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Thoughts On Good And Bad Choices
by Robert Green on 01/03/11 03:45:00 am   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.


There was a time when the main choice you had to make in a game was whether to insert another coin to continue. These days many games are full of more interesting choices – moral choices, character customisation choices, upgrade choices, the list goes on. But are more choices always better?

Are there certain kinds of choices that developers should be focussing on and others that aren’t worth the effort? In this post I’ll discuss a few choices I’ve encountered in Bioware games and the impact they had on me. I hope no one takes this as being too negative on the quality of their work, which I think is routinely first class.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic – light side/dark side

Initial impressions on this one are pretty favourable. Rather than forcing the player to fit into a pre-determined character, they are free to choose whether they will follow the light or dark side of the force, and this is done by presenting the player with situations where they can resolve a situation in a peaceful or violent way, by aligning themselves with good or evil characters or other similar scenarios.

On the surface, this is a winner. The gamer is free to choose the way they want to play the game rather than having it laid out for them. But all is not as it seems. At some point while playing the game, you may feel that the choices being offered to you are something of a hassle.

The reason for this is that, in all likelihood, you actually made the choice of whether you were going to be a good guy or a bad guy at the beginning of the game and responded to every choice throughout the game based on that decision. Rather than being individual choices, they just get the player to repeat their original choice a few dozen times as they progress through the story.

Ultimately, if they were to offer the player a choice at the beginning of the game to pick their alignment and make all the subsequent choices for the player, this would probably play out very similar to most people’s experience with the game. Obviously that would make the game seem linear and much less interactive, but if that’s exactly the way most players are playing anyway, then you’re also saving them the annoyance of having to constantly repeat themselves.

I do think there is a place for moral choices in games, but I think it has to be done with a lot more shades of grey than the primarily black and white implementations we’ve seen thus far. Ideally, whichever way you chose to play, the game could present situations where you have to sacrifice to continue down that path. If there’s never a downside to upholding your ideals, there are no tough choices, right?

Mass Effect – choose ally to save.

Mass Effect provides a large numbers of choices, but one of them in particular stands out. Without going into too much spoiler detail, late in the first Mass Effect you’re presented with a unique situation: two of your party members are in different locations and both are under fire, and you can only help one.

The criteria by which you choose which one to save is entirely up to you: you might consider one of them more deserving or more in need of your help or more valuable to your team or just the one you like more. The important point is this: it’s an important choice, and there is no objectively good choice.

This last point is critical. A scenario where one option is clearly better is an easy choice. A scenario where all options are beneficial can seem arbitrary. But a scenario where both options involve losing something important, that requires some deep thought, because it has a meaningful and predictable impact on the future.

Mass Effect 2 – character classes

According to stats released by Bioware, more people chose to play ME2 as a soldier than all other classes put together, and 80% of players chose to play as a male character. While it might be possible to interpret that information as being representative of the ME2 demographic, I would suggest a different explanation – a male soldier is the default character.

Now you might think that if gamers are going to spend over 20 hours playing a character, they could at least afford to spend a few minutes deciding what kind of character to play, but therein lies the problem: you’re asked to make those decisions before playing, and hence before you really know what impact those decisions will have. Why should anyone choose to play an engineer over a soldier based purely on an intro movie and a one-line description in the manual?

I think the root of this problem is that character classes come from a distant ancestor, the pen and paper RPG, where it would probably be assumed that there are a number of players (hence the game includes many classes working together) and/or that an individual player will play multiple times, and hence experience many classes. Neither of these should be assumed to be true in a videogame.

Upgrade choices (no specific game)

This is a pet peeve of mine. Somewhere along the line, developers became convinced that any choice they offer the player increases the interactivity of the game and is therefore better. But having a choice is only beneficial if it can be an educated choice, otherwise it may as well be chosen at random.

In many cases though, often in the choice of upgrades, there’s barely even the pretence of an educated choice. The developers will often provide a brief description of what your choices are, but the important stuff - which will make the game easier or more fun or is more in line with the way you want to play the game – is often impossible to determine from this info.

