player choice

Loaded Questions Vol. 13

Loaded Questions is a recurring feature at Game Bias. If you have a question you would like to submit, please email it to pressgrove84@yahoo.com or tweet it to @jedpressfate. Questions can cover anything closely or tangentially related to video games or art, including but not limited to criticism, culture, and politics. Questions may be edited for clarity.

Question 1

Dylan Cornelius: What’s your opinion on the current state of game writing (criticism, reviews, etc.)?

Jed Pressgrove: This question has inspired me to write a three-part answer:

Superego

Everyone’s doing their best in a world where freelancers and contributors are paid jack squat on the whole.

Id

Let’s exterminate these fucking no-good piece-of-shit publications and give their readerships a swift kick to the crotch!

Ego

Intellectually challenging pieces are out there, but good luck finding most of them. At the same time, the state of game writing today is better than it was during my childhood. I say that despite my nostalgic appreciation for gaming magazines like Diehard GameFan and GamePro.

I still think it’s too difficult to find quality pieces. A few years ago, Critical Distance, a publication that collates notable gaming articles of the week, would lead me to some interesting posts and debate, but that site has become beyond predictable and one-dimensional.

There’s also something absurd about a game like Red Dead Redemption 2, one of the clunkiest and stupidest big-name titles I’ve played in the last decade, receiving nearly perfect marks from reviewers. It raises the question of whether most of these writers are brain-dead or removed from the concerns of an everyday person who expects a baseline level of execution from artists. It raises the question of whether some people are receiving favorable or manipulative treatment from companies to give high marks to hyped-up releases.

I don’t have all the answers, but I do know the overall state of game writing is profoundly unsatisfying.

Question 2

Serge Soucy: The other day I was thinking about Tetris. I thought of the seemingly endless array of choices and outcomes that the game presents even with such simple game mechanics. What are some recent games that are simple to understand and play but that offer an exciting variety of choices in the way that Tetris does?

Jed Pressgrove: With the exception of Dr. Mario, nothing captivates me like Tetris in this regard. One recent title that did come to mind is Topsoil. The choices of where to plant seeds and when to harvest crops continue to compel me. It’s devastatingly simple, and failure’s always around the corner. Yet unlike Tetris and Dr. Mario, Topsoil gives me a feeling of peace no matter what. Its serene vibe reminds me of the wisdom that you get when you accept that the cycle of life can’t be fully controlled.

Many people would not think of Tetris or Topsoil when it comes to player choice. There’s an ideology out there that says the most meaningful choices in games have to be related to a story involving characters. This ideology grew to an exorbitant size at the height of Telltale Games, a developer that should be criticized for its nauseating impact on the industry of games (one can also pity the company because of its 2018 closure — for all the good it would do).

I’ve observed more about humanity while analyzing the choices in a chess match than I ever have while reflecting on the options I selected from preset lists in a Telltale or Telltale-wannabe game. The decisions we make in “mechanics-driven” contests may point to fundamental truths about ourselves — how we react to pressure, how willing we are to take risks, how patient (or impatient) we are. Someone’s performance in such a game can also clash with their typical behavior outside of the game. A gentle giant in real life might be a conniving pest in chess; perhaps that says something about the person’s subconscious self.

Question 3

Serge Soucy: While recently replaying The Legend of Zelda, I was once again struck with immense satisfaction whenever I discovered an item or a dungeon that I had forgotten about or had stumbled into. What are some of the most memorable moments of discovery that you’ve experienced in games?

Jed Pressgrove: I’m mostly remembering different mechanical tricks that I figured out on my own. Here’s a few of them:

  1. In Super Mario Kart, you can use the feather power-up to jump onto a shortcut in the haunted house stage of the Mushroom Cup. As a youngster, I was thrilled when I experimented and found out that you can also make that jump by using a mushroom power-up and tapping the jump button in the middle of the boost.
  2. Between the ages of 7 and 10, I would play Fatal Fury 2 on the SNES with some of my close friends. I discovered an incredibly cheap tactic with Jubei, the old man. He has a dash-and-throw special move that happens to be unblockable. I learned that, with proper timing, I could throw my opponent with that special move right as they get up from the ground. I would do it over and over. You wanna talk about immense satisfaction.
  3. In the SNES version of Samurai Showdown, I happened upon an unblockable aerial technique with Ukyo. Ukyo has a midair special move where he executes a huge sweeping slash that sends out a diagonally flying fire bird. A standing opponent can block this move by itself, but if you jump at your enemy and execute a hard slash that they go on to block, you can immediately chain that blocked attack into the special move I described. Your opponent will get set on fire every time.

