What does it really mean to make a decision in a game?

  • Trihan
  • 09/10/2010 12:13 PM
What is a choice? At its most fundamental level, it's when you're presented with more than one option and you have to pick one (or more). It could be something as simple as whether to have an apple or an orange with your lunch; or it could be what subjects to take at school.

Obviously your lunch choice is a fairly self-contained decision. You'll either have an apple, or you'll have an orange, and then you'll get on with your life.

Subject choice is a different matter entirely. That decision will - maybe not now, but in the future - shape your entire life. It will affect the jobs you're able to apply for, and subsequently the people you'll meet, the kind of person you'll become, and the kind of lifestyle you'll be able to have. Those decisions will result in many other decisions later on that you wouldn't have been able to make otherwise. When you reach the twilight years of your life, you'll hopefully be able to look back and think on important decisions you made, and how it shaped the life you've led.

But enough of me waxing poetic on the nuances of existence, we're here to talk about video games.

Inspired by the most recent Extra Credit on The Escapist (a fabulous weekly series that I highly recommend you start watching), this article is about the choices present in video games currently, the impact they have on the medium, and what this approach is capable of when it comes to taking games to the next level.

While it's in relative infancy, the concept of making our own decisions in games, RPGs especially, has developed drastically in quite a short space of time. When you mention moral choices in games, a few key players seem to be dominating the market: Heavy Rain, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age: Origins. Throughout games of this nature, the player is presented with a number of choices, which affect the interactions and events that will come to pass later on.

The problem is it's not enough.

There has yet to be a game that's even remotely close to offering the same experience that comes with making important decisions, though there are certainly some in the games mentioned that will give you pause for thought and, as Extra Credit said, might teach you a little something about yourself.

The inherent flaw with the current approach is that none of the decisions have a truly noticeable effect on the game you've been playing. They're all as self-contained as deciding what to have for your lunch, and I think that so much more could be done with it. It's certainly an idea that has massive potential, and I'm excited for what the future might bring.

Let's take a fairly mundane example to start with. We have a fairly traditional medieval RPG on our hands, with a main character who hasn't been given much in the way of characterisation because the point is to allow the player to decide the kind of person this character is. So far so good. During the course of the game, you learn that a young girl has been kidnapped and taken away. At this point, you have a "theoretical" choice: to save her or to leave her to her fate.

I say theoretical because at the point you learn this, the game hasn't yet specified whether you even have the option of doing so; just because you've been given a piece of information in the game doesn't mean a choice will arise from it. In this example, however, it does - you're told where she is, and the mechanics of exploration in the game will allow for you to travel to where she is, and mount a rescue should you so choose.

For most, this would be an easy choice: you're playing an RPG, you're the hero, and someone needs help. There might be sweet loot at the end of it! Of course you're going to go off the beaten path and take on this thinly-veiled sidequest. And usually, that's where this would end. You'd travel to where the girl is, save her, get your sweet loot, and get back to the main path of the game or the next sidequest. Heck, in some games you wouldn't even see the girl in town afterwards.

Let's add one level of complexity to this model. Let's say that after you save the girl, not only does she show up in town, but it changes what the NPCs there say to you. Some might heap praise and admiration on you for your selfless deed, yet others might offer you some coin from their meagre savings to show their appreciation. With such a simple addition, you've taken a one-dimensional sidequest and added some meat to it. Good, but not great.

Now we're going to travel a little ways outside of the confines of the window you're playing in, and examine a potential scenario from the girl's situation rather than that of the player. Let's say that after you've returned the girl safely home, she meets a handsome young man who sweeps her off her feet. During the game you see them in various parts of town, chatting to other townsfolk or doing some shopping. And eventually, the town holds a wedding for them in your honour. Now we've taken that sidequest and added a knock-on effect to it that expands it outside of the bubble it was in before, making it actually matter in terms of the narrative. And yet it still isn't a truly "important" decision, is it?

So let's really crank this up. So the girl's met a handsome young man. People in the town start to comment that she's not quite the same as she used to be; she seems a little...plain, lifeless. Not the happy, joyful girl she was before. Eventually she starts to become aggressive, lashing out at people she used to spend all her time with. Eventually, it comes out that the man has been abusing her and she's just sort of...switched off to cope, but it's become too much and she can't handle it any more. One day, she loses her temper and strikes out at an old lady. The villagers banish her for her actions, and she's forced to wander as a nomad for weeks. Cold, hungry and alone, she's taken in by the game's villain, who provides her with food and shelter. She comes to respect, even love, the man (or woman) the hero has been working hard to defeat. During the final dungeon, the girl - possibly having been imbued with some sort of magic or powerful abilities - faces off against the hero to protect the villain, becoming an additional boss.

