Monday, October 29, 2012

What Makes a Choice Interesting?

Recently I was on a panel at Pax Prime, discussing indie role-playing games. During the Q&A, someone asked a really good question. Good enough to take up a little sacred space here in my blog.

The topic of discussion was about giving the player choices, and how those choices could affect the storyline. I've always tried to put in my games many points where the player is asked to make a decision or voice an opinion and where his or her choices can shift the plot. The question was:

What makes a choice a player has to make an interesting one?

What decision points lead to satisfying gameplay? I think a good decision point has three qualities ...

1. The options need to be clear.

The player needs to understand very clearly what is being decided. Suppose that the player is deciding whether some army stays behind to defend a city or goes off to attack the enemy. The player needs to know what is being decided, exactly how to choose each option, and what the possible consequences of each choice are.

2. The options need to be distinct.

The choices need to be clearly different from each other. Otherwise, the act of making a decision isn't satisfying. A good example of where this often wasn't done was in Mass Effect 3. Shepard, the player's main character, was often asked about attacking the enemy, and the choices often came down to, "Yes, we must destroy them!" and "Certainly, we must slay them now!" All I could think at these points was, "Shut up, Shepard."

3. All of the obvious options are available.

You can't cover all the options. We aren't trying to write an AI or simulate an entire world here. But we can't let the player feel frustrated because some obvious option was neglected. Suppose, for example, you catch a poacher out in the woods and are trying to decide what to do with him. Let Him Go, Turn Him In, Kill Him, and Talk To Him First To Find Out His Situation should all be expected choices.

Something I Left Out

There is one thing I have purposefully left off this list: It is not necessary for the decision to have a major impact (or any impact) on the game at all. Sure, if you're making the player make lots of decisions, you should try to make some of them eventually count. But it is legit to have a character ask the player's opinion about an issue and then have that answer not affect the game. Sometimes it's useful to have the player make decisions for role-playing and world-building purposes.


  1. One thing that I miss from ye olden RPGs -- occasionally when asked a question your choices would be of the sort:

    Q: Did you murder your father?

    A: Yes
    B: No
    C: No (Lie)

    Which added a lovely bit of depth that -- as far as I can tell -- was completely ignored for the rest of the game, but it didn't matter because I felt like they *cared* about my character/backstory, whether or not they used it.

  2. The last one is definitely important - especially now. In a market where every 'choice' has $$ significance for developers, ones that are simply for the RP of the player, or alignment nudges or some other minor thnig that doesn't impact anything huge are a great way to immerse teh player without breaking the bank.

  3. Ever play The Witcher, Jeff? Those guys went out of their way to have unintended consequences for many of the choices you made for the main character. Part of the whole "shades of grey" ethos of the game.

    I tend to min-max, so it was quite maddening at first and eventually rather liberating once I realised that even the right choice was probably going to bite someone in the butt.

  4. I'd add:

    4) No option should be clearly better than all the others the others might as well not be there. Not interesting.

    Works for a 'worst' choice too, but not as badly because then only that choice shouldn't have bothered.

  5. I'm not sure the choices ALWAYS need to be clear to be interesting.

    One of the most memorable moments from Deus Ex (the original) for me was when I secured Liberty Island, returned to the UNATCO base, and got a dressing-down from the quartermaster Sam Carter because I killed every single one of the terrorists instead of neutralizing them with nonlethal force. That was enough for me to decide to start the game fresh and do it "right." It also taught me (without explicitly saying) that even the way I approached the missions was a form of choice, and the game would (at times) respond to it accordingly.

    That one moment made me approach the game in a totally different way, and it's still one of my favorite gaming experiences as a result.

  6. I agree with Jerry. #1 is definitely NOT required. If your options are always clear and the ramifications always straightforward, that's not always the most interesting. In life, decisions oftentimes have unintended consequences that are difficult or impossible to predict. Choices in games should reflect that. In fact, I would like to see choice appear in games more organically, so that the player is almost unaware he is making a choice until he sees the results. Bioware-style good/bad/neutral are too oversimplified. (I would also like to see more bad/bad/bad-style choices.They are always more interesting.)

