Critical Examination: When Choice-Based Games Fail

I made no secret of the fact that I didn’t like the end of Life is Strange.  I made a post talking about why I didn’t like it.  I made a post where I did my own self-indulgent corrected version of the ending.  But as I look through that post, I realize something that I didn’t before – I am guilty of the same thing that the people who made the game are.  The reason that the ending is something I despise as much as I do isn’t because it’s a giant plot-hole or ridiculously sad for NO reason.  The problem with the ending is deeper than that.  It’s a problem that in this game is actually worse than the last game with the EXACT same problem.  Most of you might see where I’m going with this.  But to really address this problem, we have to look at games that get it right.  Then we can talk about the games that get it wrong.  I am, of course, talking about when the endings of choice-based games fail.  Let’s talk first about a game that gets it right.

Until Dawn

This was one of the most unexpected survival horror games I have ever played.  It was a send-up to so much of the nostalgia that I loved growing up.  From the campy story-line to the tank-controls, this was a game made with all kinds of love for the craft that it worked with.  But this game also did something else right.  Something done so well that I was legitimately shocked when I got to the end.  It got the choice aspect down the best that I have ever seen.  How?  That will take some explaining.

It helped that the narrative of this game played over the course of one night.  In one night, you had to develop characters and make choices that had real consequences.  The consequences were visceral and right in front of you.  I’m talking, of course, about who lives and dies.  That was the biggest consequence of your choices.  Depending on the actions you take, some characters will live, and some will die.  There is no reset button.  Once you make that choice, it’s done.  What’s more, your choices actively shape the relationships of the characters that you are controlling.  You get to see this play out in their interactions.  If you chose to sacrifice Josh instead of Ashley, then you foster a relationship between her and Chris.  If you chose to shoot yourself instead of her, that relationship is cemented.  You see her kissing him when he goes out to save Josh later on.

This game had real consequences with your choices.  Ones that were clear-cut and shown to you.  But this game has a trick – it was all done in one night.  A game with a larger narrative can’t be so simple.  When this game ended, you got to see the ultimate fate of the choices you make.  Instead of some stupid ending choice, the ending to this game was just the culmination of all the choices.  Everything came together, and the ending cutscene was seeing the characters who survived the night being interviewed.  That’s smart!  None of the stupid final choices.  Just the ending to the game.  This game did it flawlessly.

Now, let’s look at a game that did it wrong.

Mass Effect 3

I know, everyone saw this coming.  This game is famous for an ending that is so terrible that it ruined this game for most people.  Were it not for how unfathomably good EVERYTHING else about this game was (up to when the Victory Fleet went to Earth), it would have done the same for me.  But it was all so good.  However, it’s no joke that the game’s ending is bad.  Video after video after video was made explaining why.  It’s pretty simple – the three final choices you make are bullshit.  What’s more, they are ALL plotholes.  Each and every one.

Why does shooting a tube trigger an explosion that destroys the Reapers?  Why does it also destroy the Geth?  How does this technology work?  Why are you walking toward the tube as you shoot it, with it being abundantly clear that it will kill you?  How does grabbing two do-dads make it so you can control the Reapers?  Why not have them all go pile into the nearest star after having control?  How does Shepard maintain his/her conscious mind after doing so?  Without a body, how does Shepard exist?  How on Earth does jumping into a beam of light merge organic and synthetic life?  That is literally impossible.  How does no one realize what absolute hell it would be to force sentience on the husks that were created by the Reapers?  Am I the only one who sees this ending as the most nightmare scenario of all?

These are just a scant few of the endless series of plot holes that were wrong with this ending.  And the truth is that so much of why this ending sucks comes down to having to make this final choice.  There was a fan-cut to the ending of this game where they cut out all the god-kid stuff, and instead had it be where Shepard and Anderson are both bleeding out.  When the Crucible docks with the Citadel, it goes off and triggers the Destroy ending.  That was so much better.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s still stupid, but at least that makes some sense.  This game actually had the balls to introduce a character in the last scene and create a stupid ending that ignores every single thing you did throughout the series.

Here’s another game that got it right.

The Wolf Among Us

Unlike the previous Telltale title, this game had it where the choices you made didn’t just affect who lived and died.  It also affected the relationships that developed over the course of the series.  As Bigby Wolf, you are having to keep the peace in a part of the world where there are a lot of unpleasant people.  Every choice you make affects those relationships.  But the real thing that makes the end of this game works isn’t how there is some final choice.  Instead, there is a final confrontation that culminates in all your choices mattering.

Did you kill the villain of the game earlier?  That was something you could do.  Did you save the life of the club owner who knows the truth about how the girls who work there are kept enslaved?  Did you allow the woman who gave him the enslaving tool the right to kill herself?  Did you foster positive relationships with the various characters, which other characters can then exploit?  Did you solve the various mysteries that were in front of you?  Everything you did affects the final confrontation where the crowd is judging the villain of the story.  That is genius!  One final test, to show how well or poorly you played the game.  Very smart.  It is also cathartic because, if you are like me and want to immerse yourself in a game’s world, getting to play the politics of a world can make you feel like you are a part of it.  The growth of relationships is a good way to have choice mean something.  After all is said and done, and Bigby is continuing his life, you get to see even more results of your choices.  That’s brilliant!

Which brings is back to Life is Strange

Conclusion

The thing that Mass Effect 3 did wrong is the exact same one that Life is Strange did.  Instead of having some big moment of culmination of your choices, all of them get immediately obliterated and turned to ash.  We have seen two examples to games doing it right.  Another example would be The Witcher 3.  In that game, your choices and how they shape things isn’t always clear.  The politics of that world are pretty interesting.  But it makes how things play out that much more appealing.  The thing is, when we play a game that involves choices, we want to feel like they matter.  It’s the whole reason that we were so eager to get further in.  When a game chooses not to follow through on this, it’s more than a little upsetting.  Then you get the assholes like the ones at the now-defunct Kotaku who say that gamers are entitled because we want a game to stick to its conventions.  They have the right to their opinions, I guess.  But they’re still stupid.

Hopefully I get to see more games like the ones that got it right.  I loves me some choice in a game.  It makes things interesting.  Let me know what you think down in the comments.

Until next time, a quote,

“Freedom of choice is more to be treasured than any other possession Earth can give.”  – David McKay

Peace out,

Maverick

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