Meaningful choices in gaming can encompass a wide scope.
An easy example is the Walking Dead: Season 1, when you must choose which NPC to save. The player had enough time to get to know each character, can only save one, and the consequence is referenced via dialogue throughout the season. It’s a fascinating dichotomy as the same decision saves the life of one, but kills another.
Bioware has a history of providing moral choices in their RPGs but I would criticize that the opposing good/bad philosophies can appear too extreme. The ‘evil’ choice often lacks any motivation other than being bad for badness sake. It’s far more interesting when decisions have a positive and negative impact that the player must weigh.
A classic example used in film is the Submarine Captain sealing off a leaking room (before it’s been evacuated of crew) to prevent the entire vessel from sinking. It’s even better if another Officer believes they still had time to save them. That’s a tough choice I’d love to see more of in games.
From Michael Bay’s best: The Rock
The scope can be much smaller however. Consider a melee action game that offers several types of attack. The choice of which attack to use is only meaningful if each type is the most useful at a particular time. If a certain attack is always statistically better, the others can only offer an anesthetic change.
A light attack that interrupts heavy, and a heavy that ignores a block, are great examples of primo player choice. Dark Souls has built five critically acclaimed games around this concept (adding stamina, rolling, and more of course).
This is For Honor (not Dark Souls), and it’s making me dizzy
To break it down even simpler, we could look at Super Mario World and it’s two jumps: Normal and Spin.
The Spin jump allows Mario to safely land on enemies that would normally harm him, but it reaches relatively lower than a standard jump. A Spin jump at top speed will reach just higher than a standing Normal. The Spin also breaks blocks: useful to reach blocked areas, but can also destroy the only thing separating him from lava/pit.
Wether big or small, the choices we make in games should make us think, even if only for a split-second. If the choices we make don’t matter, then we might as well put the controller down and watch The Rock again.
Here’s the episode if you’d like to hear Attilla and myself jabber more