Games have a strong relation with choices.
Starting from Valve’s premise that every game has two narratives, one bounded to the story (the developers) and the other to the gameplay (the players), it can be established that each one has its own type of relationship with this subject.
For decisions related to the story in games, please refer to the post Narrative Choices.
But, what about choiceplay (i.e. choices during gameplay)? How can we provide different ways for the player to experience the game in various ways, increasing both the replay value of the game itself and its depth?
Throughout videogame history, games have traditionally followed the main formula of a linear experience with no (complex) choices whatsoever. Yes, you could decide certain things (a game without any choices at all is just as good as any movie), but certainly they didn’t provide a deeper experience. But, is providing them the secret ingredient for a better game?
Just like narrative choices, these ones can also be categorized depending on how much are they available to the player.
The most common in videogames. They consist on the game designer telling the player when can they pick a choice and (sometimes) what are the available options.
This is, by far, the most easy way to implement choices as a mechanic; mainly because it only needs to display options to the player via a menu or a quick-time event and doesn’t (necessarily) need a careful design of other mechanics.
- BioShock: Press X to kill the Little Sisters, Press Y to save them.
- Deus Ex – Human Revolution:
- Select one of the possible endings.
- Press a button to kill an enemy, press the other to spare him.
- Mass Effect, Deus Ex, Walking Dead: their dialogue system.
Here, the designers provide a couple or more ways to solve a problem and inform the player of those possibilities. The possible routes are A, B, …, Z and, depending on the game, these are their respective advantages and disadvantages.
Deus Ex: HR and Dishonored use this spectrum of choices; both games make clear that there are two approaches: lethal and non-lethal. In the case of Deus Ex, a lethal approach only shows a pretty animation while a pacifist approach yields double XP (albeit a not-so-fancy animation). In contrast, Dishonored works with a Chaos meter that increases according to how violent the player is and results in a more difficult playthrough in the next levels.
In Mass Effect, some dialogues show options that are colored either red or blue to inform the player that they are the best possible option to be renegade or paragon, respectively.
They are one with the design of the game. The player isn’t informed of what options are available or how the choice will impact on the performance of their play; furthermore, players have the freedom to solve a problem using different approaches and they do so by using available mechanics.
This kind of choices can either be subtly hinted to the player or be the result of emergent gameplay. Either way, they usually require greater work to pull it off correctly and that’s the reason why they’re probably not very common in modern games.
One example of a carefully designed game with embedded choices is BioShock. Players can hack turrets and set traps, sneak and even go Rambo.
South Park – The Stick of Truth, on the other hand, is more subtle. When tasked to remove the nuclear bomb inside Mr. Slave, the player can walk away and watch how the whole town is destroyed in a nuclear explosion. It’s not as groundbreaking as choosing a playstyle (as in BioShock, Deus Ex or Dishonored).
As in narrative choices, the presented categories are not meant to be definitive. Instead, they serve as a starting point for creating even better experiences for the players.
There’s no such thing as absolute freedom in games; more often than not, it’s just an illusion. However, there are examples of great games that allow for a personalized experience, proving that it is feasible.
Due to the restrictive nature of the medium, should we be talking about agency instead of choices?