Design Review: Player Choice – Choosing Your Own Adventure to better games

Hello, I’m Kinglink, and today we’re talking about a Design Review on Player Choice with a little bit of a Choose Your Own Adventure focus.

Last week I talked about Morality Systems, such as the ones you would find in Mass Effect, Fable, and Catherine. If you’re interested, check that video out, I’ll link it at the end here, but the short version is each game came up a bit lacking due to the morality systems and how those systems might limit what players would choose with Catherine being the best of the three.

With morality systems lacking, the question becomes, what should designers do to facilitate player choice and make players feel like it’s meaningful. The keyword there is feel. Player choice tends to be problematic, and while some games excel in this area by focusing most of their development cycle on creating the illusion of choice, the fact is player choice has to be scripted or accounted for. There’s yet to be a video game that can produce an amazing story or experience without spending a decent amount of development time on the results of that choice.

Let’s start there. Many people don’t know about it, but machine learning has been attempting to arrive at a point where it can not only interpret what people are saying but find ways to respond to them. It’s a rather hard task. On-screen right now is AI Dungeon, which uses a very powerful machine learning model called GPT-2. This is rather incredible in that I can say almost anything to this game and it attempts to come up with a believable response.

Yet as a game it’s pretty bad. It lacks win or lose states and a coherent narrative. That doesn’t disqualify it as a game, but it’s one of those things whereas you play AI Dungeon you realize it’s more of a toy than a true game. If you stop talking about a topic or introduce something brand new, the game will quickly change. It lacks a true game state or world state. Still, if you can think of something, throw it at this game because I thought I would trip it up with concepts of dying in the game, romantic relationships, or even just calling things by weird names, and it continued to work reasonably well throughout all of those tests.

While this can be extremely funny and entertaining at times, it’s more of a thought experiment than a game. I wanted to start here because AI Dungeon and a large number of the GPT-2 games offer unlimited player choice, but it lacks much of the structure that will make that player choice matter. If you can say anything any time and the game tries to make it work, then you need to ask, is there a major value in the experience? I’ll leave that for others to discuss, but I will say I do enjoy playing with these things for about thirty minutes.

So let’s look at a game that tries to value player choice. We’re going to start with perhaps the best example of player choice gone wrong, The Walking Dead: Season 1. If you know of this game you probably already know why it’s here. But let’s give the fast synopsis anyways.

In The Walking Dead: Season 1, the game tries to tell a new story in the world of the comic The Walking Dead. Technically this also occurs in the same universe as the show. The entire franchise is based on surviving a Zombie Apocalypse.

In Season 1 you take on the role of Lee, an ordinary human trying to do his best, and will meet many followers on his path, including Clementine who is also at the core of the story here. Clementine is almost the moral compass in that she’s always there to learn from Lee’s actions, at least that is what the game presents.

At times, Lee will be presented with hard choices, such as which of these people do you want to help. When you make a choice, you often get a choice that someone, in this case, Kenny will remember. So your choices here should matter, and they kind of do.

So I need to discuss the flow of the game. I don’t know if I’d call this a spoiler here as this has been well discussed but if you are nervous about it, jump to the next game.

Is everyone ready? So on screen now will be the famous decision tree. I’m not going to zoom in on it to minimize any spoilers here, but if you’ve never played this game, this is how the game shakes out, and yes we have one entrance and one exit, with two diverging paths. Thanks to Venturebeat or GameBeat for originally creating this image.

The fact is there are important decisions in the game, but those decisions don’t fully change the narrative. By the end of the game, any major decision will dovetail back into a single storyline. There are large decisions here, including ones that will take an episode and a half arc before coming back together, as well as a half episode choice at the end. But those larger diversions are just amounts of time one character or another may still be alive, many decisions in those different branches are the same, so you have different characters, but the same choices and much of the same dialogue.

This is a serious problem for the choices in The Walking Dead. Players felt no real effect of their choices, even if there were some. Players felt that they got a sentence that began with “Jack survived, and then he helped the group” versus “Jill survived, and then she helped the group.” It doesn’t help that Jack or Jill will die soon after to bring the game back together.