Question 4

Pablo Perez Lopez: What are your thoughts on e-sports? Do you follow any?

Jed Pressgrove: I fundamentally like the idea of e-sports, despite the fact that many popular games under this umbrella are viciously boring (League of Legends) or substandard in their design (Street Fighter V). I would enjoy e-sports more as a form of entertainment if it revolved around better games. This might be elitism, idealism, or lunacy, but the world would be a better place if Super Mario Kart (SNES original) were more of a focus than League of Legends. I do respect Overwatch as a phenomenon, though I haven’t paid attention to it in a good while.

Question 5

Pablo Perez Lopez: Have cultural barriers (such as lack of historical knowledge or context) ever caused you difficulty or significantly affected your perception when experiencing any work of art from a foreign country?

Jed Pressgrove: Without a doubt. I can’t even tell you how many times cultural barriers have guided my perception; these things work against us on a subconscious level. I’d say it’s impossible to completely measure our cultural biases. The critical question is whether our bias leads us to view human beings from other parts of the world in a condescending, unfair, or shallow fashion. Obviously there are other concerns (a lack of historical knowledge means you can’t spot particular distortions of reality), but we have a moral obligation to recognize the humanity (or lack thereof) in others through art. As a citizen of the United States, as a Mississippian, I may not grasp the intricacies of the Japanese language, but great artists like Akira Kurosawa have shown me the universal power of human emotion. For that I am most grateful and humbled.

Question 6

Ryan Aston: Do you think there is value in categorizing video games into genres anymore now that games cross genre lines so frequently? Think of how first-person shooters now include RPG elements and progression and how RPGs now frequently switch turn-based combat out for fast-paced action.

If you are for using genre labels, what do you think is the specific value in doing so? Consumers are more savvy and knowledgeable than ever, with a better idea of what they’re buying, so from an artistic and historical standpoint, do you think there is good reason to classify a game into one genre or multiple genres?

Jed Pressgrove: While you’re right that modern games often blur genre lines, this sort of cross-pollination has occurred for decades. Some of the best RPGs of the 1990s (Illusion of Gaia, Secret of Mana, Secret of Evermore) don’t feature traditional turn-based combat, and consider how 1996’s Super Mario RPG injects platforming and rhythm-based button pressing into the genre. The survival horror genre, which has been quite popular since the release of 1996’s Resident Evil, essentially combines elements of adventure, action, and puzzle games.

I won’t say you have to use genre labels, but from a historical standpoint, they can provide meaning. When we recognize that certain games tend to be placed within a particular genre, it can help us identify traces of artistic inspiration. Debates about genre — like “Is Zelda an RPG?” — can lead us to elucidating observations about design traditions and theory. In some cases, I am in favor of using more labels. Increased utilization of classic genre terms like comedy and tragedy could transform how we examine a title’s historical significance, both within the context of games and in the larger context of art.

You mention consumers. They do have an impact as far as how genres are popularly defined, but game critics have a bad habit of overstating the importance of consumerism. It gets to the point where writers would rather follow the money than any personal notion of the truth. I have zero interest in telling people what to buy (see my criticism of the consumer-review model), and I also don’t find consumers that savvy. If they’re so intelligent these days, why do they, in many cases, keep buying the same old crap? The day I allow the ravings of addicts to determine what I write is the day I should stop writing.

Question 7

Sidney Fussell: Why is Final Fantasy X-2 so overlooked when it’s so clearly one of the best games of its generation?

Jed Pressgrove: Years ago in this review, I explained why I thought Final Fantasy X-2 is a lesser game than Final Fantasy X, which is quite flawed by itself. I seem to remember you and I disagreeing about the game back then. But placing our difference of opinion aside, one would think this game would get more attention given Final Fantasy X’s fanbase. I honestly believe the awkward title of the game did no favors for it. It’s almost like “X-2” translates to “I’m a fake sequel!” or “I’m a mindless cash-in!” I also wonder if the concept of an all-female cast would be more popular today than it was in 2003.

Question 8

Doggie: Many people praise Uncharted, horror indies, and The Evil Within, but you don’t. What are the elements of bad video-game storytelling to you since many criticize you for condemning high-praised games?

