Lots of games claim to have “meaningful choices” because lots of players complain when their choices “don’t matter” in a game. Personally, I don’t care how linear a game is if the writing’s good. (And no amount of interesting choice mechanics will save a game when the writing is bad.) But even in games I really admire, I often see a lot of choices that really don’t seem to add anything to the game. So why include them in the first place?
I think writers can make choices better in their games by thinking more about what exactly each choice is supposed to accomplish. My personal strategy for this is to break choices up into different categories. I thought I’d share some of the categories I use in this blog post so that other writers can use/adapt/totally reject them in their own work.
So here are 7 common types of choices in interactive stories, along with why you would/wouldn’t want to use them as a writer. I included pros and cons as well as some famous examples.
1. Life or Death
A life or death choice involves a clearly defined decision between distinctly different story outcomes. Do I kill this character or let them live? It doesn’t have to literally be about life and death, but it must lead to a significant story fork. (If the story goes back to being exactly the same three lines of dialogue later, it isn’t a life or death choice.)
Not all visual novels need life or death choices — they simply don’t work in the context of a more linear story. But if you’re writing a VN with different story branches, you’ll want to learn how to write compelling life or death choices that give players difficult decisions.
Ex. Will you save Doug or Carley in The Walking Dead, Episode 1?
Pro: Lets players know that choices matter; raises stakes of story; gives you the freedom to take a story in dramatically different directions
Con: Forces you to do a lot of writing that many players never see; can seem contrived if overused; doesn’t really work if you want to tell a linear story
A points-based choice may have little effect in the short term, but it will ultimately affect the story at some later time. Sometimes the player can see the points, but often there’s a hidden counter keeping score. This is very common in romance games where you pick someone to date as well as games that involve morality systems or choosing between different factions.
These choices are usually best when properly set up in the story beforehand. I see way too many games where the choice is “Choose which of these characters is your favorite!” before the characters have even been introduced. It helps when players actually feel invested in the preferences instead of feeling like they’re just picking options randomly.
In general, the outcome of a points-based choice shouldn’t be a surprise to the player — points-based choices are kind of like a personality test, so unless you’re doing something experimental, it’s actually better if the outcome is exactly the one the player expects.
Ex. Some choices give you Light Side points and some give you Dark Side points in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Pro: More nuanced than life or death choices; gives players a feeling of control over the story
Con: If you make a points system too obvious it can break immersion… but if it’s not obvious enough, it can lead to frustration; can also be a pain to balance everything when writing
A superficial choice allows a player to express their own style without doing much to change the story. It can literally involve an appearance change (“Should I wear this hat or not?”) but is more often metaphorical. For example, if you can give your character a custom name, that’s a superficial choice. Or if a game lets your character choose between two conversation options that are different in style but would obviously have similar outcomes (i.e. “Yes, sir.” vs. “Okey dokey!”) that’s a superficial choice too.
While the word superficial is sometimes an insult, it isn’t meant that way here — superficial choices can be very effective at building immersion because they make players feel like they’re part of the creative process.
Ex. When you get to control a robot that has a bunch of crazy special moves (that all ultimately do the same thing) in Tales From The Borderlands
Pro: Easy to write since they require little branching; when done well, they can help get players personally invested in a story
Con: They’re low-stakes and don’t create conflict in the story; even when done well, some players will consider them “pointless”
4. Closed System
A closed system involves a cycle of similar choices that repeats until you reach a story outcome that breaks the cycle. Sometimes there’s an element of stat management involved (think business simulators like Lemonade Stand or calendar-style dating sims, where you make the same choices for several in-game days); other times it’s more about exploration (think the branching paths in the Lost Woods in Zelda and how they keep sending you in circles until you reach an exit).
A closed system can have one outcome, where you keep making decisions until you successfully solve a puzzle, or it can have multiple outcomes based on the choices you make.
Ex. Presenting evidence until you figure out the correct answer in Phoenix Wright
Pro: Feels more “gamey” than most choice options
Con: Can be difficult to integrate into a larger story and complex to write
Chronological choices occur when a story splits into several branches and the player gets to decide what order to play them in. Sometimes these are big choices: will you explore location X first or location Y? More often, though, chronological choices are smaller-scale and used for presenting exposition.
In a mystery game, for example, a player might be given the option to ask a suspect “What’s your alibi?” or “What do you know about the victim?” For the story to progress, the player has to ask both questions, but they get to choose which order to do it in.
In general, I’d imagine most players don’t feel strongly either way about chronological choices: they’re not the most exciting, but they’re also unobtrusive enough to not be annoying.
For completionists, these choices can be a minor source of anxiety (“Will I accidentally choose the option that moves the story forward before I see all the other dialogue?”) — so sometimes it’s player-friendly to hint that a choice is simply chronological. (Instead of asking “Which of these things do you want to do?” ask “Which of these things do you want to do FIRST?” to let players know that they’re simply choosing the order.)
Ex. Choosing which poem to hear first in Doki Doki Literature Club
Pro: Easy to implement, natural fit for exposition
Con: Not super interesting, can be mildly annoying for completionists
Inevitable choices look like life or death choices, but actually the same thing happens no matter what you choose. Will you join the heroes or not? No? Well too bad — you have to join them for the story to progress.
Many players claim to hate inevitable choices — “what’s the point?” — and it is true that these choices can be obnoxious and user-unfriendly if abused. But when used sparingly, they can also be very effective. After all, most players don’t know in advance which choices are inevitable: voluntarily choosing to do what the story requires can make the player feel empowered, while futilely attempting to resist the story can make a player feel powerless—both useful things to consider when structuring a larger narrative.
One common way to make players less annoyed with these choices is to write a joke if players make the “wrong” choice so that they still feel like they get some reward.
Ex. When you’re asked whether you want a character to join your party in Paper Mario (and the game keeps going until you say yes)
Pro: Causes minimal story branching; opportunity for humor; works well thematically in stories that involve fate
Con: Can be user-unfriendly and pointless if done wrong
Non-choices are simple. You get something that is presented like a choice but it actually isn’t. Maybe you see a choice menu, but there’s only one option on it. Or maybe there’s a character you have to kill and the story won’t advance until you voluntarily do it. As with inevitable choices, players often claim to hate these choices, but most players will actually be fine with them if you don’t abuse them.
Like inevitable choices, non-choices can convey lack of power or even the will of fate. While that sounds dramatic, non-choices can also be used for comic effect to add emphasis to a story event.
Ex. The beginning of Resident Evil 4 when there’s some ambiguity over whether a man you meet is a zombie, but you have to kill him anyway to progress
Pro: Literally no story branching, so you don’t have to write extra text; disrupts the usual expectations for a choice
Con: The least involving choice option; only effective when used judiciously