And that started out as an NPC you save as a throwaway sidequest. See what I did there? Your decision to save someone has ultimately made the game harder for you, but you didn't have any idea of this at the time. You could argue that even this addition hasn't made the choice "truly" matter, and most of this won't be seen by the player - though you could incorporate flashbacks, or work it into the dialogue and narrative, to show the effect your decision had. It could even change the ending. The only limit is the developer's imagination.

What choices in games need to start doing is having long-term effects on the direction of the game that wouldn't have been readily apparent when you made them. And some of the games which incorporate choices have been doing this to a degree. I just think it's time they started taking it that little bit further.

I hope this has given you all something to think about when it comes to putting decisions in your games, and that we'll start seeing more involved interactive experiences as a result. Feel free to comment and let me know how utterly useless this wall of text was! Death threats welcome, marriage proposals will be flattering but declined. Until next time.


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One problem in games is that players might feel cheated if the consequences of choices don't make sense. Basically the difference between a story and real life is that a story has to make sense. Generally a player expects a good deed to yield a good result. So in the case of saving the girl a regular player will feel cheated when they have to encounter an extra boss because they helped her earlier. Especially since a game is probably built so that a player that just goes around doing quests will not notice all the developments that happens to the girl "off screen".

Basically it's nice to have a living world but usually anything affecting the player directly should happen when the player is nearby.

However this doesn't mean that choices can't have effects that will happen far in the future. But a good rule to go by is that if the choice is "good" then the result is also good and vice versa. And there should always be an immediate result to a choice too so that the player might think that was all there was.

So the obvious result in the girl sidequest would be that later on the girl helps you somehow. Or if it was obvious that the girl had an evil bent then she might become the boss. There should always be some foreshadowing or the player will be cheated.

Now I've come full circle. So basically. Don't cheat the player.
"It's more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly...timey wimey...stuff."
The intent wasn't so much to cheat the player so much as to show that good choices don't always necessarily have to have good results. This would obviously be intended more for those who were going for a slightly more realistic world view rather than the idealistic bubble that RPG worlds tend to exist in, but I get your point.
Some rm creators have at least attempted this :P
One plan I have for a future RM game to make is to make one that is extremely choice based.

One character starts out as a good guy but ends working for the bad guys and betraying you. After a battle you are presented with a choice: Kill him or let him live. If you kill him he's gone for good. But if you let him live he will come back as a boss later, probably at a hard part of the game to make the player really annoyed of his return to being evil. However, defeating him in the second fight will yield a reward of a strong weapon that cannot be got in any other way. By doing this the choice is more dynamic. Sure you can kill him and not worry about him later, but letting him live can give you a special weapon.

Another choice idea I had involved getting characters into your party. I had an idea for a main quest involving two clashing factions in which you had to choose one to help. Each faction had a character that would help you if you sided with their faction, and ultimately the character will join your party. The elligible party member of the faction you don't help? You fight them as a boss. This is again a choice in which there isn't really an "obvious solution" as both characters would have strengths and weaknesses.

I hope to implement choices like that, and see similar choices in other games, choices def make games more interesting.
Sorry this double posted. I got "internal server error 500" with the first version of the post and it posted it twice. Sorry!
This article (plus playing DA:O) will always have me thinking about how incredibly possible this is with any RPG Maker. Good read!
must be all that rtp in your diet
Although this is an excellent article, I feel your example delves into the extremity of the extreme. The reason no game with this depth of choice exists is that there is absolutely no way to single-handedly design a game wherein every single quest has so many branching paths; think of it as a spiderweb. You have to compromise and consolidate EVERY SINGLE thread that crosses another thread. What if you had done a quest to kill the villain that picks up this poor, cold, hungry nomad girl? Or any number of choices to affect anything along the way? That's one (or many) of the variables you have to take into consideration with *every single choice.* This makes for an absolutely massive, endlessly growing butterfly effect which would be nigh-impossible if every single choice had such far-reaching consequences.
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