There’s also the ending of the game, and I’ve decided not to show it, but to give you an understanding of it, you have a major choice. No matter what you do the game gives you one final choice about the fate of something. I’m being vague on purpose, but let’s just say you can either smash a computer or leave it to get destroyed when a building explodes. It’s much more important than that but that’s how I’ll frame it.

So you can either destroy or leave your computer, but if you don’t make a decision Clementine will make it for you, thus why she has been the moral compass for the entire game. Yes, that does become a morality system, but it’s not a big enough one because it only comes into play in the final choice through inaction.

What’s the problem here? Ultimately your previous decisions don’t matter to the ending of the game or a majority of it. No matter the choices you make, you will reach the final decision and that decision chooses which ending you will see, of which it’s only about 10 seconds of content.

With that said, people expected a larger and more important ending that was decided by the various decisions that the player has made. And while there is a way to get that ending, again through inaction, it amounts to making no decision on that final choice and letting the game decide.

This video isn’t a review of the game themselves, but Telltale Games are more like storybooks and particularly of the Choose Your Adventure style but there is a firm beginning and end, and what happens in between will matter based on your choices.

The problem for Telltale Games begins with what was promised, there are two pieces here. Your choices should matter, otherwise why else will Clementine remember so many of your choices and the fact is, that’s mostly not true. The other side is that Telltale promised what amounts to a Choose Your Own Adventure book but missed an important feature that fans of the Choose Your Own Adventure book market liked. While there is a beginning and best ending in Choose Your Own Adventure, many decisions in those books are important and there are always multiple endings, rather than just a singular one. If a reader makes the wrong choice, their story can end abruptly.

This is something that Black Mirror: Bandersnatch got right, and I think that’s what players of The Walking Dead: Season 1 expected. It’s not what was ultimately delivered.

I think Telltale gets a bad rap, though they set themselves up for this through episodic content that promised far more than they could deliver. It’s an over-hyped promise of player choice mattering when they couldn’t execute on a larger ending.

If you look at Telltale games as just a simple storybook, you will probably have a more enjoyable time. The subject matter of a Telltale game will matter to your enjoyment far more than the gameplay style, however your expectation on how the game will treat your choices is also important, and the fact is most of the choices in any Telltale Game just aren’t that important.

Before we go on to more complex games let’s take a quick look at one other Choose Your Own Adventure. This is Detroit: Become Human, though Quantic Dream and David Cage have made similar games a few times, including Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls and much of my opinion on Detroit: Become Human also applies to those two games.

Much of David Cage’s games are about watching a movie, doing some minor interactions, making a choice, and continuing with the story. Choices are made throughout all three games, and the story will take the player’s input and combine it with the larger narrative.

Detroit: Become Human has added something special to its gameplay, the one thing that doesn’t exist in either of the previous games is on the screen. Rather than hide what decisions will be made by the player, the game shows a Flowchart. I originally was a bit unimpressed, thinking this flow chart was for the entire game. Shockingly this is the chart for just one of over thirty chapters in Detroit: Become Human.

This is the one feature that doesn’t exist in Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, but it is similar to how the previous games have worked in that there are plot points and minor decisions along the way, but these are how the Choose Your Own Adventure style works here.

So every point on the chart maps to a plot point, decision, action, or just something that happens in the course of a chapter. On-screen, I’ve just finished my first playthrough of the initial chapter. You’ll notice that I could only take a single path in some places, as well as the larger boxes showing parts of the investigation I did successfully or missed.

Let’s take a look at the ending of this chapter, and in case you’re wondering, this appears to be the most successful ending. The target is eliminated, and the girl is saved. It’s a good day for humanity, and thus, the androids. But we can rewind and try something different. I played this one chapter multiple times to try to get as close to 100 percent completion of the flowchart. Well, our Android named Conner was not as successful. Oops.

But wait, maybe we can do something a little bit different, and get closer to the android to see what happens one last time. And he reaches out, there’s a QTE, which we can talk about at another time, and … a different ending.

