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Meaningful Choices in Games, Part 2: Choices and Gameplay

As stated before, We hope the following isn’t considered as a know it all expert blathering about how to make the best game ever. We hope it provides insight into why we make our games the way we do,  and provides a starting point for discussion on this topic.

In our previous post, we discussed why choice is interesting in games, and how to make a choice interesting, and get around the whole “use Google to get the best choice” issue. In this post, we will discuss how to tie choices to gameplay, and even better, how you can use gameplay choices to affect a story.

One of the best games that show examples of how your choices affect gameplay and how gameplay choices affect story is “Deus Ex”, along with it’s most recent sequel, “Deus Ex: Human Revolution” (DX: HR). I’ll go through the first mission of “Deus Ex: Human Revolution”, explain the main interesting choices, along with what makes them interesting.

Some of the first choices you get are also some of the most interesting. Before the mission, you get to choose what weapon you want to use to take out your enemies, whether it’s lethal or non-lethal, and if you want a short range or long range weapon. This gives the player immense power over making the story they are playing their own. Do they want their character as a stealthy spy that doesn’t believe in killing security guards that have families, or a bloodthirsty killer that enjoys getting up close and personal before taking them out? It’s a very easy choice to set up, but gives the player so much agency that it’s worth it. Later characters react to you choosing to be lethal or non-lethal towards enemies as well.

Another very interesting “choice” a player gets in the first mission of DX: HR happens before they even start the first mission. The first mission tasks you with saving prisoners, retrieving technology developed by your boss, and taking out the terrorist leader. You can fail the “saving prisoners” part of the mission by taking too long to get ready for the mission, and characters will react to your speed later in the game. Usually things like this are telegraphed by having a timer up on the game screen (HUD) and making it obvious, but DX: HR makes the choice more interesting and less gamey by not making this choice stand out. Doing things like this are another easy way to blend the story and gameplay together, and I’m surprised this doesn’t appear more often in games.

The biggest integration on gameplay on story in the first mission is the conversation you have with the terrorist leader. Since he has a hostage, you want to try and calm him down. You can either talk him into giving up, tell him you’ll let him go, or fail completely and he will kill the hostage and be shot at when he escapes. If your aim is good enough, and you are fast enough, you can also try and take him down lethally or non lethally before even starting the conversation. This brings all the gameplay elements of DX: HR together with the story in a very interesting way, showing the many different ways you can handle this situation. And there are consequences that spring from all of these choices. If you wanted to study choices in games, playing any Deux Ex game is a very good start.

Probably the most interesting example of how gameplay can change a story is in “Silent Hill 2” (SH2). You don’t make any choices in conversations, you make choices in how you play the game. The story in SH2 is extremely dark, with a man called James trying to find his wife, Mary, who is dead, but apparently sent him a letter asking him to come to Silent Hill. The ending you get in the game depends on how you play the game. There are 6 endings, but I’ll only go over the most 3 interesting ones from a choice and gameplay perspective.

Also, spoilers I guess, but the game is like 13 years old.

If you play the game like a gamer most likely would (Conserve health items, examine everything, search everywhere) then your ending features your James committing suicide. If you play the game while trying to keep the memory of your wife alive by being as fast as you can to get to her, looking at her photo and reading her letter over and over, you get an ending where James and Mary make peace and James goes back to living his life again. If you play the game while taking care of Mary’s doppleganger, Mary and James fight, and James leaves with Mary’s doppleganger, who is a twisted fantasy of what James wanted in a woman.

The most interesting thing about this is that at no point does the game make it explicitly clear you are making a choice through your actions, but is able to react to how you play the game, and give you an ending that makes sense with what your character sees and does. I’d really like to see this sort of thing happen in games more often, but since it’s so nuanced and not just a series of choices, I can see why it doesn’t. It seems to be very hard to pull off consistently.

As always, thanks for reading, and I hope this makes you think about some choices for your own games.

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  1. David

    July 11, 2014 at 9:20 pm

    I never played SH2 but it sounds interesting. I guess a potential concern is that the player doesn’t realise that the ending is related to how they played the game, so when they get to the end they don’t know what they missed out on. Did they deal with that in SH2?

    • Good question, I don’t think they did… It’s the sort of thing that I had to google back then.

      Newer games are a bit clearer on this sort of thing. “Lone Survivor” ranks you on everything you do, and your ending changes based on that, mostly as good or bad endings.

      It also shows everything that affected your ending, but doesn’t give away how to get the “good” ending.

      The creator mentioned SH2 as one of his influences, and it’s a very good indie survival horror game. You can even find a cat and look after it! 🙂

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