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The Problem With Choices
by Craig Stern on 04/12/09 09:51:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


James Portnow recently wrote a piece explaining the difference between what he sees as problems (decisions with an optimal solution) and choices (decisions where the consequences of the options presented are not better or worse than one another).

His essay clearly involved a good deal of thought, but I nonetheless find some of his conclusions  disagreeable. This blog post is my attempt to explain where I think Mr. Portnow has gotten it wrong.

1. "The Human Experience" Involves Very Few Choices, and Lots of Problems

"In order to become an art we have to be able to address 'the human experience'. There are a whole range of human experiences that are better expressed through choices then through problems."

--James Portnow, Opinion: The Problem of Choice

Real life is positively filled with decisions between two or more options, one of which is likely to produce objectively better outcomes than the others in light of one's personal goals. Should you do drugs, or not? Should you flee from the police, or just pull over to the side of the road? Should you be kind to other people, or should you be apathetic (or needlessly cruel)?

These are all decisions that appear regularly in video games, and these are all decisions that would have obvious disparate consequences in real life. It does not illuminate the human experience (or otherwise make games closer to art) to pretend that there is some unrealistic parity between all of the options presented.

It is exceedingly rare that one will be faced with a true "choice" as Portnow defines it, except where the likely outcome is not decisive precisely because the decision is itself so utterly inconsequential (e.g. choosing between an apple or an orange, or deciding whether to watch Wall-E or Monsters vs. Aliens). Here too, presenting a parity between the options does nothing to advance games forward as an art form.

I can only think of one example of real-life decisions of consequence that are actual choices , and those are...well, life choices. For example: should you go to college, or should you take over the family business? This sort of problem appears in real life, and it also appears in games: what class do you want your character to be: a fighter, a thief, or a wizard? A heavy, a sniper, or a medic? Do you want to play as the Terrans, the Protoss, or the Zerg? Etc.

To the extent this decision needs to be a choice rather than a problem in games, however, it needs to be a choice purely for the sake of game balance. Where certain classes are objectively more powerful than others, it will often produce lopsidedly dominant strategies, effectively eliminating viable options from the player's repertoire. But this is a gameplay consideration--it doesn't have anything to do with whether the game addresses the human experience.

2. Problems Are A Necessary Tool For Indicating Authorial Perspective

But I don't think that apple vs. orange (or heavy vs. sniper) are the kinds of choices Portnow envisions as moving games forward as an art form. Rather, he seems concerned with "ambiguous moral choices," decisions of consequence where there really is no easily discernable right answer.

I would suggest that there is actually nothing wrong with the game designer providing disparate outcomes based on the decision the player ultimately makes in these situations. Portnow clucks disapprovingly at the makers of Bioshock and Mass Effect for presenting the player with "something that should be a choice but instead [i]s simply a problem with a clear right answer." But he is missing the point.

If the player makes a decision, and uniquely negative or positive consequences follow from that decision, then that "problem with a clear right answer" serves a purpose within the game as a work of art: it communicates the author's perspective.

This not only not wrong, it is exactly what we should expect of art! Art is a means for the author to convey his or her views on matters central to the human experience. If game designers are expected to provide serious moral choices in games, and are simultaneously expected to then provide consequences where neither is worse than the other, then game designers will have been stripped of an important tool in communicating their message. It does not further games as an art form to force game designers into communicating a message of moral equivalency.

Of course, by the same token, this does not mean that game designers should feel free to bludgeon players over the head with "the moral of the story." Subtlety is the name of the game, and I fully agree with Portnow that it is often better not to intermingle the consequences of moral decisions too tightly with other parts of the game, turning what should be a moral question into a question about how best to maximize in-game resources.

But here too, whether that holds true depends on what the author is trying to communicate. Sure, it's stupid to give one player 500 XP for stopping to help an old man being robbed by the side of the road, and another player 0 XP for passing him by (or vice versa). But that is because XP is a ham-fisted tool for expressing the author's views here, not because both players should get 500 XP.

