Sacrifice and Morality vs Actually Caring [+ Bonus Ranting]

How do you make a game where the player cares about the things they should be invested in, the consequences of their moral actions and the risks, rewards and magnitudes of their sacrifices?

How do you work towards that payoff moment where the player might say, “It was a tough decision, but it was for the greater good.” or “Am I willing to sacrifice everything I’ve worked so hard for in light of these new events?” or “Everything I’ve worked towards finally comes to fruition. I made good choices.” or …

Feel free to share your opinions and advice now, or read on to see that ‘+ Bonus Ranting’.

In theory, it’s pretty simple:

  • Give the player two conflicting things to care about, exempli gratia: Wealth and Love.
  • Tell the player what rewards these yield: Wealth rewards you with better equipment. Love rewards you with popular support.
  • Tell the player the consequences of sacrificing either: Low wealth makes progressing in the game more difficult. Lovelessness closes certain opportunities to you.
  • Make the player choose between the two.

In practice, however, it’s a little more difficult. Sacrifice isn’t sacrifice if we don’t really care about the thing we’re giving up.

Can I, right off the bat, ask a player to choose between sacrificing love or innocent lives (I’m looking at you, FABLE 3!) in order to broach and move on to the grander narrative?

Alternatively, can I spend seventeen chapters to establish backstory - why we love this person so incredibly much, all the hardship we went through, the dire-ness of the situation and why the support of the vox populi is so incredibly important, to formulate this one choice of severe consequence and risk it detracting from the grand narrative?

Of course, there are games that do it well, that allow you to build things up, work towards your own goals in a way that reflects who you are, that opens and closes doors based on what you want. Then, in a heartbeat, ask you to sacrifice half of everything you care about (Fable 2, you did super <3).

But, when writing, I often reach the point where I say, “That wasn’t really the point of what I was trying to do. This is only supposed to be a stepping stone on this journey we’re taking across troubled waters.”

I admire choice-like RPGs for their incredible feats in this area. Telltale does it well. I have it on good authority that Dragon Age knows what’s up. SW:KotOR, Vampire: The Masquerade and many, many, many ChoiceScript authors do it impeccably.

So, what am I missing here? What are your opinions and insights?


Any advice from a not-yet-published individual should be taken with at least one grain of salt. :wink:


Well, just as you said…

How do you make the player to care about stuff they’re going to sacrifice?
Keep in mind – and I believe – that there’re millions and gajillions way to make player care.

  • confront their self-worthiness (save those orphans or run from the Dragon of Doom’s assault)
  • ask their preference (do you prefer John Doe or Jane Doe)
  • make them think of risk vs. rewards (leave your chainmail or risk being drowned on this poor raft at the open sea)
  • build up the thing so the player will care (lovers, legendary items, etc.)

And I think there should be more, but I can’t think any of them :thinking:



Dont ask them to sacrifice in a heartbeat, unless it makes sense. An example of where it would make sense is if the MC had built up a group of loyal followers, who would do anything for the MC, and then you put the followers at risk, maybe in battle one of them is in a vulnerable position, or has been taken as a hostage, and contrast that against the MCs main goal. So it would be something like the follower is at risk, and you’vd built up an emotional connection with them, but you need to sacrifce them for your goal. Both endings would have to be satisfactory to the player if your trying to make a game where it has a happy ending, or if the game is in a Westeros-like world where anyone can die, save that follower, but at the expense of another.
But then again, this is coming from a person who has never taken a formal writing class, beyond the basic english you have to learn untill yoh graduate high school.


From a reader/player standpoint, you nailed it with:

I need to have spent time with the characters/items/town I’m going to be sacrificing. You can’t toss it in backstory, or explain it, or give me a few flashbacks either. I as the player need to spend time with the character/town/lucky hamster and develop my own opinions on it (and I generally expect to be able to not like a character. The second you tell me my character loves Ms Frizzlepants is the moment I’m looking for an excuse to kill her off so I don’t need this pointless interruption to my immersion). I need to feel like my Sparkle Sword is really useful to care about giving it up, I need to like having Bouncy McFlouncer around to care if he dies, and I need to be worried about how I’m going to survive on three dimes and a ball of lint to care about what kind of money I get.

And for two, there need to be real consequences for myself and the things I care about. The sticky bit with IF, especially in CoG’s usual style, is that you have to accommodate several character builds-- good/evil/apathetic smart/charismatic/tough…–so you need to make the consequences matter for multiple different types of characters.

