Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What Makes a Choice

In a strange juxtaposition, I've been playing Knights of the Old Republic and watching The Shield. The Shield is new to me based on many recommendations, including several suggesting it hits similar notes to The Wire. KOTOR I've played before, but never finished (for technical reasons), and I decided to fire it up while waiting for Dragon Age 2. Both are awesome in almost entirely unrelated ways.

So, one of the strong things about KOTOR, which is shares with most of the other Bioware RPGs, is that the player is presented with numerous choices, and those choices have consequences. In KOTOR, this is tracked by your movement towards the dark or light side, though the choice usually also has an immediate (and sometimes powerful) impact on the fiction. This is not all there is to the game - there are cool lightsaber fights and annoying logic puzzles - but like most Bioware games, the thing that really pulls me in are the characters and the choices.

The Shield is also keeping me sucked in because of the characters and choices. It has a great cast, and while it need to occasionally nod to it's FX roots ("We're EXTREME!"), its mostly a very patient, deep show that's willing to play out the long game to explore the characters and the choices they make (both why they make them, and what they mean).

If asked, I would say the Shield is deeper and more powerful, and I found myself wondering why. Some of it is the nature of the medium - more happens in a hour of the Shield than in an hour of KOTOR play, just due to the necessities of gameplay. But that's not an automatic bump - there are many TV shows I would rate below KOTOR. Just having more time doesn't mean you use it well.

Next, I wondered if it might be an issue of immediacy. The Majority of KOTOR choices have an immediate result, but don't really linger. On the Shield, there may be no immediate impact, but the choice never really goes away. This, I think, is closer to the truth. KOTOR does have some element of long game too, but it doesn't really build a landscape out of choices made the way The Shield does. So that's part of it.

The rest, I think, is about fairness. Games (and gamers) tend to favor fair choices, at least in terms of opportunity cost. No choice is going to ever offer you a free ride, and if it did, we'd view it as cheating. By the same token, no choice is going to screw us over so completely as to stop our fun. We trust those things to be true, both practically and in terms of our sense of fair play. The shield, on the other hand, has no need to be fair. Consequences may be entirely disproportionate or inappropriate to the choices made. The logic of the writer room guarantees that these consequences are compelling while at the same time given them a feeling of capriciousness which feels very apt for an unfair universe.

Drawing back to a high level, this suggests to me three things I want to think about in offering choices in games I run: frequency, immediacy and fairness. Some part of me wonders if there should be a fourth about the importance of choices (contrast choosing which door to take vs which lord becomes king) but I think that's a slightly different discussion. Players will make thousands of small choices every game, and how those are constrained is a logistical issue more than a dramatic one. As such, I look at these three elements as things I want to bear in mind for choices that are interesting in play, as determined by the table. The simple truth is that interesting trumps important.

Now, there's no one right way to handle those three ideas. Rather, they make good dials for adjusting tone and tenor of a game. A game with frequent, immediate, unfair choices is going to feel very different than one with rare, far-reaching fair ones. If you find your players are not really engaging the choices in your game, look at where you have the dials set, and see what happens when you adjust one of them. If nothing else, it gives you many more options than just making impactful choices an all-or-nothing thing.


  1. I was going to mention The Witcher too. The problem I had with some of the far reaching (and unfair) consequences is that I had no way of predicting what was going to happen in the game's future, so it was hard to make an informed decision and felt arbitary when I made a 'bad' decision.

    On TV this makes good drama; in fact, I'm sure you could make a list of TV series that spin out entirely from one bad decision by a character (and The Shield is already a good example). The drama is heightened when the audience know something the character doesn't; I suppose a surprisinly limp example are the Star Wars prequels, where the audience are perfectly aware what the consequences of turning to the Dark Side will be.

  2. Interesting. I think this gives a real good rubric for discussing choices in stories and games.

    One thing that occurs to me is that I am more comfortable with far-reaching choices if I have had a lot of time in the game world to explore the logic of it and how it works. I am more comfortable with unfair choices if I am not invested in the character's well-being (à la Fiasco, where things can be very unfair in either direction, and I love it). And I basically always want choices to be frequent.

    However, that last one is of course said with a proviso: I want choices overall to be frequent, but I wouldn't want unfair far-reaching choices to be frequent necessarily; a given game can and will mix these settings, but as long as the "frequency" setting is usually high, and the conditions for the other features are present, I'm happy.

  3. Good post.

    I think Dragon Age and Mass Effect do a pretty good job of dealing with choices, some of which we still don't know the consequences of.

    But Dragon Age certainly has a few kick-you-in-the-balls choices you have to make, which is one reason I love the game.

    There aren't a ton of them, but there are enough.

  4. I think permanence also plays a huge part in how deep and compelling tv shows and tabletop rpgs can feel. In video games you (almost) always have the option to go back to an earlier save, regardless of the choice or the consequences. At the very least you can play the game again.

    In tabletop rpgs and television shows the characters are stuck with their choices. There's no option for a "do over." The choice comes around once and that's it, making the stakes feel much higher, whether the characters are saving the galaxy or dealing with more mundane problems.

    I feel that this is why gamers are so obsessed with things being fair. They don't want their fun ruined by something they see as unfair, which is totally understandable.

    Also, I don't mean any of this to lessen the excellent points you made. Just adding a bit to it.

  5. Rob, I'd love to hear your impressions if you finish KOTOR, especially if you are playing dark-side. In my opinion, Star Wars' light-side/dark-side morality is the perfect match for Bioware's oft-used alignment scale (and dark side is so much fun to play).

    Speaking of choices, I'm looking forward to playing Mass Effect 3 to see the repercussions of choices made in Mass Effect 2. The enjoyment I got from choices in KOTOR was immediate and the pay off was seeing consequences play out that I wanted and anticipated (they were promised). I'm really hoping Mass Effect 3 pays off the choices made in ME2 with positive, negative, and/or ambiguous consequences that are entertaining. I hope they keep their promises.

  6. Personally, *I'm* interested in hearing your thoughts on The Shield, especially knowing that you are a fan of The Wire. (Yes, I've watched both, and I've found that comparing them to each other yields interesting results.)

  7. Not going to reply to anything in particular so much as I want to thank everyone who commented. Today's discussion really got me thinking, and I think you'll all see a number of the notes in today's comments reflected in tomorrow's post.


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