What makes choices feel satisfying?

Inspired by some discussion in another post –

When talking about choice games, people generally agree that they want choices to be “satisfying” or “meaningful”. However, examples of games with satisfying and meaningful choices run the gamut, from games with large amounts of branching to games with very little. Clearly there’s more than one way to skin a cat here, and what makes these games feel good to play (and by extension, their choices feel meaningful or satisfying) doesn’t actually need to have much to do with their impact on the overall direction of the plot.

So, what elements make a choice game feel, for lack of a better term, good? I’m curious to see what people feel works for them (from their personal experience on the authoring or playing side) and what doesn’t.

21 Likes

For me, if the player character isn’t an established character, then it’s meaningful to me when there is a choice I would actually choose, and I don’t feel like I’m picking the route of least damage from an incomprehensible stranger.

10 Likes

Aye, it’s a hard question! Cause similar choices will feel satisfying with one game but not another one… :thinking:

I guess… when it fits the story. Like it would make sense that the PC would do this kind of action in the provided context/personality.

BETTER YET: No choices, no problems. (this is a joke)

10 Likes

Personally, I like choices that give me relatively immediate feedback. Whether it’s a few different lines of dialog or a whole new story branch, I like to feel like the game is acknowledging my choice, and that my choices have some effect even if it isn’t very big. I dislike choices that feel artificial on a replay, like when I specifically choose the alternative only to discover that the reaction/outcome is the same either way. Maybe that’s why I struggle to finish my projects, because I’m trying to write too many variations, hahaha.

15 Likes

Interesting! This is something I haven’t thought much about, because I typically prefer pre-defined protagonists. That said, Choice of Games is killing it in this category so clearly it’s pretty popular! I’d be interested in hearing more about what feels authentic when you’re given latitude to RP as yourself (or your own character) in a game and what doesn’t, since I don’t have experience with it myself.

Yeah, that’s difficult to manage – you can do a lot with the illusion of your choices being more impactful than they really are (especially if backed up by good writing) but it’s hard to maintain the illusion if your game is meant to be replayed. I’m curious to know if anyone has recommendations for games that manage to thread that needle in a satisfying way.

11 Likes

I like it when it doesn’t feel like there’s a “right” and a “wrong” choice. A lot of monetized games make you choose for the “premium” choices, so they have to be appealing enough to be worth money.

17 Likes

I’ll throw one example out that’s a bit nonstandard, inasmuch as it comes from an RPG rather than a more standard piece of IF and it has, so far as I’m aware, precisely zero consequences.

I’m referring to the bit in Planescape: Torment where you’re asked “what can change the nature of a man?” (well, should be “person” but it was the 90s and the PC is hard-coded as male).

By this point in the game you’re very tuned into questions of identity, as the Planescape setting is one where belief, including self-belief, can change reality, and your character, who’s an amnesiac immortal, has spent a lot of time dealing with the fallout of the actions of his previous selves and deciding when to accept them and when to reject them. And the sequence where this question is asked is highly-charged - you need to do dangerous stuff to get there, and the person posing the question is someone with whom you have intense history.

To respond to the question, you’ve got a list of maybe a couple dozen choices? There’s one that to me feels like the obvious, canonical one - but in previous conversations about the game, other folks have said the same but picked an entirely different option as the one that feels “right.” Again, there’s no mechanical impact - your interlocutor accepts whatever you say - but 25 years on I still can’t think of a choice that felt more impactful, and that I still remember so clearly. Being invited to articulate the theme of a story, or at least name what it means to you, is very powerful! And I think those kinds of choices are maybe underexplored when we think about what makes for impactful decisions.

(I think I might have said something like this a couple years ago, too… might try to dig that up. You live long enough and all you wind up doing is repeating yourself :slight_smile: )

16 Likes

Very true, I dislike an interactive narrative where I’m pushed to believe that there’s a “correct” or “better” path than the one I’m on already. Similar to feelings I’m sure many gamers have about games with multiple endings potentially canonizing one while making a sequel or other external material (BioWare comes to mind here). But especially in terms of monetization, I dislike the tactic a lot of (mostly mobile) interactive games take in actively shaming you (your PC) for taking the “wrong/bad” free choice. Just let me pay for the game and give me all good choices.

9 Likes

Spoilers for the Nemesis Ambition in Fallen London for this post.

The Nemesis ambition in Fallen London is a master class in this- it follows the harrowing adventure of your character going to extremes to avenge someone dear to them: and is ultimately, despite the blood and brutality, a lovestory. It’s a pretty ambitious plotline: how do you make sure that you’re able to balance the universality of the story with making people get invested in going through the horrendous grind of say, the infamous Knifegate?

