So I’m musing about choices that don’t impact anything. They don’t change stats they don’t set variables in the background they don’t alter relationships (or only by a very small amount)
As a player (or writer!), do those choices feel like that they matter if your ‘reward’ for selecting them is not statistical, but rather, seeing different variations of the same scenes with different flavour text?
A decent chunk of what I’m writing at the moment involves choices that lend themselves towards the MC bantering or reacting in various ways to events, but under the hood not much is changing. When I’m playing I like to have different options available even if it just means I can roleplay the character pulling in a specific direction (regardless of the presence of personality sliders)
I’m curious about how that feels to others. Like, is having a bunch of choices that result in new text without changes to the overall path still just the same as being on rails with no interactivity?
It’s definitely not the same as being on-rails - flavour text can do a lot to impact a player’s experience, whether it’s because something minor and different happens, a different interaction with a character, or simply allowing player expression via roleplay (with an external action or from an internal thought). Varied scenes are also really fun to see when replaying.
These types of choices can really impact “intangibles” such as customization and allow the reader to express themselves.
Wearing Napoleon’s black felt hat may not alter your museum heist story line when you originally write your copy, but if you also give the option to wear Nelson’s tricorne hat or even Empress’ Josephine’s crown, it can build a connection to your reader you might not have without choice being there.
A subtle, intangible connection, I must add. This is part of the background. It’s important to strike a balance between the details and the big picture.
Even something as simple and inconsequential as being offered a choice of 5 different ways to say ‘no’, even without any change in flavour text, can feel great for many readers, for the roleplaying it provides.
There are many different ‘layers’ of choice impact, and I think it’s important to have all of them present in your game.
A game that mainly has light roleplay choices, with very little depth and impact might leave the reader feeling that nothing they do matter, but a game that only lets you decide the big important things, with no roleplay, would have me bored, and feeling much less connected to the character.
Here’s an example of a very minimalist, but entertaining, set of choices from Pathologic 2. Obviously this is something where a little goes a long way but it shows that fun, characterful moments can be had even with very similar choice options:
This is all text at the end of the day, it’s about the story being told with it. So I think adding flavor text for smaller choices would be rewarding for many readers. The simple knowledge that the story remembers and is attempting to remain consistent with the smaller decisions they’ve made can serve to increase immersion and investment.
The connection built can be both overt and subtle, depending on authorial intent and the context of the choice itself.
If the museum heist story above was focused on a gang of French thieves, wearing Nelson’s tricorne can be called back later in the story.
Such a call-back can be overt – it can be something the MC keeps as a trophy of their heist.
Or perhaps a French companion subtly ribs the MC for choosing the wrong side by wearing Nelson’s hat.
The possibilities are only limited by imagination, and sometimes seeking feedback on such choices can give the reader an additional layer of agency that the author fails to think of originally.
I am guilty of this, more than once. That said, seven fake choices which each only change three lines of text, before becoming irrelevant, would still be more interesting and engaging than clicking the next button seven times, even if the player has already figured out that those choices are fake.
As long as there are real choices mixed in, it should be fine. If you branch every choice, you’d never finish unless you have a huge team or plenty of time (I learnt this the hard way). Some of the fake choices in the earlier CoG games didn’t even change the text - they just followed up with something like “perhaps you are right”.
Yes, players don’t see the variable changes (unless you tell them) so what matters is what they see. In that regard yes making conversational choices that ultimately don’t matter to the plot can still feel good as a player because the game is still responding to your choices even if it is in ways that are ultimately inconsequential.
I love games that make effective use of flavoring text based on my choices. I definitely feel my choices are meaningful when I see that.
This is all great insight!
I suppose I have brushed against a number of critiques of various IFs that call out things like it not seeming as if the MC has agency, or that choices made do not seem to matter, and that got me thinking.
From folks’ replies here, clearly for a lot of people there’s a ratio. Some choices assuredly have to matter in the big picture, but smaller choices are part of the enjoyment too, even if they don’t have deep ramifications.
This for sure.
And depending on the quality of the flavor text, you can get a long way on it even without all that many “real” (stat changing/game branching) choices. Some hugely popular Choicescript games have done this.
I want to read this story. That sounds positively bizarre.
Of course, they matter! If it were the same text but affected stats differently, now that would be a shittier choice by far. The text is the reason I read a story.
What matters for me is ultimately things happen or don’t happen depending on what you say or don’t say. For instance, someone (A) doesn’t like what someone else (B) is doing.
Internally the writer knows that A plans to burn down B’s house. B tells you. Depending on what you say, he might or might not go through with it. If he does, B might or might not die (depends on whether you save him or not.)
If you save him, you might or might not tell him about A’s involvement, and then he might or might not want revenge, depending on what you say or do.
This is maybe what people mean by “choices that matter” - that by making different choices they can experience different outcomes within the same story.
If done well, it will massively boost the replayability of the game. I’m not sure if I can’t mention any titles here, but there’s one I’m constantly replaying because of how many ways the story can go.
Of course, we all appreciate story-branching choices of that sort. But not every choice can carry that much weight if the story is going to be more than a few pages long. And that’s why it’s necessary to discuss other sorts of ways that choices can be meaningful. Effective use of flavor text can make a story feel entirely different, even if many events play out the same way.
Speaking as a writer, absolutely yes. Considering the COG guidelines recommend giving your readers a choice (I believe) every 1-2 pages, it would be downright unreasonable to expect every single one of those to have some relevant mechanical effect. In fact, I suspect that if you tried, it’d be a real struggle to avoid writing a whole bunch of contrived scenarios that do more harm to the reader’s immersion than good.
The main rule I stick to when writing choices is just to never write one that does absolutely nothing. Some may give you some flavour text, others a mechanical effect, or often both, but you’re always guaranteed your choice will be acknowledged in one way or another.
I’ve played a couple of games that lean on the aforementioned “do-nothing” choices heavier than they probably should, and it’s always very transparent—most often it takes the form of a mountain of reactive choices after every new story beat, asking how you feel about this or what you think about that. After wading through a few dozen of them it really starts feeling like you’re more of a spectator to the plot than a real participant with agency, and that’s almost always something you want to avoid in an interactive medium.
So bottom line, as others have said, variety is key. Flavour text is certainly a valid option to acknowledge player choice, alongside all the other tools in your toolbox. Just make sure you’re doing something as often as you can to show your players that their choices really are being taken into account, and that it’s worth their time engaging in good faith.
Personally I love it if choices are allowed for just different flavour. This way it feels more of that I have agency. One of the reason I love games with cheat mode is because then I could just choose answers based on flavour instead of having to think about if I now need to figure out which choice is about the stats I gathered.