The Choice in Choice Games: Variation and Player Autonomy in Endings?

This is my 1st topic so hope ive done this right…so I’m thinking of writing a choice game and im wondering about endings and how linear a choice game should be, so this question is market research but also Ive been thinking of Mass Effect 3 and its ending and the fall of Telltale Studios lately so this is topic I’ve really wanted to discuss.

When someone plays a choice game, specifically a choice game which is planned to be a singular book: how much actual control do they need over the events of the story? how linear should it be and how much should player choice effect the ending?

If we talk about a game like Wayhaven, in each book the game is linear in the fact that the main events and plot points of the story will always happen in the same order. In the 1st book the player will always be the Detective will always meet Unit Bravo at the werehouse and not know who they are, they will always be kidnapped by Murphy and at the end they will always be the newest member and human liason of Unit Bravo. The ‘Choice’ in the game comes from the amount of control and options the player can respond in character, and more variation comes from the ROs and the choice of which RO the player wants their character to interact with at that point in the plot. While the game is very linear in plot, there is massive amounts of reply value in PC personality and RO choice.

On the other hand, take Mask of the Plague Doctor (one of my favourites). The story line is less linear and their is a branching point in the story which leads to a few different endings which change the fate of your Doctor and the fate of the town.

A ‘mainstream’ example outside of COG or HOG that received massive backlash over the amount of choice a player had in influence the game would be Mass Effect 3. The main complaint Mass Effect 3 came to “there was only 3 endings which were the same ending with a different filter”. Shepard could shoot the thing and destroy the reapers, they could merge all organic life with artificial life or… they could join the Reapers? it’s been a while since I’ve played.
The thing is in Mass Effect there was loads of choices you could make throughout the series:
Play as Male or Female, choose your characters background and class, which companion you could save over the other, who to romance, destory or save a whole colony, chose to make a entire alien race extinct or save the last of their kind. Choose friendships, choose to kick someone off the side of a building. Choose who joins your final battle to defeat the Reapers. But people didn’t like the ending and thought that the player should have had more choice and there should have been more variation.

So my ‘Big Question’ is how much influence does a player want in the ending of a story?
Would a game with a singular predetermined ending, with Choice in the form of how a character reacts to predetermined events be successful or have backlash?


I would note that Episode Interactive execs have given GDC talks where they have announced that “branching isn’t worth it.”


in my experiance of a player of the app, episodes do rely on a game model where basically every answer a player can give ( and outfit) is blocked behind microtransactions so their money isnt really coming from the actual quality of the content they host


What an interesting question! :slight_smile: Though I feel the answer as usual is going to be “it depends”.

In this case I think it depends on the kind of story/game you’re presenting. To give some examples:

  • Wayhaven has a strong character focus and some mild skill checks. The reader knows what they’re getting into: lots of character scenes - with the main focus on the LI - that will vary with the personality of the MC so everyone can experience a special feel and connection to the characters. While you do have some stat checks (and I think they make a significant impact on the feel of the story), overall the story itself is less important.
  • On an entirely different spectrums: there are also some strategy/management games available here. And if you spend the whole game trying to build your kingdom or your crew or whatever… you’re gonna want to see a difference at the end. If you excelled the entire time, then you’re gonna be a little surprised when at the end everything falls to ruin because that’s just how it ends.
  • Which brings me to: Mass Effect. As you’ve observed yourself, there were a load of choices available which set the expectations for what’s to come. And in the end, players were upset because all these choices didn’t make a difference, all the missions to put together an army and win with their own effort were irrelevant.

So, I think it’s fine to offer both linear stories and those with many branches. It all depends on your focus, what kind of choices with which effects the reader can make throughout the game, because that will affect the expectations for the ending.


From polls run from players on this forum, a lot of people are only playing games 1-2 times which isn’t generally going to show up the rails unless it’s severely railroaded. Games that are more “open world/branching” without a central plotline tend to put them at a disadvantage as complaints start to come in about the game not being anywhere near as long as advertised. I can’t think of any games that have had a “time cave” type structure that have done well on HG or COG. (Not to say they can’t, but they’re a tonne more work to do and tend to suffer from poor reviews related to low playthrough to overall length so authors have largely stopped writing them.)

