I do not know what it is with games that feature choice as a gameplay mechanic and finishing them. Can someone explain this to me? What is it about ending them in a satisfying way? I am probably gonna answer my own question here, but any insight that my audience has would be appreciated. It’s just that I do not understand why some games that feature choice as a central theme go so well, and others just plain suck. It’s a mystery. Let’s do some critical analysis of some of my favorite games with choice as a central theme, and analyze what went right and what went wrong.
The Wolf Among Us
For whatever reason, Telltale Games just knows their shit. At least where their early works are concerned. Now they are just derivative bullshit, but once upon a time they set the standard for how to do episodic games right. This was an awesome concept and a fun game. Based on the Fables comic series, telling a murder mystery involving a rundown slum where fairytale characters are living their lives is just fantastic. You play as a grungy cop who isn’t a bad guy, he just has a very violent history.
The element of choice is central to this game, and how it plays with the concept to affect how everything ends with the setting, the villain, and the resolution was so well done. Maybe it was because the story wasn’t especially complicated. Or maybe it was because the story was the center of everything and the characters built around it. I think that might have been it. By keeping their focus on the story instead of the characters, they could keep the time spent having to develop characters and their relationships simple. The mystery was engaging, so you do have to think about it.
A game where the plot is the central focus may be the best thing for this kind of medium. This game, along with its predecessor, The Walking Dead, got it right. Granted, that game was about a small plot involving a small bunch of characters. It was able to strike the delicate balance between flushed out characters and flushed out plot.
It bugs me so much how close this game came to being a story-telling masterpiece. Had it succeeded, this franchise would have been the hallmark in a style of gameplay that would never and could NEVER be topped. The way that the three games in the franchise (fuck Andromeda. We never speak of that travesty again) built a steady narrative on a personal and galactic scale was just amazing. All throughout, you could see real effects on what you did, both with the worlds around you, and with your party that you are brought to know and care about on a very deep level.
What I love is that the game had this nice thing where you can do really nice stuff but in a way where you are being the biggest asshole, which can sometimes lend to some absolute comedy gold. Like in the second game, where you can yell down a bunch of admirals and basically tell them to fuck off, and still get Tali to not be exiled. It’s awesome. And if it weren’t for the fact that Morinth won’t come to my party, I’d have totally let her come instead of Samara. I’m talking about the Citadel DLC, for those who are wondering.
Then we get to the end of the last game. Everything after when the Victory Fleet goes to Earth. And that’s where the game just DIES. I do mean everything. Nothing about when the Victory Fleet goes to Earth is fun. Not one thing. I built up a massive fleet! I want to see what I got! I want to see the Geth and Quarians. I want to see the Turians and Asari. I want to see the remains of the Batarian fleet coming out and being eager to start a fight. I want to see Aria’s mercenaries. I want to see krogans riding kakliosaurs riding into battle. I want to go to battle with all the assets I had built up over so much time, and have every decision affect who lives and dies on a galactic scale! What’s the point telling me about how I let Jack’s students become biotic artillery if I can’t see them in action! I want to watch them fuck up the Reapers day!
The trailer for the game showed your fleet fighting it out on Earth, and that being central to the plot. Yes! That! Let’s see how bananas this can get! Let all of the decisions I made, from letting the Council live or die at the very beginning of the franchise, to which central characters I lost along the way factor in to the final battle. To do that would be a monumental undertaking unlike anything seen before. But it can be done.
A lot of gamers blame Bioware for how this all ended. It’s not their fault. It’s EA’s fault. They were pushing hard for Bioware to get the game out the door before the new console generation dropped. If EA wasn’t such a shit-storm of a company, maybe we could have gotten the ending that we deserved. Where there aren’t just three color-coded paths to the end, but a plethora of challenged that you can pass or fail. This franchise was poised to be the hallmark moment in a genre, instead it smashed its face on the floor sliding into the finish. That sucked.
This game had a fantastically simple premise – keep seven people alive until dawn. Every choice you make factors into who lives and who dies. Failure means losing one more person. The first time I ran through the game, I had one person die. But I never lost another. This game was phenomenal. How a studio who had never done anything like this before was able to get this done baffles me.
Unlike Mass Effect, this game was a very small story, but devoted equal parts to character development and relationship development vs plot development. Because this was a very small game, and the punishment of your choice was pretty clear – people die. You succeed in the game by living. The ending will ultimately play out the same regardless of how many people live or die, but you are able to feel the consequence as the credits roll and the characters who survived are being grilled. It’s good stuff.
