At a GDC talk in 2012, Firaxis Games’s Sid Meier delves into a statement he introduced in the past, arguing that “a game is a series of interesting decisions.” Whether or not this is the ultimate definition of games, it poses a significant perspective in designing quality gameplay. In my attempt to frame this perspective, an initial question rose: can games exist without choices?
A number of games (e.g., games with an artistic foundation) minimize or remove choices altogether, but for the vast majority of games, the act of decision-making remains a staple mechanic. The joy of interactivity is notably integrated through this form of player input, distinguishing games from more static mediums of entertainment like books and movies. Although both the former and latter involve a design process carefully outlining the audience’s experience, games provide the most leeway for user agency thanks to their “hands-on” quality.
But how does decision-making contribute to gameplay quality? This leads to my main question at hand: What makes choices in games meaningful? Are some choices more meaningful than others? In solidifying the player experience, we look towards creating various input opportunities that allow the player to make the game their own. Understandably we can’t have as many choices as we’d like because of the innate complexity of decision-making and the limits of game development and resources. Nevertheless, we generally see choices as a necessary creative ambition to transform the game from a subject to an action, and the quality of choice can be what makes or breaks the illusion of immersion.
Unfortunately, creating quality choices is just as gray as deciding between difficult choices. It depends on the time, the place, the relationships, the number of choices, the kind of choices, and the list goes on. Context serves as a vital point to consider when creating an outline of choices, and when you’ve figured out the formula for quality choice input in your game, it won’t necessarily work for another game. However, it may be more productive to visualize an overarching pattern-based structure in judging meaning in decision-making.
Here are some general patterns in how a choice can work as a positive element in a game AKA how a choice can be meaningful:
A straightforward way choices can be impactful is to do what they’re supposed to do. This pattern often involves choices intertwining with game mechanics and undergoes high user frequency. They are repetitive actions serving an expected function integral to player experience. For example, the turn-based battle system of RPGs go hand-in-hand with a variety of choices like basic attacks, special attacks, defending, buffing, healing, and even running away.
Although such choices are short-lived with the push of a button, their meaningfulness lies in their adherence to a consistent structure and simplicity. As players face different foes in different environments, their interest is maintained through a decisive strategizing of what choice to make at what time and which place. Soon they are able to question decisions less and less to the point that they’re desperately spamming the A button to speed through the battle. Although each action may be small and monotonous, the rewarding results in the game (e.g., difficulty spikes, narrative progression, monster drops, leveling up) is what reaffirms the purpose of the basic choice.
“The Illusion of Life”
A more organic way choices can become meaningful is to emulate “the illusion of life” or more specifically, giving the player the illusion of autonomy. Freedom and choice are a complex pair in the realm of philosophy and it’s no different for games. While it is fortunate that game developers aren’t tasked with crafting an answer to the free will dilemma, they often confront crafting this type of choice in their games. As previously mentioned, choices are an expensive asset in development, and for games that heavily pivot on this type of choice (e.g., visual novels’ branching story structure) it can be difficult to position the more meaningful choices in the right spots. The best way to integrate these choices are in alternating patterns and/or through cause/effect, cleverly disguised among the less meaningful decisions so as to produce the feeling of agency in a subtle and natural way. Example games that employ autonomous choices in narrative are Doki Doki Literature Club, The Walking Dead, and Undertale.
While it can be definitive, the autonomous choice can also be expressed in more off-road scenarios, particularly when players decide to discover the world around them. By spending extra time to immerse themselves in optional places (not directly pointed out or necessary for the main task at hand), they are rewarded with more minute details, potentially revealing entirely new choices and storylines. A great example of this is the Stanley Parable.
Another type of choice that aligns with autonomy is one that invites input for self-expression. Although self-expression is often deemed worrisome or monotonous due to the constraints of societal conventions and reality, it’s a whole new scenario in the world of games. Anything is possible in games and now that people encompass virtual avatars in the comfort of anonymity, the choice becomes less inhibited and more exciting. A common yet important example is customization: usernames, body type, class type, clothes, furniture, weapons, emotes, and so on. Although players may be confined by the same game logic, their personality can shine through with the power of self-expression and allow them to make the experience their own.
Finally, an overarching way to assess for meaningfulness in a choice is that it makes you care. They often are neither solved nor pure guesses and influence the game state permanently. Whether it’s articulated through any of the above patterns or more specific methodology, the fact that the choice evokes a substantial reaction from you, positions you in a troublesome dilemma, keeps you on your toes, it’s a choice that follows you for the rest of the game and potentially for the rest of your life.
On the other side of the question, here are some general patterns in how a choice can work as a negative element in a game AKA how a choice can not be as meaningful*:
(*Some of the below patterns may be disregarded in certain exception cases. For example, doing the choice type on purpose because it’s integral to your game’s experience.)
Too Much Nonsense
A choice can feel meaningless if it is completely irrelevant to any element of the scenario, breaking the immersion and denying player expectations. It can be distasteful, lacking any potential to enrich the game state and causes the player to dismiss previous and future aspects of the game. For example, a narrative choice pops up that is inexplicably out of tune with the character you’re inhabiting.
A choice can also feel meaningless when it grossly disregards an appropriate spectrum of player expression. Black and white choices edge on this point but can oftentimes bypass this issue if carefully staged, but when there remains only one type of choice to be made throughout the game without much room for consideration (e.g., leaving responses that make it hard for the player to feel any sense of relatability or room to temporarily suspend disbelief), it can make the player feel distant from the game and potentially frustrated.
Referring to the black and white choices in the previous section, choices can be lacking when they’re obviously aligned along a two-dimensional scale without any supporting factors. A good example of this is making one transparent “moral” choice after another. It quickly becomes bland and predictive, allowing the player to speed through their decision-making process without much concern for the journey and losing sight of the destination.
The art of decision-making is difficult, but the art of creating a meaningful array of decisions in a specific space feels just as difficult, if not more. To meet player expectations, a game must demonstrate an experience, but to go above and beyond player expectations, the ideal experience begs for a degree of carefully realized input. By examining the variety of choices available, we are able to formulate a series of patterns and find ways to translate and tailor them into our games.