Life Imitates Telltale: The Shallow Marketing of Player Choice

by Jed Pressgrove

It’s not enough for Life Is Strange to exist as a work of entertainment or art. Piggybacking off a proven marketing model by Telltale Games, Life Is Strange is an extended advertisement of player choice and consequence.

The first episode of Life Is Strange, “Chrysalis,” announces its intent to treat the audience as hoodwinked infants when you start a new game: “Life Is Strange is a story based game that features player choice, the consequences of all your in game actions and decisions will impact the past, present, and future. Choose wisely … ” (Imagine an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie that begins with “This is an action-based movie that features dynamic camerawork, stunts, and the spectacle of violence and destruction.”)

Nevermind that almost every traditional game features player choice and consequences in some form. The Telltale model, which Life Is Strange seeks to perfect, wants the audience to forget that obvious reality.

Telltale’s Rotten Benchmark

The Telltale model dishonestly suggests its use of player choice is significant or innovative, with incessant references to the notion of making game-influencing choices. In reality, player choice is a cornerstone of traditional game design. For example, in BurgerTime you can choose to use pepper to stun enemies so that you can get four condiments on a burger for extra points, but the consequence might be that you get trapped by enemies without any pepper to escape. Ignoring history, Telltale markets player choice as a novelty rather than as a convention.

Throughout Telltale’s games, you select from preset dialogue/narrative choices, an idea that is hardly new (I immediately think of 1990s RPGs like Fallout and Baldur’s Gate, but the idea precedes those games by more than a decade at least). To make this old, limited idea seem more special than it actually is, the Telltale model employs three strategies:
 

1. Telltale bombards the player with suggestive text that affirms the specialness of its product. Often when you make a choice in The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us, some text will inform you that “[Character A] will remember that.” Influencing a nonplayable character’s behavior with one’s dialogue is neither a new nor a difficult-to-grasp idea. But the repetitive “[Character A] will remember that” text works as a slogan to reinforce the illusion that Telltale games, unlike the “norm,” are about making significant choices — even when the consequences are next to nothing, like pissing off a nonplayable character for a couple of minutes (oh no!).

2. Telltale makes five of the preset choices in its games the “big decisions” (e.g., the choice to kill a character or not). To add to the appearance of novelty, Telltale presents post-game statistics that show whether your choices for the “big decisions” were selected by the majority of people who played the game. Such statistics trivialize your choices. If the choices are so important and affecting, why can’t the choices stand by themselves within the context of the story and in the player’s memory? Telltale shouldn’t have to remind everyone of the most important decisions, but the reminders serve a purpose: to make the old idea of player choice appear fresh and current (similar to an ad that tells you half of all adults use Old Product A). The post-game statistics also work as a Telltale calling card. Although the statistics add nothing to the story or play, they drive player conversation about choices that Telltale preordains as powerful.

3. Telltale uses an episodic structure to delay some of the consequences of player choice in order to manufacture suspense that might not otherwise be there. The episode format also suggests the player is making a big impact that transcends boundaries (in this case, the boundaries of episodes). The Telltale episodic structure is not comparable to the episodic structure in Kentucky Route Zero or Broken Age, as those games are upfront about the fact that they have stories they want to tell, first and foremost. The Telltale episode structure is a fast-food version of BioWare’s Mass Effect series. Rather than have you wait a year or more to see the consequences of your choices in another game, Telltale’s episodic structure only asks you to wait for a few months between episodes of a game. This release structure can make even the mundane seem urgent and pressing. Finally, the episode format has the potential benefit of delaying criticism. A critic or gamer is more likely to hold back harsh words about an episodic game (“It’s only one episode”), especially one that involves unrevealed consequences of player choice.

Life Is Strange’s Imitation of Telltale

Life Is Strange borrows all three of the above strategies. In fact, if not for the stamps of “Square Enix” and “Dontnod Entertainment,” you could almost swear the game was produced by Telltale. At the same time, Life Is Strange alters the marketing strategies and language enough to make people think they’re playing a fresh spin on the Telltale formula of deception.

Instead of using Telltale’s “[Character A] will remember that” approach, Life Is Strange cements its own slogan: “This action will have consequences … ” This slogan emphasizes anticipation of the player’s general influence rather than a particular character’s memory, but the slogan’s monotonous placement apes the Telltale model. The repetition intends to inflate player ego with the suggestion that “You just made a choice! You are important!” Life Is Strange takes this Telltale marketing to more absurd, almost parodic lengths: “This action will have consequences … ” appears after you water a plant in the protagonist’s dorm room!

Life Is Strange also takes Telltale’s post-game statistics to a new low. While the statistics in The Walking Dead spotlight a few decisions that capture the influence of the player, the statistics in Life Is Strange bring attention to choices that even Telltale might consider negligible, including the aforementioned plant-watering choice. Life Is Strange does separate the “big decisions” from the minor ones, but the increased number of post-game statistics reflects both a lazy attempt to outdo Telltale and a greater trivialization of player choice.

Wait! There Is Something New Here

The time manipulation in Life Is Strange is new insofar as it hasn’t (yet) appeared in a modern Telltale adventure. Nevertheless, the rewind ability is an old idea. But whereas a game like Braid allows rewinding to speak for itself in the context of puzzles, Life Is Strange utilizes time manipulation as a tutorial about player choice.

The impulse to rewind time in Life Is Strange is connected to the “This action will have consequences … ” slogan. Those fateful words appear after every “notable” decision in the game, testing the player’s conviction: will you stick to your choice, or will you rewind because you don’t like the potential consequences of your choice? And if you don’t think about your choices in these terms, don’t worry. Through a tutorial-like voice-over, the protagonist Max will talk about how she maybe should have done things differently. One could argue this voice-over fits the character of Max. But the character’s yammering about choice is yet more evidence that Life Is Strange functions as both a game and an unending commercial about the importance of choice in the game.

