Hard choices, tough love and happy endings

I’m writing a game which increasingly seems to require some very tough moral choices and I’m wondering just how far I can push this before I upset or alienate players. How do people feel in general about the following sorts of situations?

  • Lesser-of-two-evils choices. For example, a situation where you must choose to help one of two friends in the knowledge that abandoning the other will lead to their death.

  • The sacrifice of ROs. Situations in which it is impossible to reconcile a particular moral stance and a relationship with an RO. Potentially, situations in which ROs must die for a ‘greater good.’

  • Imperfect endings. A game which lacks a ‘best’ or even a ‘good’ ending, so that one set of people will always suffer unfairly at the finish. Would players feel cheated by this?

  • Player character sacrifice. How would you feel if there was a ‘best’ ending but it required the player character to die for their cause in the final act?

Would love to hear your thoughts and also any examples of previous games which have made use of choices like these.


I actually consider this kind of trope to be one of my personal favorites. Especially if you’re thrown into a “do or die” situation with few others but in the end, you can only choose yourself to be the sacrifical lamb for the cause you’re fighting for. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed video game executed this trope perfectly in the final act. There’s only one or two CoG story that comes to my mind that basically has this and that’s Werewolves: Haven Rising but I’d consider that one to be a bad end. One of the endings to Lost Heir 3 is basically a martyr end and I thought it was impactful after the journey that my MC went through the series.

I understand that some readers may not prefer to see this ending, but sometimes it may be necessary for a certain type of story to tie up the loose ends of the overall plot.


Personally, I’m okay with this if I am reading a novel but for a IF, I don’t like the idea that the best ending would be decided for me. It felt like my choices had no effect in the end and it defeat the purpose of IF as a whole.

That’s probably why I like how Bioware did it with the DA series. We were given choices that shape how your MC’s story will end.


A lot of this is stuff that’ll vary from player to player. Personally it sounds like a darker game than I’d tend to enjoy–but I know of plenty of others who prefer that type of story. So with something like “what if the MC can die,” “what if there isn’t a golden ending,” you’re gonna get folks who don’t like that, would feel cheated, etc, but there’s definitely an audience for it.

Taking your specific example, I think in general its better to delay that type of consequence. Unless it’s a game framed around that type of choice (which is more or less the conceit of the Versus games), I think players would rather avoid a strict “do you save Character A or B” choice. As opposed to, “I leveled up strength instead of speed and so when Character A fell off a cliff, I wasn’t fast enough to save them,” or “in chapter 4 I decided to make friends with the army instead of the librarians, so then in chapter 6 when Character B has gotten sick, I can’t go look up what they have, so they die.” Not that there isn’t a place/situation for “who lives who dies” (hello, Mass Effect), but having dominoes bumping into each other makes for a more interesting gameplay experience


I enjoy these (as heart-wrenching as they are) so long as they aren’t overused in that particular game. (For example, you have six companions, but each pair has a ‘choose one of us and leave the other’ situation). Though not a CSG, Dragon Age (particularly Inquisition) has choices where you have to choose to save either the player-character of the previous game or a past (potential) love interest.

I think this is fine so long as there are also ways to avoid it: as in, one particular set of choices or gameplay may lead to the RO’s inevitable demise or sacrifice, but the story doesn’t always lead to that. Otherwise, deliberately offering a character for the players to fall in love with, knowing that they’re doomed to die no matter what, feels somewhat cheap (or cruel) to me. In that case, I’d be very turned off (but only in the case of interactive fiction).

I think it depends on the story, genre, details, world, and setting. If the game starts off bleak and ends bleak, it’s not a huge surprise that everything isn’t roses-and-puppies by the end, because not everyone can be equally happy and not everything can just suddenly turn from dystopian hellscape to fluffy perfection. However, I would personally feel cheated if the MC/other characters were put through the ringer–trauma, torture, horrific war, etc.–struggled, persevered, and overcame, only to have a ‘realistic’ ending where no one is happy and everyone has lingering trauma that never really goes away… I wouldn’t be happy with that. (cough Hunger Games, cough)

I think it just depends on the degree of ‘unfair suffering’ and who is receiving it. It’s okay if some people (ideally not the MC) don’t get a happy ending at the end of the story, especially due to their past actions or mistakes that were out of MC’s control (all the side characters who died at the end of Harry Potter, say). But if there’s no ‘good’ ending at all, only endings where no one ends up happy, I would ask: what’s the point in playing?