Each choice you make in the game is as consequential as the in-game context that you are doing whatever you are doing in. You choose to save Ashley when you have the choice of who to save and who to let die, it immediately sets your relationship up with Chris. I liked those two, by the way. They are a very cute couple. When I got the best ending and the two kiss, it felt earned. So many choice-based games tend to drop the ball with romantic elements. Mass Effect 2 comes to mind. That game had a bad habit of having characters in your crew who fall in love with you seemingly out of the blue. It’s bizarre. And since you get virtually none of them back in your crew in the following game, it doesn’t matter.
One nice touch in Until Dawn was the fact that the items you chose to examine and analyze comes back into play. That was a really smart touch that went a long way for me in helping make the game believable. It is similar to how things worked in another game that we will see later on in this list.
Now we get to one that I have a lot of things to say about.
Life is Strange
This game had the makings of something truly amazing. An episodic game that had the potential to be the kind of Twin Peaks/ Indie film of the video game medium. That aspect made me respect it. For the first four episodes, it truly did feel like it was leading up to something spectacular. Your choices don’t have massive consequences, but you can see the progression of all your actions as you go along. Then it comes down to the end. Ugh…
I’ve harped on this ending before, so I’m not going to go over all of it now. Suffice it to say, if you thought the ending of Mass Effect 3 neglected your choices, you ain’t seen nothing. That game gave you three color-coded options to make all of your choices count for nothing. This game gave you two. That’s right, two choices, and no matter what you did prior, it all ends exactly the same. I just don’t get how this happened. Here is my belief, and it comes into play in the last game on this post too – they wrote themselves into a corner. Either that, or they didn’t have the budget or resources to make the last episode bigger. See, to truly make your choices matter, and to pay off things like the tornado being a representation of countless timelines that Max created paying off, they would have had to devote so much more resources into the final episode.
Part of me gets that it’s hard to end a choice-based game. To have meaningful payoff for the countless choices that every player would have made, it must be an astronomical undertaking. But here’s the thing – if you are going to make a game like this, I think it’s on you to do it right. The player is owed that. People say that us gamers are entitled babies, and sure, sometimes we can be. But this company decided to take the effort onto themselves to do this. We didn’t tell them to. They didn’t have to. It could have just been a game like Gone Home, where you have to roll play through another story. I just know that somebody will come into the comments and say that it is just like that game. It’s not. They chose to make this game one where the player is told that their actions will have consequences. Being able to track those consequences and do it well is a massive undertaking. Any game company who wants to play at that owes the player a satisfactory resolution.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm
Boy did this game really have so much fantastic moments where it rose above being derivative, only to crash and burn at the end. The last episode of this game has two thirds that are just great. It opens with Rachel acknowledging the closeness that her and Chloe share if you built them up as a couple by holding her hand and asking her to stay when her father is going to tell her the truth. You have a moment where Chloe faces down her demons about losing what matters to her when Rachel is stabbed and she has to rush her to the hospital and show that she understand just how serious this was. Then, everything that follows that scene is where it all goes to shit.
The last third of this game takes how the previous game gave you two choices that nix all of your choices before, and switches it over to one. The final two choices you can make are ultimately meaningless. No matter which you chose, nothing changes. I said in my review of the last episode that I think it came down to them wanting to keep to the canon of the game that chronologically follows, and that is still true, but they also had to write a resolution to a story with more characters than it realistically needed. Or it could have just chosen not to have payoff. As an example, everything that happened at Rachel’s house could have been nixed. No, should have. It served no purpose. We already knew that Rachel’s dad was doing some underhanded stuff to keep her biological mother way. Now we need to have a subplot come out of nowhere about him being straight-up evil and wanting her dead? And even to be helping a criminal get off scott-free in the process? That’s retarded.
Nixing that plot would also have nixed the even worse final confrontation with Eliot. Instead of having his plot end there, it could have ended with him meeting up with Chloe at the hospital. They have been playing with him having feelings for her and you either being kind to them or not as the player. It could have paid off with you making the final choice of what you want between them. No big, right? They could easily have kept this in canon with the game that follows this by having it just be another relationship that Chloe could eventually shrug off as her and Rachel got deeper into the drug game.
Finally, the last confrontation at the mill was stupid and didn’t need to be. This game should have ended with Chloe finding Rachel’s mom and trying to convince her to come meet her daughter. It’s simple, it can factor in your choices in how close you have gotten with Rachel by having your relationship play into the argument between them. How the last episode got so poorly handled baffles me. I thought I knew the reason why it crashed and burned at the end, but the truth is I don’t. I really don’t.
Choice-based games are hard. That’s the thing to take away. I don’t think a developer should take on something like this unless they are ready to really go the distance with it and not half-ass. We’ve see it done well, and done poorly, and in some cases coming so close to greatness that it bugs me to see it fail.
What do you think? What games do you think did it well and which ones did not? Let me know in the Comments
Until next time, a quote,
“Choice. It all comes down to choice.” – Neo, Matrix Reloaded