After watching an episode of Extra Credits on choices, my mind got to work on precisely that. So to continue what they were talking about I would like to point out a couple of things I've noticed.
As mentioned in the video above, there are two distinct and broad tasks given to a player in virtually any game.
The easiest and most prominent decision in the gaming industry as far as I've seen is the calculation. It's all the difference between taking a +5 sword and a +7 sword although often the decision is not as clear cut as that and requires some figuring out. Sometimes you don't get all the information so you have to make estimates and gamble but it's still a test of logic.
The other, fairly rarer, is the choice between two things that don't grant any real benefits to how quickly you achieve your goals but provide flavour as to the methods of achieving them. A prime example is picking your class and race at the beginning of an RPG. The classes and races are balanced and designed so that no combination provides a significant benefit above another but the differences between playing a mage and a warrior are very distinct.
Generally it is good to have combinations of these. Most players seem to become addicted to the calculations and honing their game play to become the best at what they're doing and it is possible to have very good games featuring nothing but these kinds of decisions but these kinds of games feature very little in the way of re-playability. The reason for this is because calculations offer progression while choices offer diversion. Within a single choice between three options lies the possibility of the game being played three times.
Sadly, there are too many instances in the industry where this power of re-playability has not been fully utilised. The main fault within many of these games is that regardless of what option you choose, within fifteen minutes time you are probably right where you would have been had you picked any other option. The choices don't have lasting meaning and without long reaching consequences, there is no point to replay the game to see how everything would have worked out otherwise. Alternatively, if there are any real outcomes they are usually minor and you don't feel any impact for making them. "The Duke's brother, who you failed to save, was unable to attend the 'You saved the world party.' Please shed a tear as the credits roll." performing these minor actions merely change the colour of the flowers in the final cut scene or, even worse, leave you with a cold statistic at the end saying "98% completed."
There is a perfectly legitimate reason as to why this doesn't happen though. Resources. If you take a big game like Dragon Age and factor in the players choices making significant changes to the end of the game you will virtually have to create an entirely new game for each choice available at the beginning. Then you are staring down pop-ups along the lines of "Please install DVD 4 for your choices." since each branch will require it's own cut scenes and graphic maps and what have you. The alternative is a very short game with many outcomes. Not necessarily a bad idea but sometimes you want to play for more than four hours. What the industry does seem to try at present is to create the illusion that your choices have long standing ramifications. While that's all well and good, the attempts so far have been rather easy to see through.
The other issue with alternate endings in games that do decide to include such things is that so often only one of the endings is really the happy ending. All other endings just feel like a game over screen and you try to navigate through the decision tree trying to find that golden branch. Usually when I play these I don't even get into my second attempt because the idea of having to play through the entire game again combing for some magical choice to make is not very thrilling.
What I propose is to actually have multiple good endings in which the players choices have a dramatic and significant influence on. Sure you may have saved the world but did you do so by fighting off the big bad or did you buckle down and endure it only to rise again and build a better world. Or did you sign up with the big bad, strike up unearthly bargains and rule over this world. All of those endings are worthy of the end credits and will leave the player with a sense of accomplishment. Regardless of which ending he had he will sit and think "I wonder what it's like to do things differently."
On that note, make sure that the endings are as different in game play as they are in story.
While these ideals might not be practically or economically feasible, I do like to dream on that one day we might be able to choose our cake, have it and eat it.
- Choices, Their Consequences and Games