Who do you want to be? Any player who sits down in front of a game will ask themselves this within the first few minutes of starting. Some types of games will dictate this to the player. "Well, for the next several hours, you’re a kickass soldier who lets nothing stand in his way”, and whether this resonates with the player or not is going to determine, to some degree, if the player is going to become immersed in the narrative of the game. Other games may offer a player a choice that will give the player some agency in what their experience is. "Here, you can be a fighter, a thief, or a magic user, what do you like most?” We usually call these role-playing games, but the role the player has, beyond the way they approach the designed gameplay challenges, is usually not considered. Those that do, that ask the player, "what do you really want your role to be in this story", too often reduce the choice down to a binary good vs evil delineation that just doesn’t ring true with the choices people really make. Much was said about Bioshock’s moral choice system prior to its release, about how the decision to save or harvest the defenseless Little Sisters for their precious Adam would resonate with a player’s ability to choose selfishness or selflessness, but in the end, it was presented as an A or B button prompt that was only disturbing the first time you saw the canned animation and had no lasting impression. Games that can give a player a choice that feels meaningful, even outside the context of the game, are extremely rare, and when they successfully immerse a player in the decisions they ask them to make, will be the things the player talks about when they remember the experience of playing that game.
I’m going to talk about two games that had this effect on me and how they were successful, and two others that stumbled for me in trying. I’ll try to keep to the topic, but truthfully, I could talk endlessly about these games and I fear that I still won’t communicate the impression I had of playing them and why I wish there were more games that could affect players in the way these did. But here goes, anyway.