I’m okay with player character sacrifice as certain heroic endings, but not necessarily okay with it being a requirement for “the best ending.” If the player character is dead, it isn’t a “best ending” to me, because they’re not around to enjoy it! But I do think it’s possible to achieve good endings in a way that demands player sacrifice. I think the ‘best’ ending, if it canonically exists, should be extremely difficult to achieve but manages to keep the protagonist and company alive, perhaps through near-perfect stats or choices. Otherwise, if they have to die, that’s actually a bad ending to me, and I’ll be looking for a way to undo it.

As @resuri08 said, Dragon Age: Origins does a very good job with the ideas of sacrifice. You have to sacrifice something to get a good end. Whether it’s the player’s life or something else, some sort of toll is necessary–but the players get to choose what that is.

If you haven’t played them, the Telltale brand of narrative games utilizes these choices a lot. The Walking Dead: Season One (which requires no pre-existing knowledge of the franchise) has lots of “lesser-of-two-evils” choices where you have to choose which person to save and which person to sacrifice, which exit to run to and which room to leave unexplored, and these can have very long-lasting consequences throughout the story. I would also recommend “The Wolf Among Us” as well!


I don’t know how to feel about this situation. I am mostly leaning on the “no… nope…not happening”

When this happened to me, I was shocked and if I happen to have the RO in that path, I would probably can’t decide.It was a bit of a relief that I made RO took a different path. It’s still a hard choice to be honest.

Even I am apprehensive about hard choices, it does give the story more emotional impact. But not too much that I would drain my enjoyment of the IF.


Sorry if this isn’t going to be a very helpful answer, but a lot of these will probably hinge on the context surrounding these choices and consequences.

For instance, the lesser of the two evils/picking between two friends option… there’s absolutely no guarantee that players may even perceive the two characters as friends. They might view one as extremely annoying and gladly allow that character to die, for instance.

Sacrifice of ROs… I’d be careful with this one… You don’t want to accidentally stuff an RO into a fridge. Honestly, I’d much rather prefer that they lived, but potentially hate the MC’s guts and may only interact with them when it’s necessary or in a professional setting only. It gives more nuance and feels more realistic since people in relationships might reach disagreements and not have the means of cutting ties completely i.e. you were previously married, but got divorced except you have to share custody over your kid because it’s the right thing to do.

Considering how much people value their ROs, they might sacrifice their morality just to be with them since this is fiction and they can “get away” with such things. Plus, you definitely want to avoid coming off as preachy with the moral stance and killing the RO as a result of disagreeing with them could be seen as the worst punishment.

Imperfect Endings… Again, it honestly depends on the context. I’d err on the side of if you set up right from the get-go that the setting is pretty grim and there’s literally no hope in sight, then the readers would probably not view the imperfect endings as being cheated. The key would be to quickly establish that the hope spots are far and few in-between. You could have a few bittersweet endings, emphasize on the bitter rather than the sweet if you prefer.

MC sacrifice… Sorry I’m on repeat, but context is important and maybe with a healthy dose of foreshadowing. I really can’t stress the foreshadowing and context enough. Like if the MC is prophesied to be The One, then sacrificing themselves might not that much of a stretch, especially when establish all of that from the get-go. I think someone else already said it, but I would advise against making the best ending hinge completely on the MC’s sacrifice - unless you’ve foreshadowed it beforehand - since it’d invalidate all the previous choices they’ve made and then it’s very possible that they’ll feel cheated in this scenario.


If you conceive of an ending as “imperfect” that might lead you astray–I think my favorite advice that CoG ever gave me was that all endings should be awesome. They can be tragic, they can be heroic, they can be comic, they can be nasty and brutal, but they should be awesome and make the reader feel cool at at the end, whether fist-pumpy or “what-the-hell-y” and jaws agape.

