Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Game Design: Small Choices

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 14, 2011

As a gamer, we want deeply meaningful decisions that can change the whole course of the story, a la the old Choose Your Own Adventure books. We want big, dramatic decisions with big, dramatic consequences.

Unfortunately, reality dictates that we must usually settle for something less. Too often it’s a lot less, and we get stupid decisions that feel meaningless for all their overwrought set-up. Worse, these decisions are given all kinds of moral gravity – you are required to choose between goody-two-shoes, evil jerkwad psychopath, or Rhett Butler “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” responses that feel forced and doesn’t often match your (or your characters) interpretation of a situation. (Yeah, I’m picking on Bioware again a little here, but it’s not just them).

It’s like the designers want to give us these great big, dramatic decisions, but it ends up being all sound and fury signifying nothing. Or very little. We get the set-up, but not the payoff.

It doesn’t have to be a big story-changing deal. Way back in the early 1980s, the Ultima series provided some very basic, simple choices between good and evil, without comment. Note that I’m mainly talking Ultima III, as I didn’t play the first two.  Back then, death was more than just a negligible inconvenience, and the game wasn’t scaled to make sure you weren’t overpowered by challenges. Just dealing with poison or starvation was enough to do you in. Your survival was always at stake, and many players felt that the games encouraged – or occasionally even forced – them to kill those not necessarily in need of killing, and to steal from the merchants when they weren’t looking. It wasn’t an explicit decision, it was simply something allowed by the game. And there were some consequences, generally requiring a quick escape from town to avoid a major beat-down. We could determine whether our characters would justify a little theft in the name of survival.

Later, Ultima IV gave us a very simple template for interesting, intelligent choices that were not at all the black-and-white – starting with the gypsy woman letting us choose our character class not by choosing good versus evil, but by choosing priorities of multiple virtues. These decisions were echoed, if sometimes clumsily, through regular choices that made us choose the greater of two goods. Do we show compassion for a fleeing enemy, or show valor by hunting them down and preventing them from doing evil to a less capable travellers?

The game didn’t make it explicit – you had to take regular trips to the castle to find out how your accumulated decisions were panning out. You also weren’t worried about being saddled with “negative rewards.” You didn’t worry about being given a point of Evil if you were trying to be Good. Yes, in a sense you “spent” points of one virtue to obtain points in another, but that felt okay. And most importantly, the constant flow of interesting – if small – choices, knowing they added up somehow to help you on you ultimate goal, really added to the game.

I think it was the last point that was key. You weren’t just seeing numbers accumulate in a faction or karma level which has an unknown effect on how the game plays out. You had a goal, and had to find a balance to get there. You could see how your choices were getting you closer – or further – from your goal.

More recently, in Fallout: New Vegas, I found myself feeling a bit of the ol’ Ultima III vibe with a decision which I’ll try and keep generic to avoid spoilage. Basically, you find yourself with an option to aid a townsperson to find – and take revenge on – a fellow townsperson who has done them wrong. You have a lot of choices here, including blaming the wrong individual. I chose to lead the guilty party to their summary execution. While it’s not something I’d do in real life, but considering the setting – and how I’d dispensed my own justice not always in self-defense out of the barrel of my own gun out in the wasteland – I felt it was something my character would do without much compunction. While non-hostile or threatening, I felt the guilty individual needed killing. Good enough, in my character’s book.

It was a small decision. It changed some things in the game world, and provided me with an extra option that I never took advantage of. It was a small thing, in the scope of the game world and what comes later. But it was meaningful. It was a good moment.

A totally different approach which I also enjoy is found in Soldak’s indie RPGs  Depths of Peril and Din’s Curse. The consequences even for inaction in these games follow sometimes too swiftly, and build on each other to a degree. The game doesn’t dictate moral consequence on your character for whether you choose to rush to the aid of townsfolk under attack, or you instead focus on attacking the problem at the source before dealing with the symptom. But you have to live with the consequences of the choice. Townsfolk may die. In Din’s Curse, the entire town may be lost. These may happen regardless of your choice – it’s second-by-second decision making with ever-changing criteria. And as many gamers have noted, it can get somewhat stressful to be constantly juggling priorities. But it can also be a lot of fun.

And it’s always kind of cool to see long-term effects as well, as the Fallout games showed us. Even for the small things.

I guess what I’m saying is that while big, game-changing decisions with all kinds of dramatic gravity can be a lot of fun if handled correctly, I’m really more interested in having a plethora of small choices and their consequences. Sometimes, it’s the small choices that count. We should see small, relatively immediate, visible results, or a clear cumulative progression towards a particular goal. A few long-term effects won’t hurt either.


