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.

Meeting Summary – 11/7/15 (Besides Halloween, the Most Monstrous Meeting Ever)

Hello there!

So last meeting, we opened up with a panel by Robert on GODZILLA, the memorable monster that has been around since the 50s in seemingly way to many re-adaptations (I don’t know, I guess that’s just me). For member’s choice, we watched Sunday without God or Kamisama no Inai Nichiyoubi.

We also voted on the background color for our t-shirt design. We decided on a charcoal gray.

After a short break, we watched episodes 5 and 6 of Barakamon and 17 and 18 of Assassination Classroom.

See you all next time!

Sunday without God

Sunday without God

Meeting Summary – 10/29/15 (Irrefutably, the Spookiest Meeting Ever)

Heya, Gator Anime!

Last Thursday was our Haunted Halloween meeting! There was tons of food, including pizza, corn cake, doughnuts, vanilla meringue cookies, banana bread, persimmon pie, and peanut butter oat clusters! Needless to say we all gained a few pounds…

We had some great costumes as part our lovely costume contest. The 1st place winner of the contest was Savannah Hardiman!

There was a “Bad Anime” review done by Robert Witt on an anime from the 80s: Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned, the only film I know of which features Dracula, Jesus, God, and Satan.

We watched the first two episodes of Shiki, a spooky episode of Gintama, and two episodes of the infamous Ghost Stories, which is so scary, that you just might have to pause the episode to go grab a snack.

It was a fun evening to say the least. Come check out some of the amazing pictures taken by Rebecca Hammell on the Facebook page!

Anime Club – no other club quite like it

Meeting Summary – 10/22/15

Hey Gator Anime!

Next week’s meeting will be our Halloween Party! We’ll take a break from our regularly scheduled shows to watch some spooky (and mostly silly) anime. Bring food and snacks and come in costume as well!

Last meeting started off with a panel by Tyler Nereim on a comparison of Western comics to Japanese manga. For member’s choice we watched Akagami no Shirayukihime, also known as Snow White With the Red Hair. After a short break, we watched episodes 3 and 4 of Barakamon and 15 and 16 of Assassination Classroom.

Meeting Summary – 10/15/15 – (Musically, the Most “Open Ended” Meeting Ever)

Get it? Because of openings and endings?!

…Anyway, how’s it going, Gator Anime?

First off, don’t forget about submitting ideas for a mini-blog! Possible topics include discussing anime-related news and events, displaying original artwork, writing anime reviews, and others. You can find out more here!

Last meeting we had a “Guess that Anime!” panel by Chelsea Lawrence in which we had to name the title of an anime based on it’s opening or ending songs. It was a lot of fun and there was a good selection of shows. For member’s choice we watched dragons and tigers brawl it out in the romantic comedy, Toradora!

We also decided on the anime for our Fall semester marathonKekkai Sensen, or Blood Blockade Battlefront. It will be tomorrow at 12:00 PM in CSE 220 and should run until about 5 or 6 PM.

After a short break, we saw episodes 1 and 2 of Barakamon, and episodes 13 and 14 of Assassination Classroom.

See you next week!

The bird is the main character... maybe, not really

Meeting Summary – 10/8/15 (Arbitrarily, the Most Lively Meeting Ever)

Hey, Gator Anime! Yes I know, I’m running out of good puns…

Sorry for the late post, but I just finished Death Parade yesterday and didn’t want to make a post until then!

So last Thursday, we opened up with a panel by Derek Delago on the history of the Sonic Franchise. You have to give Sonic credit, he’s been through a lot as Sega’s mascot and is still pretty recognizable as a video game character even today. I still think they should call the next game Sonic Doom, just sayin’.

For member’s choice, we watched Get Backers, an anime about a team of powerful humans who retrieve lost things, from misplaced items to other people, and how they change their clients’ lives.

After a short break, we watched the finale to Death Parade! What an amazing show. If you haven’t watched it or just missed the last meeting, make sure to check it out! We also watched episodes 11 and 12 of Assassination Classroom.

Next Meeting we’ll be starting Barakamon, our other half-season anime, which we will continue until the end of the semester.

See you next Thursday!

Meeting Summary – 10/1/15 – (Anime-wise, the Most Abstract Meeting Ever)

Hello everyone, and Happy October!

Last meeting we had a panel on Abstraction in Anime, discussing how abstract anime is a sub-genre of abstract art. We then watched the short film Kotonoha no Niwa (The Garden of Words).

After a short break involving Cromartie High School and an animation of Markiplier playing a Yandere simulator, we watched episodes 9 and 10 of Death Parade and Assassination Classroom. Death Parade has 12 episodes, so next week will be the finale! After finishing Death Parade, we will be watching Barakamon and Assasination Classroom for the rest of the semester.

See you at Lake Wauburg! 😛

kotonoha-no-niwa-5329-8

Meeting Summary – 9/24/15 – (Historically, the Cheesiest Meeting Ever)

So last meeting we held the voting for our t-shirt design! It was a long and difficult battle, and if you were near the end of the voting line, they had run out of cookies. So sad… Nevertheless, the winning design was this one, created by member Jo Furmanek. Congratulations! We’ll have more info about club t-shirts in the upcoming meetings.

anime2

BADASS DESIGN

Afterwards, our historian Steven Anderson presented a panel on the history and lore of the Elder Scrolls universe. For once, a club historian that does their job!  😉

For member’s choice, we watched Rokka no Yuusha, an anime about several heroes called Braves that are summoned to defeat the Evil God.

After our short break, we watched episodes 7 and 8 of Death Parade and Assassination Classroom. Getting close to the end of our first half-season!

See you next week everybody!

 

Meeting Summary – 9/17/15 – (Another Best Meeting Ever)

Hey GatorAnime!

Last meeting was pretty smooth. No major technical problems encountered. We had a panel on SwampCon! We talked about this year’s theme, main events, and how you can help out. We’ll be having our SwampCon general body meeting on 9/23, 7:30 in CSE 222 (the same room we have our club meetings in). Please attend if you’d be interested in becoming a staff member (like serving on the design team), a volunteer or volunteer captain, a chair member on our committee, or even if you just want to know more about SwampCon.

For our member’s choice we saw Hitman Reborn! It looked innocuous enough, but I’m sure it will take a darker turn in which either a) the main character will realize he has to kill people as a mafia boss and face an identity crisis, or b) Reborn will reveal his past as some sort of twice-birthed monstrous creation.

After a short break, we watched episodes 5 and 6 of Death Parade and Assassination Classroom.

See you next Thursday!

Meeting Summary – 9/10/15 – (Technically, the Most Difficult Meeting Ever)

Last meeting was… interesting…

We opened up with a dual panel covering Maid Cafe by Robert and the Hologram Vocaloid Concert by Elias and Scott. If you’d like any information about either of these programs, you can ask them through Facebook. Maid Cafe will be having their first meeting this Sunday!

We started our member’s choice, Ore Monogatari (My Love Story), an interesting twist on the romantic comedy genre. However, some issues arose with UF’s computers, and we basically got a Blue Screen of Death (twice), which was most unfortunate. Luckily, we were able to play the rest of the show through one of our members’ laptops.

After that, we showed our weekly episodes from Death Parade and Assassination Classroom. See you next Thursday!

Ore Monogatari (My Love Story)