Decision-Making in Video Games: Should We See the Butterfly Effect or Not?

As someone who plays a lot of role-playing video games, I’m pretty used to making decisions in my RPGs. Sometimes the simplest action can impact the story in a big way later. It makes immersing yourself in a game feel very interactive and exciting.

But how do video games handle the process of offering decisions to players? They can be upfront about it with color-coded choices, hints appearing onscreen, and various indicators that something the player just did is important. Or they can try their best to hide all of that.

Just for fun, I’d like to look at a few RPGs I’ve played and how they handle the presentation of in-game choices — and their consequences — to see which approach feels best. (Minor spoilers for some of these games is inevitable, proceed with caution!)

Until Dawn

  • Has Global Stats option that shows other players’ choices, which can sway your own decisions as you go
  • Butterfly animation appears when you make an important decision, but you don’t see any indicator when the consequences happen later (if they happen?)

tumblr_nuqn8sjYCQ1qzbsq2o1_500.pngIn Until Dawn, you play as several teenage characters spending the night in a cabin in the woods. It’s typical horror material. Every time you make a decision that will impact the story, a butterfly animation appears in the upper corner of the screen. I appreciated knowing when I made an important choice… but I often didn’t see or understand the consequences later.

For instance, at one point Ashley picks up a knife, but I never saw her use it. The character Matt is impaled, but I don’t know how I could have saved him. The game also features a big story twist, at which point several characters I thought were dead turned out to be alive. I’m not sure if they could have died earlier in other ways or if that was a “free pass” for everyone.

If you play the game while connected online, you can turn on Global Stats to see what choices other players made throughout the game. For instance, when faced with two paths in the road, the screen tells you the percentage of players who chose the right path versus the left. I turned this feature off, because I didn’t want to be swayed by others.

While Until Dawn is an interesting storytelling experience worth playing through once, I left the game feeling dissatisfied. It emphasizes the butterfly effect but doesn’t let you appreciate the results of your actions. More hints, or a post-game results screen detailing your actions and their consequences, would have helped make this experience more rewarding.

Episodic Games (Telltale and Life is Strange)

  • Game gives onscreen notification when an action will have a consequence
  • Results screens show your actions in the context of the player community’s choices

tumblr_inline_mgb7vxnPtN1qzlvtz.jpgTelltale Games is a studio that has nailed the decision-consequence system. In their episodic games, you see onscreen hints when you make a key decision. For instance, the game will tell you, “This character will remember that,” after you say something important, so you know that you impressed them (or maybe pissed them off). This kind of feedback isn’t necessary, but it helps remind you that your choices matter.

After each episode, a results screen appears showing the community results. For each key decision, it will say something along the lines of, “You and 32% of players did this.” It’s fun to see whether you made the popular choice or not, and rewarding to know exactly where your actions made a difference in the story.
Life Is Strange™_20150327111818The Dontnod game
Life is Strange features a similar results screen at the end of each of its episodes. What I like about this one is that it also tells you all possible outcomes. For instance, I had no idea I could encounter Alyssa in some episodes until I saw the results screen, which displayed the percentage of players who helped her.

As another example, in a critical scene where main characters Max and Chloe visit the trailer of drug dealer Frank, in my playthrough Chloe killed Frank the first time. Max has the ability to rewind time, so I rewound and retried the scene. This time, Chloe shot Frank in the leg. I continued with the story at this point. Seeing the results screen later, I noticed that most people had a clean conversation with Frank — no violence. It was interesting to see my experience there in context of what other players did.

Mass Effect

  • Polarized choices (they’re even color-coded)

mass-effect-3-gameplay-2.jpgMass Effect is my favorite video game series ever, featuring all kinds of in-game decisions. These range from simple dialogue options in conversations to sweeping moral choices that can affect entire alien species. It’s epic storytelling, and I love it — but I know it’s decision-making system is far from ideal.

That’s because Mass Effect makes its choices feel very polarized. They’re even color-coded. You can either be a good “Paragon” or a badass “Renegade.” Choose mostly blue options, and you’re being the nice guy; go with red choices, and you’re probably punching reporters or committing genocide.

11 helping the ungrateful - CopyThe decisions themselves are fantastic — I just don’t like having to hug such an obvious line. While my characters are usually more Renegade than Paragon, I wanted to be tough to get the job done — not borderline evil and nasty to my own friends in the game. That’s why I tended to bounce back and forth between “blue” and “red” choices. That’s fine for creating a great character, but the games sometimes reward you for nearly maxing out Paragon or Renegade choices, which means I missed out on some cool scenes or perks.

Besides that, the polarized options made me very aware all the time that I was playing a programmed video game. BioWare had set up “nice guy” and “mean guy” options, and I was choosing between them. Would results be similarly black or white?