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 9 Comments to Read

  • Berber said,

    Darkwind has this system where users can write their own missions and submit to a group called the “Storytellers”. As a Storyteller, I have to look through a lot of them, and most are just standard fedex or assassination missions. They were mostly the same thing, and I wondered why, even though we had a rather robust system.

    Then it hit me: the editors seemed to be aiming for the “end” and neglecting the “process”, which is also apparently a quality lacking in many RPGs that are supposedly non-linear. In trying to show you the result of your choice, games fail to let you appreciate the process of the dialogue. The choice that you’d previously selected just feels empty, like the developers have tacked it on for no other reason other than to tell you “see, we did this too!”

    As a recent example, I played Mass Effect and it just didn’t have that messed effect (zing) when I chose Renegade dialogue options. Of course the dialogue wheel not turning up the appropriate response I was expecting was responsible for the ensuing disappointment, but the dialogue also always struck me as being off. Not only do the responses fail to reflect what you’d expect to hear from real-life actors (actors as in, actors of a particular role in a particular situation, though it is still acceptable in the soap opera context), but they don’t reflect the weight of your choice. Any attempt at moral struggles seem to be lost by how NPCs react to you, and so on and so forth.

    It even shows in the perception of developers. Not going to mention any names, but certain developers seem to think that non-linearity means giving you the option to choose either A, B, C, D or E. I prefer to think of it as many possible permutations of various options that lead to either A, B, C, D or E.

    On a somewhat irrelevant sidenote: this is also tied in to humour, which is another feature lost on many developers it seems. I don’t find gay sex distasteful, but the constant explication of it in games these days as a selling point is; OTOH I find it absolutely humourous how the Chosen One in FO2 goes through the gay marriage process, and the little things that you can say in trying to convince Grisham not to attack you.

    Back to Darkwind, I then took it on myself to create a mission that was out of the norm. You confront an old man. What do you do: A) talk to him; B) ignore him and walk off, thus ending the mission. If you chose A, you now have the option to keep talking to him, or in the midst of talking, beat the crap out of him for no apparent reason; from there, the choices become even sillier, ranging from yelling like Tarzan and running around naked, or calling for someone to challenge you to a brawl, which results in you getting royally trounced.

    Of course the text is more complex than that to ensure it is conveyed in good taste, but it’s just an example of what I meant by saying that the process matters. *Absolute matters*.

  • McTeddy said,

    I love choose your own adventure books… but I’ve never felt like they were actual freedom. Yet… Many game’s today seem to think that choosing between “Jerk” or “Saint” is enough to qualify as freedom.

    One game actually impressed me with it’s freedom was “Wing Commander”. Nearly every mission in the game could end in victory or failure without Game Over. Do I want to attack the enemy capital ship or retreat to fight another day? Is my ship in good enough condition to continue patrolling or do I head back to base? Do I risk my escort objective so that I can take out the enemy ace?

    Even though it’s implementation was primitive… The little decisions in that game make my actions feel worthwhile. I never knew what consequences would occur for my decisions… or even which decisions would matter the most.

    The focus on making little decisions matter is one of the major things that I love about those games.

    I’m not saying I hate “Nice Guy / Jerkoff” decisions. I just think that there are more options than a clear “Choose your ending now!” menu.

  • Berber said,

    -addendum- Come to think about it I don’t really remember if Grisham is ever able to attack you when he confronts you after you’ve done it with Miria/Davin, but the whole affair was still quite a memorable event in the game.

  • Menigal said,

    I’d say that the vast majority of “big changes” in a game end up as just a different ending, usually of the tired old Superman-good or Cobra Commander-evil variety. The small, New-Vegasy changes that actually affect things as you play give a much better feeling of being in a real, living world. Of course, that identifies the problem. Too many games aren’t about creating a world for you to experience, but a storyline for you to follow along with. We’ve covered this ground before.

    Smaller, but significant, world changes can be harder to do, or at least harder to do well. You might have a city that you can help a group of rebels take over, but then you have to decide how to follow up the actual conquest. Does the city magically turn into the rebel archetype after a fadeout? Does it stay on fire, with corpses littering the streets for months afterwards (remember Kvatch from Oblivion, anyone)? Both are pretty poor options, but slowly moving from one to the other has obvious problems. I’d say they’re worth overcoming, personally.

  • Lindsey said,

    I sometimes wish some credit card processors are not to restricted in their approvals but then again these days I have been hearing about credit card thief, I kind of understand part of their position.

    Personally I have no issues buying from BMT Micro, slight issues with Plimus as they need to call me but worse processor for me is Fastspring, always my card failed with them with “Order Not Accepted”.