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Raul Aliaga
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I was waiting for something like this :). I think it's great the debate started by James though, and a call to use good distinctions of concepts is very useful.

There a few things I would like to add:

* Every choice can be regarded as problem in the future: I think that the definition of choice as not being

the solution of a problem is inaccurate. There are other ways to best conceive it in the same article, that is "a choice is a decision that doesn't have a right answer", but I'd add " ... for now". Using the real-life metaphor, whenever we don't have a clear answer for a choice, chances are that in the future it will come out all right, provided that we take advantage of past decisions. Very similar to the way one is "forced" to choose a character class/race/nation/whatever at the beginning of a game (a choice), there must exists possibilities in the future for the player to use the outcome of that decision for his own benefit, and not make him feel penalized for it -a matter of balance.

* Decisions in the game as problems, can build the path to a larger choice: As some commenters said, people choose their goals in the game, and the little problems they solve are used to lead the player to accomplish that goal.

* This whole thing doesn't need to be linked with art! (necessarily) : Goals, choices, problem solving, all that doesn't need to convey an expression from the designers -necessarily. Just like this problem-choice distinction in the concept of decisions, there should be a distinction in the concept of meaningful experience, something like inmersion-expression. The first one is an enhancer of the experience, the second one the takeaway. I think that choices can be good for both of them (inmersion-expression), but it's not a silver bullet, and it's not necessary to express something to have an engaging game.

Alexander Bruce
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Although both of these pieces and the comments spawned from them were interesting, in my eyes, there's really no debate here. Choices and problems are distinct concepts from each other. Problems require context, and have consequences dependent upon the chosen solution, whereas choices are more simply a collection of alternatives to choose from. Right or wrong doesn't factor into a choice, because that assumes we know what the player's goal was. Even if as a player we make a choice and the consequences are "bad" according to however we decide to define that, I still wouldn't say that the initial choice was a problem, because others may approach the same choice with different goals to where the same consequences can be considered "good".

Logan Margulies
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It's true that using disparate outcomes (whether we're talking awarding/not awarding XP or something more nuanced) to enforce an authorial viewpoint. That said, is this something we really want happening? Part of the appeal of a game as an interactive media, distinct from a book or a movie, is the interactivity. It's the whole idea that my decisions at any given point will impact my subsequent experience, be that turning left instead of right at any given moment in Pac-Man, or choosing who to sacrifice towards the end of Mass Effect. I'll either be ghost bait, or not. I'll no longer have access to that NPC for the rest of the game.

Some gamers, though by no means all, play the game for its meta aspects. It's not just the story and the universe of the game world that is appealing. It's about discovering the rules inherent to the game and then developing the best means to "conquer" the game along its rules. In fact, if you can find a way to get the game to jump the shark and exploit your way past the rules, so much the better. The overarching goal is to excel at the game.

To give this idea some flesh and bone, say I am playing an RPG. I want to finish the game as powerful as I possibly can be. The best (as my qualitative assessment within the game world tells me) armor, weapons, capable of defeating any combatable entity in the game. To prohibit someone from achieving that maximum, perhaps, because they want to play in a way the author disdains seems an odd way to make a game.

I think it was Jeff Kaplan who recently said in a post-script about the development of WotLK, that one of the key lessons learned is (and this is all loosely paraphrased), none of us were as good writers, as we thought we were. We all think we can produce this master story that players are going to rally behind, but at the end of the day what people want is to play.

The power of a story and narrative within a game is that much clearer when it can breakthrough to achiever types of gamers. If someone sets out to beat the game in the meta sense, but over the course of play finds themselves emotionally linked to their avatar and the gameworld; it speaks heavily to the quality of design and execution for the narrative. This is harder to achieve if you penalize for making certain choices during play. You might not perceive it as punishment, but don't mistake that certain players will take less xp gain, inaccessibility of certain equipment, etc. as such.

