Mike Simon ’19 / Emertainment Monthly Contributor
Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for Heavy Rain and Life Is Strange.
Video games have quickly become one of the most immersive means of storytelling in the modern world. Various games throughout the past decade have immersed players through any number of fantastic elements. However, a component that requires a bit more insight to understand its weighty impact is the decision-based element that can be seen in so many game narratives nowadays. Games such as this will continue no matter what happens in the world of the player. No ‘Game Over’ screen will flash, no villain will taunt a fallen hero, and no red-colored “WASTED” emblem will appear as the dead character ragdolls through a colorless world before fading out. The player does not have the option of being either right or wrong; their actions are neither correct nor incorrect. They are simply actions – and the game will continue onward regardless of what choice is made. The game stops for nothing, and the player is complicit in the actions being carried out.
It is this element that makes decision based games so compelling and heart wrenching. One of the earlier examples of such a game released on a major platform was Heavy Rain, a story about the hunt for a kidnapper and serial killer told from the perspective of four different playable characters. The main character of the game, Ethan Mars, spends the game undergoing the grueling tasks set upon him by the infamous Origami Killer in order to locate his missing son. The fourth such task asks Ethan the question “Are you prepared to kill someone to save your son?” Now, the beauty of this particular level is how it serves so directly in contrast to so many other types of video games. In action-adventure video games, often times the player is given an objective (often in the go here, find him, execute, escape fashion), and the player is simply meant to carry it out. Regardless of a players own moral stance on killing, it is easy to write off the decision to carry out the objective simply because the game will not continue otherwise; the target has to die for the game to proceed.
In the aforementioned mission, the climax comes at the point where Ethan has the target on his knees with a gun to his head, as he begs for his life, holding up a photo of his young daughters, imploring the understanding and mercy of another father. The game then prompts the player to either pull the trigger or to let him go. It is a gut wrenching decision, only made worse by the fact that the in-game reward can only be accessed if the player pulls the trigger. If the man is killed, Ethan proceeds to vomit in disgust and then sends a photo of the corpse to the kidnapper in order to receive further hints as to where his own son is being held. If the man is spared, Ethan knocks him out and leaves with no further information, and no other reward other than the player’s own morality intact. Each decision allows the game to move forward in different ways, and it is morally divisive to see that while murder brings reward, it can be called into deep question when it is not directly required by the narrative.
Another, more recent such example of the evolution of decision-based gaming is the sci-fi narrative Life Is Strange, a game that involves time travel as a girl unfolds the mystery in her private high school. This game raises the bar for the decision-based elements because the time traveling mechanic of the game allows the player to go back in time and choose the opposite choice before proceeding. Now, some may see this as a cop-out, but instead it should be viewed as an extra kick in the gut. The game tries to eliminate the ‘what-if’ factor by allowing the player to see how each decision would shape the narrative, and then forces them to choose which one to go with. Neither option is ever clearly better than the other, and so the question falls on the player to decide what kind of a person they are, and what path they want to blindly pursue, accepting the consequences right away.
In addition to this, there is a moment in Life Is Strange where the time traveling powers are out of play – a sequence which takes place during the climax of the game’s second episode. As your character tries desperately to talk a friend down from the roof of a building, it becomes immediately apparent that the game is focusing not only on in-the-moment decisions, but also decisions that are a culmination of hours of gameplay. In this case, the suicidal friend, Kate Marsh, has been seeking the assistance of the main character throughout the entire game. The player’s ability to save Kate depends on their treatment of her thus far. Did the player comfort Kate when she was being bullied? Did she stand up for Kate against a harassing security guard? Did she take note of important elements of Kate’s personality that could be found in her room? Or did the player instead choose to ignore every sign of a girl in distress, focus only on their own storyline, and watch helplessly as Kate Marsh threw herself from the roof of the dormitory? By adding these additional elements to the decision-based mechanics of the game, the creators make it even harder for the player to make this decision in-the-moment, and instead focus on their entire behavior up to this moment, creating an incredible and emotional blow to the gut.
Now, what is the point really to be made here about the emotional evolution of decision-based gaming? The true message behind it all is that the narrative pulls the player into the game, and forces them to be complicit with the horrible actions being carried out in front of their face. Rather than blindly leading them through a narrative with the comfort of knowing that if one makes a mistake, they can simply reload and try again, they instead create a world where the story must go on no matter what. The world can either be restored or destroyed by the player’s own morality. Decisions have evolved from the ‘evil action equals greater reward’ system to a point where now a player must be constantly on their toes, aware that each and every move they make will impact the world of the game in some way, and it is in this way that video games truly evolve to become like life itself.
Because the game must go on…and so too must life itself.