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Meaning and choice, or how to design decisions that feel intimately difficult

How do you design emotionally meaningful decisions? This post aims to explore a dissonance in player motivation that can be leveraged to imbue decisions with emotional heft.

As game designers we’re striving to fill our games with interesting choices. One of the most powerful ways of achieving that is to make them meaningful: touching values, emotions, concepts that people care about. Some create elaborate fiction achieving gravity through the art of storytelling. But for many the holy grail lies in designing systems that lead to meaningful choices organically through gameplay.

Our own This War of Mine is praised for doing just that. Why are choices in this game so emotionally meaningful? You could say it’s the setting - civilians in wartime - and you’d be right to an extent. But such a blanket statement is not very useful when trying to improve the craft of game design. In this post I'd like to explore the conflict at the heart of many choices in This War of Mine - and see how it can be used in other contexts.

Player motivation

The first thing we need to consider is player motivation. We use different tools to make players progress through the game. Outside of presenting them with inherently fun to play with mechanisms (aka “the toy”) we usually have to deliver a structure for player motivation: levels to ascend, maps to explore, collectibles to collect, puzzles to solve, high score to beat, story to see through. There are many patterns, but they all amount to presenting the player with an outside goal to “beat the game”. An external motivation.

While all games provide that kind motivational structure, a lot go beyond that. We sometimes wrap systems and mechanics in rich fiction, building worlds players want to spend time in, immerse themselves in roles they find fascinating. Studies show that games which allow players to roleplay their “ideal self” are more motivating than others. It’s true beyond the obvious genre of role-playing games. An ideal self can be expressed in Mass Effect as well as in Team Fortress - through playstyles and characterisation afforded by game mechanics. This is an internal motivation, stemming from our own self-concept, not an external structure such as a reward system.

The goals from the external structure are achieved by making optimal choices as far as game mechanics go. Say you play a survival game: the optimal way to survive is to hoard as many items and develop your tools as quickly as possible to prepare for whatever challenge the game throws at you.

Coherence of the game narrative however is not about optimal choice. People stay true to fiction by sacrificing efficiency. For example, they walk around hub cities in MMO’s even though it’s clearly a waste of time from a game progression perspective. But it’s exactly the thing you have to do if your motivation calls for narrative coherence.

Goal-self dissonance

When these two motivations are combined to create tension, a conflict develops. It’s critical to underline that the conflict is between player motivations, not game layers. Conflict between layers - gameplay and narration - is called ludonarrative dissonance and is usually a bad thing. Nathan Drake The Raging Murderer can testify.

This War of Mine exploited the conflict of motivations to great extent. The “optimal” way to play the game was to gather as much resources as possible: it was a survival game, with resource management at its core. But fiction was loaded with moral dilemmas: do I steal med supplies from an elderly couple who can’t resist me? The gamist, goal-oriented motivation told you to steal. The narrative motivation told you not to. Most people hope they could take the moral high ground in terrible times and the game puts that self-concept to the test, generating a meaningful, difficult decision.

The same principle can be carried over to many other games and genres: Do you kill an innocent creature to get the best sword in the game? Do you destroy property of innocent bystanders to secure an optional objective? These choices lead to difficult choices for players because it’s their ideal self on the line, not abstract strategies that have value only within the magic circle of the game.

When gamist agenda can be coaxed into conflict with coherence of self-concept, the magic happens. Going with one leads to a suboptimal choice in the other. It’s a tradeoff with efficiency on one end and disillusionment about yourself on the other.

The character

Of course, player motivation is not the whole story. After all even people agonising over stolen meds in This War of Mine are perfectly happy going on a killing spree in the latest Call of Duty. What gives?

The answer lies with the avatar. We enter the magic circle voluntarily, suspending some of constraints that govern our behaviour “in the real world”. Hence player character motivation becomes equally important for meaningful decisions. Our self-concept ceases to be solely about what we would like to do in a specific situation, but what we would like to do if we were the role we are impersonating.

If the game asks us to step into the shoes of a supersoldier, we’ll be perfectly happy to kill the “bad guys” by the dozen, that’s what supersoldiers do. But throw in a wrench, say, the (in)famous “No russian” level in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and you suddenly have people tiptoeing through a level without firing a single bullet, or missing on purpose. All because their self-concept extended to the role of a soldier does not include gunning down heaps of unarmed civilians. As a bonus, you get lots of controversy.

The risks

There are ways this can backfire though. Players engage with games to experience something positive - even if it’s cathartic positivity through tears. If you present the choice of efficiency vs. self-concept you better make sure no choice leads to an inferior gameplay experience. Dishonored, an otherwise excellent title, punished you narratively for playing with the tools it gave you. Abusing the beautiful, deep and satisfying combat system led to a game world state that was undesirable if your self-concept demanded you be “good”. This is a perfectly valid dilemma to have - you can’t be “good” by rampaging around slitting throats and making rats devour people. The problem was that the alternative - playing stealthily - could be argued as a comparatively less satisfying way to play. Hence the goal/narration dissonance led to an unsatisfactory experience instead of a meaningful choice.


While the conflict between self-concept and the gamist agenda is not fit for use in all games, I’d encourage you to keep it in the back of your head, especially if your’re aiming for meaninfgul choices and non-trivial subject matter of your game. After all, life is often about choosing between what is fun/efficient/easy and what is worthwhile. Games built on this tension can be truly something different.


Thanks to Artur Ganszyniec (@garnek) and Marta Fijak (@YerisTR) for feedback on the piece. MTFBWY!

Feel free to reach out to me @qoubah

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