What Makes a Choice Meaningful?
I want to start out with some thoughts about choice in narrative games. Specifically, I want to examine some factors that make a choice in a narrative game meaningful to the player. This is a big subject, and considering how subjective the term "meaningful" is, (not to mention that I'm still trying to figure all this out myself), I don't imagine I'll get very far in trying to answer this question:
"In a narrative game, what makes a choice meaningful?"
This isn't a question that I really expect to answer, but by exploring some examples we might be able to shed some light on what types of meaning are at play in game choices. So, for this post, I want to examine four choices in four different narrative games, and discuss how they are meaningful to the player in different ways. Turns out there are many types of meaning to be found in these choices:
1) Mass Effect 2 Final Mission: Keep the Reaper?
AKA: The "Pivotal Moment" Choice
Mass Effect 2 (BioWare)
Let's start off with a bang, with a choice that comes with major consequences. Here it is, folks. The biggest of the big. The pivotal nothing-will-ever-be-the-same-after-this moment. The decision to keep or destroy the Reaper in the final mission of Mass Effect 2.
This is a decision defined mostly by it's consequences. Consequences are an important factor in determining how meaningful a choice in a narrative game can be, and that's what I want to focus on in this example.
The player's decision to preserve, or destroy, a disabled Reaper (powerful and dangerous alien technology) will come with drastic consequences not just for the rest of the game, but for the sequel (Mass Effect 3) as well. The next game will feature different characters, different missions, and additional decision points (with different results) depending on this one choice. The stakes of this decision are about as high as they can get, and come with massive effects to the narrative. It's almost like they named the series Mass Effect for a reason...
So... is this choice meaningful? Yes, of course! It's actually meaningful in two ways. This decision not only triggers different events in the overall narrative, but it also cements the player's attitude toward the player character. The player may be thinking:
No. We don't need it. - My Shepard will not embrace Reaper technology for any reason. Maybe I don't trust the guy who is offering it to me (the Illusive Man), maybe I think this tech can't be controlled, maybe I just hate Reapers because they keep killing everyone. Whatever the reason, this Reaper is getting blown up.
Okay, let's take it and use it. - My Shepard will do anything to save the galaxy, even if that means embracing Reaper technology. Maybe I'm willing to take the risk, and think we can approach this cautiously. Maybe I'm going full Renegade and don't care about anything. Whatever the reason, we're keeping this Reaper intact.
Shepard's experiences will NOT be the same after this.
In an ideal world, it is the kind of choice that narrative designers should be aiming for - one that has meaning to the player character and consequences for the overall progression of the narrative. Focusing on the consequences for now, the next game will continually remind the player about the fallout, for good or ill, that came from this one choice. This makes this choice incredibly meaningful to the narrative and the player's experience of the game.
Therefore, all choices in a narrative game should trigger massive chances to the narrative, right? RIGHT?
Well, choices in this vein do come at a price. For a decision with this level of consequence, developers have to create unique content that most players will never experience. This costs time, money and effort. In addition, in terms of the narrative itself, every new story branch makes it that much harder for the player's own narrative thread to stay coherent and engaging.
In the case of Mass Effect 3, one could argue that the game suffered as a result of players having too many meaningful choices! Without getting too deep into that topic (which deserves its own post). It's enough to say that robust choices can sometimes create difficult design and storytelling challenges that don't always leave every player satisfied. But, one could argue, that's the name of the game!
This choice stands as one of the most memorable decision points in the short history of narrative games. It might have promised just a little more than it delivered, but you better believe that it was meaningful. From it, we can learn that consequences are a key factor in upping the stakes and adding meaning to choice moments in a game. However, consequences are the ONLY factor in making a game choice feel meaningful to a player, as we'll see in the next example.
Conclusion: A choice that comes with long-term consequences for a game narrative can be incredibly meaningful to the player, but can also come at great cost to developers in time, money, and storytelling challenges (and players may not even appreciate it!)
2) Nicki Minaj: The Empire - Nicki, My Rival Stole My Rap!
AKA: The "I'm Still Feeling Out My Character" Choice
Nicki Minaj: The Empire (Glu Mobile)
Some decisions DON'T come with major consequences, but are still meaningful (albeit in a more limited way).
In this example from Nicki Minaj: The Empire (a game I worked on, but that's not important), the player has recently met the one and only Nicki Minaj. Nicki was impressed with the player's incredible rap skills, and offered the use of her studio to record a new hit song! Unfortunately, just as the player has finished writing a brilliant new rap, the nefarious Bitta Sweet copied the lyrics to the song and passed it off as her own!
When Nicki calls to see if the player is ready to record, the player has a choice as to how to emote about this difficult situation. Each of the three possible dialogue options comes with a slightly different result. The player avatar will show a different animation (talking, anger, or sadness) and Nicki's response will differ based on which of the three options the player chooses.
(explain) - talking animation, Nicki response 1
(go off) - anger animation, Nicki response 2
(cry) - sad animation, Nicki response 3
However, that's it. The three branches created by this choice come right back together later in the phone call, and there are no long term consequences to the game's narrative.
So, is this choice meaningful? Totally! At least, it has some meaning, specifically to how the player relates to the player character.
The question the player is (hopefully) asking is, "How would my character react to this event?" and may be thinking something like...
(explain) - My character keeps cool and reacts calmly in difficult situations.
(go off) - Don't mess with my character, coz she does NOT put up with other peoples' crap.
(cry) - My character's heart is broken. OR I'm pressing this because it seems like the funniest option.
