Making a meaningful choice is one of the most powerful things a player can do in a game. For those not familiar with the concept, meaningful choices are most often presented to players as actions that affect the outcome of the story. A famous example is in Mass Effect 3—you can choose whether to let an entire alien race die or work to save them. Your decision will have ripple effects on the rest of the story—the choice will dog your digital footsteps for the rest of the game.
Meaningful choice makes game narratives more engrossing. It’s not a required component of a good game, but meaningful choice is part of what makes the gaming experience vastly different from stories told in other media. A game that can organically react to a player’s decisions and deliver a personalized experience can be emotionally fulfilling in a way that few other art forms can.
Gamasutra’s Brice Morrison identifies four components of meaningful choice: awareness, consequences, reminders, and permanence. Succinctly said, players know they’re making a choice, they see the consequences, and they live with them for the remainder of the game. As Morrison points out, “these are the components of a meaningful choice in real life.”
But look at the games that have been lauded for their meaningful choices. The list includes the Mass Effect series and The Walking Dead, along with Dragon Age, Heavy Rain, Fallout 3, etc.
All of these games are rated M for mature.
These games feature complex moral issues and difficult decisions, but that’s not why they’re rated M. They also all contain violence and/or sexual content that the ESRB deemed inappropriate for minors.
So the games are rated M for a reason, but that still begs the question—where are the meaningful choices for teen players? In 2010 only 5% of games were given a Mature rating, and 21% of games were rated T for teen. The majority of games were rated E for everyone.
It makes sense that choice-heavy narratives aren’t the priority for developers making E-rated games, but the audience for T-rated games is perfectly capable of understanding and engaging in well-developed, complex narratives. And for teens, who can often feel frustrated and disempowered in the process of growing up, making choices and experiencing consequences in a game could be a valuable experience.
Of course, lots of teens are playing M-rated games anyway. But are there games with meaningful choices that are also appropriate for teen players?
A few. That isn’t to say that T-rated games are bad. There’s still value in gameplay, even if the game doesn’t revolve around narrative choice. But the fact that there are so few options is pretty sad.
The Persona series is about teens dealing with negative emotions and solving mysteries. In Persona 3, the “social link” system was introduced, and having conversations with other characters became an important part of the gameplay. When players increase their social links, they get gameplay bonuses—as well as building a more meaningful play experience. In Persona 4, social links are even more important—the friendships you build through the game affect the characters’ abilities in battle. Persona 4 offers lots of choices in the relationships that the player builds, and there are multiple ways that the game could end, based on the player’s decisions and the outcomes of certain battles.
The meaning ascribed to these choices is not as deep as it could be. The characters, for example, will behave the same in the main storyline no matter what. It’s when you talk to them while making social links that they may behave differently depending on what you said to them in the past.
Persona is a great choice for teens though, because it’s about teens and their daily lives—with a healthy dose of fighting evil.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is a bit older, having been released in 2003. The game features a morality spectrum—you can fall on the Light side or the Dark side of the Force. As in Persona, the dialogue you have with other characters changes your relationship with them. Depending on which side you choose, you may betray certain friends—and of course, the fate of the galaxy rests on your shoulders.
Both of these games feature choices that change the way you play the game. The meaning players draw from the choices they make depends largely on their personal attachment to the game. If you don’t care about what your friends think of you in Persona, for example, the choices you make are largely mechanical.
One E-rated game that deserves special attention is Tearaway. The game doesn’t offer meaningful choices when it comes to story-changing decisions, but players customize the game quite a bit through their choice of decorations and photographs. At the beginning of the game, you are asked to take a photo of yourself. I chose to take a picture of myself and my roommate together, and throughout the game I saw the photo wherever I went. Sometimes it made me laugh, sometimes it made me cry, but it always reminded me of my place in the story, as well as my friendship with my roommate. My contributions to physically shaping the game world gave the world meaning.
As video games grow and mature as a medium, I hope we see a lot more choice-driven games directed at teenagers. Seeing the outcomes of your decisions makes for a powerful gaming experience, and it’s not something that should be reserved for adults. Nor should we discount how intricate and interesting the stories—and the choices—directed at teens can be.