A good, if labor intensive middleground is to avoid punishment. If you strongly want to editorialize the virtue of one outcome over another, do so through the narrative and the ending. Someone who plays the game as a sociopathic killer hacking down everything that moves might be treated to a desolate ending where their character is forced to live out in the wilderness, constantly hunted by society. They may retire the game with the same level and power of equipment as a "good" or "less bad" character, but the post-script, and perhaps the experiences on the way, will be far different.

There is certainly a voice and outlet for authorial intent. But in frustrating the ends of achieving players and punishing players by preventing them from obtaining the same level of power within a game, you're just going to make part of your player base less interested, if not outright hostile, to the narrative you're presenting to them. We're not here to impose our own narrative standards on the players. Challenge them, certainly. But punishing players for a divergent viewpoint only frustrates both parties in the long run.

Adam Bishop
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I agree pretty much entirely with what you're saying, and I had the same response to Portnow's original piece. I think it's generally a false dichotomy because we make virtually no decisions which have no consequences. I mean, I could decide to eat a healthy lunch today, or I could choose to eat a greasy, fatty lunch. Technically one could call that a "problem", in that the outcomes of the two choices are clearly different, but if we label that as a problem, then virtually everything I do is a problem, and the term becomes meaningless.

I do think the point that Portnow was making overall is somewhat accurate though, and it's similar to something that I've said in a blog posting of my own. Players often make decisions in games based on attempts to manipulate the game system, rather than what they feel is most interesting, fun, or engaging. For example, when you're playing Mass Effect, you're probably making conversation choices to try and max out your "Renegade" or "Paragon" points, not to tell the story you find most interesting. Similarly, in Bioshock, players seem to decide whether to kill or save the Little Sisters based on which ending they want to see, not based on whether they actually think the Sisters should be killed or saved.

I disagree somewhat with Logan, though. I don't think that *all* games should have messages, but I definitely want to see *some* games that do. I mean, one of the main reasons I fell in love with the original Metal Gear Solid was because it was a game that very clearly had something to say, and it said it in a way that I found to be mature and intelligent. Yes, games are interactive. And that interactivity can be a powerful tool to get a message across. When you read Crime and Punishment, you're given a view into the mind of someone who feels tremendously guilty about something they have done, and the ways that that guilt plays with their psyche. How much more powerful would it be if you had the chance to *be* Raskolnikov? The very fact that the game is interactive could make the message even more powerful, because the player could *experience* the guilt, but it would definitely require limiting the player's choices quite significantly.

Logan Margulies
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I'm not sure you understood my argument, Adam. I'm not advocating for message-less games, or anything close to that. My point is much closer to what you're talking about in your second paragraph, essentially the players who are concerned with achieving, or min/maxing, within the game. In fact, I think the best games are the type that can are strong enough to convey a theme or message to all the players, even those who initially could care less. If you can take a narrative, and wed it to mechanics, so that it pulls the player in without them even realizing it, you've got yourself a pretty promising game.

The issue isn't about giving or not giving the player a choice. Player choice is going to be circumscribed in most any game with a narrative based plot. It's going to be circumscribed by lack of time and resources. There will always be choices unavailable to players.

The issue is when you have a choice. To use Craig's example, if I aid a beggar on the side of the road, I get 500 exp. If I chose to ignore him, or even better, taunt him or give him a swift kick to the midsection, I get 0. Why? Because I don't place the premium on charity that the designer does, my character has to be slightly less powerful? Seems a little high-handed.

If you're going to give a choice, there are ways to see that out. Different plot twists. Different experiences on a playthrough based on choices made along the way. But to set up a route where you have essentially: "Make the choices the designer wants you to make and do well in the game" or "Go against the designer and you can't maximize your character" seem very frustrating. Games should have a message, certainly. But if you want to give the player a choice, then give them an honest choice.