A lot of CS games tend to at least roughly follow the branch and bottleneck formula with variables sometimes used to account for longer term differences in the story pattern. Some are more linear than others, but it’s a compromise between telling a story and having variable game elements to customise it.

(BTW one of my current WIP’s follows a loop and grow format and there are others that do it too, so there are other formulas, it’s just the branch and bottleneck is the most common.)


Another good example similar to Mass Effect 3 would be Life Is Strange. Throughout the game players use time powers and make often interesting choices as Max - are you willing to let someone you care for suffering with a disability to commit suicide, to lie about the fate of someone you know will cause their parent to kill someone, to live with the consequences of someone’s death because you didn’t listen etc. And the game branches nicely because of it. It’s only in the final episode where players are possibly annoyed that everything boils down to a single choice, one that is either resetting everything you did and losing a friend/lover or allowing a terrible thing to happen to many people to save them. A powerful choice, but it’s at the expense of everything else in the game.


This is maybe a vague answer, but to me the matter at hand is whether the endings feel like natural followups of the events you had control over.

ME3 in particular I think suffered from the fact that, while you made plenty of decisions throughout the series with galactic consequences and could work your buns off to achieve the happiest endings to individual plot arcs, the actual final decision in the game felt completely arbitrary and had nothing to do with anything Shep did throughout the game (besides whatever those generic points were called that you gather up in ME3 specifically). We were given tons of meaningful choices, only for the ending to render them all basically irrelevant.

On the other hand, I’ll use Choice of the Deathless as an example where there were essentially only two endings (good/bad) (IIRC), but the choices you made throughout the game, the things you succeeded and failed at, determined what options you had available to get your good ending. Did you help the goddess? Now she’s going to return the favor. Did you impress your bosses? They’re here to bail you out. etc etc. It makes your choices feel meaningful, even if most of them lead to the same conclusion, because how you get your good ending is a direct result of what you did or didn’t do.

I suppose what I’m saying is I think it’s okay to have a linear-ish story that still offers solutions based on the things you did over a story that is nonlinear-ish but invalidates your choices, or makes your choices and their consequences seem unclear or unfulfilling. And of course, you could always go for a story that has multiple, meaningfully different endings that vary based on your past choices. But I’d say it’s more important for choices to feel like they matter than for more variation to occur.

…I’m sorry if I totally missed answering your question there, haha. That’s just my couple of pennies.


Sorry this is also a vague answer, but I think - in my personal experience - the ending variations should depend on how the author establishes the audiences expectations early on in the book/media/video game/etc.

In @EndMaster’s Necromancer one of our first choices is choosing between the demon, Big Red, or your Conjuration professor. It’s one of the most important choices in the game, I would argue, since it changes the beginning and end of the story. What Endmaster nailed perfectly, I think, is that you immediately get a sense of the story’s scope based on your very first choice.

In Wayhaven, I feel like Mishka does a good job at conveying that the story she’s going to tell is more linear than what you would expect thanks to having the narrator be in first person and having their background/career already established. Obviously where the reader gets the most autonomy is choosing who - if any - of the vampires we decide to get together with.


How would people feel about a more small scale game, with a more linear story with a set character (still with name/appearance customisable) where the choice more comes from how the PC can interact with the other characters with a few ‘flavour’ choices thrown in which uses skillchecks?

Some examples:
Another character bumps into your PC and needs help and your PC is proficient in healing so you can treat this characters wounds (with a extra choice to use magic or medical healing) OR in a situation where your PC might need to sneak in on a cult meeting they can choose on whether to sneak in because they have stats based in subtlety/sneakiness or they have more points in persuasion and can convince a character they helped earlier to let them in.)
Also maybe the PC can end up on influencing on what characters maybe alive at the end of the game. Just little things like that

Another important point I need to ask…How ‘Happy’ do people like their endings? Would people have enjoyed Mass Effect 3 if the only option at the end was the Destroy/ Red ending (the ending Commander Shepard died but destroyed the Reapers) BUT it was your choices on who had joined your army based on your choices as a player which decides if they won that fight or if all of organic life in the galaxy died?
So you ‘Win’ but your character is dead and a martyr, but it was your choices which left behind the state of the universe. Bittersweet ending and a bit of angst, closing the book on your story.


