OpinionVideo Games

Opinion: The Illusion of Choice in Interactive Stories

Erik Fattrosso ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

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(c) Dontnod Entertainment

WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS for Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead and Dontnod Entertainment’s Life is Strange.

Near the end of my freshman year here at Emerson, I had a final paper assignment that tasked me with picking something from any form of media and describing why it was important. I chose the first season of Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead. Within the paper, I described why choice-based narrative games like this are the future of storytelling. More importantly, I described how they use the advantages provided by the medium to tell incredibly impactful stories. Rather than actively partaking  in fast paced action, your time is instead spent choosing what to say to other characters and making choices that change the way the story plays out

It’s easy to understand why this method of storytelling can be so effective. By putting the player in direct control over the actions of the main character and allowing them to develop their own relationships with characters, an emotional attachment can be formed that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. We’re going to be focusing on negative emotions, specifically that of sadness. It is very possible for a story to affect someone with an incredible range of emotions, but I personally feel that causing genuine sadness is one of the most difficult.

I’ve been playing games for as long as I can remember, experiencing hundreds in my lifetime. Through all those, I only picked out three moments that triggered a real, notable sadness from me. The first of which comes at the end of the first season of The Walking Dead, by Telltale Games. As the season comes to a close your character, Lee, is dying. Having been scratched by a zombie, he knows his time is running out and he’s unable to muster the strength to move. He’s trapped in a garage with Clementine, a young girl that you’ve become a father figure to over the course of the game.

After a painstaking dialogue decision wherein you choose what some of Lee’s final words to her will be, you are put in control of Clem and have to choose whether to shoot Lee and end his suffering or let him turn into a zombie. The obvious choice would be to shoot him, but my judgment was so clouded, and my eyes so filled with water that I couldn’t bring myself to do it.  As Clem leaves, I have Lee utter one last sentence… “I’ll miss you.”  She responds, “I’ll miss you too” before backing out of the room as Lee collapses and the screen fades to black.

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(c) Telltale Games

The other two moments both occur within Life is Strange, developed by Dontnod Entertainment. You play as Max Caulfield, a shy and soft-spoken teenager attending a prestigious art school for photography. Everything changes when Max witnesses her old best friend Chloe get shot and killed in the school bathroom. After hiding in the back, she jumps out at the last second to find that she has mysteriously obtained the ability to rewind time, and quickly uses her new gift to save Chloe. As the game ventures into an engaging mystery, you’re an active member in the rekindled relationship between Max and Chloe.

At the end of the third episode, Max makes a choice to go back several years in the past and stop Chloe’s dad from getting into a fatal car crash that changed Chloe’s life. Doing so changed the original timeline, later resulting in Chloe getting into a car crash of her own and being paralyzed from the neck down. The first hour of Episode Four has you holding back tears as you interact with your paralyzed best friend. Every line of dialogue pushes you closer towards the verge of tears as you constantly remember that you did this to her, however indirect it may have been. As the sequence reaches its ending, you’re presented with a choice; Chloe is dying. In addition to being unable to move, her respiratory system is failing. She asks you to turn up her IV, overdosing and killing her so that her final memories will be the time she spent with you. You can choose to deny her request, but I didn’t. I watched as she slowly closed her eyes for the last time with a smile on her face.

The game is about time travel so of course a way is found to return to the original timeline where Chloe is still alive and well. We’re going to fast forward to the ending of the game. A giant tornado is approaching Arcadia Bay, the town we’ve been occupying. The tornado is a manifestation of what you’ve accidently caused by constantly messing around with time, and you’re given two choices. You can either sacrifice Arcadia Bay and stay with Chloe, or instead choose to sacrifice Chloe by returning to the start of the game in that bathroom and letting her die, never using your powers and stopping the tornado from existing in the first place. Similar to The Walking Dead, there’s an obvious answer here. The town should be saved over a single person, but this choice was still incredibly difficult.

The game up to that point was largely about trying to keep Chloe safe, and she was all that mattered until she herself said that she needed to die for the safety of the town. As much as I hated it, I couldn’t bring myself to ignore Chloe’s own acceptance of her death. I sacrificed her for the town. Immediately, you are put back into that scene in the bathroom. Watching Chloe get shot in the opening of the game didn’t hold much weight, but now, every second of this scene was hard to watch. After the gunshot, the camera lingers on Chloe’s body before panning over to Max, devastated in the back of the bathroom. What followed was a sequence of photos showing various points of your relationship with Chloe, each of them happy and full of memories. And then each of them changed. A shot of Max and Chloe holding hands walking on a railroad track became Max sitting at a table solemnly with Chloe’s parents. A selfie taken of both of them was replaced with Max being handed a box of old photos by Chloe’s mom. And then, almost five minutes after I made my choice, we finally arrive at the funeral scene. I silently watched the funeral procession, consisting of almost every character I’d met in the game, and as the credits began to roll, my controller was wet with tears.

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(c) Dontnod Entertainment

The most common complaint with these games, by far, is that your choices don’t matter at the end of the day. Certain things will happen regardless of what you choose. As an example, at the end of the second episode of Walking Dead, you have the choice to kill a character. If you decide not to, somebody else will kill them anyway. Characters will still respond to you as someone who didn’t kill him, but the actual choice didn’t hold much weight. This is a common issue that rears its ugly head again in the game’s final episode. The penultimate episode made a big deal about who was left alive in your group and who would join you on your final adventure to save Clementine. While I personally ended up with everyone still alive electing to join me, a friend of mine only had his own personal character and one other member. However, it’s not long into the final episode that it becomes clear this didn’t matter. Certain characters needed to be there, so even if they said no, the game found ways to bring them back into the fray. When you reach the actual end of the game which I described earlier, there is no choice in the actions that happen. It doesn’t matter how you treated anyone or what you did prior to that moment. Everyone who played the game was going to find themselves in that room alone with Clementine, and everyone who played was going to make the choice of whether or not to shoot Lee.

