Choice Design in Games

Interactivity is both a blessing and a curse in game development, because giving the user control over an entity in the world means that the designer must relinquish control over that element, and you can’t always force players to do what you want them to. So, how can you encourage players to naturally make the right choices? And how can these choices leave an impression on the player?

Brice Morrison wrote for Gamasutra that there are for major building blocks of major choices:

  • Awareness – the knowledge of the decision and its options
  • Gameplay Consequences – the decision will affect gameplay in some way
  • Reminders – reminding the player of their decision
  • Permanence – the player cannot go back and undo the choice after exploring the consequences

In his example, in Telltale’s The Walking Dead, in the first episode, the player has the option of saving either Carley or Doug, two characters who discover they have feelings for one another after an altercation with the ‘Walkers’. When the prescription drug store that they and a few other survivors are hiding in is surrounded, the player has the option to save either Carley or Doug. The game makes this decision clear with a slow-motion effect, the player can only look at either characters, and a text notification that this decision will only save one of the characters, and a time limit on their decision. The player will know they are making a decision, and they will know what consequences to expect.

Continuing with his example, not all decisions and consequences are created equal. You can make decisions in conversations that the game doesn’t always indicate where they will go. For example, standing up to Larry with Kenny will bond Kenny and create issues with Larry, but how far those consequences go is unknown until they spring out of the blue.

And you see these consequences sometimes much later in the game, when characters may react to you differently based on your previous decisions. The example that Morrison writes is where characters like Kenny will bring up instances where you didn’t say what was in their interests. These moments serve to remind players of their decisions.

But the key reminder in all of these is that your decisions are permanent, and cannot be undone. The feeling of regret is what will make your decisions feel real and give you something to reflect on. All decisions in games revolve around these four principles. Small decisions, like where to put skills or what armour to wear to a fight are all decisions that will affect gameplay in some way, close off opportunities from gear that you will out-level, or unlock new opportunities to you that will augment gameplay or the story.

In Project Sapling, the educational AR app my team and I have been working on the Studio 3, we have a unique opportunity to teach players about gardening through choice. As important as it is to know how to do things the right way, our users need to know what happens when they do the wrong thing.

In the mini-games we created, we used these principles to give players the opportunity to explore the wrong solutions. In out weed-pulling mini-game, it’s possible to pull weeds up by the tops and leave the roots in, which isn’t the right way to do it and can allow them to grow back. The game won’t give the maximum score for playing this way, and the game will explain to users why this isn’t the right thing to go.

In the Debugging mini-game, the user can swipe away weevils or ladybugs. The user should try to save the ladybugs, but by killing them, it is more likely that a weevil will spawn, and the game will explain why ladybugs should be protected in the gardens.

Using the results from these mini-games, we can give different rewards based on their progress and use their decisions to teach lessons about


Morrison, B. (2017). Meaningful Choice in Games: Practical Guide & Case Retrieved 25 August 2017, from

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