Sure enough, there are multiple different endings for this chapter. And I’ve filled out quite a bit of this one flowchart. With over thirty chapters, you may ask how meaningful these choices become to the story.

The fact is, there are minimal changes to the game in the first chapter. You can’t kill off a major character that early because that would be strange. Though a major character might die a few chapters later, and this game does have a form of permadeath. If certain characters die, they’re dead forever in the story. You can replay chapters and get different endings to revive those characters in some way. One of the larger goals of the game though is to play through and see the different changes you can make.

Not every chapter is as involved as our first flowchart. Our second chapter is rather mundane, there’s a clear flow to the story here, and about half of the chapters I’ve seen so far have one entrance and one exit, though most will have more choices in the actual chapters than the second chapter.

Where The Walking Dead changed the path, but not the outcome, Detroit: Become Human changes quite a bit of the path itself, but also those actions have a longer-lasting effect on the game. There’s everything from a look at public opinion on Androids, Connor’s eventual partner’s opinion, and the state of many of your characters.

One thing I want to mention is that the flowchart also can help players. I played a mission where Connor’s eventual partner, Hank, got mad at him, and I immediately thought that I could replay the chapter and avoid that issue with different dialogue choices. But a quick look at the flowchart showed that there wasn’t an alternative, this was a key point to the story.

Rather than feeling this was a spoiler, I found this to be a positive as it let me know I didn’t need to hunt around to find a better resolution to that scene, Hank was always going to get mad, and that’s how the story continues.

I do want to say that I enjoy Detroit; Become Human’s choices, though I do have to call out the fact that the narrative and story… ok listen, I like David Cage’s games for the way they integrate player choice into the narrative, and I even enjoy the robotic motions the Detroit: Become Human requires of the player due to the actions mapping to an android’s actions.

But this scene is a perfect example of everything wrong with most of David Cage’s games. While the player interactions are good, the writing can be quite hamfisted. Trust me when I say this scene gets far worse and there are a couple of scenes like this. Oh, and this is also what they chose to show in a major trailer in 2017 so… they were proud of this scene for some reason. Quantic Dream, I enjoy your games, but you can do much better than this, please try harder in the future.

So with that said, let’s quickly move on to a couple of smaller looks at games before we tackle one last game. The player’s choice doesn’t always have to be in the narrative. A good way to integrate player choice is through reward systems. On-screen is Saints Row 3, and I do have to disclose I worked at Volition for 4 years, they gave me a wonderful start to my time in the game industry, though I did not work on Saints Row 3, I did work on Saints Row 2.

What Saints Row 3 does is offer optional rewards, there are multiple times throughout the game, where players are given two rewards and the options are clearly stated. Here players can choose from either handing a character over to the Anti Gang Task Force or your homie, Shaundi. Your choice.

This is a simple player choice, but it feels like an important one. If you choose to give Josh to the task force, you get their help to take over the city. If you choose Shaundi, you get two new homies you can call and hang out with. Either one you choose locks out the other choice.

Honestly, this might be a bit of a weak choice, as taking over the city is relatively easy, and getting two new characters to hang out with is a cool feature, but still In this case permanently locking off the player from the other choice for the entire playthrough means players will have to choose what they want. The game clearly states the reward which makes these choices particularly good even if they are a minor gameplay system.

Speaking of which, There’s another small way choice can be utilized in a game’s design. Let’s talk about Hand of Fate though the version on the screen is the sequel Hand of Fate 2. This is a card game where a map is created from several cards and each card offers players events that usually equate to either battle, choice systems, mini-game, or combinations of them all.

Most playthroughs of Hand of Fate are intended to be relatively fast with runs lasting under an hour, so a mistake on one playthrough may be followed up by a second playthrough where the player learns from it and tries something different. Many cards offer a bonus for completing a card, which can be done by making the right choices, bringing the right equipment in, or passing some skill check.

At the same time unlike Saints Row 3, Hand of Fate never tells the player what each decision will do so many times players will have to play blindly to learn how to maximize their chances to win or get the outcome they want.

