Why have choices that matter?

Last month I played and discussed Tell Me Why, but today I want to discuss the genre that Tell Me Why is part of. The Steam storefront calls it “choices matter”–and just because Steam gives it a tag doesn’t mean we need to think of it as a genre, but I think it’s a hell lot more informative than just calling it a walking sim. After all, the major form of engagement with the game is not walking, it’s choosing.

“Choices matter” is a genre that could encompass many games, from The Walking Dead, The Stanley Parable, Undertale, and Mass Effect, to (some) visual novels, and choose your own adventure books. In all of these, you make choices, and the game responds to your choices in a significant way, or at least appears to. However, choices don’t always serve the same purpose. I’ve identified at least 4 distinct purposes.


In Paradise Killer, you can choose who to execute, as long as you have evidence to back it up. There’s no real consequence to this choice, besides who lives and dies. The epilogue is the same no matter what, every time inviting you to imagine what sort of society you’ve created. As I said in my diary, the purpose of the choice is to let you express (or roleplay) your own theory of justice. Choices matter, not in a mechanical way, but in an expressive way, allowing the player to fill the blanks with their own story.

Another example is any game with moral choices.  Such games allow you to express your morality, or perhaps roleplay a morality that you may not agree with in real life. This may also affect what kind of story you get, allowing for a certain degree of customization. It’s said that in Mass Effect if you want a story about a conventional hero, take the paragon track; if you want an anti-hero, take the renegade track. In Undertale you can choose between wholesome comedy or psychological horror. So on and so forth.


The most obvious challenge that a choice may offer, is the challenge of knowing which is the “correct” choice. Although I wouldn’t place Myst games in the “choices matter” genre, most of them had some choice at the very end, which tested your understanding of the story. You’re faced with the choice of which brother to trust, but if you were paying the slightest bit of attention you’d realized that they’re both untrustworthy. That’s choice as challenge (if not a particularly difficult challenge).

This is also a common element of dating sims. The challenge is to understand the character you’re dating, and make the correct choices to get the “better” ending. Or perhaps you don’t have enough information to make the best choices, and the challenge is to use repeated attempts to explore outcomes until you find the “good” ones.

There’s also another kind of challenge, the challenge to engage with the story. Moral choices challenge you to form an opinion on potentially difficult questions. Games with long-term consequences challenge you to commit to a long and uncertain path.  Life is Strange offers this sort of challenge, and allowing you to use time travel to vacillate endlessly, but eventually you have to pick something and move on.  The challenge isn’t to figure out what the game thinks is the “correct” choice, but to figure out what choice you think is correct.

Magic Trick

A magician asks you to mentally select a card. Later, the magician reveals your card as if they’ve read your mind. Here, the purpose of choice is not to control the outcome. The purpose is for the magician to show that they were prepared for any choice you could have made. Likewise, if a game allows you to make a meaningful choice, the pleasure is knowing that the game is prepared for any choice you could have made.

Among the minor choices you can make in Tell Me Why, you can mark several pieces of furniture for keeping or tossing. Later, the furniture remains or disappears depending on your choices. It’s really minor, but it’s neat to see a game taking notes on your choices. This also holds for more important choices, such as whether to forgive another character, it’s pleasing to see that the game is prepared for either outcome even when the options differ drastically.

What’s crucial to the magic trick, is that the game should clearly be responding to your choices. What’s not crucial, is that the game actually responds to your choices. The magic trick may very well be an illusion, with both choices invisibly converging to the same point. If you only play once, you may never know.


Each time you play the game, you can make different decisions, and observe the differences in outcomes. This is a way for the game to deliver additional content. Depending on which choices you make in The Stanley Parable, you hear different jokes, so the idea is to make different choices each time and hear more jokes. Or consider dating sims, which commonly ask you to choose early on which character to pursue, resulting in completely different stories. The branching structure of the story suggests that you aren’t dating each character sequentially, but rather dating each character in a different parallel universe.

One problem with replaying through choices, is that you may be forced to replay other parts of the game too, which you may not enjoy (depending on the game). There are several methods that a game can use to avoid this problem:

  • The branching points occur near the end. So, when the player finishes, they can load the save file and try the other ways. This is a popular option, because writers can imply wildly different outcomes depending on your choice, without needing to make a whole game based on each outcome.
  • The branching points occur near the beginning. That way, if you restart from scratch, you only have to replay the intro section, and the rest is all new.
  • The game can be very short, so if you do have to replay something it’s at least quick. This is the strategy adopted by The Stanley Parable.
  • The game offers easy ways to navigate the narrative tree. For example, my understanding is that games in the Zero Escape series (though I’ve never played them) have in-game maps of the narrative trees, and allow the player to load from any node that they’ve previously visited.

But if a game doesn’t follow any of these strategies, a replay may not be worthwhile. I considered replaying Tell Me Why to see a different ending, but the problem is that there are choices early on that don’t have a significant effect until the very end. So what I would need to do is start over, make different choices, play through nearly exactly the same story, and finally watch a different epilogue. It didn’t seem worth the bother.

On the other hand, perhaps it’s for the best. Replaying through choices can have a detrimental effect on the other goals of player choice. If you go back and choose the other way, you might feel that it deprives your personal expression of meaning. When you’re going to eventually choose both ways, you may find it a lot less challenging to commit to one or the other. And you may discover which magic tricks were illusions all along.

When I set out to write this essay, the replayability of choices was the very first idea I thought of. And since I rarely replay “choices matter” games, I thought that maybe I didn’t care for the genre. I thought I would equally enjoy story-driven games where choices don’t matter. But by thinking it through, I’ve realized that choices can add something to a story, even if you only ever choose one way.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    Isn’t there another “choice” system — maybe we could call it the “counter” method? The game gives you a morality index that starts at zero. Then you make a number of small decisions along the way — pay the bill or stiff the innkeeper, spare the bandit or kill her, etc. — and the game adds or subtracts from your morality index with each decision. When you meet NPCs in the future, they react differently to you depending on whether you have a reputation as a bloodthirsty killer or a kindly protector, and the game also gives you different endings based on your final disposition.

    You could also have several indexes, eg. law and chaos. I haven’t played lots of games to give examples with, but I remember a game from Lord British back in the 90s (one of the only games I played almost to the end) where there were four different indexes like Justice vs. Mercy, etc.

  2. says

    You mean like a karma meter? Mass Effect has a system like that–that’s the paragon/renegade thing that I mentioned in the OP. In fact, Tell Me Why has something like this too. Some choices cause the twins to become closer, or further apart, and the epilogue depends on whether the score is above or below a hidden threshold.

  3. Bruce says

    I struggle with enjoying some video games in a parallel with gambling.
    In short, when you play either, you do game stuff until the end, when you either win or lose.
    Once you have both won and lost, there are no new outcomes.
    The summation of a number of games comes out to a statistical average. If you know your gambling will eventually result in a loss of 50% or 0.5%, then the process is boring and pointless.
    So why do I still get some enjoyment from some games, when I already “know” they are “pointless”?

  4. JM says

    @3 Bruce: Because the process of getting there is itself enjoyable. A well designed game can be fun to play even if you know the eventual outcome.

    There are also game that have more then just win and lose as outcomes. In a game with many possible outcomes playing the game multiple times to find the outcome you like the best, consider most correct or just finding every possible conclusion can be fun.

  5. billseymour says

    Aside:  I heard on NBC News tonight that the Federal Aviation Administration is recuiting gamers to work as air traffic controllers.  It seems that they have the right skills. 😎

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