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Perception of Meaningful Choice

April 19, 2008

Yesterday, I talked about the frequency of choice, and reader miwi contributed that too much choice can be just as deadening to game play as too little.  Here, I am reminded of Master of Orion 3, a game which had 54 menus (or something like that), and despite being a descendant of an amazing old series of games, it was so confusing that even the old guard had trouble deciphering it.

All that said, I’m now going to contradict myself.

Perception of choice may be more meaningful than meaningful choice itself.

Consider a game like Mass Effect. One of the great strengths of this game was its ability to make the player feel that the game was really customizing the experience to their narrative choices, and to a degree, it did. However, some of those amazing moments were the same when I went through a different play path. It was only then that I realized it. The first time through, though, my perception was that the game was changing everything just for me, and it was wonderful. This is the perception many people have, and that perception is the important thing. I did something similar in Wizardry 8.

On the flip side, take a game like Playboy: The Mansion. You invite Playmates over to the mansion during a party, and it makes people at the party like you more. However, the game doesn’t tell you this anywhere except the help index. You don’t get a little +100 on the screen or anything like that. No feedback equals no meaning as far as the player is concerned. While the player might be making meaningful choices, it’s the perception of choice that matters more.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. April 19, 2008 8:19 am

    This is a great post to lead into risk and reward, which ties directly into perception of meaningful choice.

    Meaningful choice impacting on whom or what exactly, the player or the game?

  2. April 20, 2008 12:53 am

    I just want to link you to my site, since I wrote an exhaustive article on story and how it differs in video games.
    But instead I will recap for your sake, very very briefly.

    You remember playing imaginary games as a kid? I do. I remember just how wild and inventive they were. And even if we established rules for them, our imaginations would run away with the scenario, and new worlds and ideas and races would be opened. Action, betrayal, everything a story could want in terms of narration.
    The amazing thing was, though, that those stories were OUR OWN.

    Games like Morrowind and Oblivion and SPORE and even the Witcher and GTA sometimes, where the player is given a universe and asked to simply go play, lets the player create so much story out of the gameplay that it’s truly mesmerizing. Games that supposedly have no storytelling elements can have hundreds of them–we’ve just become so used to DICTATING the plot and flow of a movie, book, play etc. that we’ve never been able to develop the story elements that would go into a PLAYER-DRIVEN narrating experience. Giving the player that amazing possibility to roam wherever he or she chooses allows them to self-justify them all, and settle on the hows and whys on their own. In Shadow of the Colossus, of course there’s not much to do in the great expanse other than take down gargantuan rock giants–but the player gets to decide why the protagonist is doing it, because the game lets you have that choice–it doesn’t dictate the play, so that you can make it your own.

    I think after thinking about this for a while I might want to make this my expertise of study: the innovation of storywriting for user-driven narrative.

  3. JCaskey permalink
    April 20, 2008 2:58 am

    Creating the illusion of meaningful decisions allows designers to weave together the technical limitations of the machine and the true power of non-linear storytelling.

    Of course the issue with this approach is that it’s only really good once or twice. On the third or so playthrough the illusion is gone and the game can lose a lot of its charm.

  4. April 20, 2008 5:22 am

    I see what you mean aortiz. In Oblivion, I try and have multiple quests going at the same time and I will be like, “Right, it is 8 o’clock now, I have to meet a vampire at 10, I will quickly pop by Rufus now then to collect my reward, go get my staff recharged and I should still make it in good time”

    The ultimate way to give a player a unique experience is by let them define the experience. Everyone’s imagination will be different, all the developers have to do is give a framework where there imagination is as little restricted as possible.

  5. April 20, 2008 10:39 pm

    And of course, when I have an opinion, someone disagrees with it, somewhere. Like this one:
    http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/3621/fewer_mechanics_better_game.php

    This is a good article. I think it’s wrong, but it has some good ideas. Particularly one about design unity. I think aesthetic unity is important–it’s the reason you shouldn’t have sneaking missions in a game where your character is a ten-foot, two-hundred pound axe-wielding barbarian. But who says player choice is just an illusion? Especially when you give the player enough goals where they can’t

    @JCaskey: I agree with you on the idea of the novelty wearing off at times, but in some cases a game never seems to get old, no matter how much you play it. I continue to make characters in Morrowind and Oblivion because I have so many ways to get through so many missions in the game. I don’t tire of creating new characters because there’s so many play styles, so much to do and see… each game experience could be entirely different from the other one. It’s like magic.

    @ thk123: My point exactly. The player gets the chance to make the story him or her self. I think adding more elements allows the player to tell stories and to experience things in entirely different ways. That should be the focus of the gameplay, not the actual “outcome”. A success is percieved–winning at Super Smash Brothers isn’t nearly as rewarding as the one time I surpassed all my friends at Super Smash Brothers. That story–that experience–is much more important than the actual completion of a game’s parameters.

  6. April 20, 2008 10:55 pm

    Wow, I left a sentence hanging there. No idea where that thought went.

    ..”enough goals where they can’t be limited by the limited reward of their actions.”

  7. April 21, 2008 12:56 pm

    Hey Brenda!

    I completely agree there. I actually link the perception of meaningful choice closely to a phenomena I call the willing suspension of freedom, which is also closely linked to a player’s suspension of disbelief. I’ve come to believe that the amount of perceptible choice, balanced against a willing suspensions of freedom, make games what they are. When you have a simple set of consistent understandable rules with high amounts of perceived affect on the system (agency) you (usually) have a good game, at least in digital terms.

    I could go on and on about this, and I have on my blog already. Not sure if you’re interested, but I have my 20/20 presentation that I gave to the Boston post mortem on the subject here:
    http://www.jeffongames.com/2008/01/agency-theory-in-2020/

  8. April 21, 2008 2:57 pm

    Right now, all I can think is… 54 MENUS? WTF?!
    I’ll try to make a better comment once I recover from that.
    54 menus… I can’t even imagine what someone could do with all those menus!
    I mean, did they honestly think it would be a good idea to drown the player in so many menus?

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