Why “Player Choice” Is Stupid
I really like The Walking Dead, but the way “Player Choice” is emphasized in most modern games is pretty stupid.
I’m supposed to like having choices in the plot. They’re all the rage these days. “More freedom!” “Shape your character’s destiny!” “Multiple playthroughs with different endings!”
But . . . dammit, I just can’t. There’s a reason why people spend their lives studying Shakespeare instead of stuff like this:
And that’s because letting the players construct the story is a stupid idea.
Reason #1: It Dilutes Quality.
Every time the studio gives the player a choice about plot, it splits the storyline. Each extra decision point depends on the results of the previous ones, too, and so potential storylines can multiply very quickly. A game’s story can quickly get bogged down in tens (or hundreds!) of alternate paths, depending on how much control the studio gives the player.
Producing each of these paths requires more writing, voice acting, animating, level design, widget inclusion, spline reticulation, whatever. Sure, some assets can be reused, but that requires design compromises. And unless everyone who plays a game loves it so much that they go through and play it again (and again, and again), the studio is spending time and money creating scenes that most people will never see. The result is a handful of mediocre products instead of one good one.
Tell one story, and tell it well.
Reason #2: It Destroys The Narrative
One of the original drafts of Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi had Luke defeat Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine only to put on Vader’s mask, turn against the Rebels, and take the universe for himself.
To quote my brother: “lol wut?”
This alternate ending is ludicrous . . . and yet this is what many video games that embrace “player choice” are trying to do. They want to give Luke Skywalker the chance to put on Darth Vader’s helmet.
And that story sucks, because it makes no sense. Luke Skywalker the Sith Lord is about as believable as Ron the Death Eater. I can go read fan fiction if I want junk like that, I don’t need to pay $60 for it on Steam.
Also, when a game is determined to give the player control over those pivotal, character-defining moments, it robs them of their power. The story has to be written in a way that it still works no matter which choice the player makes–making that choice irrelevant to the narrative. Instead of a multitude of stories, there’s no story at all.
Reason #3: It’s Impossible To Conclude
This is also known as the “Mass Effect 3 Finale Fiasco” principle. It’s what happens when you have a tangled web of possible outcomes but only enough budget to pull off one spectacular final confrontation. Game developers are left with two options . . . which both suck. Either they can make most of the endings lame, or they can slice through the knotted plot-lines with an ending that makes most of the players’ choices irrelevant. Which begs the question: why include these choices at all?
But . . . But . . . The Walking Dead is a good game! How the hell did that happen?
Tell Just One Story, Remember?
“You’ve got that ride to Macon, if you want it.” –Kenny
This game that’s supposedly all about player choice? It’s not, really. No matter what you do, you will strike the walker in the middle of the road while on the way to prison, find Clem, head to the Herschel family farm, etc. It’s a linear story that we, as the player, can do very little to change–we can’t go save the world, for instance, or decide to side with the Save-Lots bandits and raid the dairy farm.
Even when there are choices that split the narrative, brutish and inevitable zombie death quickly swoops in to save the day. The Walking Dead franchise is an ideal setting for this type of game because it’s easy to clean up loose ends when your series is known for indiscriminate character-killing (just ask George R. R. Martin).
But while we don’t have much control over the facts of the story, we do have control over the mostly-inconsequential details. We don’t control the “what” of the story, but we do control the “how,” and that’s the thing that sucks us in. The little decisions create emotional investment; they make the story live and breathe for us. More on this in a second.
There Are No Good Options
“Dammit, Lee, just cut off his fucking leg!” –Kenny
When games say that they allow a player to choose the actions of their character, what they usually mean is that your avatar can either be a saint or a dick. Mass Effect even went so far as to color-code the dialogue options, just in case there was any confusion . . .
But that’s not how realistic characters behave, and that’s not how good stories play out. This is where Telltale got it right, because in The Walking Dead . . . There are no good choices.
Do you cut off the band director’s leg? Or leave him for the walkers?
Do you loot the station wagon and leave a stranger to starve? Or let Clementine keep going hungry?
Do you let the nameless survivor be devoured by walkers? Or shoot her and risk the safety of your group?
There are no right answers; all you can do is choose between one set of terrible consequences and another set of equally terrible consequences. And that’s great! Because as soon as we realize that our victory or defeat doesn’t hinge on correctly deciphering the dialogue tree, we can sit back and enjoy the story. There’s no need to try and game the system–we can make mistakes or do things we later regret, but the story keeps moving forward without shattering our suspension of disbelief.
That’s good storytelling.
The Choice Mechanic Is A Tool, Not A Goal
“That man you brought . . . I tried, but he was never going to survive.” –Katjaa
This is the biggest thing that makes The Walking Dead games work.
I realized it in episode 2, when I was talking with Katjaa about the band director. We were in the middle of a conversation when out of nowhere the band director (now a walker) attacked her from behind. A moment later I was fighting for my life in the back of a pickup truck, realizing just a little too late that perhaps I should’ve given the axe to someone who wouldn’t totally fail at trying to save my life.
Did Telltale cut some opportunities for player choices here? Probably.
But they were willing to break the choice mechanic at that moment in order to make a point. That’s when I realized that this story was going to happen whether I liked it or not, and that all I could do was try and do the best I could to make it through in one piece.
And that’s how I like it. I don’t want to play a psychological sandbox game. I’m not carefully crafting a character sheet; I don’t want to have to keep an eye on my light side/dark side meter or my paragon/renegade score. I don’t want to base morality on which path offers shinier gadgets; I don’t want to be rewarded for a tough decision with the pew-pew lazor gun of +5 explosions.
I want to hear a story.
And that’s where Telltale got it right. The story doesn’t exist to provide me with character-crafting opportunities. Instead, the choices only exist to draw me deeper in, to make me invest in the story. They exist to make me feel the way Lee feels when he’s acting through panic, fear, pain, anger, or love. They immerse me in the narrative.
In The Walking Dead, my choices serve the story instead of the other way around . . . and for this gamer, that’s a step in the right direction.