To an indecisive person like me, it presents quite a challenge: try and develop some rationale for making a choice where none is apparent. But even this often isn’t possible: in most of these cases the designer has actually made it so that the choices are equivalent. ‘Balanced’ is usually the stated goal.

But we’re not always trying to create weapon load-outs for a multiplayer shooter, where having balanced options is something of a requirement. More often we’re trying to provide new abilities for a player as they progress through a single player game.

Simply having a designer choose exactly which upgrades the player receives at what points sounds less exciting, less interactive, but it has its benefits. The most obvious is that it enables level designers to create worlds based around what upgrades the player will have at a certain point. If the player is choosing their own upgrades, this option might not be available

Another option is to automatically provide upgrades based on how the player chooses to play the game. This is the route the Tony Hawk series eventually went down. After a few games of awarding players ‘stat points’ that they could assign at will, they instead made it so that doing grinds slowly levelled up the grind skill, doing manuals built up the manual skill, etc.

This scenario removes the player’s ability to level up skills they haven't been using, but it presents them with a levelling scenario that both makes more sense in context (as the avatar is getting better at the things they practice) and manages itself transparently.

Some guidelines


When designing scenarios where a player is to be given a choice, here’s a quick checklist to run through. I’ll use the example of choosing between two weapons to equip.

Firstly, and [maybe] most importantly, does the player have the information they’d need to make the decision? If, in our example, the player hasn’t used the weapons before and doesn’t know how they’ll fare in the situations they’ll encounter, how do you expect them to choose?

Secondly, are the choices meaningfully differentiated? Choice for the sake of choice doesn’t necessarily serve anyone, and just creates more work for your team. If both weapons are functionally equivalent, who cares? Why did you make two so similar weapons to begin with?

Lastly, have you considered how giving the player the choice might restrict the game design or level design? Could the story or the game world be made more interesting if we could make the choice for them? If one of the two weapons can, for example, destroy barricaded doors, and the other can’t, we can’t design our levels around destroying those doors if we give them a choice between the two.

Only when all of these have been taken into account can we be sure the choice benefits the game, is interesting and can be made intelligently. If these cannot be achieved, consider the alternatives: removing the choice, differentiating the choices, making the choices automatic based on player behaviour up to that point, etc. Most games are interactive enough without having to offer players pointless or uninteresting choices.

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Greg Wondra
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Good article. Your point you made about the light / dark alignments in KotOR is the exact reason I disliked the good / evil decision making aspect of inFAMOUS.....I'd already decided 15 minutes in I was going to follow the "good" path so whenever one of those "decision moments" was presented to me, I had no decision to really make at all....

Christopher Braithwaite
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Robert, I must take issue with the glossing over of KotOR's morality system. It sounds as if you haven't played the game, because there are many opportunities to make individual choices that may be contrary to a character's alignment yet define the player's character. One could be an evil sith lord who cannot abide the mistreatment of wookies for example. Also, light/dark does not necessarily map to peaceful/violent and the games often presented light side choices as dark and vice versa. There was also aware of the context of these choices, thus the same decision could be light or dark depending on choices the player has previously made. Despite being a binary system, I find the KotOR games provide the most nuanced and meaningful moral play yet available in a videogame.

Robert Green
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I've definitely over-simplified the actual choices presented, and I think I remember being unsure at some points which option was the light option and which was the dark, but I think my point, as seconded by Greg above, remains. While it is possible to create more complex characters, I strongly believe most people will attempt to play either as completely light side or completely dark side*. And you could hear this when you talked to other people who played the game as well, they'd ask "did you play light or dark?", not "which particular choices did you make?". This is also reflected in the endings to the game, which are (correct me if I'm wrong here) based entirely on whether you're light or dark, with no 'shades of grey' ending. If you look up walkthroughs for the game you'll probably see the same thing: here's how to play the light side, here's how to play the dark side, etc.

If you actually played through the game taking each choice as it comes with no predetermined notion of what character you were trying to create, then I think you're lucky, you probably had a more interesting time of it than I did, but I do maintain that you'd be in the minority.