Dragon Age 2

  • Icons categorize the dialogue and decisions you can make
  • Complex Friend/Rival system, which is hard to decipher as you go and makes romancing certain characters very difficult

Dragon-Age-2-Diary-The-Confusing-Dialog-Wheel-Is-a-Step-Forward-2.jpgDragon Age 2 has probably the worst decision-making system I’ve encountered. It’s not all bad — I love Bioware, guys, really — but it fails for me for a couple of reasons.

One is that the game features icons telling you what type of choice you’re making. This specifically refers to your character’s personality. You can be compassionate, sarcastic, or tough. They’re cool options, but sometimes I feared mixing up my answers too much. I wanted to be consistent… but that meant I was looking at icons instead of responding to in-game conversations in a natural way.

But the way bigger issue for me was how decisions affected other characters in the game. You have a party of companions in the game who battle with you. I like that each character responds to your in-game decisions based on their own beliefs and personalities — it’s just that I barely kept up with what was going on with all of them. Approval and disapproval swings wildly. You can’t impress one character without pissing off another. It’s a fine balance, which is kind of realistic but also really hard to fenagle.

The main problem is in trying to romance certain characters in the game. (I’m looking at you, Fenris.) You have to rack up enough Friendship or Rivalry points with a character to romance them. Friendship means they approve of your decisions; Rivalry means they’re against them. (Yeah, you can irk characters until they hate-crush you.) But because characters reacted so strongly to my every decision, I felt trapped into choosing very carefully — too carefully — to win over my romance option. It was really difficult. It was like I had to “play” the game’s story to get one that I liked, which doesn’t feel realistic or rewarding at all.

Dragon Age: Origins

  • Natural conversations and in-game decisions
  • Minor dialogue hints and post-quest (or convo) approval points as guidance and feedback (which benefits the player)

dragon-age-originsGo back one Dragon Age game and you get Dragon Age: Origins, which stands as one of the most perfect video games ever for me. The way it handles in-game dialogue and decisions is brilliant.

Open up a conversation with another character, and you have many options to choose from — none of them color-coded or icon-ridden. It makes conversations feel natural. You respond based on the information at hand, how you feel about that character, your mood. And the characters react to you in the same way.

Meanwhile, after each quest (or part of a quest), you’ll see approval change for characters based on your most recent actions. Exit a conversation, and you’ll see whether the character likes you more or not. After an important quest, you might see a +3 Approval rating from Alistair but a -3 from Morrigan, because Alistair liked how you handled the situation but Morrigan didn’t. I appreciate the feedback, and it’s gradual enough not to feel like you’re totally ruining your chances with a romance partner. It’s a nice reminder that my choices matter — yet it’s not there swaying me while I’m still trying to decide how to respond in a conversation, etc.

There are also a few minor hints in conversations about what you’re saying, which seem to be in place only so the player doesn’t trip themselves up. Specifically, you can see when you’re choosing to flirt with another character (helps you avoid it if you don’t want to romance someone) and when you end a romance (so you don’t accidentally break their heart when you actually want to keep them around). You can also see when you have the option to attempt to persuade or intimidate someone into doing what you want. This is because these are skills that you improve as you go, and you need to know which one you’re improving (and you might not succeed in your attempt if you’re not good enough yet).

It’s the perfect amount of hinting — exactly what is needed for the in-game programming to benefit the player, without interrupting the natural flow of storytelling. I believe the lack of too much in-game feedback helps me immerse myself in the experience. Because the underlying programming of my decisions isn’t being thrown in my face, the story feels more real and emotional to me.

The Witcher

  • Seamless choices and consequences, with next to no in-game indication as you go

hCyqcAs much as I love the storytelling and decision-making in Dragon Age: Origins, I believe The Witcher series actually does it best. That’s because it keeps so much hidden. You don’t even realize you’re making key decisions, winning people over (or not), or experiencing unique consequences. You’re just trodding through the world in Geralt’s boots, no more aware of any butterfly effect than you are in real life.

There are times when the series shows you icons, such as when you’re bartering, bribing, or using a magic sign to influence someone. These are necessary for the game. There are also sometimes timed decisions. But moral choices are not color-coded any more than future consequences are spelled out.

I6315185’ll talk about The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt here, since it’s the one I played most recently. Often I had no idea an experience in my game was unique until I compared notes with other players. For instance, when my coworker and I were discussing something once, I realized I had no idea what he was talking about. We retraced our steps and discovered where our paths had diverged; basically, he had to go through an extra mini-quest to get something done, where I had instant help from someone I had won over earlier. It was really cool seeing how seamless the decision-consequence flow was there — we wouldn’t have even noticed if we hadn’t talked about our experiences!


I’m not saying one way of creating in-game decisions is always better than another. However, the theme I see is that knowing the consequences of my actions can be really rewarding, especially if I know a decision I’m making in the game is supposed to make an impact.

