Friday, May 28, 2010

Types of Choice

In my recent articles about replayability, I have been talking a lot about choice in games. I have been focusing primarily on RPGs, but that's because when it comes to giving players the ability to make a choice that will affect a game world, RPGs are pretty much the king of genres at the current point in time. Even so, the ability to make big choices that will affect the outcome of a game are still a relatively new thing. Note that here I'm focusing on choices that have consequences rather than purely "cosmetic" dialogue decisions that have no real effect on events.

There is still a long way to go before we have game worlds that truly react in a seemingly organic fashion to our actions, at least in a single player experience. Regardless, designers should carefully consider the types of choices they present to their players. By using multiple decision types, the designer can develop the player's roleplaying experience in different ways and offer a more believable gaming world. Here are five key types of choice that are presented in RPGs:

Good or Evil
The classic dichotomy of Good versus Evil, Light Side vs Dark Side, Law vs Chaos, etc, etc. Two diametrically opposite schools of thought, and the player must pick one. These are generally straightforward for characters/players, and help provide a basic disposition for the character.

The Blind Choice
With very little information, the player is forced to make a decision one way or another. This forces the player to go with their gut instinct rather than attempting to overthink or "meta-game" a decision. These can be very effective in getting a player "into their character's head" if used well, but also pose the danger of frustrating the player by confusing them through lack of information. They are also less effective in subsequent playthroughs, as the player has additional information to guide their choice the second time around.

Pick One Benefit
The player is presented with a number of different options, and picking one will provide a different positive effect depending on the decision. This is typically a means for a player to further their character's development, or further their personal relationship with a character. This could be as simple as choosing to support one party member over others in a verbal argument, or making the decision of where to allocate resources to rebuild a castle.

No Good Option
The opposite of the above. Some of the best choices that I feel have been presented in video games are when I have had to pick between a lesser of two evils, or make a choice where neither choice is desirable. BioWare and Obsidian are the only two developers I can really think of off the top of my head who have presented choices like these. I won't give specific examples because of the spoilers involved, but if you've experienced them, I'm sure you'll know what I mean.

Grey Morality
Possibly a superset of "No Good Option", a "grey" choice is when there is no clear good or evil decision to be made. Either options has its benefits and drawbacks, and arguments could be made for either side. These can be very hard to craft for a player, and will often cause large divisions in player communities - case in point is Loghain in Dragon Age, where people both staunchly oppose and support him with their own reasoned arguments. Some would argue that it is not a "grey" decision at all - on both sides - which simply serves to demonstrate that it is.

If you have any other categories of choice you find interesting or effective, please comment and let me know!


  1. Not sure if you ever played it, but Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura contained the best "decision making" that I've come across in a non-paper RPG. The choices you could make weren't just "goody two-shoes" and "pointless douchery", but ran across a whole spectrum of options. Most were very grey and rarely did you have a good option. Except of course the option to kill every goddamn gnome in that world. If you followed the siamese twins plot, then you'd know why this genocide needed to happen.

  2. I did play through Arcanum many years ago, and I was a fan. But maybe I'm not remembering it too well, because I remember feeling like I was usually making the "good" choice.

    However, I do recall that there were very few "good" people that you met, and everyone had (at LEAST) few moral shortcomings. There were probably also a lot of quests where you had a choice between something like being evil for your own benefit, or doing something undesirable for the greater good. I guess that would be part of the "grey morality" category.

    I don't ever recall encountering the siamese twins plot... I'm very intrigued and want to know more!

  3. OK, the basics of it are as follows. The gnomes had as a "servant" (read: slave) race, the half-ogres. Loyal to a fault and physically capable where the gnomes were lacking. The Siamese Twins plotline led you down a path where more and more questions were raised. For example, where do all the Half-Ogres come from? Then you find out about a Gnomish research post at a "Half Ogre Island". Turns out that the gnomes have been using unwilling subjects as "vessels" for their Half-Ogre underlings. Finding that facility, now abandoned as the investigation by yourself and others was getting to close, filled with bloodied beds and birthing stirrups... Yeah. Murdering gnomes became a priority for my character at that point.

  4. Sepaking of No Good Option/Grey Morality, The Witcher is so full of them to that I wonder if the point of the game is to make the main character miserable. I also remember a tiny decision I made early in the game caused the death of a fairly important person much later in the game.