Have you ever flung open the kitchen cupboard only to stand frozen as your eyes dart across a veritable smorgasbord of snacks? Have you ever drifted over to Netflix and found yourself flicking through a bottomless pit of movies for over an hour without actualy watching a thing? Have you ever stopped in your tracks when deciding which emoji would be best for the situation at hand? Don’t fret; you are one of the millions of people every single day who are struck down in by the nefarious chains of decision paralysis — a psychological state more prevalent than ever thanks to the games industry.
Or to be more specific, the industry’s shift toward sprawling open worlds.
Decision paralysis – otherwise known as analysis paralysis – isn’t some new-age codswallop created to sell you self help books or a bag of crystals. It is in fact basic human nature. We as a species are blessed (or indeed burdened) with sentience, thus allowing us to make subjective decisions as opposed to the objective nature present in the animal world. We tally up the opportunities available to us, work out which one is likely to have the greatest impact upon our goal, then mosey onward into that decision come hell or high water.
The problem is that we don’t always know the best course of action. Instead of making a choice there and then, we vacillate wildly until finally landing on a path. Heck, in some cases we actually come to a complete halt. Granted this is the greatest extreme of decision paralysis and we usually just waste a few minutes, but the fact that even this happens is enough to be somewhat off-putting; especially when you bring the looming menace of decision fatigue (a state where our choices going forward progressively worsen due to the draining task of constant judgements).
Not too long ago decision paralysis in open world games, or indeed games in general, was rarely a factor because there wasn’t enough content to facilitate such problems. Outside of a handful of genres, games were fairly linear affairs. Sure branching paths and choices were a thing, but they almost all guided the player towards an end goal. A game would flow from chapter to chapter in an often obvious fashion, each of which concluding with an FMV or score screen of sorts. This was your payoff: “Good job player on completing this stage,” it would say. However if you looked closely at any game with collectibles or other bonuses, you’d witness the seed of what would soon become an overgrown bramble across the whole industry.
It took a few years and console generations for massive open world games to burst through the soil from designers’ imaginations across the world. Being able to offer players single zones as densely packed with activities as most entire games that came before is a hammer blow to previous conventions. The Witcher 3, for example, has completely optional sidequests, easily missed while playing the game which themselves are many hours long and can proffer a cornucopia of rewards.
That’s where both the source of and solution to decision paralysis resides.
Not knowing what the pay-off will be is usually the problem. Cast your mind back to September 28, 1998. Having never seen the TV show or purchased a pack of overpriced cards wrapped in cheap foil, you dive into Pokemon Red. Some greying geezer rocks up in a white coat, asking you to choose between a dinosaur strapped to an onion, a pyromaniac lizard who should go easy on the spray tan, and a basic turtle named after an unintentional jet of water. Which do you pick? Do you go for the cutest one? What about their final evolutions? Which one will make the game easier? How will your team of Pokémon look after 50 hours? While granted this is decision paralysis at its most extreme, it hits closest to home.
Choices like the one posed by Professor Oak — the world’s least responsible scientist this side of Thomas Midgley, Jr. – rampage unchecked through our lives, be they in the form of a class choice, faction alignment, or mentality in the case of The Sims. It’s a single judgement that’ll impact tens or indeed hundreds of hours of gameplay going forward, one which can easily devour the opening night of any game because we simply do not know what the consequence of our decision will be.
That’s a long term thing though. The more crippling examples of decision paralysis come in mid to short-term verdicts we pass. Look at Don’t Starve for instance. It’s just as likely that you’ll find useful materials to the north as it is to the south. If you head south, you’re completely disregarding whatever could be in the map’s upper reaches. While you’re making these mid-term judgement calls, you’re pressed to ensure there’s food in your belly and a fire to keep you safe at night. Juggling so many different priorities oft leads to full in-game days wasted zig-zagging across the landscape as little more than a mindless morsel waiting to be devoured. Decision paralysis in Don’t Starve can be deadly. It could be argued that this is the driving force behind the survival game Klei created, but it doesn’t translate to every game.
Why? Well decision paralysis has a little brother. He’s a rotten varmint who delights in making you suffer. This diminutive demon’s name? Decision fatigue.
When decision fatigue sets in, nobody wins. Being forced to make arduous choices time and time again has a detrimental effect on the mind. That’s why high stress jobs are a minefield of illnesses and psychological conditions half the time; it’s a coping mechanism. Decision fatigue doesn’t let loose with its entire salvo at once though. Instead it waits, slowly firing off a bullet here or laying a trap there, patiently watching you descend into madness. When decision fatigue kicks in, you’re prone to making rash choices you’d normally avoid, leading to serious concerns down the line.
Alright, then, if we’re forced to make decisions all the time when playing video games, what on earth are we supposed to do when trying to sidestep decision paralysis and fatigue?
For short and medium term decisions, there are actually a range of routes already well-worn by many, many games of the past. Evaluating which weapon type is best for you going forward at a game’s early stages can be daunting in itself. It’s not that you can’t change going forward; you just don’t necessarily have any knowledge of how it’ll play going forward. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning allowed players the freedom to wander off down a leveling tree, getting a quick preview of what’s coming. It doesn’t sound like much but let’s be honest, having a glimpse at how utterly useless the weather shouts of Skyrim were before you invested a Dragon Soul in them would’ve been nice.
The same too could be said for quests. Games like Xenoblade Chronicles X and World of Warcraft allow the player a glimpse at the rewards they’ll receive for completing a specific task. If you know what you’ll be getting, decision paralysis almost becomes a thing of the past. It would have been nice to know in Fallout 4 that the rewards I’d be receiving from the Brotherhood of Steel were going to be trash before I made the difficult decision to take their side. Occurrences like that – where a decision initially perceived to be good turns into something unfavourable or awful – can lead to a marked increase in decision paralysis. Surely it stands to reason then that development teams around the world should reshuffle their future games to ensure nobody will ever suffer from decision paralysis?
Sort of. Kinda. Maybe.
Decision paralysis sucks, simple as that. However – as in life – it’s a necessary evil that gaming can actually help us to overcome. Life or death situations are – thankfully – quite rare out in the real world, but in games there’s one lurking around most corners (or every single corner, plant pot, and atom in games like Bloodborne). Being able to train yourself in dealing with life’s premier source of stress in a safe environment is far from a bad thing.
Preachy nonsense aside, the integral importance of decision paralysis’ allies in the modern gaming sphere cannot be denied. The natural sense of discovery we all share is missing in reality. Anything you want to know or see can be found by asking your personal assistant Siri or typing a few words into search engines like Google or Bi–okay maybe not Bing. Not knowing what’s around the bend is exciting all on its own. By garnishing the unknown with copious quantities of shiny graphics and compelling gameplay, games are genuinely becoming a medium to be reckoned with.
Perhaps if some games were less dense in their presentation of content, decision paralysis wouldn’t be a problem people have to deal with in games. Perhaps in the future we’ll bemoan the designers out there whose rampant creativity overwhelmed us. Perhaps one day people will genuinely complain about decision paralysis to a point that game makers are scared to add any sense of discovery or intrigue to their open worlds.
Decision paralysis is the stem of a plant with roots formed of content and a blossoming experience waving in the wind at its helm. It is an element of the medium we all cherish in a special way. It is a necessary evil which we should never truly stamp out altogether — even though the games we adore would have us stamp out all threats no matter how innocuous they may actually be.