Hand of Fate is based on these choices, and each run of the game feels like the player is given the maximum ability to make their own destiny. They can even bring in their own deck to help push the odds in their favor. Ultimately what is a mostly randomized experience, adds in the ability for the players to have a large amount of agency in the outcome of the game.

So player choice can be represented through gameplay and narrative system, let’s tackle one more big game, and if you saw the thumbnail you probably know what this is, but if not this is Witcher 3.

Witcher 3 is a massive game that I could probably do multiple videos on. There’s a lot to discuss, but we’ll focus today on just player choice and how Witcher 3 makes the player feel like they are a major part of the story.

We’ll start with some of the earliest parts of the game. Two witchers, Geralt and Vesemir come upon a merchant whose horse is being seized by a griffin, that griffin actually will be a major goal during the prologue of Witcher 3. But what’s important here is a simple interaction after the scene plays out where the player is allowed to request payment from the merchant or decline it.

In most games, this is a very simple moral choice. Players can be evil and demand money, or be altruistic and take a vow of poverty. That’s not how the Witcher operates both as a game or in the universe presented. Witchers expect to get paid and will often demand money for their services. In the books, Geralt doesn’t get paid very well and will take any funds offered, the game allows this as well.

If you’re curious, not taking the money will mean that the players get free food at the inn and a discount from the merchant later on if they talk to him again. If they demand gold, they get about 50 gold. Kind of an underwhelming choice right?

Yes and no. You see, it’s not a major choice for Geralt, but it’s not intended to be. There are numerous times throughout the game, Geralt will get similar choices and the results tend to be lacking. In fact, after looking up a couple of these results, I wonder why they matter.

There are two things choices do in Witcher 3. There’s usually a slightly different series of dialogues, sometimes it’s an immediate change, and sometimes it’s a piece of dialogue you might notice later. In addition, there’s usually a small change in rewards to the player.

Both of these are minor but they allow players to stop worrying about if they’re making the right choice, or feeling a need for a guide. There are issues in general when players are presented with choices in a game where they feel they have to get the best choice and become stuck on that choice, this is commonly known as analysis paralysis. It’s also heavily associated with trying to min-max a character, meaning taking the best benefits while taking the minimal negatives

Witcher 3 does a great job of avoiding this. Players don’t have to worry about “what the right choice is” for most of Witcher 3 since almost no choice matters at a deep level. You may earn an extra 50 gold from one choice or a new item from another but there are almost no unique or exclusive items to be had through these choices.

Some choices, such as offering to brew a new potion for someone sick in bed, lead to longer quests and additional rewards but these tend to be the obvious choice during the conversations. It’s the more nuanced choice such as if you want to turn in an arsonist or take a payout. The player can take a bribe and pretend he never found the guy or he can turn in the firestarter, which will be hung from a nearby tree, and the player gets a discount from the blacksmith.

While turning him in gives very slightly higher payouts, it’s up to the player which one he chooses. I’m sure most fans will already have decided just by the description and what’s wonderful about Witcher 3 is that’s perfectly valid.

There’s no code of morality nor use of morality in the gameplay. If a player wants to turn in the firestarter, it has minimal continued benefit so the next choice can be made from scratch and that allows the character of Geralt as well as the player to make each decision in a vacuum if he wishes.

If you’re having an off day and decide to kill someone instead of spare them or are moved by a compassionate plea by a citizen the player never has to worry about larger impacts to his choices, they can each be made at the spur of the moment and that produces a better situation for the game. Later on, players will even see the results of some of their choices and remember their tale fondly.

That’s not to say there are no large choices, in fact, there are several massive and important choices for everything from major characters, kingdoms, or even the story. However, these too can be done as the player wishes. There’s often no right choice, so while the player might want to side with one kingdom over another for any reason, another player may side with the second one for perfectly valid reasons. This is far more complex than “I want to roleplay as a badass” but rather “I believe in this side’s vision for the future.

