Because video games are obviously designed with player input in mind, the people who write about video games often write about player choice. Unfortunately, because ludology is a young field of study, we don’t yet have a common language for discussing that aspect of video games. Here’s a first attempt at establishing a very general, flexible framework for talking about player choice.
Before proceeding any further, I should warn you that this piece contains spoilers for a couple of recent video games, namely Dragon Age: Inquisition and Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
It’s tempting to want to classify decisions that players have to make as either “story” decisions or “gameplay” decisions. This is a fairly crude classification, but it gets the general idea across. However, it can lead to confusion. Take Dragon Age: Inquisition, for example. Choosing whether to help the mages or the templars might seem like a choice that only affects the story, but it also has an impact on which quests are available to the player. Conversely, the choice of class at the beginning of the game might seem like a choice that only affects playstyle, but in a world where mages are persecuted and forced to live in Circles, playing as a mage has very different narrative implications than playing as a warrior or rogue. Thus, a rigid binary for classifying choice is inadequate.
Additionally, there are choices that seem to be neither “story” nor “gameplay” choices. Take the conclusion of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, for example. Provided you’ve managed to unlock all 4 possible endings, choosing one of them is a simple matter of pressing a button. The choice has no effect on the gameplay (since it’s where the game ends), and the story is affected only to the extent that the narration and images in the final cutscene differ. The primary purpose of the choice is to provide the player with an opportunity to express their opinion on human augmentation and its socioeconomic implications.
So we’ve established that a rigid story/gameplay binary is insufficient, and moreover, not all choices exist on a spectrum between story and gameplay. For that reason, I propose we move away from trying to classify choices and towards describing choices in terms of their properties – namely their narrative, ludic, and expressive properties.
A choice’s narrative properties are how it affects the game’s plot, characters, setting, etc. For example, in Dragon Age: Inquisition, choosing to help the mages over the templars means that the mages join the Inquisition, but the templars are left to their fate. If the player chooses to ally with the mages instead of conscripting them, then some characters, such as Solas, approve, and others, such as Cassandra, disapprove.
A choice’s ludic properties describe how they affect the mechanics, level design, enemy encounters, or more broadly, how the player interacts with the game. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, choosing to help the mages opens up their quest line while closing off the templars’. Moreover, it allows the player to add another mage (Dorian) to their party before adding another rogue (Cole).
Finally, a choice’s expressive properties relate to how the choice allows players to express themselves through the game. To again use the example of the mage/templar choice in Dragon Age: Inquisition, choosing to help the mages over the templars (with the eventual intent of allying with the mages) might be a reflection of the player’s belief in freedom and liberty over law and order. Expressive properties are often overlooked in the analysis of video games, but I think this is a mistake. More so than many other media, the experience of a video game is a collaboration between author and player. Often times, the author’s job is not to deliver a preset message, but to create an environment within which players can express themselves. Indeed, almost any choice in a video game contains an expressive component, even if that isn’t the primary purpose of the choice.
Obviously, some choices are more inclined towards one set of properties than others. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, the mage/templar choice is arguably more narrative and expressive than it is ludic. Conversely, the choice of specialization (e.g. rift mage, necromancer, or knight enchanter if the player is a mage) is more ludic than it is narrative or expressive; it affects how the player approaches combat, but it has a very minimal impact on the plot, and if it expresses anything, it’s how the player wants to play their combat encounters. Nonetheless, by focusing on descriptions of choices rather than on their classifications, we can discuss these nuances without being forced to sort choices into rigidly-defined bins.
At present, this narrative/ludic/expressive framework is very rudimentary. I welcome feedback on how to expand and extend it, and hopefully, we can build on it to develop a rich language for discussing choice in games.