The difference between watching a film and playing a game is interactivity. The player makes choices that directly affect the experience. Whether choosing immediate actions like when to jump, shoot, or hide, or deciding the narrative arc in a Telltale game, choice makes the player relevant. But this choice must be meaningful.

Let’s say you played a shooter that started you with a gun that was clearly the best in every situation. You could choose other guns for a different feel but you would likely keep going back to the money gun. This lack of meaningful choice is much less interesting than if there were guns that were more effective for different situations, giving the player a chance to participate further.

If a game presents you with a choice of which area to visit first, it’s far more interesting if that choice has a consequence. Perhaps the items you receive in one area will affect your experience in the next. Maybe certain objectives are time-sensitive and couldn’t be completed if chosen second. Mega Man handles this well by allowing the player to complete the stages in any order and offering level-specific upgrades. Stink Man could be much easier to defeat after acquiring Soap Man’s power.

A choice doesn’t necessarily require measurable consequence either. A great example is from the divisive Deus Ex: Invisible War. Upon reaching a scientist and their powerful weapon, the player is asked to deal with the situation differently by several different parties. You can free the Scientist or kill him. Keep the weapon or destroy it. Other than getting to use the gun if you keep it, there isn’t much of a narrative or gameplay consequence to the other actions. It mostly affects how you feel about the experience. This is a fantastic use of choice that I constantly praise during my Let’s Play of Mankind Divided. I only wish the latest iteration included more just like it.

Without meaningful choice the player is left wondering “why am I here?”, and not in the deep philosophical sense. Great game design should make the player feel like their choices matter.

How do you feel about this?

For more on game design check out our GAMEOLOGY Podcast.