So in that sense, there’s no imperfect. There’s just different kinds of awesome. I would recommend leaning towards that way of conceiving endings.


I don’t have issues with hard choices. I particularly like endings where you can’t save everyone. Take Mass Effect 3 for example. Unless you make literally all the right choices spanning two games, you’re going to have to choose between either the Quarians or the Geth. It is an amazing sequence done well regardless of whatever path you go down, and was in my opinion the best segment of the entire game.

The only thing I don’t enjoy about hard choices is when they’re done poorly. Some games will look at whatever your choice was and consistently beat you over the head with how bad a choice it was for the rest of the game, prompting the player to try a different choice on the next playthrough only to find the same exact situation. It’s one thing to give a hard choice with no right answer. It’s another thing altogether to make the player feel like the choice they make is THE wrong choice no matter what they chose.

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I don’t have a problem with these type of endings, especially if the story takes place in a world that’s dark and gritty. I think players feel cheated if they get a bad ending no matter what then people are going to say “what’s the point of me doing this if I can’t win either way.” So as long as the players don’t feel like the author is giving them a giant middle finger by not rewarding them via a “good”, “happy” or possibly bittersweet ending, I don’t see a problem including a tragic ending.

I like situations like these but, not if they’re used constantly. If 2 characters you like just so happen to always be in danger every scene/chapter or every other one people would lose that suspense and would eventually roll their eyes and say “they need to be saved again!?” So it’s probably best not to use situations like those repeatedly. But, I definitely support, choices with consequences that can put characters in danger or choices that cause you to do something that’s morally questionable.

Again, if the story ends with you dying no matter what, people won’t be happy. Personally, I wouldn’t have a problem if the main character dies, because I think it raises the stakes if the MC themselves can be put on the chopping block. Also, if the character is truly invested in their cause why shouldn’t they be in mortal peril ? Especially if the other supporting characters are dying left or right.


I like this if it’s done well. Look at something like Fire Emblem: Fates where you have to choose between the two different sibling sides with the knowledge you’ll be fighting against them in the future with some even dying. While there were issues with how the game implemented it and heavily leaned towards favoring one side, it was an interesting dynamic.

I think something like this makes the characters more fleshed out and realistic. So something like Fallout: New Vegas – it wouldn’t make sense for a character like Boone, who hates Caesar’s Legion, to not become hostile if you side with them, and both his character and the story are better because he’ll attack you.

I’m combining these two questions because I often find what a game calls the “best” ending turns out to be most imperfect, often brushing aside the other playthroughs/endings which can result in the player feeling cheated and like their choices didn’t matter since this “best” ending was the ultimate/real one. Dragon Age: Origin’s sacrifice ending is great because the MC doesn’t have to die to stop the Blight and the player doesn’t have to sacrifice their agency for a “best” ending.


cough Mass Effect 3 cough, cough

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  • Lesser-of-two-evils choices.

I tend not to like these, honestly. I’m the kind of player that’s always looking for another way, because most situations are never so black and white, and I tend to find these sorts of choices unrealistic. With the possible exception of an action scene, where you are having to make a split second decision quickily…

  • The sacrifice of ROs.

Yes… it’s a choice I would probably rarely want to make personally… but often that is what makes choices more meaningful and impactful, knowing there was something at stake, and knowing what the alternative could have been.

  • Imperfect endings.

That depends. Endings that are a little bittersweet, and not happily ever after for everyone? Sure. But even a tragic or bittersweet ending still needs to be a proper ending, with a sense of payoff and closure. I prefer endings that are more novel like, with a proper conclusion, and less like a “game over” screen.

  • Player character sacrifice.

Sure…as a dramatic choice it can be interesting. But in an interactive fiction and choice driven narrative, I feel like that isn’t a choice that should be forced. A protagonist death is something that can work well in a novel or film, but in a game setting, it tends to feel more like you’ve been forced to lose the game.


