Monday, April 2, 2018

The Illusion of Choice

What story-based games like Telltale’s The Walking Dead get wrong about both stories and games.  ♦ 
Years ago video games almost exclusively succeeded based on the gameplay offered. There were few people trying to use the medium to tell stories, which led to the whole ridiculous debate about whether or not the medium was even art (which I believe, vehemently, that it is). Today this isn’t the case. Plenty of games put gameplay first and story second or even third, and that’s perfectly fine, but there are also games that put the majority of their focus into crafting compelling narratives. How they go about this has been just as varied as in any other creative medium, but there’s one way in particular that’s been overused and misused to the detriment of both story and gameplay: games written around the idea, and the illusion, that the player can affect the outcome of the story itself.
   This isn’t an entirely new concept in narrative media—Choose Your Own Adventure books did it first—but video games have perfected it. The most notable advantage video games have over every other storytelling medium is player interaction, and using that interaction to get the player more excited, afraid, or engrossed. When you are in direct control of a character it creates a strong feeling of empathy in the player for that character. It follows suit that a world in which the player’s decisions have an effect is going to be one they feel more attached to, and this has been done well, expertly even. Obsidian Entertainment, the makers of Fallout: New Vegas and Knights of the Old Republic II, have been doing it for a long time. Their games provide the player with a massive area to explore in any order they like, numerous side quests which can be completed or ignored as the player sees fit, and main storylines that can end in a number of different ways depending on how one plays. There is real player choice there, real consequences within the context of the game that come about directly because of your actions. In Fallout: New Vegas, for instance, the player may chose to kill the leader of a massive army, earning them the ire of every member of that army but the admiration of a different group of people that army threatened. Or, they can just as easily save that same leader from a lethal ailment, allowing the army to crush its enemies.
   But this is different—and, in my opinion, more effective—than the kind of player interaction and decision-making you find in other massively popular series like Mass Effect.

 In the very first game in the Mass Effect series, the player is faced with a conflict among their party. One member, an alien by the name of Wrex, is upset, and the player can either defuse the situation or kill Wrex. Two games later, Wrex has a very important role to play in the story, so the fact that he may not even be alive should be a massive deal, but it isn’t. If Wrex is dead, then his place in the story is simply taken by another alien by the name of Wreav, who is Wrex’s brother. He even looks like Wrex and has a similar personality (though he is a bit of a jerk). Wrex’s death may have mattered to the player when it happened, but it doesn’t ultimately matter to the narrative. What a Choose Your Own Adventure book and Fallout: New Vegas have, but Mass Effect doesn’t, is a definitive, discrete beginning and ending that depends on how you’ve played the game. Mass Effect, on the other hand, tells the same story regardless of player interaction, even if you’ve opted to kill off one of the main characters.

   For another example of how little a player’s supposed interactivity shapes a narrative, look at Telltale’s The Walking Dead series. If Lee, the main character of the game’s first season, could either die in the season finale or live on to continue being a major part of the story—spoiler: he dies—then the writers would have to essentially craft two completely different narratives for Season Two. This isn’t feasible for a number of reasons. Creatively, both narratives would suffer as the writing staff would need to write two different branches in a similar amount of time they had to write that first season. The obvious counter to this is that you would simply give the writing staff more time, and end up with a more complex game, but every day the writers spent writing two narratives for the same game is another day the company pays their salary without making any profits. Telltale isn’t a big company, and they either simply couldn’t afford that kind of production cycle or didn’t want to suffer the hit it would make on their bottom line.
   Games can benefit greatly from choice if implemented correctly—meaning, in a way that that offers something beyond manufactured drama—but it’s not the only way to make a compelling narrative. Just a few years ago The Last of Us was released to outstanding reception. That game put the player in the shoes of Joel, a father whose child had been killed right in front of him. That backstory is really what drove how Joel acted throughout the game, not the player. If the player could choose to ignore the character’s history and act in ways that did not reflect it, then Joel would cease to be Joel and would instead become just an extension of the player, which would not have worked in the context of that story. Years before that, a game called Shadow of the Colossus came out, and even though the player/character is doomed from the start, the impact of that inevitable end is no less compelling because the player has no way of knowing it is coming.
   Even though The Walking Dead promised its audience that it would provide a compelling narrative that they could affect with their choices, games had been providing this kind of choice long before then, and doing a better job of it, too. The hard truth is that allowing real player choice in a narrative game will always work far better in the vacuum of a standalone game with no sequel in the works (Fallout does have several games in the series but each one has virtually nothing to do with the others besides taking place in the same universe). I understand why people love the idea of crafting a unique narrative around their own actions, and I also understand why companies want to capitalize upon that interest, but there is a better way of making stakes feel real, and they need only to look at their competitors to see it. And if a sense of stakes isn’t there, and allowing the illusion of player control doesn’t really work within the structure and needs of a game, then creators shouldn’t implement the idea at all.
  • About the Author
    Caulder Bittle was born in West Virginia but was raised almost entirely in Worthington, Ohio. He is a student at Miami University where he studies Interactive Media Studies. His focus within that major has been 3D character art, but he also minors in Creative Writing. Caulder graduated from Thomas Worthington High School with a 3.7 GPA and distinctions for both honors and STEM. Caulder will be graduating next school year.

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