Tobold's Blog
Saturday, December 01, 2018
Meaningful choices in story-based games

Real life is full of meaningful choices. Decisions on whether to stay in school, whether to go to college, what profession to choose, whether to marry, or whether to have children have an obvious and strong impact for many years after that decision is taken. Games frequently try to use the importance of choices to be more interesting. But I feel that modern, story-based games largely fail to present meaningful choices, and often end up boring me with hollow ones.

The fundamental reason for that is that the meaningful choices already have been made before the game even begins. You can't play a Tomb Raider game and choose another profession than archeologist for Lara Croft, she doesn't get the choice to be become a school teacher, marry, and have children. Even if you play the stereotypical blank slate protagonist with amnesia in a game, most of the path that character will take from beginning of the game to the end is already determined. In some instances, like Mass Effect 3, the ending is one that many of the players disliked, but whether they like it or not their Shepard ends up that way. I think it would simply be far too expensive to make a game with a story in which there are many very different story branches and possible endings.

Games without a story can sometimes do better, if they allow players to fail. In a game of Civilization you can make meaningful choices, but that necessarily includes the option to make wrong choices and finding out after 50 or 100 turns that you have lost the game. But if you play Red Dead Redemption, or Pokemon Let's Go, or Assassin's Creed, or Destiny, losing the game half-way through isn't an option. Which means that any choices you are given all lead back to either the same end, or at maximum a small number of slightly different alternative endings. Many major plot points will happen regardless of what decisions you take over the course of the game.

Knowing that, I am sometimes happier with games that don't pretend. I happily played through the rather linear Pokemon Let's Go to the end without missing those meaningless dialogue choices of other games. While in Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales I ended up uninstalling the game half way through, because I got fed up with constantly having to make decisions that were presented as being important and hard moral choices, but which ultimately had only very minor consequences, involving a small amount of resources.

The fundamental reason for that is that the meaningful choices already have been made before the game even begins.

You must hate book novels big time then. Or TV series for that matter. You have no choice whatsoever in those. :)
Books and films don't pretend you have a choice. Games often give you choices, but those choices don't have consequences.
"Books and films don't pretend you have a choice."

Sure they do.

"Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1!"

No it's not. Because failure would end the movie. So, the odds were 100% in favor.

Now imagine if the dialog was honest: (C3PO looks at the camera) "We have this easy! No way the movie would end after only 43 minutes."

If you add "Meaningful consequences" you're going to die a lot and be frustrated. It would be like buying a book and finding it only has 20 printed pages out of 400 because the main character died attempting something with a 99% success rate and failed on page 20. So you have to go buy another copy of the book and read it again to get a different outcome. Of course, thousands of versions of the book would have to be published.

Games, books, and movies are fiction. There are no meaningful choices. You have to suspend believe and "act as if" if you want the experience to be suspenseful or have consequences. "Meaningful choices" that add negative outcomes either add nigh impossible complexity to the game's story, or force you to start over.
I loathe meaningful choices in games. I loathe them to the point that I find I'm expected to make them I stop playing that game and move to one that lets me make either meaningless choices or doesn't offer me much in the way of choices at all.

Obviously I don't mean choices I make as a player and obviously none of this applies to non-narrative content. I mean choices my character has to make that meaningfully impact that character's trajectory through a scripted storyline. Smokeman sums it up pretty well. The only thing "meaningful" about narrative choice in video games is how willing you are to replay the game to see all of the scripted alternatives. I am not willing at all.
I wonder if it’s the type of game you’re playing, Would you say that Detroit: Become Human offers you meaningful choice, or Nier Automata, or Zero Time Dilemma? They all have significant branching, albeit still structured because they are what Koster defines as “stagecraft” or hand-crafted/scripted by a dev team as opposed to simulated/generated by a computer.

Or do you need something like Dwarf Fortress or Rimworld where one is literally constructing an emergent story out of one’s choices?

Where does interactive fiction and the old Fighting Fantasy/Sorcery gamebooks translated digitally sit in your classification? (And the newer games like 80 Days?)

If none of those fit a definition of meaningful choice, then it may be time to fall back on tabletop roleplaying, where the consequences of choices are bound to make sense to you if you serve as the GM who decided what story consequence is meaningful or not. ;)

@Smokeman: in a film, the characters are all NPCs, the viewer has no control over them and he accepts this before entering the cinema. We also accept in a game that NPCs behave some way. The problem is that our "own" character is not under our control.
Gevlon, we're talking about story based games here. My point is there are no "meaningful choices" for you to make. They defeat the entire purpose of a story.

A book with "meaningful choices" would be 400 blank pages and a pen. You have to write it yourself. But wait! That's not why you bought a book!

The story itself will be filled with the illusion of choices the story's characters make... all of which will have an outcome that is not in line with the perceived odds of the choice. Why? Because making it actually "work" with actual consequences would be boring. If you were forced to make those choices with those actual consequences, you would be killed. A lot. The story would be shattered for you.

And this doesn't even broach the reality that every "choice" put in detracts from the effort that can be put into the story.

It's like if you go into a stage magic show and expect to see actual magic. You aren't. You're going to see the same thing over and over, misdirection and manipulation of the scene where you can't see it. If you don't "act as if" it actually COULD be magic, the show is totally ruined for you.

So, in a story game, like a movie, you have to "act as if" the choices the characters are making are real and the perceived odds of success are accurate. If you are allowed to make those choices yourself, the illusion collapses and the story is exposed as unworkable fiction.
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