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The Ultimate Choice in RPGs: Gameplay

A look at the history of choices in RPGs, the highlights and where we're heading.

Felipe Pepe

December 15, 2016

17 Min Read

"Choices that matter", the great modern buzzword for RPGs.

But how did it all started? What kind of choices there are? And are we really living in a golden age of choice?

Hi, I'm Felipe, and I'll be your guide during the 10-20 hours you'll spent reading this massive wall of text. So strap in and let's ride to sunset, complaining about stuff. If you choose to do so, of course.   

The history of CRPG choices; 
or I how really need to learn how to be concise in these articles

In the beginning, there was no choice. At least, not as we think of them today.

While tabletop RPGs rely on the moment-to-moment choice of the players —"I try to climb down the cliff",
"I ask the sage about the scroll", "I ATTACK THE ORC!", etc — CRPGs at first had a limited scope.

In the late 70's / early 80's, the only real choice in CRPGs was character/party build. 

You would create a blob of stats, and then your Imagination™ would transform them into "Sir Isaac Darkwood, leader of the band of adventurers who just defeated the evil Werdna in glorious combat!"

Then Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (1985) came, and now HOW you played matter — if a beggar asks for money and you give him $10, your compassion goes up. And there were many events like that:

However, while the game does offers some choices, they are more like a game-wide puzzle — you need to pick the correct options and act as a true Avatar of Virtue to finish the game. You're free to play as an asshole, but you won't ever advance the game like that.

Then Wasteland (1988) added shades of gray to morality, with its famous a boy & his dog dilemma:

A boy's dog went rabid, the father asks you to put him down, but the boy loves the dog. Do you: 

  • Kill the dog, angering the kid.

  • Spare the dog, knowing that it one day might attack the boy.

What stands out here is that, unlike Ultima IV, there's no right answer. Players can choose whatever they want, and live with the consequences. Now it's about YOUR story and moral choices!

[Later Dragon Wars (1989) would build upon this, and more CRPG would slowly start to offer more choices, but I'm doing some jumps here to focus on the games that introduced big changes. Sorry Becky!]

The year after, Quest for Glory (1989) added something new to the mix — alternative paths & solutions. 

Blending Adventure games with RPGs, it offered three classes — Fighter, Magic User and Thief — and each had their own set of skills they could use to solve quests & puzzles. For example:

There's a gold ring stuck in a bird's nest atop of a tree. You can:

  • [Throwing] Throw rocks at it.

  • [Magic] Use the Fetch spell.

  • [Climbing] Climb the tree.

Note that the choices are tied to skills, not classes, so a mage that's good at climbing can climb the tree instead of casting a spell. This allows you to play however you want, and it's some really amazing design — a fighter doesn't need to always fight, and the two other classes can also fight if they so desire.

You play as you want to play!

As computers advanced, designers could now write more in-game text (remember, older RPGs had to use physical "paragraph books" for text that didn't fit the game's floppies), so the late 80's / early 90's began to see CRPGs with Choose-Your-Own-Adventure events:

These were games like Tunnels & Trolls: Crusaders of Khazan (1990) or Darklands (1992), where events were nicely described and then the game offered choices in how to approach them.

While great fun, these have the limitation of being text-only events, so you can't go around exploring for alternatives, talking to NPCs, etc... all options are listed, you just pick one.

At least until 1993, with the release of Dark Sun: Shattered Lands, a terribly overlooked game:

Those who played it remember that they start locked in a gladiator arena and must escape. And the game offers many solutions to this first quest. You can:

  • Attack the guards.

  • Recruit the help of a gang and attack the guards.

  • Help an inmate find a gem, so you can both bribe the guards.

  • Help a girl to learn of a secret door that leads you out.

  • Keep fighting in the arena for more money and Xp.

Not only there's a load of options, but they must be found by the player — you are the one who must talk to the inmates, learn of the possibilities, pick the one you think is better and try to execute it. 

Sadly, Shattered Lands doesn't keep the same level of quality through the game, was plagued with bugs and released in a time when RPGs were in decline.

[I should mention JRPGs here but this is too long already, so Chrono Trigger is great, play Princess Maker 2]

Then, in 1997, Fallout arrived, taking things to the next level.

This masterpiece was build upon a robust character system derived from GURPS, and followed a core design principle somewhat similar to that of Quest for Glory — every quest should at least have three paths: Combat, Stealth and Diplomacy — plus whatever other cool alternatives can be added.