The time manipulation doesn’t fully realize the concept of player choice. For example, the first episode features a few puzzles that you, the player, cannot skip. You have no choice but to use the rewind ability to solve the puzzles. I use “solve” loosely: Max pretty much tells you how to advance. Max’s tutorialization is condescending and limits the appeal of the rewind ability.

Choice Matters When You Can’t Tell a Story

The in-game marketing of player choice might conceal the contrivances peddled by Life Is Strange. With the evil stepfather/totalitarian security guard and his collection of guns, Dontnod Entertainment apparently wants leftists to shake in their boots and forget the bipartisan support of the Patriot Act. Some on the right and the left might enjoy the game’s diversity in the form of a black principal Uncle Tomming it up. And notice the game’s disaster-movie insistence on an incoming storm that is suggestively due to Global Warming (Max’s friend Chloe expresses surprise at the unprecedented weather in Oregon).

Perhaps the best way to convince an audience that cliched writing matters is to keep blathering about choices and consequences.

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10 comments

  1. While I’m not as harsh towards Telltale’s use of player choice as a driving force in their games, I will agree that the whole “X will remember this” line of constant reminders for something a player once did can get annoying after a while. Consequences are best executed when you don’t know what the outcome will be.

    I’m personally going to wait until every episode of Life is Strange comes out before I purchase. Mainly to avoid the problem you outlined of waiting for months to see what the results of your decisions are. Though from what I’ve seen, the cheesy writing may make it a guilty pleasure. (And I still insist that “Life is Strange” sounds like a line of dialogue Tommy Wiseau would write. So if the game ends up disappointing me in the end I have the perfect tagline – “You are tearing me APART, Dontnod!”

  2. I will admit ignorance of The Walking Dead, as I have not played it, nor do I have the means to do so. But I found it’s insistence on choice strange, for the reason that you outlined your article. Choices are the bedrock on which games exist, though this is more clear in board games than video games. Seeing people start talking about choices as if it’s some kind of new thing is utterly bizarre.

    The trumpeting of choice and the focus on storytelling makes me think it’s trying to be a fancy AAA Visual Novel, only instead of being set in an idyllic Japanese high school fantasy, it’s set in a not-so-idyllic American zombie fantasy.

    1. Hey Rod.

      “Seeing people start talking about choices as if it’s some kind of new thing is utterly bizarre.”

      This is how I felt about some of the talk surrounding BioShock.

      As far as The Walking Dead is concerned, it tries to go far with stylish dread and father-daughter sentimentality. I’ll admit it doesn’t feel as contrived as Life Is Strange, but The Walking Dead still sets the stage for Life Is Strange’s shallow understanding of choice.

  3. Excellent read. I’d like a story map diagram supplied with these games when it comes to ‘narrative choices’. I think what worked for me in ME2 compared to TellTale or others is that the interactive dialogue and decisions were pretty transparent. Interacting in dialogue felt as much like a game as completing dungeons – with consequences beyond narrative but also character progression and growth. But the “Key”, if you will, or the “Legend”, weren’t withheld from the player – you knew what tools were available to you and even had a reasonable time table to fill them.

    ME2 was really two games juxtaposed on top of another. The added layer, the dialogue and relationship management was intuit-able. Micromanaging squad mates to fit both narrative User wants and gameplay User wants while filling up on a binary score to meet periodic tests towards the end of the story line. The fact that it was transparent and intuitive by the end of the first 3 hours is perhaps why I consider it so highly. Whereas a lot of these others simply fill those design holes with ambiguous ‘narrative’ filler like you point out.

  4. Well, you’ve completely captured everything I dislike about Telltale Games. The formula worked for me in The Walking Dead S1, while it was a novel concept (also, I thought the story and writing in TWD was very good). Seeing “so-and-so will remember that” didn’t so much strike me as telling me it would have an effect on in-game events as much as how the other characters would think of Lee. Fast-forward to A Wolf Among Us, and by the 3rd time I saw “Snow will remember that” I was rolling my eyes, thinking that I couldn’t possibly care less what Snow would remember. Telltale games give the illusion of choice. I’d probably have more positive feelings about them if I didn’t feel so misled by the format and promise of player choice meaning something.

    As a big fan of Remember Me, I was excited for Life Is Strange. While I enjoyed the first chapter, I was surprised and disappointed that they so blatantly copied the Telltale format. The “this action will have consequences” message displayed so often is entirely condescending, and unnecessary.

    1. Hey Pam! I liked some things about Wolf Among Us, but Telltale ultimately botched the story with cliched action and twists. So even when we place aside the player choice issue, I still question Telltale’s ability to tell a story. Also, I think you could attribute some of Telltale’s success to the fact that it’s adapting popular existing properties (Walking Dead, Fables, Game of Thrones, Borderlands — and Minecraft’s next!).

      I haven’t played Remember Me, but it’s one that I’ve had my eye on since reading this review: http://everlaster.co.uk/game-review/when-memories-are-made-in-order-to-forget/

  5. Clinically describing the scaffolding of a game does not make it bad or a lie. This is a simple case of you don’t like it, so it’s bad. But not objectively so. You are free to not enjoy the genre of interactive fiction (or literally whatever genre you want to call it, it doesn’t matter… it’s art.. it’s a game… it’s a visual novel… it’s a thing that exists as it has every right to) and being able to see the behind-the-scenes aspects of the illusion of certain player importance is a valid reason for it to spoil the experience for YOU. But suspension of disbelief is a concept as old as written fiction. And for the many people who choose to let the magic of a story as phenomenally done as Life is Strange take them over completely, they are 100% justified in their choice of entertainment you seem to want to shame them for.

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