This deep dive is about the types of choices in narrative driven games, and how we use them appropriately. Here, good choices versus bad choices are not some sort of commentary on morality or good versus evil - consider it more: successful versus unsuccessful choices. Which and what brings player satisfaction and dissatisfaction. It looks into why players don’t appreciate certain types of choices and what to do to create satisfying choices.
What is Narrative
So to start off - what is a choice.
Technically defined, a choice is “an act of choosing between two or more possibilities” (“Choice”). A decision you make or the experience of making a decision.
Before we get into the composition of a bad choice - or any type of choices for that matter - we have to bring in the anatomy of a narrative. If I explained to you all the parts and purposes of a cow’s stomach lining it means very little if you have no idea what a cow is.
So, what is a narrative? I could go on into great detail about Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey or the Kubler-Ross change curve or the extremely well used three act structure or so on and so forth. There is a lot of material on how to technically create a story with good structure and flow.
That’s not for us.
What we need to know is at it’s core what defines a narrative? Imagine a cake. What kind of cake? There’s chocolate, vanilla, devil’s food, sponge - the list goes on and on and on. According to wikipedia, there’s over forty types of cake. We start getting into complicated concepts such as variations and preferences - what is the best type of cake? How do you make the best type of cake? Who determines what is the best type of cake?
For now, just imagine a cake. A cake at it’s core is eggs, sugar, milk, flour - it doesn’t have to be a very good or bad cake, it’s just a cake.
What is a narrative at it’s core? Essentially, something has to happen and it must be communicated. That’s it. This isn’t a good narrative or a bad narrative, it’s just narrative. We don’t need frosting for a cake just like we don’t need a villain in our narrative for example.
Why is this important? Why is the cake important, how does understanding why a narrative is important lead to understanding how to make satisfying choices?
Walter Fisher’s narrative paradigm proposes humans are storytelling creatures. It makes the argument that humans are more likely to be convinced by a story than facts. We, as humans, communicate through stories, making us, inherently, storytellers. Narration is one of the first forms of communication we learn to do as children and this is a cross cultural phenomenon.
What is player agency? Player agency, is how much control a player feels like they have within their world. This can be within their character’s decisions, if they can affect the overarching plot and narrative, or if they directly affect the world around them. Agency is important because, as mentioned earlier, people like to tell stories so deep down, we desire agency and control to communicate narratives. Choices in narrative games are important to us because it allows us to communicate in this immersive experience how we want to.
“Freedom is good, valuable, worthwhile, and essential to being human AND because if people have freedom them each of us can act on our own to do the things that will maximize our welfare.” Barry Schwartz explains, “The way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice… more choice equals more freedom equals more welfare.”
Liam Esler says “the more a player feels their choices matter in a story, the more engaged they feel.” In conclusion, the more a player feels like they can do in a story, the more agency they have - therefore we should give them more choices and more things to do, right?
Too Much Choice
There are three ‘unsatisfying realizations’ that will happen if you give the player too much choice.
Let’s go back to the cake. This is you going into a bakery and finding they have an option where you can make your own fully customized cake. They have given you this option When you inquire about it, they pull up all the different flavors cake and frosting and decorations that you can apply to your cake. And you go through the list only to realize: there’s no chocolate.
‘How can you say I can fully customize my cake but not have chocolate?’, you might ask - and they’ll reply with something like ‘oh, we just don’t do chocolate cake here’ or ‘we didn’t think about it’ - so on and so forth. And even though there’s probably flavors on that list that you like, the fact that you know that there’s no chocolate - you’re thinking ‘how can it be fully customizable if there’s no chocolate’? This seems to be the issue with a lot of open world games where they’ve advertised their space as open and fully accessible and interactable. There will be someone who realizes there’s no chocolate cake and they want chocolate cake but there will also be players out there who has the same thoughts but with smoked salmon cheesecake or being about to harvest buttercups in the fields.
This is the first unsatisfying realization: you have given me choices but you have not given me the correct choice. When you give players so many options including obscure ones, it feels as if you are catering to them or to others - but if you don’t have their perfect answer, how they would react, you break immersion and you make all the other choices ultimately unsatisfying. Humans are very hung up on the ‘what if’ and the comparisons of what’s better.
“Here's a $2,000 Hawaiian vacation package; it's now on sale for 1,600. Assuming you wanted to go to Hawaii, would you buy this package? Most people say they would. Here's a slightly different story: $2,000 Hawaiian vacation package is now on sale for 700 dollars, so you decide to mull it over for a week. By the time you get to the ticket agency, the best fares are gone — the package now costs 1,500. Would you buy it? Most people say, no. Why? Because it used to cost 700, and there's no way I'm paying 1,500 for something that was 700 last week. This tendency to compare to the past is causing people to pass up the better deal. In other words, a good deal that used to be a great deal is not nearly as good as an awful deal that was once a horrible deal.” (Dan Gilbert)
On the other hand, what if you could solve that problem? What if you could have all the perfect answers because you have somehow accommodated for every choice?
