False choices, one of the most annoying, useless aspects of too many games, particularly RPGs. As a Pokémon fan, I’ve seen some pretty bad ones, from Rowan asking if I want a pokédex only to hold me hostage until I say yes, to a Team Flare scientist pressing the button I chose not to. Are these jokes? They’re not funny. Are they supposed to make me feel a sense of player agency during the A-mashing exposition dumps? They don’t. Are they stupid and pointless? A ding-ding-ding! We have a winner.
But maybe not all false choices are stupid. Pokémon has yet give me one that doesn’t just tick me off, but Shantae seem to get. Today on The Anime Harvest, how Shantae: Risky’s Revenge gets false choices right.
Until recently, I didn’t know much about the Shantae games. I only recently played the second one, Risky’s Revenge. They are a series of action platformers, made by WayForward, staring the half-genie Shantae, who fights primarily by whipping monsters with her pony tail. This isn’t a review but I will say that the game is pretty fun, albeit short, and between different transformations Shantae gains through her belly dancing and magic upgrades that can be bought in-game, it has a good amount of gameplay. Also, the art style is glorious and makes me wonder why we ever tried to move on from pixels.
Anyway, the story is, a pirate named Risky steals a presumably powerful magic lamp, and Shantae has to collect three Magic Seals before her in order to stop Risky from using it. But, in order to gain access to certain areas to get the Magic Seals, some sacrifices must be made, and these are where the false choices come in.
Whenever a choice comes up during a story scene, the option you have to choose to progress is not desirable. In one instance you need to get a passport so you can enter a dungeon. In order to get the passport, you have to trade with the Ammo Barron and give him the town deed. But he plans on making the town into a military outpost.
If you say “no” when the box comes up, you can walk away and do whatever you want, but the story can’t progress. To continue the game, you must hand over the deed, so the option to say no is really a false choice. It’s not a dialogue loop right back to the yes/no box, but it’s practically the same. So how is this different from what I was complaining about earlier? It’s different because the game actually does something with it.
One more of these false choices comes up near the end, just before the final battle. Risky asks you to hand over the Magic Seals, and the yes/no box comes up. Regardless of which option you pick though, Shantae says she has no choice, and she has to give the Magic Seals to Risky. Alright, now we’ve got something.
Throughout the game, and particularly at this point, Shantae blames herself for what’s happening because she is supposed to be the town’s guardian. She was too weak to stop Risky before, and that’s why all of this is happening. She feels powerless, just like the player is when they’re confronted with a false choice. It’s not just the player who is forced to make a decision they don’t want to. Shantae has to as well. She feels powerless because she can’t solve all the problems another way.
Shantae: Risky’s Revenge used a false choice mechanic to make the player feel powerless in the same way Shantae does. You feel guilty handing over the deed because the game makes you feel like you are choosing to do it; like you could have done otherwise. Likewise, Shantae feels guilty about it because she feels she could have stopped Risky before letting it come to this, and it’s her fault for not being more powerful.
So I still don’t know what’s up with most games and their text loops if you make the wrong decision or how it doesn’t really matter what you choose, but Shantae gets it right. It shows that, even in the little things, video games have many ways to connect with their audience. They can use player agency as an instrument for the artist, even then taking that agency away.
Don’t Lose Your Way