    That said, there is a fine line between feeling that you've been lied to by the game, and having the reaction, "Damn! I should have realized that might have happened!"

  7. "4) No option should be clearly better than all the others"

    I mostly agree with Jameson, but I'll add a few caveats:

    A) You can make a choice the "better" option if making it is harder.
    Let's take dishonored: the game is not shy about making it clear that no killing will lead to a best ending (I mean, I saw the text warning me that the ending would be bleaker if I killed wantonly during the loading of the tutorial level: can't say I wasn't warned).
    This would be ok if it was genuinly harder to keep the body count low than to go through each level sword drawn and guns blazing.
    And, in theory, it is, except that since you can save pretty much everywhere, A gard spots you, an alarm goes off, and you can just reload from the previous corridor. Sure, you can refuse to use this function and rely only on the auto-save, but that's a self-imposed challenged. By simply making it possible to save at an handful of save points, the game would have been much better, since reloading a game could have meant loosing 30-40 minutes or more of playtime, reaching the best ending would have become a real challenge.

    B) Do NOT add a last minute golden choice
    One of the worst offender is Dragon Age: during my first playthrough, I started by the Dalish forest, and for me the best part of Dragon Age were the few hours where I was gut-wrenched at the idea of choosing between the Dalish and the Werewolf. Until a last-minute easy-to-get "reconciliation" option was presented.
    Same thing later: we're supposed to be put in front of a nerve-wracking choice: to kill Connor or to save him at the price of his mother's life? Well, it turns out you can just go to the Circle of Magic and come back with a few enchanters who will allow you to exorcise the boy without sacrifying anyone. And once again, the golden choice is not difficult to make: you have to complete the Tower as it's one of the main quests, so by itself, enrolling the mages to save both Connor's and his mother's lives cost nothing more than the other choices.

    C) Do NOT try to bullshit your way out with some fake philosophical dilemna
    One of the worst offender is Jade Empire.
    Early in the game, the open palm and closed fist, the light-side/dark-side equivalant of the game are presented not as "good versus evil" and more as a philosophical/political difference with the implication that both would lead to good or evil: the Open Palm leading to Order but also to the risk of stagnation, the Closed Fist to chaos, but also to more opportunities change and progress, where an Open Palm follower may seem at first a good guy, but may become a tyrant because he felt that the world needs to be ruled by benevolant dictators, wile the Closed Fist jerk may in the end the one standing between an innocent and a mob of hollier than thou because he rejects following the herd. It was all well and good... except that starting with the tutorial village, the Closed Fist was virtually always the path of the evil sociopath and the Open Palm the way of the caring hero. They presented their karma system as something which had the potential for some very interesting story-telling and then fell down to the virtuous hero versus evil thug.
    I hate when a game pull that one. It always feel like the people in charge of designing the game are assuming that I the player am a clueless moron.

  8. I have 2 problems with RPGs that give me choices:

    1) It's not always clear when I'm even making a choice. Sometimes I'm following dialog options, trying to get the most information, and them BAM, I've discovered that my dialog tree has been pruned. Did I miss something?

    2) Why am I even making a choice? Usually, as the gamer, I'm trying to maximize my game experience. So when I see two dialog options that are clearly good and bad - why? I don't particularly care whether I'm bad or good - I just want the best game. I get frustrated sometimes because I worry about which game path is more interesting - not because I actually care if my character is "Good" or "Bad".

    I care about a good story. If the story changes because I made a choice, then I worry if it's the best story I could have had. I would also like a save system where it's easy to go back and replay from the point where you made a major choice that affected the story - rather than having to play through the whole thing again.

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  11. Hey Jeff did you get a chance to check out the Hobbit yet? It is a masterpiece film imo and much better than the previous lotr films. My favorite part of the movie is the song called Misty Mountains. The Dwarves start singing it in hymm and it reminds me of eastern european hymns like soviet war songs, as well as ancient viking songs. Also the cast was great and the dwarves looked like ukrainian kozaks. It was all around great. Listen to that song though man, you gotta incorporate something like tha tin your games.

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