I generally think that this is a downer ending- especially if you invested so much time in customising your MC that it feels like effort wasted.

To clarify:

Me: I just spent hours customising my MC to perfection…
(MC throws themselves into volcano in Sacrifice ending
Me: Waaaah! :cold_sweat:


Oh I hated that ending. Dark Side was diablus ex machina and jumping off the slippery slope, and light side was “why aren’t you people helping”

I’d actually make it so that the RO would hate you for not sacrificing them. It’s funnier that way.

Of course you also need a companion who’d be pissed at you for attempting to sacrifice someone due to personal history.

And even if they’re willing, make the death heart rending.

Disagreements are fun too though but a lot of times I feel like they are inputted into situations where they should be working together and fight over a small thing.

Though this is coming from someone who laughs at the misery of others and I hear most people aren’t like that, strange as it is.

Anyway in general I like having a harder to achieve third option but I’m fine with choosing between 2 tough choices. If I see and obvious solution I’d be annoyed though.


I’m okay with the latter two, the first two however…not a big fan of it. I’d rather sacrifice myself than another person even in games. I’d still give the game a try though, but once I get the “pick someone (other than yourself) to die” choice, I’d probably quit the game. Depending on certain aspects I would continue but most often I won’t.


I can say for all of these that it depends on context and how they are written.

Just some warning signs:
Some people will find these blatant manipulation if you don’t write them well. @rinari mentioned DAI’s here lies the abyss as a good example, but I will always hold that it was properly the worst dragon age quest to dato

  • At first it was obvious player manipulation. The current PC had no personal connection to the two characters. They had just met. Which meant that the hard choice relied on what I the player felt and not what the PC felt, which just pissed me off. It was also badly written because I ended up with former PC and a warden character I had met like trice before. Hard choice, it wasn’t.
  • It involved a former PC turned NPC. I bring this forth because it is important for the choice itself. During the whole of this quest all I had been doing was sitting and mumbling 'why is my Hawke acting so OOC? By the time we came to the grand choice my willingness to suspend disbelief was pretty much shot, which meant instead of going “Oh no, who shall I choose”. I went “You could all just jump through the portal. It is right there.”
  • Properly because I had zero suspension of disbelief left I didn’t buy the urgency of the choice anymore. The game had not sold me on the premise that I had to sacrifice anyone. Which made it impossible to proceed.

Generally I would say it is important to get the player to buy the premise of the hard choice or the player is just sitting there going. Why aren’t they doing X. Now it is impossible to get every player, but you can try.

As for the specific:

Okay, my generally rule of thumb is: If my MC has time to think through the implication of their choices they also have time to come up with alternatives.

As for the greater good. In my personal opinion there is no good if I choose to kill someone for it. Now, if my actions put on the war path with faction X and I know my Ro is faction X, then it is my own damn fault.

Who are you to say what is the best ending for me? One thing that frustrates me as an avid VN player is the labeling for endings. If you present me with three different ending, I get to decide which one I deem ‘best’.


This whole thread is just a big old BioWare callout, isn’t it?


That is properly mostly me. DaI really destroyed my enjoyment of dragon age and I am not very rational about it.

That being said, hard choices are all about the emotion they wake in the player. So if the emotion they wake in the player is burning hathred for your game and the feeling of being lied to and manipulated, I will say that it is in most cases it is a fail.

And I do honestly think that the player ended up feeling manipulated is the biggest risk with a lot of these. The other being, dictating how I feel about the ending/situation.

There was a fallout game. I can’t remember the number or much about the situation, where the writers meant for the PC to sacrifice themselves in the end, but you had a NPC who could survive. Players complained and the developers gave in, but wrote it as if it was a less good moment to choose the obvious everybody survive ending. It left a sour taste in a lot of people’s mouth.

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I’m a real stickler for downer endings that have a little bit of sweetness to them. Like in RDR2’s high honor ending whereArthur dies, but at least gets one last sunrise, and as far as he knows, saved John. Full downer endings are nice too, and sacrifice, not necessarily the players

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