(They are rebalancing the price of this, but essentially, it’s a part of the questline where you have to buy thousands of thousands of dollars worth of knives, and you can lose 1/7th of them on each try, and is notorious for being hellish in blocking progress. I was aware of Knifegate because of how much people moaned about how it was one of the most difficult gateways across all of the possible Ambition routes, and so had been grinding echoes up along the way (that’s their version of money), and even then, had to go really hard on hocking Tinned Ham to convert script to echoes for a few months. Had I been willing to play the bone market and sell skeletons, it might have been easier, but I hate the bone market. Same with the rat market. Too much spreadsheet wizardry involved.)

I think Fallen London pulled it off with aplomb because of the focus on the player character, and not necessarily the loved one, who is kept sort of vague, and can be a sibling, spouse, lover, etc. It’s in the gorgeous heartbreak of being able to make a decision in Parabola, afterwards, on a campaign against your mirror self: do you choose to allow the other you (who made the decision you did not, when faced with being able to strike down your loved one’s murderer in cold blood with a knife and years of pent up rage, to snatch up the bloodied cloak and wear it as a trophy- or to cut a deal with a devil and bring back a pale imitation of your loved one, who can nevermore return to the surface, lest you lose them once more- bound to the 'neath, with no memories or recollections or inkling of an idea of who you are and the love you shared, a wraith who is struggling to come to terms with the fact that you loved someone they no longer are enough to bring them back from the dead, no matter the cost in blood- the countless people you killed, tortured, or spared: all of which also changed you fundamentally from the person you originally were, when you’d thrown yourself down into the 'neath hellbent on revenge)- to embrace your loved one, who is no longer who they are?

The other you- (because I chose to bring back my loved one, and we have tea every Thursday, and slowly, slowly- they are relearning who they are, as we re-define our relationship, though they can never come to visit the Tracklayer’s City: made in the image of my character, woven from the memories of first kisses and someone kindly in childhood reading you a story, warped by the huge magnitude of her grief, and the immensity of loss she experienced in their passing, and now, in their living once more-) who took up that blade, who threw away their uncertain bargain to bring back their loved one (how could you trust the same entity behind their slaughter to revive them? Who had done it to dozens of people before you, too?)- who now is begging for you to please let them see their loved one- your loved one, and how they’re uncertain and confused- how your loved one mentions you don’t look at them that way, anymore: heartbroken and grief stricken and looking for a lost ghost wearing their face, desperate to hold onto what they once were- what you both once were. How they hug, and then the other you, the you who made the pivotal decision to either stay their blade or commit: leaves, knowing that they did what was done, and it’s not their life to lead, anymore: that all they wanted was to be able to hold their loved one close for one last time, because they never got the chance to say goodbye: just like you didn’t, on the night of their untimely murder, when you failed to be there to protect them, and ended up defying death itself to bring them back to you once again.

In Nemesis, it doesn’t really matter that we barely know the loved one beyond a vague sketching of their relationship title in relation to you. It’s the way that the writing focuses on your emotional desperation, in showing the stakes and forcing you to participate by engaging in cycles of violence, to the meticulous grind and slow accumulation of resources and connections, to use them up by throwing them at what feels like an insurmountable blackhole of a problem, with layers of espionage and conspiracy all the way down: how at every stage, you are centre stage, and every tiny step forwards brings you closer and closer to confronting the ultimate question: how far will you go, for the person you love? The reflection of what could have happened, if things had played out differently, if you had chosen differently, really hammers home how strong your commitment was to the path you ultimately took: and how much it shaped who you are. It’s genuinely some of the best character development and writing I’ve ever seen. (I hoarded many story fragments/echoes of the story snippets on my profile.)

12 Likes

What I suspect happens when someone writes a lackluster player-insert character is the author either:

  1. does not interact with a variety of personalities irl, or
  2. they have a habit of strong self-assurance

so the responses will either:

  1. glaringly lack a few major categories of response, or
  2. will simply be different flavors of a single, strong personality type.

I don’t need a choice to be exactly how I would word a response or anything, but I tend to be either a :sparkles::rainbow: cheerleader :rainbow::sparkles: or coldly pragmatic, depending on the situation, and it feels really weird if all the responses are from some kind of energetically-hostile, sass-wielding personality, where you’re just picking who will be the butt of your quip.

Like, I don’t make a habit of teasing or mocking people, nor do I make a habit of flaunting confidence and stereotypes of heroism.

It just kinda reminds me that I’m autistic and have non-standard behavior.

When a game consistently has a choice that I actually agree with, I feel seen, and I feel like I actually got to give my input, and I’m not just there as a representative for some rando, and I just forgot to bring them along or something.

