Choice systems and immersion in games

A great many games in the last few years have had choice systems, most based on dialogue choices the player makes in certain situations. While this is certainly a step in the right direction, it’s also quite flawed.

For most people playing games is a form of escapism. I run over people in GTA because I can’t do it in real life (and you do too, don’t deny it). The problem is that when I play a game, I don’t want to be myself. I want to be Link, or Solid Snake, or Optimus Prime. Think of the NES era, or even the arcade era. You pressed “start” and then you were a fat Italian plumber fighting a dinosaur. You didn’t have to consider the morality of that. It was simply the thing to do.

Consider Grand Theft Auto, the most widely-known sandbox game. Most play the game to blow crap up, but some play the game by driving an ambulance around the city and helping hurt pedestrians.

The problem, then, is that either the game tells you who you are, or you tell it. Consider Halo. You’re the good guy, the only one who can save the entire universe, et cetera. Easy. No need to think about whether the Covenant are actually right, that this is just nature… No. That’s unimportant. You simply go and kill them. In a sense, Halo is the modern-day Space Invaders.
Mass Effect. Your actions massively (heh) influence the game. Help the Krogans, don’t help the Krogans, obey the Council, don’t obey the council… It’s all very important.

Mass Effect

Mass Effect relied heavily on a dialogue choice system, basing almost the entire game on the player

So dialogue choices do both of the above; they both ask me what to do and tell me who I am supposed to be. They ruin a feeling of immersion. In real life, you very rarely really think about what you’re saying before you say it. You interrupt people and talk over them, and say “umm” and “I dunno” and mumble and shuffle your feet. You don’t think about the branches of the conversation for five minutes or ask the same question three times.

I believe that dialogue trees are holding back the choice-based RPG. For example, most dialogue options that consider a choice are along these lines:

  • “Don’t worry, villager! I’ll save you!”
  • “I’ll save you, plebian, but it’ll cost you forty gold…”
  • [Kill the villager, his entire family and eat his dog]

What if I want to save the villager but also eat his dog? What if I want to give the villager a little money and help him out of the proverbial gutter? I can’t do either of those things. I can be a paragon of righteousness, I can be an asshole, or I can, well, dine on some canine. You can have as many dialogue trees as you like, but (as @camiavellar said to me on twitter) people are all shades of grey.

You can’t convey the subtlety of real human conversation with dialogue boxes, no matter how good your writers are. While some games come fairly close to following exactly my train of thought (Dragon Age Origins comes to mind), it’s impossible to accommodate everyone.

Most MMORPGs (and by most I mean at least World of Warcraft) get around this kind of problem as you interact with other humans instead of computers. You’ll still talk to NPCs for quests and the like, but the majority of your interaction is done with real people. However, this doesn’t help immersion a hell of a lot, because in real life, there aren’t as many people calling you a noob.


To summarise: Choice systems, specifically ones based on dialogue between NPCs and the player, don’t quite have the desired effect and make the player remember he’s playing a game, thus ruining immersion.

You either give the player no choice, as such, or you give him free will. Most, if not all, choice-based RPGs are stuck between these two extremes. They’re sugar pills labeled miracle medicine.

Games are very confined, in this aspect. Everything still needs to be done within a budget. There are only so many writers you can employ, only so many voice actors, and only so much money.

However, consider a game like Façade. This doesn’t have dialogue choices. Instead, it’s got a live parser. You type in virtually anything, and as long as it’s somewhat relevant, the characters react almost as real humans would. The game has a few downsides; it’s easy enough to glitch the system, for a start. More importantly, it’s quite large (version 1.0 was 800MB) for a short game detailing the interactions between three people, particularly an interaction that would be completed in a fairly short amount of time in Mass Effect. Imagine if that were your party in a good-sized RPG. It would be an astronomical amount of space. (Sidenote, though, Facade’s size seems to have been mostly the audio, which was compressed and brought down to 180MB by version 1.1)

Furthermore, Facade depends on a keyboard (to input your speech, naturally), so consoles are out. And don’t even start on speech recognition.


