For those of you who have ever played a game made by Telltale, could I kindly ask you to remember that one time you made a decision that was supposedly ‘important’, but turned out to be a pile of crap by the end because they impacted the story in absolutely no meaningful way? And then can you realise that it wasn’t just ‘one time’ but it was, in fact, quite a frequent thing to experience.
As highly as I hold The Walking Dead Season 2, off of the top of my head I can think of three choices that made no meaningful impact to the story in that game. One choice being to choose whether or not to cut off Kenny’s wife’s arm, after a walker bites her, in an attempt to save her. This choice is pointless because whether you choose to remove it or not, she will die less than five minutes into the next episode anyway. The choice is meaningless. Secondly a mother named Rebeca will die and become a walker while holding her new-born child. You get the choice to shoot her or call for help, but it doesn’t matter because if you call for help then someone else shoots her and you get the same result as if you shot her. The choice is meaningless. The third is when a character called Luke falls beneath the ice of a frozen lake. You can choose to swim in after him or distract the walkers, but it doesn’t matter because Luke dies either way in that very moment.
This is a problem that plagues many, if not all, of Telltale’s games. Similarly, in The Wolf Among Us, killing Tweedle-Dee in a werewolf state will not at all alter the story, with the exception of one or two line of dialogue in the last episode that are just there to acknowledge that it happened, and do not alter the story either. Telletale is not the only one guilty of putting meaningless choices in games. Square Enix’s Life Is Strange offers a whole section of convincing a girl not to commit suicide, but whether you succeed in saving her life or fail, resulting in her death, doesn’t matter because she holds no importance to the story. If she lives you get to visit her in hospital and get some information out of her about a possible predator in the school but, if she dies, you get that exact same information in another scenario just as easily. So, after her death or survival, she serves no purpose.
But I’m not here to take a crap on choice games. Though I’m not the biggest fan of Life Is Strange, I did find it charming and amusing, and The Walking Dead Season 2 and The Wolf Among Us are two of my favourite Telltale games. Sometimes meaningless choices are necessary in games like this to keep the player engaged and to keep the story moving. And it’s not like these games can have infinite amount of outcomes because that’s hardly possible, which is why most of these games have one or two fixed endings, maybe a third and a disappointing fourth if we’re lucky. Just note that not all the choices are like this and although a multitude of these meaningless but necessary choices exist doesn’t reflect badly on the game so long as they’re not obvious and they don’t spoil the experience for you as a player. It’s very subjective; Some players can let it slide, some don’t like it, but it doesn’t objectively make these games bad. Many of them are very good.
The problem arises when we compare these games to other types of games, which is what I’m going to do now. I’m going to compare these games to Fallout, which released in 1997, and Tyranny, which released in 2016, both of which are story-driven isometric RPG’s with an element of choice.
The problem is that these two games, I believe, handled the idea of giving players choice much better than any of the games that are specifically designed around choice, despite the fact the primary gameplay for these two games is that of any other isometric RPG.
Here’s the thing… I felt like a manipulative, intellectual genius when I convinced a horrific, deformed monster, which had somehow merged itself with an artificial intelligence within a Vault, to commit suicide, after weaving my way through multiple in-depth dialogue options in Fallout. But I didn’t feel like a heroic saviour when I convinced Kate not to kill herself in Life Is Strange. I felt a little relieved and somewhat proud, but I didn’t quite feel that rush of dopamine one gets when they’re excited at their success. But I did get that feeling with Fallout, and I think that’s because of how ambiguous the game allows you to be in dialogue. When faced with the Master, who is the monster I previously described, I had the options to kill him myself with my guns, convince him his plan would never work and he should kill himself, join him, or not even encounter him and blow him up without ever speaking to him or even seeing him, by detonating a bomb in the Vault. Though there are the obvious ‘good’ choices that involve killing him, there are multiple ways of going about it; I can kill him face-to-face, kill him without ever encountering him or convince him to commit suicide. On top of that there is the ‘evil’ option of joining him and becoming a mutant myself to conquer the wasteland. Similarly there at token ‘good’ and ‘bad’ choices in Life Is Strange, which are to save Kate or to let Kate die.
So what’s the difference between these two games? If it wasn’t obvious, it is that Fallout has infinite amounts of more depth that Life Is Strange does. In Life Is Strange, and similar games, we get ‘Press ‘X’ to make this choice, and press ‘B’ to make the other choice’. This isn’t the case in Fallout; In Fallout we get a full lines of dialogue to choose from so nothing our character says is left up to assumption, and we know exactly what is going to go down. We also get more than 2-4 diologue choices, and sometimes we get variant ways of phrasing what we want to say that can increase or decrease the likelihood that the Master will want to kill himself, if we choose this lengthy dialogue route. We can be a bit sassy and witty about the matter and insult the guy, or we can be very reserved and composed with how we speak to him, and how we deliver our lines all determines how likely the Master is to be influenced by us, which is cool because both these options are viable with a good speech skill. Whereas Life Is Strange is screaming at me ‘PRESS THIS BUTTON TO SAY THIS LINE OF DIALOGUE, THAT LEADS TO THIS CHOICE’, Fallout is smirking confidently, and presenting to me the available choices as my conversation with the Master progresses, naturally, (That is if I even choose to encounter the Master).
I will explore why this difference is or may be at the end of this piece, but for now we’ll take an example from the game Tyranny and compare it to The Walking Dead Season 2.
