You Have No Choice
Why game choice systems are lame and some ideas on how to fix that
By MARTIN REZNY
If you’re anything like me, you were disappointed by the resolution of the Mass Effect series, or found yourself frustrated with Skyrim after a while because of murder or theft being the only solutions to everything, and those are some of the best examples of big budget games that allegedly offer you a great degree of choice and freedom. However enjoyable I still think those games are, here’s why their choice systems suck and how to improve them.
Let’s start with the Mass Effect series from Bioware, since its choice system, partly inherited from the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic series, is beyond simplistic. Essentially, you can only be a nice guy, or a tough guy, altruistic, or selfish. As for the impact of your choices over time, the only meaningful strategies are concentrating on one extreme or on the other, unlocking instant resolutions of situations through what may perhaps be called charisma or mojo. That’s it.
The worst part though is that it doesn’t even matter whether you resolved a situation in a nice or in a rough way. Sure, someone lives, someone dies, but the overall story arc moves along essentially unchanged, nothing ends up being different in a truly meaningful way, only on the surface. I can understand that making a game where the choice would be less of an illusion is hard, especially for a story spanning sequels, but come on, try a little.
The final insult in the choice department of course came at the end of Mass Effect 3, where (spoilers, I guess) you got to choose either to smash Reapers, control Reapers, or merge organics with synthetics. Three choices, three extremely similar outcomes. I imagine anyone can see the problem with outcomes being too similar (and almost unaffected by little choices throughout the span of the game), but the really dumb thing is they’re three.
A little refresher — how many different principal choices do you get in Mass Effect? Two, right? Not three. Which means that whatever you do in the game MAKES NO SENSE WITH THE GREEN SYMBIOSIS ENDING. You can’t really play the game somewhere in the middle. Not to mention it was all stolen from Deus Ex, which stole it from the fourth book in the Asimov’s Foundation saga, the Foundation’s Edge. From 1982. I bet you didn’t know that. Look it up.
The rule number one of choice systems in storytelling as well as game design is simple, mind the number. It’s not hard, in fact this immensely simplifies it for the game design especially. Choose an integer number and make your class system, ways of resolving situations, conversational choices, factions, plotlines, or any other aspect of your game either exactly of that number, or a multiple of that number. Want an example? For three, warrior, mage, rogue.
These three tried and true classes offer meaningful difference in both characterization and gameplay, and as far as this element is concerned, this is where for example Skyrim fares pretty well, and in my opinion what makes Dragon Age superior to Mass Effect. Psychologically, it’s either solving problems by brute force, wisdom, or cunning, and starting from there, it’s pretty clear how to weave plots, assign skills, or design any facet of the game.
Want something a bit less pedestrian? Think of Magic: The Gathering. They managed to make a workable system based on the number five. Placed on a circle in a pentagram, each color’s two neighboring colors are its natural allies and the opposite two colors its natural enemies. Altogether, they form a continuum, meaning that the reason why neighbors are allies is that they are literally closer in principles and psychology. The differences are on scales.
Even though this cannot be perfectly balanced with a continuum of five or odd numbers in general, after choosing the number, you always need to select some scales of polar opposites, and make your kinds of choices their unique permutations. Like in the classic four elements — the two scales are essence against form and expansion against contraction. Fire is expanding essence, water contracting essence, air expanding form, and earth contracting form.
Sounds a bit arcane? For sure, this is totally wizard. Why do you think we consider classic Greek mythology so classic, finding it so interesting after thousands of years? Because their logic was immaculate. This is the “magic of numbers”, the method behind numerical symbolism, an actual geometry of thought. Originally called numerology, now called ideal typology. If you can’t draw up your system in this way, it means it’s rubbish and can’t be balanced.
But back to games, and let’s look closer at Skyrim this time. It does have a very well crafted skill tree, meaningfully separating the three pure classes, while allowing fluid movement between them and any combination of them, all balanced within a game system in an open world. I won’t lie, that’s pretty neat. But it all falls apart in that the world offers you pretty much only a single way of resolving conflicts and solving problems, fifty shades of violence.
Sure, you could sneak on enemies, control their minds, or sometimes be somewhat persuasive through choosing better conversation options, but that’s still mostly in the service of eventually killing all those who oppose you or stand in your way. You can’t just subdue or turn the villains and everyone not on your side is hostile, including almost all wildlife. Which is there only to be killed or to be used to kill your enemies, even if it doesn’t attack you on sight.
For comparison, I will use a rare example of a big budget game doing this much better — Deus Ex: Human Revolution. There you can essentially choose either to kill enemies, or not to kill them. Pretty basic, but in this game, it completely works. I don’t even remember any other game that would actually make me feel like killing would be morally reprehensible. How did they do it? Just make the “enemy” regular folks, doing their job, minding their business.
Conversely, if a bunch of Skyrim guards decide you did something wrong, they tend to completely overreact, justifying you defending yourself (by killing them), and if you manage to kill them all, which is to say eliminate all witnesses, the game rewards you by making it not a crime anymore. Not to mention you can always skip town, since a crime in one district doesn’t carry over to another one. And I thought GTA was an ultraviolent crime simulator.
The way to conceptualize it is again simple — anything that prevents the player from progressing further in the game are obstacles, not necessarily enemies. The number of choices you select must reflect in the number of means by which the player can overcome the obstacle. You can also apply the number you chose to the number of different kinds of obstacles/enemies that would exist in your game or story universe. And then don’t just make it “kill”.
Example — obstacle is a guard. You could kill him, or subdue him, or bribe him, or persuade him (to look the other way, to help you), or sneak past him, or pose as someone with access, or distract him with a decoy, or any number of things that are a thing in your story universe. Just make it a consistent number. Similarly, if obstacle means not having a good enough gear, don’t just make it all looting from dead bodies, and don’t just make it all about gear.
And those are only the absolute basics, the tip of the iceberg. I haven’t played all games, and in fact, I’m not (yet) a game developer, so take everything I’m saying with any number of grains of salt. But this perspective is based both on modern narrative science and on the methods by which some of the most convincing mythologies out there were constructed. Contrary to postmodern feelings, you can’t just whip up whatever and hope for it to make solid sense.
If I sound a bit harsh, well, it’s mostly frustration about potential wasted. I actually like all of the games I mentioned, but I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to start resting on their laurels. Compared to how far we’ve advanced in graphics, the storytelling in games is still primitive. If this ends up being interesting to anybody, next time I could go into more detail on how you could make even choice system of twelve to the power of three meaningful.
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