Back to the bakery - you’re looking at this menu that has all your options. But it’s not a menu anymore, it’s a book and it has every single possible variation and combination on the planet and there are just pages and pages and pages of cakes.
Most players get overwhelmed. This is the second unsatisfying realization: there’s too much choice and I can’t decide. Schwartz says, “with so many options, people find it difficult to choose at all”. They would rather give their agency, their choice, up for a simpler option. Most people would rather just pick chocolate than chocolate with 30% cocoa and 10% vanilla and 50 grams of coconut.
The third unsatisfying realization is - you will have people entering the bakery and looking at all these options and saying, ‘This is all just cake’. Rather than give them pies, muffins, cookies - you have just offered them cake. Lots of cake - but still just cake - and that is the last unsatisfying realization: you have given me the same choice multiple times. Why would I buy multiple hats if I can only wear one hat at a time?
Sheena Iyengar conducted a study in both Europe and America where she gave participants a selection of seven sodas. Many of the participants from Europe looked at her selection of seven sodas and said this is just one choice - soda. It wasn’t Coke, Pepsi, Mountain Dew - it was all just soda.
Illusion of Agency
What do we do to make satisfying realizations? Cass Phillips says, “Having choices that are actually impactful to your storyline - not really a big deal” - a statement that I agree with. Decisions that feel impactful are more important than decisions that are impactful. Esler supports this with “player satisfaction is not from the branching (narrative) but the illusion (of branching)”.
Actual agency does not matter - however, most players don’t like being treated like an idiot. Actually, most people don’t like being treated like an idiot. So, how do we create this feeling agency without giving them, well, too much agency. How do we make the player feel like their choice has made an impact?
By creating clear consequences within your choices, players understand that they are losing something even if they gain something. For classic example, the player must decide between heading out for a party or stay up and finish their deep dive.
There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer, but by forcing the players to give an answer, you are making them think about it. To quote Ruth Chang, “Hard choices are hard because there is no best option.”
Say, I gave you a choice right now - we’re going to talk about bad choices but you can choose which one I talk about - there are three types. Misleading and unclear choices, false choices, and clear right or wrong choices.
Thanks for picking - but now that I’ve thought about it - I think I want to talk about false choices first.
Do you see what just happened there? The effect gets a little lost within linear text but - it doesn’t matter what you chose. I was going to talk about false choices no matter what you chose. If it’s too obvious, your players notice and they feel you’re trying to trick them or treat them like they’re stupid - which, is not a good thing. By saying I have given you choice but it makes no difference, you leave your players asking - what’s the point? Why are they doing this?
Misleading and unclear choices are a matter of semantics. The choice you have given isn’t understood by your player and they believe it to be something else. Upon choosing it, they will find themselves unsatisfied or have their immersion broken because it’s not what they wanted or expected.
There is a popular example within Telltale Game’s The Wolf Among Us where players are given an option to ‘glass him’ while having a heart to heart talk with another character. Many players assume that you toast the character or offer him another drink but actually, you end up smacking him in the face with the glass.
Giving players a choice where one outcome is obviously right and the other one is obviously wrong is not only straightforward but also not great for player satisfaction - especially if they are punished for it. Players don’t like being told that they’re wrong and sometimes feel like the writer has tricked them. It is one thing to be bad or evil - it’s another to be wrong. Avoid punishing your player for making a decision - people don’t like being blamed.
To reference the previous - there shouldn’t be any right or wrong choices, just choices.
In conclusion, as humans, feeling like we make our own decisions is important. We make these narratives our own when we feel like we’ve had some input and impact on them. Too much choice and too many options are overwhelming - it’s actually too much control for most people to handle and can often take the narrative into unsatisfying half hearted areas. We can use clear consequences to establish an illusion of choice and give players a feeling of satisfying impact.
"Choice." OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016. Web. 23 February 2017.
Chang, Ruth. “How to make hard choices.” TEDSalon NY2014, May 2014
Esler, Liam. “Finding the Right Branching Narrative Structure For Your RPG.” Game Developers’ Association of Australia, GDC 2016, March 2016
Gilbert, Dan. “Why we make bad decisions.” TEDGlobal 2005, July 2005
Iyengar, Sheena. “The art of choosing.” TEDGlobal 2010, July 2010
Phillipps, Cassie. “All Choice No Consequence: Efficiently Branching Narrative” Pocket
Gems/ FailCon, GDC 2016, March 2016
Schwartz, Barry. “The paradox of choice.” TEDGlobal 2005, July 2005