On the screen you’ve been seeing me talking about previous actions of Geralt, if you’re confused, this is because I’m attempting to import a save from Witcher 2. Geralt is telling Morvran Voorhis…. I gotta stop butchering names, though a lot of Witcher names are strange. Anyway Movran Voorhis questions Geralt about his past, which is the major decision from Witcher 2 that carries over.

Do any of these choices matter? Truthfully it’s up to the player. There are major dialogue pieces attributed to these choices, and some characters may have more or less of a connection with Geralt because of it, but ultimately, these also don’t matter, you still will have 99.9 percent of the entire game stay the same even with these choices.

Right after this choice the player has to decide which outfit to wear to a fancy ball. They’re three regular outfits, and it only changes the outfit the player wears. Mixing decisions that matter with decisions that don’t is a great way to continue to give players customizations but not necessarily tell them what each choice does.

What’s important here is not what the game changes because of each choice but rather how the player will react. Having small choices or even large choices results in dialogue that may remind players of their past actions and makes the players feel that all their choices, real or fictitious, are more important than they are.

In Mass Effect, I talked about how there are only 8 or 9 major decisions that are imported in each game, but since the morality system kept people to the two main paths, there wasn’t a strong possibility of a unique story. In Witcher 3, there are probably closer to 100 minor choices and maybe only 5 major choices, but each of those makes Witcher 3 feel both unique and as if players are telling Geralt’s story themselves.

It is important to also realize much of Witcher 3’s best choices are derived from how well and interesting the story is. There is sometimes a bittersweet story in Witcher 3 where players feel like they made the right choices but have outcomes that might not be what they intended, and the writing in Witcher 3 is really freaking good. I do want to call out all The Walking Dead and Detroit: Become Human both have good writing that makes the choices feel more important, but Witcher 3 has a deeper level to its writing.

Witcher 3 produces a feeling of agency and the fact that it’s up to the player to try to make the best choice rather than need some guide that makes those choices for them. It means player feel like they have a greater impact.

What can we learn from these games? How games handle player choice can matter to the user, but if the player is given a choice, they must have a true choice, rather than the illusion of choice. The Walking Dead Season 1 got hammered because it said it’s choices were important to the story when ultimately, players felt they weren’t important enough to the story.

Detroit: Become Human shows that an impactful story choice shouldn’t only be limited to a single point in the story, but setting up changes to the narrative later in the story will produce a better experience.

Saints Row 3 shows that for one-off choices, fully detailing the outcome is preferable so players can make an educated guess on which choice they actually will want.

Hand of Fate 2 showed choices can become mini puzzles for the player to figure out especially if they are repeated, in this case fully detailing the decisions is not necessary, and detrimental.

And of course Witcher 3, pretty much shows how large games can have both meaningful choices, that doesn’t destroy the narrative. If enough choices matter, not every choice will have to have huge impacts on the game. However having callbacks to previous choices, as well as an engaging story will make the player care about his choices and create that illusion that the player is creating his own unique story.

Ultimately for Narrative choices, the player should have longer-lasting changes so that they can feel their choices have changed the world for better or worse or changed the story. For gameplay decisions, it’s better for the choices to be less impactful, such as the difference between getting 50 experience points or 50 gold, or clearly state the results so players can make a decision. Trying to avoid missable items will also help, as the goal should be to avoid players feeling like they need a guide to get the most out of the experience.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this video, I’m glad I was able to break these up into two stories rather than try to get everything into a single video. So let me know, what did I miss, what game should I have talked about, and if you wanted to know the one game I didn’t touch upon but definitely could have, I was thinking Undertale.

If you’ve enjoyed this, I’m glad, that’s what I’m here for, like always I don’t put ads on my video and I don’t intend to, but if you could consider clicking that subscribe button, ringing the bell, or sharing this with people, it would mean a lot. These videos take a lot of time and I love making them but I, of course, want more people to see the work.

I’ll put my video on Morality systems which was part 1 of this discussion and I’ll put up my video on Hitman 2 which excelled far more at a different style of player choice. I’ll let that video try to explain it.

Until next time, I’m Kinglink, and thank you for watching.