Choice of Robots did this so thoroughly that I was constantly surprised and blown away. I felt like I was buried in the story, and when I got to my chosen ending, I was in tears (positive). I have never before or since played a game that moved me so deeply. I tried going back to explore the other options, but they felt so alien and hollow in comparison, so I could bring myself to finish a second playthrough. It wouldn’t feel right.

10 Likes

Being invested in the characters is usually what makes choices feel most impactful to me. If I care about the PC and the outcome of their current situation, then choosing what they do in that situation feels meaningful.

Another thing is if the choice has been set up to feel like it matters/will have consequences. Like in Rescue at Quickenheath, a lot of the choices felt in the moment like they mattered, even though there actually are no right or wrong choices—you’ll ultimately be successful no matter what you pick. This post by Aster captures it well… The choices you make change your experience of the game, even if they don’t have far-reaching effects on the actual game state or the ending.

11 Likes

Hmm. There are games where I feel like a strongly characterized PC isn’t a good idea. When I was writing Of Their Shadows Deep, I decided to leave the PC blank because I really wanted the player to see themselves there. There’s no characterization at all to that PC, and I still think it was the right decision.

Just to clarify-- I don’t feel personally insulted at all by your post, so this isn’t a defensive thing. I just think there are times when that is a deliberate decision made for thoughtful reasons.

As to what I like in choices: reasonable ones. I can’t stand it when all the choices are things I would never choose, or that I think the PC would never choose…

AND NO DAMNED ELLIPSES. I really, REALLY hate that.

9 Likes

Extrapolating from Mike’s Planescape mention. I like that the player can answer “What can change the nature of a man?” twice: once, mid-game, and once again at the end. My two answers, that first time, were different! My second answer reflected my evolving sense of not only the character but of my entire play experience: a summation of all of my choices.

This decision did not change the ending mechanically. It was not like choosing to put foil in a microwave or cross a street. But it seemed to make the game mine in a way that few games manage to do.

I think that’s why I enjoy storylet structures so much. It seems that a character or narrative might be defined by a sort of titration, an accumulation of small moments. This is what I find most satisfying these days.

I don’t really like self-insert characters very much. I’d rather try to empathize with or understand a set character. I don’t feel that self-inserts accommodate the way I see myself, so my self isn’t, er, inserted.

I recognize that a lot of this comes down to taste. I like character-driven, narrative games that have systems rather than puzzles. Choices that foster those experiences are most satisfying to me.

10 Likes

If the player character is strongly characterized, then this skips the entire issue completely, because I’m already aware that the choices are not for me to represent myself, but for me to settle decisions for the character. The problem is more when the PC is supposed to not be strongly characterized, but the choices seem to imply there’s already a character there.

10 Likes

I’m going to mention 39 steps again as something I found interesting. An interesting strategy for choices is to only have them in intense situations where you have to act fast, and all the other events that led up to this point have reduced your choices to just a few logical ones, like fight or flight (or hopefully something more interesting than that). I don’t particularly like choices that essentially ask me how I feel about something or to make fairly minor dialogue choices.

6 Likes

Because I primarily play visual novels and RPGs, I developed some preferences for what makes for satisfying choices that seem different from what most people in this community would have.

There are at least two kinds of choices I really like:

Motivational Alignment

I’m copping this from Sam Kabo Ashwell’s wonderful article, “A Bestiary of Player Agency”, where he discusses different forms of how players get into the game and feel like they’re doing something to the game.

He describes one form of player agency as “grasp”, which has a kind of “monkey” thought process to it: “if you see a cool thing, you want to pick it up, turn it around in your hands, twist the twistable bits, bite it.” Essentially, it’s a sophisticated form of interaction and this can create some really interesting scenarios when the player is enmeshed with the worldbuilding and story:

When the rules you’re grasping line up nicely with the narrative – when the player’s gameplay motivations are congruent with the player-character’s fictional motivations – you’ve got motivational alignment, immersion. You don’t have to choose whether to do the gameplay-rewarded thing or the Good Roleplaying thing: they’re one and the same. That’s powerful magic. That’s the feeling of a grating, rattly bike gear finally slipping into place, suddenly making power easy. That’s agency in a big way.

I view choices as helping me align my motivations with the player-character. Ashwell later talks about how this can devolve into power fantasies, but I don’t think it’s necessarily about giving power to players. Games could help you understand a certain issue better by making your motivations align to the game’s conceit (as opposed to lawnmowing everyone in Skyrim or something).

In Caligula Effect 2, your party members can talk to you about the social issues they’re experiencing. One character experiences gender dysphoria, despite being given the chance to simulate what it means to be a different gender of their own.

They then ask if you’re going to treat them differently if they are of a different gender than what you think. You can say to them that “gender doesn’t matter” or “I don’t care if you’re a guy or a girl”. These choices are wrong: you’re supposed to say, “I don’t actually know.”

