marketing

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 defending the out-of-control behavior of rich white kids. 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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What Is a Video Game Marketer?

by Jed Pressgrove

Discussions on “what is and isn’t a video game” and “formalism” continue their savage run. Some say we shouldn’t limit the definition of a video game. Others say we should focus on what makes video games different. But these statements miss the overwhelming influence of marketing on how we perceive reality.

No one woke up one morning and knew what a “video game” was. My first video game was Super Mario Bros. Why? Because my parents believed Nintendo was selling a video game, then they told me Super Mario Bros. was a video game, just like people tell kids today that Minecraft is a video game. Marketing tells us we should try things as different as Pong, Grand Theft Auto III, and Gone Home, and all of these things are placed, by marketers, under the umbrella of video games.

I might argue Gone Home is not as much of a game as Grand Theft Auto III. I might argue Grand Theft Auto III is not as much of a game as Pong. I might argue Gone Home fulfills the potential of video games. I will likely convince no one that I’m right because these arguments are pointless. The more likely result of these “arguments” is that I might inspire people to try Pong, Grand Theft Auto III, or Gone Home to see what the fuss is about. Instead of trumping marketing, these arguments help marketing and constrain critical thought.

We are all marketers to an extent. Twitter, which is a nonstop series of advertisements and billboards, confirms our interests as marketers, though our marketing is not limited to and does not require Twitter. As marketers, we confirm the suggestions of super marketers (the owners and distributors of products and platforms). We confirm Gone Home is about “narrative,” “story,” and “environmental design” (maybe even “social justice”). We confirm Grand Theft Auto III is about a “world,” “deep mechanics,” and “choice” (maybe even “freedom of speech”). We confirm Pong is an old piece of junk that no one plays anymore because it’s not hip.

This marketing also comes with dubious political suggestions that keep people fighting rather than thinking. You are “liberal” if you value Gone Home more than Grand Theft Auto III. You are “conservative” if you value Grand Theft Auto III more than Gone Home. In online video game discussions, party politics is more important than individual experience and perspective.

Only one phrase can accurately sum up these discussions and suggestions: distracting bullshit. We are always going to hear about the Grand Theft Autos and the Gone Homes because the big and little video game marketers tell us we should try them. In response, I think we should do one of three things: (1) critique the games for what they are, (2) ignore the games, or (3) shut up.

Criticism vs. Marketing: A Response to Colin Moriarty’s ‘Evil is Good’

by Jed Pressgrove

Months ago, I provided my definition of criticism: “[C]riticism is sharing reactions to something without sounding like a commercial.” In a response to criticism of Far Cry 4 box art, IGN writer Colin Moriarty sounds like a commercial. We should examine the marketing implications of what Moriarty and other game critics have said about Far Cry 4.

First, none of us are innocent when it comes to giving Far Cry 4 attention and, thus, potential for more sales. The box art debate is exactly what Ubisoft wanted. With the Far Cry 4 box art, Ubisoft knowingly used the tact of an immature schoolboy to get people curious about the game. This consumer curiosity might take the form of “How will Far Cry 4 the game actually handle its themes?” or “I can’t wait to shoot some bad guys in Far Cry 4.” There’s nothing wrong with these curiosities, but I believe that Ubisoft used racially and religiously charged imagery — a clear play on post-9/11 anxieties — to get us talking. In this respect, Moriarty’s talking is no guiltier than any other critic’s talking.

The problem is that Moriarty takes word-of-mouth marketing to a more troubling level. I immediately disliked the “Evil is Good” headline because it sounds like a phrase from a dumb movie trailer. Unsurprisingly, the phrase ties into Moriarty’s assertion that a “potentially controversial bad guy” is something powerful that can challenge us. To support this conclusion, Moriarty makes several banal, obvious comments about the importance of bad guys in art. Once you get past all of this philosophical posturing, you get to what Moriarty’s article actually says: “Buy Far Cry 4.”

The evidence is especially clear in the third paragraph:

When I first saw this artwork, I had a few thoughts. My first thought was, “man, I can’t wait to play Far Cry 4.” I absolutely adored Far Cry 3. It was an exceptional game, one awash with a host of non-linear, explorative qualities, solid gunplay, and a surprisingly engaging story. It deserved every one of its 9 million sales, and I was so pleased to see that Ubisoft would follow it up so quickly (Far Cry 4 is slated to come out this November).