*for the record, I've played through the game as both sides.

Christopher Braithwaite
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I agree with you that most people would play light/dark as you suggest, however I believe that would be true even in a "shades of gray" morality system. Essentially I believe that the kind of moral system a game provides is irrelevant, it is the implementation of the system that is more important.

Robert Green
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You're probably right that anything measured on a single scale and used as a gameplay mechanic is bound to end up that way. I think if you wanted something more complex, you need to provide something more than just one axis you're being measured on. If we were to have a good/evil scale, plus a violent/non-violent scale, plus a measure of whether you work with the other characters or try to do it all yourself, etc. Add a few different factions to track alignment with and there's probably enough to make sure that any two players are unlikely to have the same experience.

Nicolas Bertrand-Verge
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I agree for most of what you said. Aside from the particular question of giving the player the information he needs to make a rationnal choice. Herbert Simon, economist, made it abundantly clear that a rationnal decision is almost impossible because you never have the time or all the information requiered to make such a choice rationnally, he calls it Bounded rationnality.

And still, in everyday life, we make choices, a lot of times without having the proper information to make it intelligently. Giving a choice to the player under stress, with a time limit for exemple, or even giving him an hazardous choice, like heads or tails, and then let him unfold the consequences of these particular non rationnal choice. We make choices in game mostly to see their consequences impact us and the world around us.

In the particular light you give to it though I agree, the class selection screen of ME2 (which I recently visited) is completely absurd. Classes in themselves are absurd. You should grow towards a class that suits you, earning powers that builds up a class. Make the powers define you class, and not the class define your powers. You should be able to choose your powers and form you class.

Great reflection though... reflection leads to reflection... The team at Extra Creditz made a video last week about choices :

Robert Green
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I agree that perfect information is almost never available, outside of games like chess at least. And even when it is, there are many ways that people often make irrational decisions anyway, often in predictable ways.

But the problem is either that often we're barely given any information at all, or the options available to us are pointlessly similar. To give a non-Bioware example, Dead Space (despite having an amazing atmosphere) presents some of these scenarios. You get new weapons by purchasing them from an in-game store, and they're expensive and you need to manage carrying separate ammo for different weapon types, so the decision to buy a new weapon is an important one. But all you have to make this decision with is a short description of each one that doesn't really tell you enough to decide which weapon to buy or whether you're better off upgrading an existing weapon.

And the upgrades provide the other problem. IIRC, you can individually upgrade the damage, reload time, firing speed and capacity of the weapons. All four of those ultimately have the same result: being able to do more damage in the same amount of time. Sure there are subtle differences, but I have a hard time believing the average player of a horror shooter really wants to be analysing the relative benefits of a 5% damage increase vs a 10% reload time reduction.

Adam Bishop
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I love that scene from the first Mass Effect that you mention. What makes it most interesting to me is that it's *not* a moral decision. Choosing one path or the other does not clearly line up with any particular play style or character alignment, and yet the decision is clearly very important, so you really have to stop and think about what to do. I wish more RPGs would present us with that kind of dilemma.

Randy OConnor
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Nice post, I agree with much of what you said. Playing through games where you get points to add to skills at each level I find I almost always just balance things across the board. Add some magic here, add some strength, add some health. And it's funny, because I don't want to take away the option from someone in something more statistically complex like an RPG, but I'd be curious how many people just leave their attack skill low and add tons and tons of health. Does that ever happen? I'm guessing not, because that implies they want to take longer to do battle.

I also balance across the board because I try and leave other options in the game open. I want to be able to break that door down later but also sneak in the side way if necessary. That's why I balance things. I am not very exploratory in attribute selection because that's not where the interesting choices happen.