A relatively short game (10-15 hours), it offers fantastic replayability, as you can build several kinds of characters and solve quests in a huge variety of ways — and even beat the game without killing anyone!  

Take the Raiders, for example. They kidnap a girl from the nearby settlement, so you visit their camp:

Unlike certain modern RPGs, they don't attack on sight, so you can:  

  • [Combat] Kill everyone.

  • [Stealth + Lockpick] Sneak around, lockpick the door and release the girl.

  • [Stealth + Explosives] Sneak around, blow the door and release the girl.

  • [Speech] Intimidate the raider's leader to release the girl.

  • [Money] Pay ransom for the girl's release.

  • [Unarmed Combat] Challenge the leader for a one-on-one fight.

  • [Luck + Leather Jacket] Impersonate another raider, bluffing to get the girl released.

  • Ignore the girl and ask to join the raiders.

That's one, small side-quest. The trick is that, like Quest for Glory, most alternatives are locked behind specific skillsets & items. Hardly a player will have all these options at once, but every playthrought will PLAY differently depending on the character you built. 

[Insert 8 paragraphs of me ranting about how Bethesda's games don't do this so they aren't REAL Fallout]

Anyway, then we got Deus Ex (2000).

The big change here is that while Fallout locks options behind its many stats and skills, Deus Ex is an Action-RPG that makes player agency seamless. Playing stealthy (instead of killing everyone) depends not on character stats, but on the player's own skill in doing so. And then the game reacts to how you played, giving you the consequences of your actions :

Furthermore, Deus Ex had "secret" choices that required players to think outside of the box.

When Anne Navarre orders you to kill the terrorist leader, there's no dialog choice. She stands there, waiting for you to act. You can shoot him, walk away in disgust... or shoot HER! 

That's never shown, there's no "PRESS RT TO RENEGADE" prompt. The player is not picking from a menu, he's in control, has agency, and is making his own choices — "breaking" the rules (or so he feels).

The next important step in this story was BioWare's Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003), and here things start to get complicated...

Don't get me wrong, KOTOR is a great game, but also a transition piece. BioWare's first console RPG, it moved from Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights' "Virtual GM" feel to a more "cinematic" tone.

BioWare took the reactivity of Deus Ex and used the companions to voice them. Everything you do, your companions comment on — something they've been building up since Baldur's Gate (1998).

However, the "Combat vs. Stealth" gameplay duality of Deus Ex was adapted into Star Wars' binary Light & Dark Side of the Force morality system. You reach an event, act as either a Jedi or a Sith, get a nod from the game & your companions and then proceed to the next event. +5 Good/Evil points.

This is a key change, because what was based on player ACTION — coupled with all the challenges of actually executing feats such as a stealth run — became a dialog choice. As such, KOTOR plays basically the same for all players, save for their combat tactics and companion / dialog choices. There are no hidden choices, memorable acts of player agency or quests with multiple solutions outside dialog.

Moreover, the game focused on quantity over weight in choices. You don't become a Sith by killing everyone — you can't kill everyone — you do it by being kind of a jerk over several small dialog choices.

By itself, this is not a big problem. KOTOR was a linear, "cinematic" game about being a Star Wars character, and that it delivers perfectly. The problem is what followed...

BioWare's Age: Origins

What worked well for KOTOR (and even better for KOTOR 2), became too popular for the genre's own good. While Fallout and Deus Ex were cult-classic PC titles, KOTOR was a blockbuster, set in a beloved universe and the first non-Japanese RPG of many console gamers.

Moreover, then came the Dark Age of RPGs — the mid-2000's, where barely any RPG got made. Each game I previously listed is from a different company, with different styles. But from 2003 to 2008, a console RPG fan (the largest audience) only had KOTOR, Fable, Jade Empire, KOTOR 2, Fable 2, Oblivion and Mass Effect to choose if he wanted a Western RPG. [Also, Two Worlds]

Eventually Steam became a thing, the indie devs rose, Kickstarter appeared, more diverse RPGs began to be produced, etc... But the damage was already done — an entire generation of RPG fans raised solely on Bethesda's, Lionhead's and BioWare's brand of RPG design.

Thus, they became the golden standard.

Open-world RPGs are "like Oblivion" (now Skyrim), never "like Gothic" or "like Ultima".
And forget Fallout or Deus Ex — choice-heavy RPGs became "like BioWare's".

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain

The real problem with "BioWarian choices" is not that they exist — all kinds of RPGs should be made, and clearly a lot of people enjoy them. That's cool.