Also, it doesn’t seem like a completely seamless experience exists… at least not yet. And maybe the player needs to know the limits of a game a little to avoid frustration with it. But a game that’s at least seamless enough to make you forget you’re playing a game at all? That can be the most exciting storytelling ever.

— Ashley

8 thoughts on “Decision-Making in Video Games: Should We See the Butterfly Effect or Not?”

  1. I’ve played a lot of games that went the polarizing route (infamous, mass effect, etc) and while I really like those games, I couldn’t help wonder what the experience would be like if there were less good or evil route decisions. I love decision making in games, but the whole “good choice/bad choice” options don’t do it for me anymore as I feel like you have to commit to either side during a playthrough. You can’t simply stay neutral or you’ll miss out on things.

    I agree, The Witcher 3 had the best system. You made meaningful choices, but you were allowed to continue to play the game how you wanted to without considering things like “Well, this is my good guy playthrough” or anything like that. I find myself really moving towards games that allow you to play how you want to play without fear of missing something by favoring a certain playthrough style.

    With that said, I really hope BioWare changes the decision making system for Andromeda but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the same tried and true system.

    1. Oh yeah, inFamous is another great example! I forgot about that one. The choices there are so polarized, it’s almost a “game” thing instead of a “create a character, develop a personality” thing. I agree that in some of those games you have to commit to one side of the other to really experience the full benefits of the story. (Staying neutral in Mass Effect is kind of a yawn anyway, even if it is more realistic!)

      Yeah, I agree Witcher is cool for not making you assess whether you’re a “good guy” or “bad guy” as you go. It’s just realistic choices, and everything’s really seamless! Glad you like it too. :)

      Hmmm, I do wonder what Andromeda will be like. I bet the morality system will be revamped somehow, but that base paragon-renegade style will still be in there as the foundation (maybe with different names). We’ll see…

  2. A little surprised you picked DA2 as the worst. If I had to pick a favourite, that would probably be it (that or Inquisition). Still rough in some ways, but they at least make an admirable effort to show you what kind of decision you’re making. I don’t necessarily need to know all the long term consequences of my actions, but I definitely want to at least know the immediate effects. Those dialogue wheel blurbs are often very vague, so the tone icons were very helpful.

    I also find companion approval a much more organic and enjoyable system than some black and white morality system. Makes you much more free to make the choices you like. In the case of DA2 specifically, I maintained positive approval with everyone but Isabella, who got so pissed off she left permanently (good riddance).

    Origins’ system was all right, I suppose, but the gifting system rather trivialized the consequences of your actions.

    1. That’s very true about the gifts in Dragon Age: Origins, hadn’t though much about that! I do like the gifts when they’re related to the character, though.

      However, the dialogue wheel icons are one of my least favorite things about DA2 and Inquisition. It’s not that I hate them or anything — they do a good job of indicating the tone of your conversation choice, so I get why they’re appreciated in some ways — it’s just that compared to Origins, they are a good example of showing off that you’re playing a “game” and I find myself looking at those instead of reacting in conversations more instinctively. It’s just not the way I like to play, I guess.

      It’s interesting you did all right with the characters in DA2! My experience was very bad there, which was a surprise after Origins and Mass Effect games. I don’t expect everyone to like my character, but I found navigating the Friendship/Rivalry scale and romancing some characters really challenging and off-putting.

  3. I have never played a lot of these choice-based games until this year so don’t have a ton of experience with them. It was actually really hard to adjust to having choices in the story. I would sometimes just stop playing because I was afraid of making the wrong choice… haha. The Witcher 3 was definitely my favorite in regards to choice-making. I really liked that I felt I made an impact on so many things by the end of the game (which I thought was kind of missing in something like Life is Strange with how they handled the ending). I also really like how they presented the choices. Basically because of how you explained it. I have played a bit of both Jade Empire and Mass Effect and wasn’t a fan of the color-coded choices and like you said how they seemed to favor going full one way or the other. The Witcher’s approach worked much better for me.

    I did find it interesting to see others decisions at the end of Life is Strange episodes (and comparing notes with friends on decisions we made on forums and stuff), but agree that seeing them during the game like in that Until Dawn example (I didn’t even know it was an option) would be too much.

    I still think I prefer more directed narratives, but this past year made me appreciate having choices more. Great post! Interesting topic and I liked seeing how some of these games I haven’t played compared too.

  4. Man, I have to play the rest of the Witcher games now. I played the first one and enjoyed it immensely but I haven’t found the time for the sequels. I also absolutely love Mass Effect, but after multiple playthroughs I do find the overt dichotomy between renegade and paragon to be a bit wearying, especially because Renegade is all over the place. One minute you’re being tough but pragmatic, the next you’re basically a serial killer.

    1. Yeah that’s a good point about Mass Effect Renegade path, it’s not exactly consistent in tone or morality. That’s why I had to go Paragon with a lot of my choices! And yeah I definitely recommend The Witcher games, I believe it’s a rare series where each game is actually better than the last.

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