Providing Meaningful Choices in Games

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There’s a lot of talk in the gaming industry and gaming press about providing meaningful choices to players that drastically affect their gameplay experience. But despite that, I can think of very few examples where this has been implemented. Most choices in games are superficial, and you follow the same path no matter what you decide. While choosing to save or harvest the Little Sisters in Bioshock was a moral challenge for many people, it ultimately was not a game-changing decision. Assassin’s Creed provides several methods of getting information about your next target, but you repeat these same few scenarios over and over. Many games now allow players to choose different characters, items, weapons, and lines of dialogue, not to mention countless visual options for your character’s appearance. Nonetheless, many choices presented in games today are merely illusory.

The best example of a game I’ve played with meaningful choices is Planescape: Torment. It requires a lot of reading, possibly having the most dialogue of any game I’ve ever played. This is a game where character generation plays a truly pivotal role in your game experience. Most of your choices involve your character having a high enough intelligence to be able to choose a dialogue option that elicits information from an NPC. Of course, you can also just kill that NPC and move on. Surprisingly, this chattiness even applied to the final boss battle, where it was possible to talk your way past him. It seems to me that true choices must block off elements of the plot or gameplay so that you can’t experience everything in one playthrough. Otherwise, what’s the point of making a difficult decision if you can see both outcomes regardless? These sorts of complications may help explain why so few games provide the player with legitimate choices.

Another game with different kinds of choices is Riviera: The Promised Land, a little gem of an RPG I picked up not too long ago for the GBA. While your decisions don’t affect the plot greatly, they are directly tied to your ability to succeed in battle. They also affect which of your female companions is most affectionate towards you at the end of the game. Quickly and powerfully winning a battle earns you Trigger Points, which can be spent to explore the environment. If you don’t do well in battles, you won’t earn enough Trigger Points to be able to examine everything, and you’ll miss out on valuable items and experience. This goes against my nature of wanting to fully explore the environment. This game practically forces you to miss things.

Your female companions also give you advice and warnings, and you can choose whether or not to listen to them. For example, I once searched a bush, and received an item. On the next screen, I tried to examine an identical bush, but another character warned that it looked thorny and dangerous. I chose to follow her advice, and still don’t know what would have happened if I had searched the bush anyway. Although you must use your Trigger Points wisely, they ultimately only provide you with better items and weapons.

Are game-changing choices really needed? They can make for a more dynamic, personal experience, but I also love following a gripping story through to its logical conclusion. It’s very difficult to make the player feel as if they are impacting the game world, but it looks like an increasing number of developers are going to try. So what do you think? What other games provide the player with choices that deeply affect your experience of the game? Are these kinds of choices even important or significant to create a memorable game?

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