The problem is that they've become the norm, the universal measure for "choices in RPGs".

Yet, they are among the most limited form of choice an RPG can offer. You're not approaching quests in different ways, carving your own path, etc — you're choosing dialog options listed in front of you.

And they mostly consist of "Illusory Choices", what this episode of Extra Credits promotes as an useful tool that creates events that briefly branch at a choice, give a wink to the player, then merges back to keep the story flowing, the player happy and the scope reasonable. Ah, so clever are these designers!

Well, sorry to be the asshole who says this, but the emperor has been naked for quite a while now.

What was supposedly a "trick" to help managing scope became a core design principle, leading to RPGs with countless illusory choices — but no real ones. The first Mass Effect already had few meaningful decisions — basically, "who dies?" — and it only got worst over the next games. 

The ending of Mass Effect 3 was the ultimate embodiment of this — three games, almost 200 hours of choices, and all players arrives at the exact same place, to make one final illusory choice:

If that seems too edgy for you, just an internet meme made by angry basement dwellers, here's the conclusion that writer Shamus Young arrived after replaying & analyzing the entire Mass Effect saga:

The Death of Agency

Outside of the Genophage and Rannoch missions, Shepard has no power to make decisions. The game is linear and Shepard is simply dragged from one mission to the next, and the only power he has is to shoot people and choose teammates.


The Fordism of Choices

Ironically, even before the disappointment of Mass Effect 3, dissent manifested from inside BioWare itself.

Here's a ghost from the past — a shit-storm from 2012, when BioWare's senior writer Jennifer Hepler split the sky and opened the Eye of Terror in this heretic interview:

In short, she likes stories & dialogs, but doesn't like being forced to fight constantly. Burn the Witch!!!

Here's the thing — I think it's poorly worded (too much honesty?), but I fully agree with the sentiment.

Hepler and many others have to suffer through hours of combat in modern RPGs simply because they fail to offer them the more robust choices of Deus Ex, Quest for Glory and Fallout: Gameplay. 

Let's bring Fallout 1 back for a final boss comparison: The Master vs. Saren.

True to the Fallout's core design principle, there's three paths to defeating The Master, plus a bonus treat:

  • [Combat] Fight him.

  • [Stealth] Infiltrate his lair, set a Nuclear Bomb and escape.

  • [Diplomacy] Convince him that his plan is doomed to fail, so that he auto-destructs.

  • [RPG Codex] Join him. 

Mass Effect, a game released 10 years after Fallout, offers these options when facing Saren:

  • [Combat] Fight him.

  • [Paragon] Convince him that he's being used... then fight him.

  • [Renegade] Convince him that he's being used... then fight him.

Yeah, for those who don't remember, you can make Saren commit suicide, just like in Fallout ...

...but BioWare won't let you go home without a "proper" climax, so you MUST fight his reanimated corpse afterwards, no matter what. Also, this is a heroic adventure — no betrayers will be allowed!

You can play anyway you want, as long as it is BioWare's way.

"This is an unsanctioned use of RPG choices!"

It's not just that we're getting few meaningful choices —  we're losing (or never developing) the ability to perceived and understand choices not presented inside a button prompt / dialog box.

I noticed this around Dragon's Dogma (2012)'s release, with people wondering if it offered choices:

That's nonsense. Dragon's Dogma's quests have multiple outcomes, and the game even has multiple endings, something Western RPGs rarely offer. You can become a hero, a king, a dragon or even God!

The "problem" is that all these choices are rarely shoved in your face via a "A, B or C?" menu prompt. Instead, they mostly play organically, like the option to shoot Anna Navarre in Deus Ex.

Similarly, I had a hard time convincing people that Dark Souls' NPCs have cool, branching quests, because they happen without dialog choices — you need to go to certain places and act in certain ways, not just choose [Paragon] or [Renegade] or follow a quest compass.

Such concept is so far removed from modern Western RPGs that some players today can't understand it!
They never saw it! We've grown used to railroaded set-pieces, to having no agency outside dialog boxes. 

How many players now will ever consider shooting Anna Navarre in Deus Ex, when key NPCs in Bethesda's games are immortal and BioWare won't even let you use weapons near theirs?

We unlearned what agency in an RPG feels like! That how you act is a choice in itself!