Unless it is a known author (like @Jacic who excels at these types of stories :heart:) I dislike most of these types of offerings.


Can I ask why that is?

Is it due to the writers having less experience and it showing in their actual writing (too many typos, spelling errors)? Or that they are not actually confident in their own story and so borrow too many cliché without original ideas? Or maybe the writer fails to establish a narrative tone so it feels like you are reading a bad screenplay?

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Depends how you define ‘small scale’.

I like to compare Dragon Age 2 versus Dragon Age Origins when I think of small versus large scale stories. 2’s story/plot is interpersonal and character driven and contained within one city which suites it quite well IMO.

I think I would enjoy it as long as the character I was playing had a certain level of autonomy within the story. For instance the cult situation… if I want to sneak in can I steal a robe and fly solo/attracting less attention or do I rely on a friend to provide me with a robe but risk more attention to the two of us? Or can I eschew sneaking in altogether and try something else?

I generally like them happy. Bittersweet is great too such as The Grim and I’s Other Side ending.



The short answer is: It is complicated.

The long answer is that those authors that I know have the skills and experience to pull it off, give us wonderful stories and I can immediately get into the story and support them.

It is (in my opinion) much easier to write a self-insert MC in this genre than it is to write a more established character MC that succeeds.

I also speed read, so while most people’s eyes glaze over when they see wall of texts, I often enjoy them very much.


This actually sounds very much like the sort of story I’d be interested in. I’m always much more invested in characters than plot (unless the characters are exceptionally weak or the plot is exceptionally strong), and I find interacting with the characters and seeing how they develop or don’t to be one of the most compelling things a story can offer, and one of the greatest strengths of IF is the ability to interact with characters in different ways. I’m also writing a story very much along these lines so this answer is pretty biased

That said, I don’t think a story has to sacrifice characterization to have a strong plot or vice versa. But I’d much rather watch the most generic romcom plot ever if it has great characters than a unique premise with people I don’t give two figs about.

I mean, I like happy endings, but again, I prefer endings that make sense over endings that are happy but don’t make sense. Then again, this is IF - why not have both, and some shades in between?


The question is really how much (or less) of a blank slate does a character have to be to move from the self insert category to the established character though?

In Wayhaven your character is always a new detective in their early 20s with a mother called Rebecca and a father who died. But you can choose why your character became a detective and your personality of your character. In Fallen Hero your character was a Vigilante or Hero called Sidestep and was made in a Lab and now you are a ‘Supervillian’ getting your revenge, but again choice in new supervillian name, choice over how murderous you are, choice over ROs etc.
In Choice of Robots your character is always a young 24 year old graduate student in the Computer Science PhD program at Stanford who really really really likes robots.

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Dragon Age 2 while kinda terrible is my favourite game out of the 3 tbh. If they had more than 1 year to make it it would have been so much better and had so much potential. And I loved it for the interpersonal relations, I loved Hawke (in all 3 flavours) as a character and Kirkwall kinda fell into the ‘Character’ category itself eventhough it was a city with places such as Darktown…and that one Dragon Pitt

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It is complicated :wink:

@MultipleChoice’s Samurai character is an example of an established character MC …

I would consider Wayhaven a self-insert MC, because she allows vast choices in the area of character development that is the most important element (romance and relationship building) … Yes Rebecca is always our mum, but our relationship with her is very different, depending on choices you make.


I think I have a major problem with that even in games where there is very little to no choice in the character you are playing my brain automatically fills that stuff in. In Skyrim I have like…8? Different Characters with their own backgrounds and storylines and only one of them is the Dragonborn and follows the main quest of the game. And dont get me started on my Papers Please PC ( a simulation game where you are a passport control officer in a fictional country based on the USSR and the gameplay is literally just checking if peoples passports and documentation are all correct).


Again… it depends. (I might have to put this on my profile somewhere.)

I do agree with @Eiwynn that there’s a big range in published games and both sides have proven to be appealing, so you can take your pick.