I’m sure Ubisoft executives love this passage, which doesn’t represent a critical reaction so much as evidence that Ubisoft has a loyal ally. While I can’t call the passage’s honesty into question, Moriarty gives Ubisoft exaggerated praise when he brings up the sales figure. The idea that a game “deserves” all of its sales shows a flagrantly uncritical mindset. It doesn’t consider that some bought Far Cry 3 and thought it was garbage. It doesn’t consider whether sales provide insight into game quality in the first place. Indeed, such considerations are unimportant when the critic becomes nothing more than a mouthpiece for a game company.

Moriarty enthusiastically supports Ubisoft’s marketing purposes with the Far Cry 4 box art. From a sales perspective, the fact that the box art contains racially and religiously charged imagery is irrelevant. The most important point is that the image looks edgy and violent. Greg Magee’s line about the box art’s “gun porn all over the place” provides insight into Moriarty’s approach, which is revealed in the second paragraph of “Evil is Good”:

In the artwork — seen below — a person in a fine pink suit is leaning on the head of a subjugated man cradling an M67 grenade. An AK-47 rests to the left, an RPG-7 to the right, and some ammo is strewn about.

From a technical standpoint, Moriarty’s specificity about the weapons is impressive. It also raises a question: does it really matter what kind of grenade the darker-skinned guy is holding? Moriarty’s fixation on weapons plays into Ubisoft’s strategy of appealing to the classic shooter theme of power through weaponry. The racial and religious imagery is only icing on the cake and therefore easily dismissed by Moriarty as window dressing for a “good, believable antagonist.” Of course, given that he has yet to play Far Cry 4, Moriarty has no critical reason to suggest that the antagonist is “good” or “believable.” The effect of Moriarty’s article appears to be selling a game for Ubisoft under the guise of engaging in a critical discussion.

Moriarty also markets the edginess that Ubisoft was going for with the following proclamation:

Far Cry 4 isn’t an innocuous, inclusive children’s book or an afternoon Nick Jr. cartoon. It’s an M-rated video game, made for adults, and it may just deal with some brutal realities of the world. What if this blond man is, in fact, a shameless, violent, narcissistic racist? Doesn’t that give you a strong reason to dislike him, and a powerful motive to chase him through Far Cry 4’s campaign? Isn’t that more compelling than some vanilla, sanitized antagonist with no noticeable personality flaws or nefarious motives? Racism is, unfortunately, a very real force in contemporary culture, so why should gaming ignore it? I love that Far Cry 4’s writers are treading down the same path the previous games did, making for an experience that may just be, at times, totally uncomfortable. Maybe Far Cry 4 will give you pause and make you question your own motives in the process. Isn’t that a positive in a landscape flooded with the same old thing?

Notice that Moriarty begins by casting aside the nonexistent argument that Far Cry 4 is a children’s book or Nick Jr. cartoon — hey people, this game is “M-rated.” Such language reminds me of my childhood in the early 1990s when games like Mortal Kombat made me feel like I was playing something mature and original. Looking back, my feeling as a kid was legitimate: as a fighting game, Mortal Kombat had a unique approach to violence. In contrast, Moriarty’s words should be interpreted as marketing, not a legitimate feeling, because nothing he predicts about Far Cry 4 is a unique idea. Far Cry 4’s blonde man will not be the first violent, narcissistic racist in video games. He will not be the first game villain I’ve strongly disliked during a chase. He will not be the first villain with personality flaws or nefarious motives. And Moriarty knows this. He admits Far Cry 4 is “treading down the same path.” Then he turns around and gives us that now-classic slogan about questioning “your own motives.” If it weren’t clear that Moriarty is marketing Far Cry 4 rather than engaging in criticism, I would wonder whether Moriarty has played any of the numerous popular or underground games — everything from Fallout to Traitor — that encourage players to question their own motives.

On a broader level, Moriarty makes a mistake that game critics should try to avoid: suggesting conclusions about a game that nobody has played. Regardless of our reaction to the Far Cry 4 box art, we don’t know what the game will do. But there’s a deeper problem with Moriarty’s approach. In instructing people to be excited about Far Cry 4 rather than skeptical of its conniving marketing, Moriarty betrays the purpose of criticism and journalism. With the Far Cry 4 box art and the discussion it continues to inspire, Ubisoft doesn’t need any help from Moriarty.