Heavy Rain. That was the name of the game that first made me understand that meaningful choices could take a game to new levels of immersiveness.
If you have never heard of it, Heavy Rain was a PS3 exclusive in 2010 from game makers Quantic Dream. You played the roles of several people through a convoluted mystery. There was the father who had lost his son, the private eye, the reporter and the FBI agent all linked to the mysterious Origami Killer. As the story unfolds, you have to decide how each character acts, how they handle conversations and what choices they make.
This was the key. The choices all had consequences. Make the wrong one, and a character could die. Your choices dictated what parts of the story you saw and how it ended. Every decision was critical to how your game played out. In fact in an interview, David Cage the director of the game said that he wanted people to only ever play the game once. That way their experience would be unique. When they discussed it with others, they would then find out there were whole sections of the game that they had never seen – so each person’s playthrough would be theirs.
More recently games like Walking Dead and The Wolf Amoung Us from Tell Tale Games have taken this approach to choices within their games. Each choice you make feels like there is weight behind it, they feel like they have consequences.
My experience is that people like to feel their choices have a meaning, they also like to feel that they have choices in the first place. When you look at my User Types or the RAMP framework, Autonomy is one of the key motivators – especially for the Free Spirit type. That does not mean they are the only ones who are motivated by some level of autonomy. If we feel that we have no freedom to move, to choose and be in control of our own destiny – we feel constrained and disengaged from the experience.
When creating your gamified or game based solution you should try to build meaningful choices in. The ideal is that choices change the outcomes of the experience, but even if they just feel as though they have meaning that can be enough.
If you have a game like solution, allow users to choose their own way to play the game. Let them solve problems in multiple ways. In narratives, allow them to choose how to answer questions or where they go next in the narrative (that’s why I love choose your own adventure style narratives!). In pure gamification, allow users to choose what they do next. If it is a learning experience, let them make their own decisions about what they learn next.
If that level of freedom is not possible, then you should, at least, make it feel like there are choices and that they affect outcomes. The trick there is to make sure they can’t go back and repeat their actions – thus discovering their original choice did not affect the outcome after all. I have seen this in a lot of games. It feels like you are making decisions that change how the game will play, but then on replays it turns out that the game would always funnel you down to the same conclusion no matter how you played!