Not all player choices have to have mechanical effects. It’s less interesting to establish this point (and constantly re-defend it) than it is to say: given that reflective choice is a legitimate technique, it can be used well or badly. Some reflective choice is astonishingly effective, and some is worse than useless. The tools we use to interrogate mechanical choices won’t necessarily be very helpful in distinguishing between the two. What goes into a strong reflective choice?
There are two main kinds of expressive choices that I’ve identified as particularly strong: choices which allow players to express their own values and opinions and feelings directly through and in the game world, and choices which ask players to determine what sort of a person the character they are playing as will be.
This story in Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a player-value-expressing choice. Selecting ‘yes’ or ‘no’ doesn’t necessarily tell me more about the faceless (quite literally; you’re a skeleton) protagonist: but it does ask me to consider my feelings on the subject. Even ‘say yes’ or ‘say no’ would add a bit more distance, would remind the player that they are controlling an avatar, even one loosely sketched out–but here we have two stark choices that lend an immediacy, that ask for a visceral player-focused reaction.
Another of my favorite WTWTLW vignettes does the opposite. Here, Bruno gives the player two similarly binary choices. But here, the formulation is about how you want your character to behave; how you want their personality to be expressed. ‘Be’ as a verb does a lot of work here–it’s slightly more distant than the previous choice’s immediate ‘yes vs. no’. Also, the temptation element is strong here; since it’s not asking you to articulate something about you as a player in your own life, it’s much easier to choose to explore being a dick. I’d love to know the numbers on how many players chose each option on their initial playthrough, though You’re Just Gonna Be Nice might be an indication.
Sometimes the game constrains the possibility space by asking players to inhabit a defined character, with a personality and proclivities of their own decided well before the player begins the game. In these cases, reflective choices offer the ability to explore the desires and limitations of that protagonist–what they’re capable of in that moment. Caelyn Sandel’s Bloom has several segments in which the protagonist is offered a choice but when clicked that choice becomes greyed out, suggesting the character’s inability to follow through on that desire, and offering the player more insight into her mindset. And interactive narrative has been subverting or withholding explicitly offered choices since at least Rameses.
Brendan Hennessy’s Known Unknowns has (spoilers!) a scene in Anja’s bedroom which is mostly linear, in that its paths end in the same general place. But players choose how Nadia navigates this highly fraught and exciting moment, whether to express anxiety or desire (two characteristics players have become well acquainted with in previous chapters); the scene becomes about the protagonist’s self-expression, mediated through the player, and the stakes of articulating oneself, not about the final result. This is one of the most successful moments in IF romances for me, because it’s not about the outcome–will the PC ‘achieve’ their love interest, with all of the problematic resonances of that–but about what manner in which to confess a long-held affection.
In contrast to the charming, anxious Nadia, The Bachelor in Pathologic is a dick. His dialogue is often abrasive and arrogant, and is designed to reflect his personality. Sometimes there’s no way to avoid a rude statement to an NPC if a player has a desired outcome; occasionally there’s only one dialogue choice available. Pathologic leans heavily into the theatricality of games, of playing a role in a scripted dialogue; the Tragedians and the nightly masques reinforce this. Characters often comment about the fated nature of events and the inability to escape. The Bachelor’s uncomfortable, obnoxious dialogue imprisons the player in that same inevitability.
I’d argue that this deliberate split between actions a player can control and dialogue a player can’t allows for greater resonance in Pathologic’s ending choices. At that point, players can choose to go against the ‘good’ ending for the character they’re playing as, in order to choose the ending they feel is best for the game world. The three playable characters–the Bachelor, the Haruspex, and the Changeling–all have conspicuously authored motives, reflections of their character and world. And these may not correspond to what the player wants to unfold. But in juxtaposing highly constrained and vividly indicative dialogue choices with the openness of Pathologic’s world (you can essentially go anywhere or talk to anyone, and it’s famously difficult to manage infection), doesn’t let the player forget that split between player and character. Pathologic ultimately clearly divides the player who controls the character from the character themselves in order to play with questions of agency and free will. In a game about fate and constraint, it’s supremely effective to have reflective choices which can only reflect player desire to a certain point.
Reflective choices, when executed well, can still feel incredibly significant, despite a lack of mechanical effect. They offer the player information about the character’s personality or current emotional state and allow expression of that; they offer insight into what a character won’t or can’t conceive of doing; or they offer a moment for a player to express a personally-held value in a way that won’t impact the course of the story moving forward, so no punishment or reward can be received from that expression. The most effective reflective choices offer player participation in the character. To that end, if the narrative hasn’t established the stakes of a reflective choice well enough, players may find themselves annoyed or losing faith in the designer’s understanding of craft–as in the ‘left or right’ example. One of the most difficult reflective choices, to my mind, is text input introduced into a primarily link-based interactive: a box asking for a player’s name, for instance, or the moment in their angelical understanding when you’re asked to write on strips of paper. In these cases, player buy-in will vary wildly; some will feel unable to attach enough to the narrative to actively participate even in a well-crafted moment of emotional intimacy, while some will cheerfully create a character and backstory from only a name prompt-box. But the latter case is far more difficult to sell if very little about the PC and their place in the world has been established for them to work from.