    Whenever contacting them they will claim I need to retry which is a joke since it will continue to fail until 1 game developer told me its due to them either detecting I am under proxy/vpn which is true, then following day when I purchased something from SegPay it goes through without any hassle.

    Why some payment processors put up so much security loops! With so many different payment processors out there its kind of hard to keep track, some will give customers easier time making payments others are just very frustrating not to mention some of their support are plain unhelpful. Just thought I make a comment on this issue

  • WCG said,

    I don’t want “big, dramatic decisions with big, dramatic consequences.” I want small decisions that make a recognizable difference, even if small.

    But I’ve got a couple of pet peeves with decisions (besides the fact that they usually seem to have no effect on anything):

    I heard a lot of praise about the decisions in The Witcher, because they weren’t “good” or “evil.” But I disliked them, because there was never any reason to choose one over the other. I could have just flipped a coin. Indeed, that was all my decisions actually were, because I never had enough information to make an intelligent choice.

    And since both decisions usually seemed to end up equally bad, it really didn’t matter which I chose. I don’t care how “gritty” they are (which was the word usually used when praising them), those aren’t the kinds of decisions I think are worthwhile. (In fact, most of the time, I wanted to compromise, but that was never an option.)

    Second, there’s how the whole good vs evil thing usually plays out. I don’t mind the general idea behind that, and I always play a good guy, a hero. (I’ve never quite understood why so many people want to roleplay a bad guy, but that’s beside the point.)

    My problem is that playing an evil character – or just an amoral one – is almost always the way to get ahead. There are rarely any real consequences to theft or murder. In fact, often the consequences – like being attacked by guards with good loot – are very beneficial.

    And if you get caught pickpocketing, for example, you just reload a saved game. That makes it all upside, and no downside. Well, it’s hard to make a downside that will keep the game fun, true. But usually, games seem designed to benefit, if not an evil character, at least a player who pays no attention to the morality of his actions at all.

    I’d much rather play a game where the point is to make good, ethical decisions. You can do otherwise, but you won’t prosper (just as you can make bad decisions in other ways – like jumping in lava – but that doesn’t turn out well). In real-life, criminals are generally complete losers who aren’t smart enough to make wise decisions. Why should it be different in a game?

    Does this limit player choice? Well, yes, in a way. But it also means that good choices matter. It’s the same thing as making good decisions in other aspects of the gameplay. Besides, there are other ways to involve choice, such as what things the player decides to do in the first place.

    And the decisions don’t have to be clear-cut, but you should at least be able to get enough information to choose intelligently.

    Finally, if I really could, I’d love to be able to compromise. How many decisions are really black and white? In most cases, there should be at least one middle position – and probably many. (But I don’t know how you code that in a game.)

  • Styg said,

    A lot of valid points made. I especially agree with Berber in that true non-linearity should not consist of simple branching.

    (Ignoring the character development) Choices in RPGs come in two forms: social interaction and lasting environment interaction. Even though you are presented with enough tools in both areas, the underlying mechanics of these are usually very simple.

    Let’s take the later – just think about all the stuff you’ve stolen from random chests/drawers/cabinets in various RPGs over the years – just how many times did it influence anything in the game (except you being a bit richer)? Not all that often I’d say. Hell, most games actually allow you to steal people’s stuff right in front of their eyes. If you ever do get some meaningful reaction to this it’s usually because it’s some quest related item and it triggers a scripted event.

    When it comes to social interaction, just how much data does each individual NPC has about you really? I’d say a few flags for the important stuff you did/didn’t do for them and a single value on the hate-love scale. There’s often the good-bad/light- dark/paragon- renegade /call-it-whatever-whatever scale that’s attached directly to you.

    Granted this can be enough to create varied results (think Fallout 1 / 2 endings), but it’s usually averaged and branched into a very limited set of mutually exclusive outcomes.

    So why are these systems so simple? Obviously because the more flexible and open these interactions are, the more complex AI it requires and realistic behavior is becomes harder to achieve. So it’s much easier (cheaper) to rely on scripted events. And of course the dramatic cinematics are all the rage these days.

    I propose that we should try inverting the system. How about a game with a limited set of interaction tools but with dedication to making all these interactions impact the game world in a meaningful and potentially permanent way. Audio-visuals could be kept relatively simple so as not to take too much of the development time which should be focusing on the above mentioned interaction.

  • UDM said,

    @Styg I like this proposal. It sounds a lot like what Soldak’s games set out to achieve, and in many ways they accomplish their goals.

  • Zomblobs! « Tish Tosh Tesh said,

    […] you make all over the place add up to a greater whole.  (See also: The Rampant Coyote’s Game Design: Small Choices […]