If I’m playing a “nice guy” build, and you present me with the choice to give my wealth to the poor, well, why would I say no? Is there an encroaching army about to slaughter the poor and maybe we need resources? Is my family sick with pnemonia?

Conversely, why would an evil guy give his wealth to the poor? Is there an encroaching army and keeping the masses happy will make them more willing to soldier on and die for the cause? Will the poor become a spy network for you, allowing you to gain the upper hand?

Strong emotional scenes for the climax, like tearjerker sacrifices, are harder. If you want me to be sad when Flouncer dies, I need to spend most of the game with him, decide to love him without your input. And I need to be able to feel like it was the only option (If i feel like my character would have tried to save him/take middle ground/take his place, it throws me. Even if you don’t want those to be options, you need to give me a reason for it).


The reader has to get to know the character over time and the choices both need to have reasonable and compelling pros and cons.

If I care about a big strong warrior character and he hasn’t come back from a scout mission, but I also have the rest of the group to care about and need to move on to protect and feed the others, a choice to leave the warrior-scout or look for him wouldn’t be compelling. A strong warrior should be able to look after himself and a scout should be able to find the group himself, so I’d just be pointlessly waisting time and resources looking for him when he’s be fine either way.

The character doesn’t have to be weak, but the player should feel there might be a reasonable benefit from helping them or the situation is dire.

I liked the scene in the Walking Dead Game where Your apocalypse dad, Kenny, who helped you survive, found a shelter. The shelter was full and wouldn’t allow him in, but would accept you. You also have an infant with you that you need to protect and find formula for during the apocalypse. Do you leave dad, who is kinda mentally unstable because of loosing his real family already and even though he’s a great survivor- might no longer have the will to live without you and baby AJ, to possibly die? Do you make sure you protect the vulnerable baby who is the least mentally scarred and needs the shelter to have a greater chance at life or try to continue to raise a child in the apocalypse, but keep your family? If you leave Kenny, he gives AJ his hat to remember him by which is symbolic and touching because MC always wears a hat that her deceseased father gave her.
That works because the MC had time and scenes to know both Kenny and AJ and there was risk and reward to each choice. Well, one choice might seem way better than the other if you don’t like Kenny, but the other choice may seem better if you like him. Each option also has a sweet cutscenes that touch you in the feels.

I think it’s a good idea to look at sacrifice and morality choices in games and stories that you really like and write down why you like them and why the choice is hard.

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Keep in mind that readers will probably happily sacrifice a hundred off-screen orphans to save the life of one love interest character. Emotional weight is important - you can have the option to give all your money to the poor but if it has no impact beyond giving you some ‘goodness’ points, it’s not going to feel like a major choice.


How about sacrificing things for power, the age old tale.
Whenever there is an option to gain power I almost allways chose to grab as much as I can mainly because almost every time it is saying “you would give up your humanity” well no duh, power corrupts already but unless it forces me to do horrible or bad things 9 times out of 10 it will have no effect outside of people being afraid of you and some inner crappy dialogue like “I’m a monster”

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I found this video on essentially the same subject, but put into the superhero-movie light. However, I think its thoughts will be relevant here as well:


This was exceptionally insightful, and adds to the discourse.

And these do carry over into the particular genre of IF.

I think it’s something most authors are at least sub-consciously aware of - there are stakes, characters and situations we are invested in and relate to, and moral circumstances that surround these decisions we/the characters make. But, despite our sub-conscious/conscious awareness, we fall prey to shifting these out of balance sometimes.

Somehow, whether through personal opinion or investment, we might say, “WE need the PLAYER to care, so let’s raise the STAKES on something WE care about.” And that might be a perfectly natural thing. We cannot assume what stakes somebody else might care about.

I think something of relevance to the Psychological Certainty Principle, which specifically addresses choice and problem-solving and the uncertainty of decision-making. Only, in, you know, reverse.

“The frame that a decisionmaker adopts is controlled partly by the formulation of the problem and partly by the norms, habits, and personal characteristics of the decisionmaker. It is often possible to frame a given decision problem in more than one way. Alternative frames for a decision problem may be compared to alternative perspectives on a visual scene.” - Tversky A., Kahneman D. (1985) The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice.

That is to say, we innately cannot understand the point of reference which we do not hold. So I guess we kind of just go with the ‘universal truths’. Love is a thing, people sometimes want to be good people, the Trolley Problem. All that jazz.

Sigh, why must it come to this. When did writing, game-creating, and psychology become philosophy and ipso facto my existential crisis?

(Spoiler Alert: It’s always been that way.)

Gosh, I really carried through on that promise of [+ Bonus Ranting]

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