I’ve had my own thoughts on this. The past few days I’ve been contemplating which games I like and why and one thought came up a lot: “I like the game because I can play the character I like” … and, well, that’s rather inexpressive, because what kind of character do people want to play? But with that sentence, I think, kind of lies the answer to your question as well.

In the end, it’s going to be a little hit or miss. If you pick an MC with no established personality, they can come across as bland, passive and boring and people will be put off playing the game. Balancing that is pretty difficult, since you probably plan to give the player a lot of choices which you can’t possibly reflect accurately (though you can try!) in the descriptions.
And if you go with a more established character you may risk alienating people who might like the story and the cast, but dislike some of the things they’re forced to do or say as the MC.

I believe going with an MC that has some established influences, but allows the player a good bit of leeway, is a safe method. I say this, by considering that most people play IF to be able to express themselves and experience stories in ways many other games won’t allow them, and also because it does give the author of the story some authority on the MC and allows an easier reflection on the MC’s actions and feelings.

But as I said… you can take your pick :wink: If you post a WIP up on the forum, people will happily give you feedback.


From my point of view as a player, the plot is important to me in a well-written game. I don’t mind if all my choices lead to one ending, as long as the ending feels earned. This has to do with balancing the depth and number of choices against the depth and length of the plot, and you can really only gauge this by getting some WIP feedback.

In Wayhaven, the plot is practically linear, but the player has influence over the details. Choosing their RO and which UB members to spend time with is part of that, but passing stat checks is another part. Scenes have different results depending on choices that the player makes, and these scenes can affect later scenes as well. For instance in Book 2, it’s possible to not save the fortune teller, which affects the player’s relationship with the circus, which can lead to an ending where the treaty isn’t signed. While the overall plot isn’t heavily affected by this structure, there are still small changes that make it feel like the player’s choices are actually influencing the story. All this to say that it isn’t necessary for you to write 2+ vastly different endings if that’s not what you want to do with the plot. Giving the player details that they can change goes a long way in making them feel like they are really playing the game, rather than just being along for the ride.

In regards to your question about “blank slate” MCs, I think a truly blank slate can be tedious both for the player and for the writer. It’s unnecessary for you to allow the player to choose their profession, level of education, who their parents are, and so forth. Players are creative enough to self-insert into characters that have premade backgrounds, given choices to customize their personalities and such during gameplay.

An established character would look like: The main character of this game is [Name], a [gender] firefighter who has dedicated their life to saving the lives of others. As a child, they weren’t very confident and got bullied a lot, but they decided to use that as inspiration to help other people that feel “less-than.” When they’re not firefighting, they spend their weekends with their pet cat, Nancy, while they work on needlepointing. The firehouse is full of their framed needlepoint, some with funny phrases or portraits of the station’s dalmations. The other station workers joke, in a friendly sort of way, about [Name] making such dainty little things, because their demeanor is generally stern and serious. They’re very no-nonsense when it comes to work, and it matters greatly to them that the job always gets done right. While [Name] is happy working at the fire department for a long time, they dream of retiring someday to the beach; their kitchen counter is constantly full of ads for far-off rental homes that they wish they could own.

This sort of character gives the player pretty much all the details that they would normally want to fill in on their own, while a game like Wayhaven allows the player to choose their background, their relationship to their mother/their coworkers/Bobby, and their personality. Wayhaven invites self-inserts and Detective OCs, while a game like the example does not. It doesn’t matter than Wayhaven’s Detective has an established career and family, because I don’t think any player expects the MC to be a literal replica of themselves. The Detective’s career and family ties are essential to the plot, and couldn’t be changed - and perhaps you can take that into consideration as you’re writing your own MC. Which aspects of the character are essential to the plot, and which aren’t? Let the player choose when the choice doesn’t affect your overall plot, if you want a game with a fairly “blank slate” MC.

Again, the best way to judge if the MC you’re writing has enough space for OC/self-insert is to get some WIP feedback, and people will let you know where your character lies on the spectrum. I don’t think there’s a line in the sand where a character crosses from one to the other, because it has a lot to do with player experience.