Firstly, if you don’t want to risk becoming jaded to the make-your-own-choice type games (typically Telltale), I’d recommend not reading this blog post. At the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, it may open up a few behind the scenes workings which change how you approach the games and allow less enjoyment from them.
Now, I have a bit of an issue with the choices-matter type games that have been appearing as of late. When I first heard of them, I thought they were amazing, a concept which I didn’t know I wanted but totally did. Even more so on Telltale’s part; I was now able to create my own story within a pre-existing universe. And I won’t fault them; the writing is superb, from what I’ve seen and played. I’m very much enjoying Game of Thrones, the one I’m actually playing, and have enjoyed others by watching them played by streamers or Youtubers.
The problem is that they have many episodes to go through, and should all your choices affect the game world as much as you’d expect them to, they’d end up branching into so many varying paths that you’d require a massive amount of development to pull it off. I understand that. The issue is (minor spoilers ahead if you can gather which game and plot point I’m vaguely referring to) that some options break this illusion entirely. For instance, if I have the option of saving a character or running for my life, I don’t expect that character to pop up next episode a little miffed and giving only the vaguest “you wouldn’t want to know what I did to survive” explanation. This character was done for, and the fact that they survived was completely immersion breaking, but they were obviously required for a later part in the story.
Another problem is that you grow to expect these algorithms; if I’m given the option to send someone from the room, then there’s probably a reason for it, and so I expect a betrayal. If I’m given the option to kill or spare a major character, I realise that whichever option I choose won’t matter because it’s such a major plot point, the character will end up wherever the story requires. Most of your options change people’s attitudes towards you, nothing more.
That said, I must emphasise that this does not entail bad writing. I’ve still been completely shocked by a betrayal, by a death, by an outcome. I still very much recommend the genre. I just hope that it’s built upon, given larger development teams in order to truly create the sense of decisions that matter. I would love to sit back some day and try and write such a story, whether it be in game format or some other invention.
There are two notable games that have not been made by Telltale Games that I’d like to discuss here. Firstly, Life Is Strange. At this time of writing, we’re waiting for the last episode to come out. This game is very similar to Telltale Games’ style barring one thing: you can travel back in time. This is interesting as it allows you to see the outcomes of many options, though at the same time makes decision feel less consequential as a result.
The other game is Until Dawn, which does things a little differently. The game focuses heavily on the Butterfly Effect, mentioning from the beginning that the choices you make in the early game could impact the entire outcome of the story. However, having watched only one playthrough, I’m blind to whether this really is the case; sadly, I’ve heard from a few sources that the possible story doesn’t change all that much, with the characters seeming to get over deaths incredibly quickly due to various nature of the game. Characters are acting on the basis that their friends, from a technical standpoint, could or could not be standing beside them, and this puts characterisation in jeopardy. One thing that I absolutely commend Until Dawn for, though, is the fact that characters can and do die based on your decisions and skills, and adds an extra element of player control to the picture which Telltale type games currently lack. You genuinely feel tense and on edge; the life of the person you’re controlling really does depend on you. And that is brilliant.
This genre has an incredible amount of potential and as a storyteller and someone who is personally very interested in the idea of a butterfly effect, I can only hope that it continues to grow. Maybe it will become a new, standard method of storytelling someday, such as movies and manga and the like are today. I believe that, done right, it has the power to more readily encourage people to stop and consider the effects that their decisions have in everyday life.