking to get run over, but that's your choice. Whenever vehicles collide accidentally with no ill spirit whatsoever, though, as long as your driver isn't flung off the bike, she'll shake her fist at the other driver like an asshole, no matter who's fault it obviously was. That's not your choice. Other than in, say, Top Spin Tennis, where you got the black button (in the first game on Xbox) for a negative/aggressive pose and the white button for a positive/sportsmanship-like reaction. Microsoft should never have gotten rid of those black and white buttons...