The “Illusion of Choice” is whether or not your choices seem like they matter. Obviously the story of the game can’t completely change based on a simple decision, but does it feel like it does? The instance of deciding if you kill that character or not from before is an example of not having the Illusion of Choice.  Sure, the game technically gave you a choice and you did technically pick one.  But the same outcome was present either way. It’s considered a flaw if this Illusion isn’t present, as it takes the meaning away from your choices.

This is where I disagree with most people. Your choices always matter. Staying with The Walking Dead for now, like I said, everyone got the same ending. However, while each of your choices may not directly impact the narrative, they all change how characters interact with you. Relationships are built and destroyed based on your choices, and as such your emotions are created by them. Choices matter even if they don’t change the narrative, because they change your personal experience with the game. That friend I mentioned and I both had radically different experiences with The Walking Dead. We played through the same general story, and we had the same ending, but all the steps to get there were incredibly different.

We see this on a much larger scale in Life is Strange, partially because your choices actually really did make a difference. Aside from the personal relationships with the other characters, there’s at least one large moment in the game that completely changes it from there out. If you forget to water the plant Max’s parents gave her, or you over water it, it’ll die in Episode Three and it’ll stay that way for the rest of the game.

I’m joking about that being a large moment, but that is the kind of smaller thing that’s so prevalent throughout the game. From watering your plant to laughing at a character who had previously bullied you, seemingly small things can go on to have notable repercussions later. The actual large moment I was referring to sees Max trying to talk her friend Kate down from the school roof as she’s about to commit suicide. For various plot reasons, Max cannot reverse time, so this is a one and done situation. While you’re talking to Kate, every dialogue choice has you on the edge of your seat. Did you put in the time to develop your friendship with her earlier? You had better, because you need to know more about her than just her name if you hope to save her life. You can fail this section. There’s no game over or restart or anything. If you don’t navigate the situation well enough, she’ll jump.

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(c) Dontnod Entertainment

This is the end of episode two of five. For the following three episodes, the whole tone of the game shifts depending on how this went. If you saved her, Max is treated as a hero by the school. There’s a general upbeat mood in the school, and even a scene in Episode Four where you visit Kate in the hospital. If you don’t save her though, that all changes. Max isn’t personally held responsible, but the game becomes much more grim, with the death of a classmate constantly looming over everyone’s head. If you decide to laugh at that bully instead of being sympathetic, she may not listen to your warning in Episode Four that she’s in danger of being drugged and tortured. These choices make you a meaningful part of the world as you play through the adventure.

However, there are two pivotal story moments that you have no control over. Oddly enough, these are the two moments that I described in detail as the two that had the largest emotional impact for me. As mentioned, Max goes back in time to stop Chloe’s dad from dying. I pleaded for Max to not interfere with the past, as I’ve seen enough time travel stories to know how horribly that tends to go for everyone. But I never had the choice to stop her. The game takes control and forces you back into the past and makes you an active participant in stopping Chloe’s dad from going out that day. This leads to interacting with alternate timeline, paralyzed Chloe. That choice, by the way, has no lasting impact. It’s never brought up again after you make it, but that doesn’t make it any less effective.

The second moment is the ending choice of sacrificing Chloe or Arcadia Bay. This ending divided the fan base of the game. Many took it as a betrayal of everything they chose leading up to it. It didn’t matter how your game played out up until that point, everyone was given those same two choices which led to the same two endings. This completely removed the Illusion of Choice. My choices were completely meaningless in the long run. In fact, if you sacrifice Chloe, none of the events of the game happen at all. That whole ending revolves around stopping the story before it began.

But that’s completely fine. The final choice was only effective because of all the choices I made leading to it. The friendships I developed with every character, not just Chloe, were making this choice a genuinely difficult one with no right or wrong answer. The entire game was about Chloe’s death. From the get go, she’s killed. You save her in the bathroom, but numerous other instances throughout the game have her moments from death. Max constantly changing the natural course of things to keep her alive was causing larger and larger problems. This is why your choices still absolutely matter, even if in the grand scheme of things they don’t. If you don’t make those previous choices, the final one holds no meaning to you.

When these stories are being written, is it better to write a mediocre story that more accurately has your choices directly affect the narrative, or a tightly written masterpiece with two endings instead of twenty? Life is Strange is the best story I’ve had the privilege of experiencing in several years. I can’t imagine sacrificing any of that quality just for a few more variations near the end so that my choices “mattered.” Even if my choices didn’t matter to the game’s ending, they mattered to me. I know that I warned Victoria about her being Mr. Jefferson’s next target, and that she believed me because I did my best to build that relationship despite her constant bullying. I know that I talked Kate down from that roof. I know that I euthanized Chloe on her request. I know that I didn’t have the balls to shoot Lee as little Clementine. I cried when I watched Chloe get killed in that bathroom, just like I did when Clem told Lee she’d miss him. But the only reason I felt anything at all during any of these moments is because of all my choices that “didn’t matter.”

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(c) Telltale Games
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