Choice in Games: The Common Issues and Untapped Potential

In preparation for the release of Infamous: Second Son, I recently played through the first two games in the Infamous series. These games, like the upcoming Second Son, place a large emphasis on player choice as a core element of both the story and game design. As I played I began thinking a lot about the nature of choice in video games. Being an interactive medium, video games have the potential to not just tell you a story, but give you agency in the way that story unfolds, though aside from rare exceptions few games have been able to really implement choice in a truly meaningful way.

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Most games that focus on decision making aim to offer the player choices with a moral component, but few games make these decisions very difficult. The majority of games that feature moral choices ruin the element of choice by tying decisions more into game mechanics than the story. Rather than your decisions having far reaching consequences to the plot and world, they mostly affect your character. The means of doing this is most often with some sort of alignment meter or karma points. We see this in series like Fable, the aforementioned Infamous, Mass Effect, Fallout, and many others.

The biggest problem an alignment meter creates is that it makes the player focus more on the metagame of their alignment than the actual decisions. When the game ties upgrades or abilities into the alignment system, it only further removes the focus on the actual decisions and places it on your good or evil points. When the only way to unlock certain gameplay rewards is to stick to a single alignment and never deviate, it means you’re only ever going to make the choice that corresponds to the path you chose at the beginning of the game. Playing through the Mass Effect games, you almost stop even looking at that dialogue choices and just let your muscle memory select the top right choice for paragon or the bottom right choice for renegade. Even though many of the actual decisions in the Mass Effect games have a refreshing degree of ambiguity compared to many games with moral choices, the presence of alignment points pretty much removes the need to actually think about the choices.

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On that topic, the very binary “good vs. evil” choices that most games resort to is one of the most uninspired directions a choice driven game can go. In the real world, things are rarely black and white, but in video games the decisions you’re given almost always are. More often than not, there is hardly any motivation to make the bad choice because there is little reason the character would actually make the choice other than some sort of sadistic pleasure. While it can be fun to see more over-the-top evil decisions play out onscreen, the driving force to make a decision should be investment in the story rather than some sort of morbid curiosity. One of the biggest examples of this type of pointlessly evil decision is blowing up Megaton in Fallout 3. The game offers no real compelling reason to blow up the city, and the only reason anyone would ever make that choice is just to see what happens when the bomb goes off.

Another major shortcoming of choice in most games is the lack of any meaningful consequences from your choices. This one is simply an issue of the limitations of game development, but nevertheless it’s probably the biggest roadblock stopping choice in games from reaching its true potential. The fact of the matter is that games cost a lot to make, and more branching paths and variable outcomes means more money and longer development cycles for content that won’t even be seen by half the players. Regardless of the reason, pretty much every game that purports to give the player freedom to chart their own path doesn’t really offer much in the way of differing outcomes between choices. Whether it’s something like The Walking Dead, which has points of divergence that seem quite different only to later bring all choices back to the same path, or something like the end of Mass Effect 3 that basically had three versions of the same cutscene that were a different color, most games don’t really deliver on choice that has a substantial impact on the plot.

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If we look at the three areas I’ve mentioned as being key missteps most choice focused games make, there is really only one game I can think that successfully avoids all three; The Witcher 2. The Witcher 2 doesn’t have any sort of alignment meter, the game makes no judgment on your choices and doesn’t tie any mechanics into them other than the course of the story. Even if it did have an alignment meter, the only option on it would be gray, because good and evil are basically foreign concepts in the world of The Witcher. Every choice you’re given has its pros and cons, meaning there are compelling reasons for you to make either choice. Finally, The Witcher 2 is without a doubt the boldest example of meaningful choice that truly branches the story. Most games will have anywhere from a handful of lines of dialogue to at most maybe a 10 minute quest that are different depending on your choice, but The Witcher 2 has a 10+ hour sequence of the game that is completely different depending on a choice you make. Essentially, about a quarter of the total content in the game will be inaccessible in a single playthrough, which is incredibly refreshing given the state of choice in most games.

One final aspect of video game choice I’d like to address is the idea that the consequences of your decisions are always obvious. Even The Witcher 2 doesn’t excel in this area, but I can’t think of any game that does so we’ll give it a pass. In pretty much every game that has decision making, the game makes it abundantly when you’re being presented with a decision, you know exactly what your choices are and it’s clear what each will result in. This is understandable from a gameplay point of view, but in real world terms it doesn’t make a whole of sense. Part of living is making decisions without knowing what will happen, but this is something that really hasn’t been represented in games to this point. I’d love to see a game that doesn’t even tell when you’re making a decision, forcing you to simply react and giving you consequences you never could have seen coming.

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As video games continue to evolve as a means of telling stories, the interactivity the medium offers is going to become even more important. This interactivity is what sets games apart from other mediums, and implementing it ways other than combat or similar challenge based gameplay is where things can get really interesting. Some games have tried unique things with choice, but the true potential of narrative decision making hasn’t even come close to being met. Games need to ditch the concept of scoring you based on your good or evil choices and embrace the gray. The game that does that while also presenting you with meaningful consequences, some of which you never saw coming, is going to be something special, and we can only hope these strides are made sooner rather than later.