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Opinion: A matter of choice

Opinion: A matter of choice

June 5, 2012 | By Poya Manouchehri

June 5, 2012 | By Poya Manouchehri
More: Console/PC, Design

[In this reprinted #altdevblogaday opinion piece, former Microsoft software design engineer Poya Manouchehri examines why players can feel frustrated when presented with meaningful choices in games.]

A couple of days ago I finished playing The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. And if you have played the game, you know that I use the term "finish" loosely, as I think few people have ever truly finished the game.

You see, The Witcher 2 is one of those rare gems of a game which you don't come across too often. Not only does it tell an epic tale, filled with interesting characters, quests, and dialogue; not only does it present you with enormous and amazingly designed levels, with stunning graphics; and not only does it provide you with character abilities and mechanics that are unique and interesting.

Most importantly it gives you the one thing that any good RPG strives to offer: Meaningful choice. Incidentally, this is also the reason why I'll probably never play it again!

The problem is the nagging feeling at every corner, that I haven't made the "right choice." That I have missed something or I will not get the full story because of a wrong decision. Of course the game tries very much to reinforce the idea that there are no wrong or right decisions, yet the feeling is still there.

To be fair this is not a unique problem. Many games, especially RPGs, play similarly. What makes is that much more noticeable in The Witcher, is that your choices do not only affect a few side quests and the chance to get a special item, but they fundamentally affect the main plot and how the game is unraveled.

There are, for example two completely distinct paths through the game, with as many as 16 different endings depending on various decisions made throughout the game (a monumental task by the developer to be sure).

Perhaps I'm in the minority, to find all the different possible decision points frustrating in a way. Perhaps most people enjoy, and are comfortable with, having to make these decisions in the game and being content with their consequences. Then again maybe not.

A friend recently was telling me how as a child they found "Choose Your Own Adventure" books frustrating because they wanted to know the alternative outcomes. I therefore decided to dig a little deeper and think about what the source of this frustration might be. I came up with a few thoughts, and would love to hear more from you:

Australian Band, Human Nature

It doesn't take a psychologist to figure out that as human beings, we have a core need for resolution. If we leave something unfinished at work, we often still think about it afterwards. We can't wait to see the next episode of our favorite TV series because of the cliffhanger from the last episode.

Another good example is how we look for, and find pleasing to the ear, resolution in music. There are in fact theories that suggest the reason for dreaming is to act out expectations that were unfulfilled during the day.

Perhaps this is going a bit off-topic, but what I mean here is that when you are going through a game that offers you many choices, you will feel a lack of resolution on many fronts, be it a quest that is not finished, a dialogue path that is not experienced, or an ending that's not reached. This goes against our nature to want to (eventually) obtain complete resolution.

Of course, as human beings we are deeply affected by our environment, as much as we affect it. Without wanting to open a can of worms, I'll point out that many educational systems around the world, especially during primary and secondary years, do not widely encourage choice. We are presented with information, we learn them, and then we repeat them back.

Examination and tests consist of a series of right or wrong answers. I feel this is the very reason why a good number of people (at least several that I know of) have a hard time deciding what they want to do once they finish high school.

They might enter university just because it's something to do. Often they'll jump from course to course, and might even drop out eventually. Why? In part I think it's because they have not learned how to make decisions, and more importantly being comfortable with and sticking to those decisions!

Suddenly after years of being told what subjects to study, or what the expected answer for a given assignment is, they have a sea of options open to them. They don't even have to show up to class if they don't want to. And many of their assignments require actual research and open thinking, with no predetermined outcome.

Another example is film. Many Hollywood movies (certainly not all) are known for giving the audience a well-explained and resolved ending. And the audiences have in turn become accustomed to that. Games are no exception, then, as we are not used to playing "what if."

Design factor – Knowledge of the alternative

Too Much Information…

Alright, so our nature and our environment leads us to want to have things laid out in a straight-forward way, and not have to think about the alternatives that we would forgo. But wait, that doesn't sound quite right either.

I mean, as human beings, making decisions is THE thing we do. We do it many times each and every day (to be fair making decisions that determine the fate of a people is a little less frequent…but you get the idea). So why does it seem more awkward and frustrating within a game?

I think one issue is the fact that in real life, we make decisions without often realizing what the alternatives really were. We do it in an intuitive and implicit way. This is different in a game like The Witcher in two ways. The first is the knowledge we have of it outside the game.

As part of its marketing campaign, the game is advertised to be full of choices that change the outcome of the story. It is further advertised that the game can end in one of 16 possible states. Going into the game for the first time, this very knowledge had me second-guessing every decision I made, thinking about how it might affect the outcome.

The second way decision making is different in this game as compared to real life, is how the choices are presented to us. Or perhaps the very fact that all the choices are presented to us. I can best describe this with an example: Let's say you meet a character in your journey who is asking your for help, to try a new drink they have been experimenting with.

The dialogue options you are given might be:
  • Sure, I'll give it a try
  • Sorry, I don't trust you… it's probably poisoned
  • That's going to cost you 100 coins
Looking at this, you are immediately in an awkward position. On the one hand, you might be trying to stay true to your character in your choice. On the other hand, you are trying to figure out what's the "best" answer to get the most out of the game, in form of experience points, coins, story, etc. So by presenting all the possible choices, the decision making process has become somewhat unintuitive.

Now let's imagine the exact same scenario, but in a futuristic game engine, with an AI system that is capable of understanding your voice and responding accordingly. In this case, without being shown any options, you simply say "That's going to cost you 100 coins." You've still made a meaningful choice, but because you are not aware of all the possible directions you can take, this is a much more comfortable decision to make.

Of course meaningful voice recognition is not something we can expect from games today. But there are other ways to present decisions without it being a multiple choice. In fact, The Witcher does do this in many cases.

Looking through some walk-throughs, I realize that I have made certain choices without realizing it, and those are really the best kinds of choice. Sometimes it's clever wording in the dialogue that makes it less obvious that you are making an explicit choice. Other times you are relying on actions rather than the dialogue system (e.g. whether or not the player draws their sword and attacks a NPC).

Design factor – By choice, but not my choice

No comment

This is something which is discussed often, but is worth mentioning here. Of course, The Witcher is based on a well established character and draws a lot of its charms from it. It is a fully realized character with his own background and personality traits within the game world. As such I did feel at times, when a choice was presented to me, I would be thinking "Now what would Geralt of Rivia do?" and the result didn't always match what I wanted to do.

This one is on the fence for me. I am a huge fan of involved stories and narratives in games, and based on my experience, you can't reach the same level of engagement in the story when the player character is simply a shell; something that games like Diablo utilize. But when it comes to decision making, this can backfire.

Speaking of which, I should probably try Diablo III

Is this the point?

As I was writing this post, a very different thought occurred to me. What if this "frustration" I felt in the game when having to make decisions, is the very reason I found the game so engaging? So much so that I finished it in a just a few days? I honestly can't prove or disprove this theory… something to think about.

[This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]

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