Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Telltale's Game of Thrones, Until Dawn, and the Illusion of Choice

In theory, the option to replay with different decisions is a big part of the appeal of choice-based, story-driven video games. In practice, though, you're better off not replaying, because to do so is to discover how little your choices actually matter. There are solid practical reasons for this; a full branching narrative, rather than dozens of inconsequential dialogue choices, would greatly increase the size of the game. Even two or three genuinely major choices would have a balloon effect as permutations increase. But there's an argument to be made that such an approach-- few and meaningful decisions-- would be more satisfying in the long run.

I don't have much patience for Game of Thrones as a TV series. It's done a remarkably consistent job of adapting what's dull and pedestrian about George R. R. Martin's novels and omitting what's atypical and, by the standards of mass market fiction, interesting. So I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Telltale's video game in the setting. At first it seemed to be doing a better job than the TV show of avoiding unnecessary "look how grim and edgy this is" scenes, though that was less true during the later episodes. And the major choices felt very dramatic in the moment, even when you could see in the immediate aftermath how the game was designed to discount some of your decisions. It was only with the ending that you realized how little anything you did mattered.

To some extent this is tied up with the ways in which the ending fails as a narrative resolution regardless of the matter of choice. Whatever its reputation, Game of Thrones isn't an endless slog through misery for all the likable characters. Some of them suffer devastating reversals and permanent losses, yes, but so do the villains and the ambiguous protagonists. The individual novels and season, whatever their other flaws, strike a good balance between "down" and "up" moments. Telltale's story, on the other hand, has a serious shortage of ups, and eschews any kind of resolution in favor of more cliffhangers per capita than A Dance with Dragons. It doesn't matter how well you marshaled your resources at Ironrath or played the game in King's Landing; you're going to get basically the same results, a setup for a season two that, for reasons of branching complexity, probably won't even focus on these characters. There are some very effective individual sequences in that final episode, but the overall effect is a serious anti-climax.

For most of its length, I thought that Until Dawn was doing a better job than the Telltale games of making your choices actually matter. The sales model certainly ought to have made that easier: releasing the whole game at once allows the designers to make the flow of choices organic, rather than be obligated to squeeze six into every episode for those buying the game piecemeal. And let's face it: controlling who lives and who dies in a horror movie scenario has obvious appeal. The existence of missable collectibles provides another incentive to replay. And the butterfly effect system, which shows cause-and-effect of choices in a direct, constantly-updating manner, puts your sense of your influence front and center. But it still is only a sense of your influence.

You control who lives and who dies, yes, but the basic story is the same no matter who's alive and who's dead. And when you investigate how and where significant branching occurs, you realize how often it involves only the immediate lead-up to a death. There are a couple cases where it's more complicated than that, but they're the exception rather than the rule. And those cases don't change large portions of the gameplay; they involve an isolated choice in, say, episode three, and an isolated result in episode seven. So you can end up doing a lot of replaying for a relatively small tweak to the end result. And since the gameplay consists of navigating stiff, slow-moving characters down a series of linear corridors and completing viciously-timed QTEs, replaying generally feels like a chore.

My point here isn't that these are bad games. I enjoyed both of them, Until Dawn a bit more than Game of Thrones because horror is more my thing and because the overall production values are higher. But I do wonder if it's a mistake to bombard the player with choices that produce ten seconds' worth of minor difference. These eat up production time that might be better spent creating meaningfully different results based on a smaller number of decisions. Four or five endings that take the characters to radically different places would be far more likely to encourage replays than hundreds of permutations of the same basic denouement. Too often, branching in video games is like when a DVD's special features promise an alternate ending, and deliver the original ending with a couple different camera angles. That's nice if you're really enthusiastic about the property in question, but it leaves the rest of us wanting more.

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