I found this choice satisfying because it’s about making the player honest about the complications of personal and identity issues. It’s making me realize that it’s better to acknowledge this is a difficult issue and not to use plattitudes to avoid answering the responsibility.

In that sense, I think of choices like this as the game guiding me as much as me guiding the game. It’s a symbiotic relationship, like a teacher-student dynamic where both parties are learning from each other. I felt like I was having a dialog with the game as a person thinking about these issues. The game tests me about the choices I am making and letting me know how I do need to think about what I say. I always remember that scene because it definitely impacted me on how I talk about these issues with other people.

Altering Scenarios

In Japanese visual novels, choices often lead to new branches that lead to different scenarios from what you’ve already seen and you’re often set up to receive it because the choices you’ve made are building up to that revelatory moment. In Fullmetal Daemon Muramasa, the choices are doing a few interesting things, but the one I want to focus on is how the choices harmonizes with the structure of the game.

Each route depicts an ideological take on the main theme of the game, the Law of Balance. In Japanese, the term is something like the mutually assured destruction of good and evil: you have to slay as many demons as you do with buddhas. All choices align the player character with the opposite ideology found in that route they’re gunning for. For example, the Hero Route (justice as an ideal) makes you agree with the ideology of the Nemesis Route (revenge fantasies) and the latter gets shut down. You are always antagonistic toward the game and these choices create new scenarios/routes that open up the game’s setting a lot more.

There are more conventional visual novels where choices simply mean getting closer to a character. Just learning about someone often means delving into the aspect of the setting the character is a part of and no one else is. This is a classic, timeless approach that opens up new possibilities.

But I also just like choices that go beyond their utilitarian purposes: they tell us something about the player character(s) and the implications of their actions. In Tokyo Necro, there are only two sets of choices in the whole game and they decide the destinies of the two protagonists – whoever is alive or dead has grave implications on how the story will turn out. Simple choices like this create so much effect on the scenario and I find them pretty satisfying as a result.


So yeah, I like choices that are often provoking the player to consider their motivations to align better with the game and explore the thematic consequences of the setting and characters. The former wants the player to roleplay/guide the characters in the game to make better choices, the latter allows the speculation of new worlds, ideologies, and higher concepts.

I don’t really care if I made decisions in that sense. It’s fun to decide how I look or make the game remember what I did or didn’t do, but satisfying choices always meant to me deepening my interaction with the game and its possibilities.

11 Likes

That’s the paradoxical thing about choices. The more impact a choice has, the less freedom of choice you have. Now you’re calculating mechanics and ramifications rather than, like, am I or this character the kind of person who leaves the TV on when they leave the room.

But you have to look at the function of a game’s choices. Some games will use occasional multiple-choice prompts to do what other games would do by presenting a character sheet before starting the game. How satisfying that will be probably depends on how much you enjoy character creation at all. Same thing with branching narrative, and with whatever you want to call Planescape choices, with no effect outside your own head. There’s no reason that choices with different functions would follow the same rules, or be satisfying or meaningful independent of the actual gameplay activity.

7 Likes

Hey thanks for reading and commenting on my post in this thread!! :pleading_face: no one said anything when I posted it so I felt weird…

6 Likes

I wish I could give more than one heart to all these posts cause they really explain so much better than I ever could what makes choices satisfying. Yall are amazing :green_heart:

Because Rescue at Quickenheath was mentioned, there was something that I was wondering about that.

I think some games, like RaQ, seem to be made for a one-off experience - like you aren’t meant replay them right away, the experience ends on the final curtain. Like some parsers, you play it once, resolve it, and that’s it. The goal is set and clear, and there is only one path forward. You may have choices for flavour but it won’t matter in the grand scheme of thing.
And yet, (taking RaQ as an example):

because of the way they are written. This is why it feels satisfying even if the choice doesn’t matter. The experience of the game feels complete at the end, and you don’t feel like you have to try a different paths/solution. There’s no FOMO…

This obviously doesn’t work for non-linear games, ones with branching paths and multiple endings - or I don’t think it does.

10 Likes

That’s a cool example, and probably something where I would overlook choices that don’t actually do something.

I think the particular type of choice I dislike is fairly common in VNs and in branching IF games, where I suppose the creator wanted to give the feeling of making a choice (for pacing/game loop/attention reasons) without actually writing variations for it. I think I notice it especially when playing Ren’Py VNs, where I can make a choice and then quickly scroll back to try the alternative if I didn’t like that one, only to find that the result is the same either way.

Maybe it’s a bit “meta” for me to play and think of games this way, but I like the roleplaying aspect of making choices in most of the games I play, and I feel like that’s a bit cheapened if the game doesn’t give me at least a few different lines of text depending on my choice.

9 Likes