Facade leads to some pretty… interesting situations sometimes.

And Facade isn’t even a game, according to Wikipedia, which begs the question: Is complexity like this in games really fun? Or are complex games like Dragon Age or Mass Effect just “interactive story” like Facade?

I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that dialogue choices need to evolve beyond what they currently are. They disrupt immersion and game rhythm, and can never be as subtle or as complex as real human conversation. However, the only alternatives I can think of (for example, action-based choice systems) would require an obscenely large number of writers, not to mention players that don’t try to mess with the system and a hundred other things. In other words, I think we’re probably stuck with this for a while.

Thanks to @camiavellar and @krides for some opinions.

Opinions? Counterpoints? Think I shouldn’t have compared Halo to Space Invaders? Don’t forget to comment.

About the Author

Carl Lange

I'm currently a Computer Games Development student at Carlow IT. I love programming and all things technical, and I'll learn anything if it's interesting. I'm passionate about technical education, and naturally about games. Check out my resume, and follow me on Twitter!

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  1. Kevin Beirne August 2, 2010

    I’m inclined to agree that most games that give you such moral dilemmas tend to be less immersive. But, although we may be stuck with this style of option-based interaction for a while I don’t believe we have fully explored it.

    One example of a recent development is in Mass Effect where you can decide on your dialogue option before the other person is finished speaking. This gives the illusion of you forming an opinion in your head before the second party has finished, a common event in a real-life conversation, and hopefully therefore, more immersive.

    Another area which has been explored but is far more subtle is in the style of writing. Arguably, if you have a powerful story where choices are definitive, you will be rarely concerned about not having every possible dialogue choice, which, as you have said is practically impossible.

    Huge amounts of study has been done on generating consistency in someone’s mind to make them feel a certain way
    (presupposition – roughly defined as getting someone to believe they have done something or believe something by talking as if they have told you themselves)
    but I have not heard this referenced with regard to video games.

    If dialogue is written in a way that can immediately provoke an emotional response from a user then they won’t think about all the options and which gets them the most money or makes them the most evil, they will just follow their emotions and immediately pick out what should be an obvious choice.

    Another example of good use of an optional choice system is not giving a player TOO MUCH freedom. In Deus Ex, you played a well defined character who was slightly different for every player but most people could seem to relate to. The beauty of the dialogue in Deus Ex is that no matter what choice you make, the main character will follow it up with a justification. This meant the game could develop choices that were fun for the player but didn’t seem too surreal or ridiculous for the character. This limits how much the player can develop their character but it makes a consistent character regardless of their choice.

    • Author

      Thanks for the great comment, Kevin.

      I agree with you when you say that we haven’t fully explored the dialogue tree system as a medium for storytelling. The style really only came into mainstream games around Fallout, though it existed beforehand (going very far back indeed).

      However, many people play games to just “win” (as much as you can win an RPG), and no matter how good the writing, that kind of player is always going to think “What’s the best outcome for me?” rather than “Oh no! He’s the last of his species!” While this view is obviously more a criticism of the player than of the system, it would be possible to improve on the system to prevent this kind of thinking. If the choices aren’t laid out for you as they are in a dialogue tree, it’s hard to see what the benefits might be of talking to Alice rather than Bob.

      Consider: If the story were to depend on which NPC you talk to at the start of the game, and the player didn’t know this, the player’s choice would be totally subjective.

      Of course, the problem with that plan is that the player will know this. There’s no way around that.

      Perhaps I’m more criticising the player who games the system than the system itself.

      • Kevin Beirne August 3, 2010

        Heh, indeed. Down with players! They’re slowing down the medium! 😛

        But yes, in fact, mentioning Deus Ex again, they did have a few tricks like that where rather making choices by saying “I’m staying or going” it would infer your choice based on you leaving or entering areas, talking to NPCs and so on.

        This technique certainly needs to combine with other means of role-playing (Not referring to just the ideas of levelling up skills and collecting money), I think we’ll agree on that.