Sylvester O'Connor
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Actually, I find the conversation intereting. I will say that choice is relative though. Implementation is good because people make various choices. I played Fallout 3 and pretty much said I wasn't going to care about anyone. When I got to Megaton and found out that I could destroy the enitre town if I wanted to, I chose not to just because of my own morals. I know plenty of people that did detroy the town just to see what the result is, but I believe in giving the player freedom of choice. You and Robert might say that you already made the choice of being either good or evil, but there were instances in KOTOR where you didn't have to walk a straight line. I actually started to enjoy making border line decisions about half way through the game although I had initially started out saying I would only do Good deeds.

Kevin Potter
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I can only describe the KotOR morality system as "bad".

It was fun and it was the best of its kind when it came out. It's a good game.

But your options pretty much always boiled down to "yes in fact I am the lord Jesus Christ" versus "well I haven't made my baby-killing quota for the day yet, so I might as well."

Evan Combs
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KotOR may look bad compared to what we have seen in recent Bioware games. If released now it would be an example of how not to do it, but at the time it was the example of how to do it. Still to this day I consider it to do a much better job at it than most games today do.

Roberta Davies
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If you've got a game world where the important characters are definitely Good Guys or Bad Guys (as in the Star Wars universe, or the typical fantasy or superhero world) then you might as well just let people pick a side and play it. That's how that particular world works.

For a nicely nuanced morality system, have a look at Sacrifice. At the beginning of the game there are five gods all happy to accept the player's service for various missions. In D&D terms, the gods are lawful good, chaotic good, neutral, lawful evil, and chaotic evil (although they're not described as such, and I'm not sure if even the words "good" and "evil" are mentioned). At the end of each level, the player returns to the "arena" to select again from whatever the gods are offering this time round.

Accepting a mission from one god means refusing the others, and the refusal causes offence proportional to the moral distance between the gods. Once a god becomes too offended, it withdraws from the arena and no longer offers missions -- which can take as little as accepting two missions from a directly opposing god. Even if you try to play the field, mission selection will inevitably narrow down your options more and more as the game goes on, until you end up as the servant of a single patron god.

Laurent Maheux
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"Moral choices" seem to be the new "sandbox", every game *has* to offer some during gameplay to be considered worthwile.

I remember when I bought Bioshock, everyone was raving how hard it was to decide what to do with the Little Sisters; are you kind with them and let them live but have less adam and have a harder time surviving? Or ar you going to kill them and harvest them, whether because you are purely evil or because "the needs of the many outweight the needs of the few"?

I remember choosing to let them live; I didn't mind if I had less adam, if the game would be harder, I would sacrifice my [character's] wellbeing because I wanted to prove that you *can* succeed without having to corrupt yourself in the process.

... and then after saving four(?) Little Sister the game rewarded me with few items, new and exclusive "good" Plasmid and more adam than if I harvested the Little Sister. Suddenly, I stopped caring about saving/harvesting, the choice had no impact, no moral value and in fact, being better was more rewarded than being bad, therefore being good was the "good" choice gameplay-wise.

Mass Effect was not as big a letdown than Bioshock, the moral choice you refer "which crewmember to save/let die" was my biggest surprise of the game; as a player we are trained to save everyone, grab every item and do every objective by the game's end (in Super Metroid's finale escape, you had time to save the critter, in Dead Rising 2 you can save everyone, save your daughter and solve the plot).

But having to chose who would die slapped me in the face : "You [somehow] played incorrectly and have to pay". I reloaded, checked my objectives, read faqs, did my homework and yes, someone *had* to die. Then once I knew there was no saving both, I randomly chose who to save and there was nothing after. How can it be a real moral choice if there is no consequences? A few line of dialogue is not a consequence.

I quickly forgot I ever took that decision and playing ME2 and meeting the surviving character I found myself wondering who died... what was his name? Did I ever meet his grieving wife? His son looking for revenge? Nope.

(I won't even go into the whole Paragon/Renegade duality which punishes player in the "gray area" by removing gameplay opportunities)

The only game where choices felt real was the good old Fallouts (mostly 2). You dug grave to loot corpses, npc became wary of you. You became a porn star and some npc recognized you from the movies. You could become a slaver and then every slave (even an companion) wouldn't talk to you. Many consequences had very little gameplay impacts, but they made the world somehow 'real'. The impacts in the gameplay felt more natural and 'grey' than simply "we like you because we are downthrotten and you are a hero" or "we like you because you kill everything and we are the obvious bad guys".