Designers are now failing to make their worlds feel real, because nothing you do outside of dialog ever matters. Gameplay and story are drifting apart — we're having Ludonarrative Dissonance in a genre where gameplay and narrative should be one and the same! (Look, I just made my article more pretentious! :D).

Take Dragon Age II (2011). You're supposed to be a war refugee laying low in a hostile city, trying to hide from the mage-hunting Templars...

...yet combat looks like this.

No matter what the story or the extensive lore says, you can literally summon meteors in front of the Templars, because in modern RPGs a player's actions don't matter — only the dialog choices they pick.

And that's unacceptable, it's a clear step-back from what the genre had already accomplished. 

BioWare's own Baldur's Gate II (2001) had a law against casting spells inside the city, and if you did the Cowled Wizards would immediately teleport in and threaten you. Do it twice and they attack you:

This also tied nicely with the story, as your friend Imoen was taken captive by the same Cowled Wizards, and there's even a quest about buying a license for yourself, so you can safely cast magic in town.

Again, a BioWare game, from 15 years ago!

Didn't we dream about game worlds improving, getting more complex and reactive as technology advanced? So why are we going backwards?

Kyros Demands Better

Luckily, there's been more RPGs recently trying to move away from this BioWarian law of design.

Undertale is probably the the most famous recent example; Wasteland 2, for all its flaws, aimed for a more reactive world as well; Expeditions: Conquistador mixed choices with resource management, The Maimed God's Saga makes spell selection and combat perfomance affect choice availability, Sunless Sea brings back that CYOA feel in a very elegant way and Way of the Samurai 4 is amazing and everyone should play it — seriously! [I had the decency to cut 20 paragraphs of me praising these games].

I'm also glad to see upcoming games like No Truce With The Furies, which dares scrap genre conventions and make an RPG with no combat whatsoever. 

Sadly, many gamers, journalists and devs are still trapped in this "RPG choices = BioWare" mentality. 

The latest example is Obsidian's Tyranny. The game had a great premise: offering a shorter experience, focusing on replayability and meaningful choices — width, not length.

Yet, once again, playstyle is not a choice. Outside the boundaries of its carefully-crafted dialog boxes, it's just a game about following orders and killing stuff. The player has almost no agency.

This is particularly bad here because Tyranny's biggest flaw is precisely its dull, repetitive and mandatory combat. It's so disconnected from the rest of the game that it feels as if a (good) story was pasted to an Infinity Engine-like game just because "Well, all RPGs have combat, so..."

So I ask — are those battles really necessary? Would it be so unthinkable if one of the factions I could ally with played more as spies / assassins, avoiding conflicts and acting in the shadows? That killings — if any — were made through dialog? To have my choices alter how the game plays? 

To offer me what Fallout offered in 1997?

Here I bring my favorite RPG of 2015: Age of Decadence [Disclaimer: I really like this game and volunteered to make their trailer for free]. The game was done by a small indie studio in over a decade, but it's similar to Tyranny in length (about 20-30 hours) and goal — meaningful choices.

However, unlike Tyranny, your choices affect gameplay. For a warrior class, there's plenty of battles to be had, in old-school turn-based way; but if you choose to play as a "social" class like Merchant or Lore Master then you can beat the game without ever going into battle.

You can fight, but your fluffy merchant will likely die with one or two blows, so the player should find other ways. This isn't some avant-garde design philosophy, is what Quest for Glory did in 1989! 

If that sounds too hard, take Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magicka Obscura, from the father of Fallout, Tim Cain (love ya! S2). The game has few alternative paths, but it has an amazing character system, which allows for players to build their own playstyle.

Social skills play a big role in the game, so if you hate combat it's perfectly possible to play as a gentleman / woman in fine dressing who eloquently persuades others and, if conflicts spark, has an army of bodyguards (party size is tied to Charisma) that automatically fights, without the player having to lift a finger. 

Think about that: what Jeniffer "HERESY!!1" Hepler was asking for — skipping combat — is not something that leads to "dumbed-down RPGs for casuals", as the internet shouted.

No, it's a return to what we once had. A return to RPGs that, instead of endless illusory choices and forgettable +5 reputation, +10 Friendship outcomes, offers players the ultimate choice a game can offer:

The choice of playing the way they want to play. 


Meanwhile, BioWare and Obsidan doubled-down by adding a "Story Mode" difficulty — everyone is still forced to play through all battles, but now they are impossible to lose! Hurray!

  • [Paragon] Well, at least it's something...

  • [Renegade] That's one sad mea culpa.

  • I should go. 

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