Don't penalize their progress in the game if they happen to make the one you like less. If you want them to experience a certain message in the game, then don't give them a choice to skip it. To give a player multiple options and penalize them for choosing a disfavored one makes no sense. The designer is frustrated because their not getting their theme across. The player is frustrated because there's a now an arbitrary, and frankly, bullshit penalty imposed on their progress because they couldn't anticipate the whims of a designer.

You don't have to give choices. And even when you do, you can tailor the outcomes of those choices to not dilute, and certainly not to remove, the idea of conveying messages in games. But to give a choice under the guise of having the freedom of choice, and then spring a surprise penalty on players for making the choice you personally dislike, seems like designer vanity. Give players a choice or don't. But if you're going to give it to them, give it to them responsibly.

Jeff Beaudoin
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I agree entirely with Logan.

Presenting a choice that has gameplay consequences that are lopsided negates the value of that choice. The interactions created are false choices, as they change the player's interaction with the game into an exercise in guessing what the designer thought was the better way to go, rather than drawing the player in and giving them ownership over their avatar's actions.

If you want the player to do a certain thing in a certain situation, make it a linear part of the narrative progression of the story, don't introduce a choice and punish them for making it. Doing so doesn't serve to allow the author to express their perspective, that is what the narrative is for. Giving disparate rewards to encourage the player to do what the author wants them to do is a crutch for poor writing or design.

If you want the player to do a certain thing in a certain situation, make it a linear part of the narrative progression of the story -- a problem.

If you want to explore the differences between two choices, then make it a choice with comparable gamplay rewards, but different narrative results.

Your point about EXP rewards being ham-fisted way to introduce consequence for choices actually applies to EVERY gameplay disparity that results from making the "wrong" choice. If I just wanted to get an author's opinion on a topic without interactivity I would just read a book or watch a movie. Games are an interactive medium (a dialog between the player and the creator), and should be treated as such.

Reid Kimball
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Great discussion, I've been thinking about this topic a lot.

Jeff said what I was going to say:

"If you want to explore the differences between two choices, then make it a choice with comparable gamplay rewards, but different narrative results." That sounds like a good approach, until someone thinks of something better.

I think it's important to allow players to make undesirable choices so the designer can let them experience the consequences. The consequences don't have to be in the form of gameplay punishment.

Craig Stern
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"If you want to explore the differences between two choices, then make it a choice with comparable gamplay rewards, but different narrative results.

Your point about EXP rewards being ham-fisted way to introduce consequence for choices actually applies to EVERY gameplay disparity that results from making the 'wrong' choice."

I agree with Logan that narrative consequences are the most elegant way to deal with these sorts of situations. However, I think you're taking his point past its logical conclusion here. Suppose you have a game (most likely an RPG) where other characters' respect for you is tracked , which in turn influences their willingness to travel in your party, offer you quests, etc. If a player does something despicable and loses the respect of other characters who witness his or her behavior, then the choice will necessarily introduce a gameplay disparity. That doesn't mean that it's ham-fisted.

To the contrary, it is the natural consequence of the player's decision, one consistent with what we would expect of the other characters. That is what it means for the author to be "subtle"--his or her views are incorporated seamlessly into the game, such that they do not appear arbitrary or capricious to the player.

Tom Newman
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I feel like the overall point of the original post is being somewhat missed. There is a concrete factual difference between the definition of a "choice" and that of a "problem". A problem implies there is a correct solution. A choice can have, or have no solution.

This debate is great, and some excellent points have been made, but I can't help feel this is being overly complicated.

Jeff Beaudoin
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I agree, though I didn't mean my point to apply directly to the type of situation you described. I guess "gameplay disparity" is not exactly accurate, as I meant changes that result in benefits or penalties, not just differences.

Let me clarify:

In that scenario, the ham-fisted approach would be if one character was better in every way than the other character. He would give you better quests, be more powerful while in your party, etc... This removes the choice of which one to favor, since there is an obvious gameplay benefit. There can and should be changes in the gameplay that come about because of the players interaction, but the end results should be comparable in power/function.

Sorry if I misrepresented myself!