The Conundrum of Choice-Based Games

In Features by Katherine2 Comments

I love choice-based games. The idea that the morals I assign to my character carry canonical weight is exciting and ingenious to me. When I was finally able to get my hands on a copy of Life Is Strange, I played it as quickly as possible, making sure to still take extra care about the choices that I made and using Max’s rewind power liberally to make sure I could get what I thought was the best possible ending — an ending where everyone lives. When I raced through to the end of Episode 5, I was excited to see what kind of ending my good choices would give me.

When I found myself (and Max) faced with, instead, two choices, I was incredibly disappointed. It was Mass Effect 3 all over again.

There’s a conundrum surrounding the idea of choice-based games. The idea of choice plays most heavily into RPG franchises like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, where players are encouraged to put thought into their characters, but it appears in almost every genre. And choice in games seems to go over well as often as it flops. For every Mass Effect 3, there’s a Mass Effect 2. For every Life is Strange, there’s an Until Dawn.

There are more games involving player choice than I could possible ever list, or play, so for the sake of brevity I’ll just talk about a few from both sides of the line.

Mass Effect 2 was one of the first choice-based games that I played where I understood the weight of what I was doing, and where I felt the payoff at the end. Throughout the game, the player feels the impact of not only the choices made in the game, but also of those made in Mass Effect. As someone who didn’t play Mass Effect until well after I had finished the final two games, I never experienced this until I had already perfected my run of 2. But that first time, I remember the fear I felt going into the Suicide Mission. I reaped exactly what I had sown and almost all of my squadmates, and all of my kidnapped crewmembers, died. I was devastated that I had somehow messed up so badly that everybody died. I really felt the weight of the choices I had made in the game, and that’s what makes the system of choice so successful.

The impact of my decisions that I felt in the end of Mass Effect 2 made me excited to play Mass Effect 3The issue of Mass Effect 3’s ending has been talked to death already, but I was still incredibly frustrated when my Paragon Shepard reached the end and was able to reverse all of the work that I had put in during the game. Mass Effect 3 promised players that our choices would matter in deciding the fate of the galaxy and, while the choices presented in the penultimate scene achieves that idea of the choice mattering, it invalidates everything that the player has done up to that point. Mass Effect 2 successfully crafted a finale where the decisions the player makes matter, and Mass Effect 3 fails to deliver an ending that carries that much weight.

Like I already mentioned, Life is Strange is another game that promises player choice through the use of the butterfly effect — the idea that the smallest actions can eventually have a larger impact. Contained within the episodes, Life is Strange does this really well. I can feel Max’s relationships with the characters changing, and the game gives you choices where sometimes, neither answer is the right answer. At the end of Episode 2 when Max loses her ability to rewind, I really felt the impact of my decision to comb through every single extra detail the devs included when I was able to save Kate Marsh. I felt the impact of decisions that I made in Episode 1 in Episode 5 when I was able to convince Victoria to not trust Nathan, and then I was made to regret this decision almost immediately.

When you look at your decisions outside of the ending, they did matter, but games like Life is Strange come with the promise that your decisions will ultimately impact the way the game ends, and they don’t. When you reach the end of the game, you’re faced with a binary decision. Max must either kill Chloe, her childhood best friend who you spend the entire game saving, or you condemn all of Arcadia Bay. For someone like me, who spent the entire game carefully choosing my actions so I could get a good ending, I was incredibly frustrated with the idea that nothing that I had just done actually mattered. Posing players with difficult moral decisions in the finale is a good tactic, but it doesn’t work when players are promised that their choices made throughout the game will influence the ending. Much like Mass Effect 3, Life is Strange’s decisions matter within the context of the meat of the game, but fail to come into play at all in the finale.

A more recent game that did well with choice is Until Dawn. Functioning, much like Life is Strange, on the idea of the butterfly effect, Until Dawn weaves a story where the actions you choose to take matter. Choosing to shoot a squirrel during the tutorial leads to a character not being able to escape the killer later on in the game. You can choose to shoot someone in a moment of fear, and then find out minutes later that their death was senseless. The entire time I played, I was absolutely petrified that I would do something or say something wrong and end up killing my characters.

On my first several playthroughs, I never got the same result. While the ending stays the same, you can have any combination of characters survive at the end. Aside from the split-second decision making, the thing that Supermassive did well here is only having one save slot. If you mess up halfway through the game, you’re stuck with that mistake unless you restart and lose all of your progress. Being “stuck” with the results is part of what makes the game so successful. When I can’t do anything about the decision I just made, it feels that much more important.

There are games that fall on either side in the execution of player choice. Ultimately, I love the concept. Feeling like decisions carry weight within the story is part of why people play these kinds of games. Developers have to be incredibly careful with how they execute choice because it either leads to an ending where the player feels like the choices they made matter, or one where they’re left disappointed.

Katherine on TwitterKatherine on Youtube

Your Dungeon Master, best friend, and contributor for Obilisk.

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This is a great and interesting read. I love the ability to have choices in games. I understand what you mean when you feel like the choices should have meaning and consequences. I think in one way or another whether you like the outcome or not they do have meaning or consequences. I do get frustrated at points where you think that a choice matters and it doesn’t satisfy the weight of the choices made. I prefer the option of choice based games to a linear experience. Now don’t get me wrong I will enjoy a linear experience if it’s a great one but who doesn’t like to determine the set of outcomes when given the choice? I think more than ever developers are trying to make choice an option… Read more »
It’s interesting that you felt compelled to play Life is Strange in a way that focused so much on getting a specific ending. I personally played it with a different approach. I feel that choice-based games present me with the chance to play “in character” more than they tempt me with the promise of satisfaction from a perfect ending. I like to play these kinds of games because I feel I am driving the motivations behind my character’s words and actions, and in so doing, I maintain a strong empathetic connection with the character I am playing. The kind of character I choose to portray depends on my interpretation of the protagonist, so, armed with whatever knowledge I have of the character’s backstory and any other clues the game might… Read more »