Douglas Baker
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I remember playing the original Halo, for me the first game where you could walk over a fallen enemy and pick up their weapon. And in the case of Halo, the Covenant weapon set and vehicles were based on a different technology altogether. These were not moral decisions but definitely affected my strategy on getting through a tough level. Very often, commandeering a parked covenant vehicle was exactly the game changer I needed to turn the table on my assailants.

This was my first console FPS and I remembered being bowled over by the "feel" of the Halo world. Some of that had to do with the atmosphere created by the game designers, but the freedom to tear up the beach with a buddy in a Warthog, to play the game the way I wanted to and with the weapons and vehicles that I chose certainly was a major factor in how big an impact Halo made on me and why I'm still a fan of the series after all these years.

Maurício Gomes
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That is why The Witcher is awesome.

You choices are: The evil, and the other evil, and the slighly maybe less evil. All the while trying to be good.

Warren Tang
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Great article. Thanks for the thought-provoking!

In a game about choices, I have a pet peeve that I'm curious for other opinions on. As a decision-agonizer myself, I can't help but be frustrated by the overwhelming amount of choice in games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age when it comes to party members. I don't like choosing 2-3 characters and leaving the others behind. I don't like missing out on environment- and context-driven colour dialogue because I never chose a particular NPC to accompany me on a particular mission. And I don't like BioWare wasting production resources on these context-specific events that I'll never be able to enjoy. What usually happens is that I choose the NPCs that are optimally strong, morally aligned, and not terribly annoying, and I play them for the entire game -- again, demonstrating choices-throughout-the-game-that-are-actually-just-one-choice-at-the-beginning-of-the-game syndrome.

Is this just another decision point that stands in for real content? Or is this a powerful avenue for customization and choice that draws in players? Is the opportunity to play the game again with a different set of companions a serious draw? Would we have any less of an experience if we were assigned companions for each mission? I'm reminded of the classic and classy ChronoTrigger, where you were constantly dealt new combinations of your characters and forced to adapt your gameplay and strategies to compensate for it. Not only does it eliminate a pointless/artificial decision point, but it streamlines gameplay in a way that would allow developers to put more effort into fewer configurations, introduces additional challenges in the way of party configuration, and introduces the player to a more in-depth understanding of each character that might not have happened otherwise. To be fair, Mass Effect's heavily story-driven loyalty missions with real characterization did this to far greater effect (no pun intended) than Dragon Age.

I also have to quickly applaud some of the final choices in ME2, since there has been so much talk here about the first Mass Effect -- my understanding is that, no matter what you do during the game and the choices you make, there is some element of randomness that can affect the outcome of ME2 and the survival of some of your party. I have to admit that it was seriously heart-wrenching to think that I had done everything right and still saw one of my most favourite characters die -- I immediately thought that I had done something wrong, or that the game had been poorly constructed -- "How could that decision have been the wrong one? Who is to blame?" And it's a definite testament to the power of ME2's story that I was so emotionally invested in this character, even as I tore down the 4th wall with a profanity-laced rant against the game designers. When I found out that it was a chance event, it made it that much more rewarding, because I knew I my emotions had been skillfully managed, and that BioWare was unafraid to pull any punches.

All this said, my immersion in the game may not have been shattered at a key climactic moment if it had already demonstrated that there would be lose-lose decision propositions and unexpected results from them -- I didn't think this way even despite repeatedly being reminded that I was going into a suicide mission! I've been brainwashed so thoroughly that I *expect* flawless victory even for the most bleak, hopeless, no-escape-plan plan. Games still have a long way to go to get players used to the idea that there may not always be a "right" answer, but setting the precedent that decisions won't be clear-cut is an important first step. I've just started playing The Witcher, and that definitely seems to be the case. I've spend a lot of time second-guessing my early choices as I get over how morally wanton this game can be, but hopefully that will pave the way to the game's climax.