It is no secret I love The Walking Dead Season 2, as I have praised it a lot on this blog. I love how the end of the game presents you with a variety of heart-breaking endings, which I’ll now speak of for context. They are: Shoot Kenny dead, have a conversation with him in which he apologises as he dies, and live with Jane and baby AJ. Secondly we can do all that again, except we can reject Jane by telling her we want nothing to do with her and live alone with baby AJ. Alternatively we can let Kenny kill Jane, then shoot Kenny (Though we get no sad apology doing it this way) and live alone with baby AJ. Or we can let Kenny kill Jane and live with Kenny and AJ. The final choice is to let Kenny kill Jane but then let go of Kenny, by telling him it’s time to move on, and live alone with baby AJ.
This games ending is so good because of the variety of endings it offers, but I believe it is nothing in comparison to Tyranny.
You see, whereas The Walking Dead Season 2 has a pretty linear story all up until the very end, in which it suddenly opens up, Tyranny is just a very open story experience. Like typical choice games, Tyranny’s story is more or less the same in that you play as a law enforcer, called a Fatebinder, and you overthrow the evil forces controlling you and end on the note of declaring war on a large empire. However the way in which you experience the story is vastly different depending on the choices you make during the short first act. Though there are only four main choices that will affect how you experience the game, those being if you decide to ally with the Scarlet Chorus Army, the Disfavoured Army, The Vendrian Guard Army or if you decide to have no allies, there are deep impactful choices to be made in the games prologue that affect how the world interacts with you, in a section of the game called ‘Conquest’. Here your choices determine which factions favour you and fear you, and often influence what your followers think of you.
Whereas the Walking Dead is quite linear and only open at the end, with the game claiming ‘Characters will remember that’, when, in fact, the characters don’t care because they’re programmed to do certain things regardless of your choices, Tyranny is a game that invites you to repeatedly play for alternative experiences through and through. Like a typical choice game many of Tyranny’s quests remain the same, but how you interact with the characters in the quest, how they interact with you, and what becomes of you all by the end of it vastly differs dependant your choices in the first act of the game. For instance I did a play-through in which I sided with the Disfavoured and honoured their every wish to gain favour and power and, when I became too powerful, an Archon named Bleden Mark was dispatched to kill me. I couldn’t reason with him because my power rivalled that of the evil dictator he served and whom I had previously served with him. However when I decided to do a run through without allies, he offered me help in gaining more power because while I was weak I opted to defy everyone who was attempting to win the favour of our vicious dictator through me. In this play-through Bleden Mark admired my strength of character and played a pivotal role in helping me overthrow the other armies in the game by locating artefacts of power for me to find. I wouldn’t say we were friends… But he was a reasonable guy on this occasion.
So, despite my love for The Walking Dead, I’d take a game that invites me to have new experiences throughout than a game that only offers me that after I’ve played four two hour episodes of linear things I’ve already seen, full of choices that are meaningless but necessary.
But why are these isometric RPG’s so much better at giving players real choices than games that are specifically designed around the element of choice? Well it’s because of the RPG gameplay that acts as an additional layer of gameplay to the choices. This gameplay incites players to get better at the game, and to level up, and to complete their goals to become stronger because they can’t beat the game unless they do so. I couldn’t convince the Master to kill himself in Fallout without a high speech skill that I worked to get, or have shot him to death at level 1 with only thirty hit points. In Tyranny I couldn’t have made the decision of which army to ally with, if any, without investing time in the world to learn about the values and opinions of all them, and wouldn’t have been able to appreciate how diverse the game was without first teaching myself how to play. These isometric RPG’s offer a level of exploration, discovery and conflict that Telltale and Square Enix just can’t match with The Walking Dead and Life Is Strange.
And that isn’t to say that The Walking Dead and Life Is Strange are bad at these things or can’t do them. The Walking Dead’s appeal is the character conflict, particularly between you, the player, and Kenny because of how he behaves within the group and drives people away. It’s an interesting thing to experience. And Life Is Strange was truly shocking exploring that barn and discovering the hideout of a predator who kidnaps young women and photographs them, and it’s an intriguing idea to explore how a time-traveller might tackle the situation.
But at the end of the day, for all the choices they give you, these choice games are just two and a half hour cut scenes that only occasionally let you walk around to solve the most basic of puzzles and in a very small area. But these isometric RPG’s have the benefit of having so much more depth by letting you explore a larger world and interact with just about anyone or anything.
It may seem unfair to compare these two very different types of games, but it is just a fact that Fallout and Tyranny have no meaningless choices, as is evident by the reel at the end of both games that tell you how what you did affected the world and how it will continue to in future. I almost feel bad for these other choice games, because there was a time where story-driven choice games were a lot better; Just think back to Tales From the Borderlands, or The Walking Dead Season 1. They’re not perfect, but certainly better than titles like the new Guardians Of The Galaxy Telltale games has been pushing on us. Luckily Square Enix is currently doing an amazing job with Life Is Strange Before The Storm to keep the people enjoying these types of games happy.
I believe that by studying how these isometric RPG’swhich encourage exploration, allow freedom, and more naturally present the idea of player choice, that other story-driven choice games by Telltale, Square Enix and other developers can improve. It may be true that meaningless but necessary choices have to exist in order to simply move along the story, but that doesn’t mean they can’t eventually be reduced as these types of games progress. I just hope something is learned so we don’t end up with more steaming piles of crap like The New Frontier and Guardians Of The Galaxy. I just hope. I’m know these types of games can’t match the freedom given to learn about the world that a large scale RPG can, but in their own way perhaps they can invite us to spend longer in the puzzle sections to learn about where we are and what we are doing, because I find that there is no incentive to do so, quite too often, despite the fact that the material needed to do so is there.
I know these games can improve, and I want them to.