De-signing the Design: the Semiotics of Choice

This week we’re going to talk a bit about design theory.


1. the study of signs and symbols as elements of communicative behavior; the analysis of systems of communication, as language, gestures, or clothing.
2. a general theory of signs and symbolism, usually divided into the branches of pragmatics, semantics, and syntactics.

Symbols are the language of video games

If you see a red bar near your character that has no instructions or label, you assume this represents “health” and decreases with damage taken. A blue bar near your character that has no instructions or label is assumed to represent “mana” — the currency used to cast magical spells. If the cursor turns into a finger or a gear, it means the moused-over object can be clicked on. Question marks means an NPC has something to say, and exclamation points means that NPC is waiting on you to advance his state. When you spend points in a tech tree, it unlocks the next node to be purchased. And this goes on.

When we play a game, we subconsciously (or consciously) recognize all of these things. We call good games “intuitive” and bad games “confusing” but really this is a matter of the designer’s fluency in the language of games, and also his ability to create novel language for new features that is immediately understood by players. Good writers add to the existing body of language, and good designers invent new symbols which add to the semiotic lexicon.

Now let’s talk a bit about Skyrim.

One play session I walked into a cave and saw a dead body on the ground, three stone pillars, and a locked gate. Semiotics told me a dead body on the ground means the corpse will have a book with a riddle that tells me how to rotate the pillars and unlock the gate.

I read the riddle, and was stumped.

Someone who is not a gamer and had never seen Skyrim before was watching me play. She said “oh the pillar next to the water gets the fish.” My gamer brain had completely discarded the background as for-atmospheric-purposes-only, but she was free from my prejudice.

One problem with photo-realistic sandbox games is there is so much detail painted into a scene and you have no idea what’s important. Whereas in earlier RPGs, what’s a “background tile” and what was a “foreground object” is very clear. And the limited color palettes and resolutions made it necessary for designers to highlight the semiotic elements.

I’ve never completed Skyrim.

What happened is this: I could be head of the Mages Guild, and head of the Assassin’s Guild, and head of a mercenary’s group, and get titles from all sorts of lords. Once I did a quest for a goddess of light and became her avatar or something, and then I did a quest for a demon. Nobody seemed to mind. My choices weren’t meaningful, so I stopped playing despite the fact the game is fun.

Later I purchased the DLC thinking it would get me back into the game. I went down the quest-line and had the choice of being a vampire hunter or a vampire. I knew that once I decided I couldn’t go back, I knew that the choice was meaningful. The problem was the game’s symbols didn’t give me enough information, and I couldn’t decide. After a lot of research on the web, I got bored and moved on to a different game.

I’m impossible to please, right? I’m not happy with meaningless choice, and I’m not happy with choices that have consequences. This got me thinking.

If you break it down, there are a couple of moving parts here: whether you know you’re making a choice at all, whether the you are aware of that choice, whether the choice is irreversible, and whether you as the player feel informed enough of the consequences to be confident you can make a good decision.

Choice or no Choice

The most common choice in an RPG is how you create your character, what class you select, how you spend points in your character, what feats you purchase, and so forth. And we expect this.

The Age of Conan MMO had some fantastic writing that received critical acclaim. But the design of the game was such that the dialogs didn’t matter. This means while you could pick dialog option 1, 2 or 3… it wasn’t really a choice at all. Sometimes this is called a non-choice. Do you want vanilla or vanilla?

But let’s go back to the Skyrim example.

You are the Dragonborn. The game spends a lot of effort making you feel special. When you rescue a town by killing a dragon in plain view of NPCs guards, they’ll see you eat its soul.

But when the encounter is over they’ll say something asinine like “Maybe I’m the Dragonborn, but I just don’t know it yet.” Or they’ll call you a milk drinker, or otherwise treat you like the same random transient you were right before you killed a dragon.

But the water behind the pillar in the puzzle did inform gameplay. As a gamer, how is my brain supposed to know?

Ignorance is Bliss

I want to compare something in Fallout 2 to the corresponding thing in Fallout 3 and NV to illustrate a point.

In Fallout 2, I knew that if I didn’t have enough Perception I might not see a dialog choice. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. This was a better experience than in Fallout 3 and Fallout NV, where it told the me every time a given check was being made in dialog, even if wasn’t skilled enough to select that option.


Both in Fallout/Fallout 2 and Fallout 3/NV you get a choice up-front when increasing your skills. Later the game world gives you additional options when specific skills are checked. If you have high lockpick, you can open safes. If you have a high survival you can create food. This is clearly telegraphed by the game; you know what skills do.

What’s not clear is when these things get checked in conversation. It feels completely arbitrary, which is in conflict with the game’s language that tells me something different — if I want to prepare for X, I take skill Y.

What’s worse — Fallout is a game where you can overturn every rock, and maybe they’ll be something hiding underneath it. The game encourages exploration, and going down every path. Then it dangles the carrot and makes you feel bad for not being omniscient that this conversation will check that skill

If you want to give a kid an apple, give him an apple. Don’t give him a choice between an apple and candy and then say “Sorry, you can’t pick candy because it’s after 10 and the stores are closed. You should have asked me earlier.”

A downside of this is sometimes a consequence will appear in the late-game based on something the player unknowingly does in the early-game. This causes players to quit, because they feel they weren’t informed.

Putting the “Con” in Consequence

One insidious trend I see is trying convince the player that a meaningless choice is meaningful, so that he feels good about himself for picking the “right” option. Because games are increasingly designed as psychological reward systems.

Everyone is a winner, and everyone picked the right options, and here is your achievement. Don’t you feel good about yourself? Well, if you want to feel good about yourself again, buy the sequel.

That’s the con — not using semiotics to inform the player, but instead to psychologically manipulate reward centers. We crave achievements, even for not actually doing anything, because we convince ourselves that because we got the achievement we must deserve it.

This is the psychological implication of the expression “born on third base, thinks he hit a triple.” Humans are notorious for confusing luck with skill.

The cynical designer can allow everyone to easily win, and make it feel like this was a great accomplishment.

Another con is to offer red-herring “false choices.” These are choices that aren’t really choices — do you want vanilla ice-cream, or to be punched in the throat? Players feel smart for picking ice-cream, and players like games that make them feel smart.

The Player Choice Paradox

The player choice paradox is this:

  • Players want meaningful choices
  • Players want to be reasonably informed of the consequences
  • Players want to always pick the right choice (and for there to be a right choice)
  • If players make the wrong choice they want to immediately know so they can simply reload the game.

The paradox is players want choice, and then want the thing which makes choice irrelevant. This isn’t every gamer, but in my experience as a designer it’s a fair amount who play RPGs.

So how do we solve this? How do we come up with a better way of presenting choice in an open-world sandbox RPG? We’ll explore that next week, or you can go on the forums and tell us what you think.

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