If the player chose the (go off) option, and showed anger, that might change how the player reacts to different events later in the narrative. The next time Bitta Sweet attacks the player (and trust me, she will), the player may make the character react in an "angry" way again.
The story itself will flow along as it always would have, but the player's relationship to their character may never be the same. It's choices like this that help the player define just who the player's character really is, and thus become meaningful in their own way. As an added bonus, they are easy to implement!
Conclusion: A choice that comes with no long-term consequences to the story can still be meaningful if it helps the player define a relationship with the player character.
3) Infamous 2: Fire or Ice?
AKA: The "Nothing Personal I Just Want Cool Powers" Choice
Infamous 2 (Sucker Punch)
This one is a bit of an cheat. It's not a single, specific choice, but a series of smaller choice moments that the player encounters throughout the game. What makes this example truly unique is that the consequences of these choices affect both the narrative progression and the player's gameplay experience.
In the Infamous series, players are given choices that come with both narrative consequences and gameplay consequences. In the second game, Infamous 2, the player can do "bad" things to earn "evil karma" to upgrade fiery Napalm abilities, or do "good" things to earn "good karma" to upgrade icy Cryokinesis abilities. These powers are broadly similar, and the player can complete the game with either set. However, they are not equivalent.
Abilities which the player can unlock in Infamous 2 affect the player's capability to traverse the game world, help/hurt civilians, or defeat enemies and bosses. Players, being individuals, will prefer some abilities to others, and their motivations in making choices in the game may very well be determined more by what abilities they want to unlock rather than by their player character's motivation, or by what sort of ending they're aiming for in the narrative.
Is this type of choice meaningful? Of course! The consequences are not just narrative, but fundamental to how the player experiences the game. However, this is definitely a tricky area, as it runs the risk of pitting the player's gameplay style against their narrative motivations.
Consequences that influence gameplay add a new layer of depth to each decision that the player makes. Though always imperfect, they add to the fun and replayability of the game overall, and clever design makes for subtle variations that let players feel powerful with either set of abilities. In Infamous 2, players might choose the abilities that they like the most, or stay true to their characters and let what abilities that unlock come naturally. Players can always replay the game if they want to try out those napalm grenades.
This specific subject of gameplay vs. narrative consequences from in-game choices probably deserves its own post. More on that later.
Conclusion: A choice that results in different gameplay rewards or abilities adds a new variable and an additional layer of depth to a game choice, but runs the risk of confusing the narrative's original intent.
4) Firewatch: Which Dog Do You Bring Home?
AKA: The "Change the Flavor, Not the Dish" Choice
Firewatch (Campo Santo)
This example represents what I think is one of the most effective methods of adding choices to a narrative game. The consequences of this decision are subtle, but important on a personal level. As a result, the decision is incredibly meaningful even as it doesn't result in major consequences to the game narrative or to the gameplay mechanics.
This is a nice "middle path" which allows developers to keep the narrative themes and events in their story consistent and clear, while still giving players meaningful ways to personalize their game experience. The player has changed the flavor, but not the dish.
The example here is from Firewatch, which was my favorite narrative game of last year. This choice occurs near the beginning, where the player makes a series of seemingly innocuous decisions that will reverberate throughout the rest of the game. These decisions help define the player's relationship to the main character of the game, Henry.
In this example, the player chooses what kind of dog Henry will bring home to his wife. This decision will not change the game's fundamental themes, unlock new abilities, or determine the fate of the galaxy - nothing like that. This is a personal choice with low stakes, but it is loaded with meaning. It even combines characteristics from our first two examples.
From the first example, this choice comes with consequences that will return to the player farther down the line, but in a subtle way. The player will be reminded about this choice multiple times throughout the narrative whenever Henry is reminded of his old dog. This helps reinforce the meaning and value of the player's decision, but in a way that allows the rest of the narrative to flow naturally (no need to account for hundreds of different possibilities).
From the second example, this choice is important in helping delineate how the player relates to the player character. The player could be thinking something like:
You pick up the Beagle and she names him Bucket.
- My game wife's preferences are important to me. She can take care of herself, and I'll choose the dog that she wants. I want to make her happy, and I think Beagles are funny.
You adopt the Shepherd and name him Mayhem.
- My game wife is wrong on this one. She needs a dog to protect her. Shepherds are badass, and I want a badass dog. She'll learn to love it.
As you can see, this decision not only has meaning for how the player character approaches a situation, but might even touch on the player's attitude toward women in general. The player may make future decisions differently based on this choice.
For a game with few moving parts like Firewatch, simple choices like this one add layers of flavor and personality to the game's narrative in a way that is meaningful (and manageable to developers). There's a lot of bang for your buck in a choice like this!
Conclusion: A choice that is personally important to the player character, but leaves the overall arc of the narrative unchanged, can provide a meaningful decision to the player while remaining manageable to developers - especially if the results of that choice recur later in the game.
We've barely scratched the surface of this subject. I will likely write many more posts related to this question:
"What makes a choice in a narrative game meaningful?"
One takeaway I got from writing all this down was an appreciation for the many kinds of meaning a game choice can have:
Meaning to the events of the story.
How will the story change as a result of this decision?
Meaning to the player's character.
How will this decision affect the player's relationship or attitude toward the player character?
Meaning to the player.
How will my gameplay experience change as a result of this decision.
A choice moment in a narrative game should probably have at least one of these factors at play to be considered "meaningful." But, as mentioned before, we've barely scratched the surface.