Choices in Games: An Overview

Aside

RPGs are the genre in games that tends to have the strongest narratives, and the deepest characters. A lot of this is probably a result of RPGs being longer than most other games, but another benefit to the genre is that they often allow the player to influence the plot. Doing this lets games explore a certain way of telling stories that is impossible outside of the medium (aside from a few weaker attempts such as Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books).  Of course, RPGs are not the only genre that uses player choice, but they’re the more likely to have choices than other genres, and that can really help with creating a strong story.

Choices are something that makes games unique. There are a lot of ways to handle them in games, each with their own pros and cons. One of the recurring themes in my future game analysis posts will probably be on how games handle their choice systems. So first, I thought it’d be interesting to try to define the ways choices in games can be structured.

There are three different characteristics of choices that I think are most important:

Tests vs. Moral Choices

One of the ways choices can be divided up is “Tests” vs. Moral Choices. Moral choices are what comes to mind for most players when they think about choices. These are choices such as when you pick between good or evil (or between two morally grey options), or pick which of two characters to save when you only have time to save one of them. Bioware games are most well known for these choices. You pick the choice you want your character to make, and there isn’t a “wrong” choice.

Tests are fundamentally different. There is a correct answer, and the player can either succeed or fail. One good example of this is Mass Effect 2’s “Suicide Mission.” In that mission, party members live or die based on a variety of factors based on your playthrough. If you completed every party member’s personal mission, bought all the upgrades for your spaceship, and made the right choices in the mission itself, then everyone will turn out fine. If you didn’t do those things, then your companions will start dropping like flies. No matter what kind of character you play as, you probably want to keep your party members from dying if you can help it. Almost every game with a secret, “True Ending” also relies on test choices. If you didn’t do certain things, or made certain wrong decisions, you don’t get to see the best ending. For example, despite not being an RPG, Cave Story is a game with a lot of test choices. It’s very unlikely that a player will see Cave Story’s true ending on their first playthrough.

These two types of choices actually have very different goals behind them. Moral choices are a form of expression. Most players either make the choices they themselves would make, or they invent a character in their head to roleplay as. These questions are basically either roleplaying opportunities or interesting philosophical/ethical problems to think through. Test choices work like other parts of the game: they reward the player for making the right choices, and punish them for making the wrong choices. Going through a game and making all the right choices so that you can succeed and get the best ending can be very rewarding, but the other side of the coin is that it’s frustrating if the choice is too obtuse or unfair. A player might think they’re doing everything right, only for some choice they didn’t think was important to come back to bite them.

Gameplay vs. Pure Narrative Choices

Another distinction to make is between choices that are expressed through gameplay, and choices that are separated from it. Sometimes, making a certain choice requires you to play the game in a different way. The clearest examples of this are games with an option to play as a pacifist. Generally being a pacifist requires using an alternative method to get past enemies. Metal Gear Solid (from MGS2 onward), the Deus Ex games, and Undertale are examples of games that give you an alternate, non-lethal way of getting around enemies.

Sometimes a gameplay based choice isn’t about taking a different approach to the whole game, but just for a particular section. In the end of one quest in the first Mass Effect, the player must fight through a swarm of brainwashed, but innocent, NPCs. The easiest way to get through this is to fight them like normal, which results in killing them off permanently. The alternate and more difficult method is to use some special grenades (which you have a limited quantity of) that simply knock them out, so that the brainwashing can be reversed later. The rest of the game requires you to kill the enemies you fight, so this is a situation the player isn’t used to.

Another way to make gameplay matter in isolated incidents is to have multiple (possible mutually exclusive) objectives the player can pursue. The ending to the first Deus Ex handles this well. In the last section of that game, three different factions each give you an objective, but you can only complete one of them. Whenever you finish one of the three objectives, the game ends and you are given an ending that reflects your choice. The choice of which objective to do changes what you’ll be doing in that final area.

The alternative is to have choices happen separate from the gameplay. Usually this is done via dialogue trees. While the consequences of your choices may affect gameplay (such as determining what objective you’ll be given later on), the choice is made in a narrative format instead of being expressed through gameplay. Developers often have more freedom to create choices if they can make the choice limited to the narrative. It’s easier to devise creative choices when you can present them to the player in isolation. It’s difficult to integrate many choices more complex than violence or pacifism into gameplay, after all. Gameplay integrated choices also run the risk of unbalanced difficulty. One choice will usually be more difficult for a player to complete. If the developer wants to present a grey choice, where the player needs to decide what they believe the right outcome would be, they shouldn’t also make the player consider which option will be more difficult to accomplish in the game. This serves to limit certain outcomes to only players with a certain skill level.

Routes vs. “Bioware” Choices

The final element I want to touch on is how consequential a choice is versus how many choices are in a game. This is essentially an issue of quality vs. quantity. In a game where the focus is on routes, you pick the route you want, and that one choice changes a significant portion of the game. This is common in visual novels, but a few RPGs such as The Witcher 2 also adopt this approach.

For lack of a better term, I’ll refer to the opposite end of the spectrum as “Bioware Choices,” since that developer specializes in them. In these choices, there is generally one main plotline, which does not differ that greatly between playthroughs. No matter what you choose, the overall story will be pretty similar; you’ll just change the details.

Why do developers have to choose? Why can’t you have a lot of choices, all of which matter? The problem is that choices that make the plot significantly diverge take a lot of resources to make. The costs start skyrocketing when you add more choices. It’s not feasible or practical to have more than a few very large choices, so most developers have to make the decision of what’s more important to their game.

At first glance, most players would assume that routes are superior to the Bioware style. However, each kind of choice has its benefits and drawbacks. The trouble with routes is that your entire playthrough is based around a small number of choices. Yes, your playthrough will be different from playthroughs where the opposite choice was made, but your playthrough will be identical to what other players who took the same route experienced. Since it’s also common to replay a game with routes to see each path, it also lessens the amount of player expression. You’re probably going to see all the routes eventually, so where’s the gravity in the choice?

In contrast, Bioware choices let the player express themselves because of the number of choices. Making a large number of smaller choices means that you can get a better sense of your character, and you can really make that character your own. Anyone who has played Dragon Age Origins can probably describe what kind of a person their Hero of Ferelden was, and it’ll be different for every player.

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That list isn’t meant to be exhaustive, I’ve probably left out some interesting ways to think about choices. But I think those three divisions are some of the biggest ones. Players who want choices in their games often want to get specific things out of those choices. Some players will want replayability from a game, while other players like using choices as a way to express themselves, for example. If you keep these different styles of choices in mind, you can get a better grasp on what you want to get out of a choice system in a game, and then you can buy games that give you what you want.

 

Tom Towzey is a first year law student at UF. He’s a fan of anime and video games, especially RPGs and Adventure games.