Jed Pressgrove: There isn’t one storytelling mistake that every bad game makes. Since you mentioned both horror indies and The Evil Within, I will say horror games frequently use mental illness for shock value. It seems that horror games, for the most part, think the main goal of a horror story is to merely scare or discombobulate an audience, but most of these games don’t even come close to the level of tension in an Edgar Allan Poe short story. One reason for this is that horror games copy each other and horror-movie tropes to an absurd degree. You rarely see anything creative in a horror game. On a deep level, I disagree with the idea that a horror story must be stereotypical (see my review of the insanely overrated Telltale-wannabe game, Until Dawn). Many times when you criticize a horror story for being stereotypical, you’ll hear a common refrain: “But it’s horror. It’s supposed to be idiotic, graphic, and sexist. Haven’t you ever seen a horror movie?” I find this line of thinking foolish and circular — it’s why innumerable filmmakers can keep indulging in their fetish of vulnerable white female protagonists who are dumber than a sack of rocks. People need to expose themselves to actual great horror tales, like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House or Sam Fuller’s White Dog.

Question 9

Brant Moon: With your broadening focus on other mediums, will you be continuing Loaded Questions (beyond this next installment)? And will you take questions about the other topics beyond games as well?

Jed Pressgrove: I will continue Loaded Questions if people express interest in it. You probably noticed that production on Loaded Questions came to a halt late last year. One reason for that was a lack of questions. By the time enough questions came in, I had lost some fascination with the concept. Long story short, if anyone reading this wants to see more volumes of Loaded Questions, consider doing a couple of things:

  1. Send me questions. Topics beyond games are fine, provided that I have some knowledge of the topics. Unfortunately, I won’t dedicate time to questions such as “What is your favorite color?” and “What would win in a fight: a panda or a koala?”
  2. Retweet or favorite my tweets when I share links to Loaded Questions. The more engagement, the better. More eyes and interest can lead to more questions.

 

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Detroit: Become Human Review — Telltale’d Again

by Jed Pressgrove

Developer Telltale Games, known for titles like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, doesn’t just allow players to make choices in its games; it tells players that their choices matter — incessantly and obnoxiously. With Detroit: Become Human, director/writer David Cage offers a variation of Telltale’s player-choice marketing. After you complete a chapter in Detroit: Become Human, the game shows a flowchart of how your actions, such as talking to a certain character or not killing someone, ultimately resulted in the concluding scene of the chapter, and as a bonus, the chart reveals other paths you could have taken if you had made a different choice. While the narrative of Detroit: Become Human preaches about the potential humanity of futuristic robots, Cage’s presentation of player-driven consequences is distractingly mechanical.

In Detroit: Become Human, you alternate between playing as three androids in the year 2038: Connor, who investigates “deviant” androids, a la Rick Deckard in Blade Runner; Kara, who is designed to do chores for humans; and Markus, who takes care of an aging and ailing artist. The stories of these three characters evolve according to how you play. If you, say, overlook a clue at a crime scene as Connor, you may fail to nab a perpetrator. There are limits to your impact as a player, though: the three protagonists move toward different destinies as outlined by Cage. Connor must come to grips with whether his mission matters more than his shared humanity with the suspects he tracks down. Kara learns what it means to be a parent as she protects a formerly abused little girl. And Markus becomes a leader in a political movement that seeks to end the slavery of androids, who are seen as disposable by humanity at large.

The variety of consequences in Detroit: Become Human is interesting, especially considering that the story never stops moving. There is no Game Over, so a lack of attention to detail on your part can have repercussions that flow through the entirety of the game. But instead of allowing the voice acting, animation, and other audiovisual cues convey how the player’s actions impact people in the story, Cage uses contrived text messages in the top-right corner of the screen to spell out how other characters feel about your decision-making.

This “reputation meter” of sorts recalls Telltale’s awkward “He/she will remember that” statement, which appears when a nonplayable character perceives your decision as significant. Although Cage intends for this feature to inform you of character emotions, the messaging cheapens the emotion in generally well-executed scenes. For instance, if you want Markus to be more of a pacifist leader, a woman named North will often show signs of disapproval. But apparently, such signs are not enough for literate audiences. In addition to North’s on-screen reactions, you will see her name at the top of the screen with a downward-pointing red arrow beside it when you disappoint her. Conversely, if you please North, you will see her name and an upward-pointing green arrow beside it.

At best, Cage’s laughable reduction of human dynamics to traffic-light colors and a thumbs-up/thumbs-down binary is unnecessary. At worst, it shatters what the images of the game can say to you. One scene depicts Kara and the little girl snuggled up in an abandoned car. You wouldn’t be unreasonable to perceive warmth and security in such a picture, but during my experience with Detroit: Become Human, a screen message indicated that the child was “Distant.” Not only did this text seem to contradict what the game was illustrating, it also rejected my natural interpretation of the scene itself and asked me to buy into an idea that I personally would have no logical reason to accept without the shoehorned description.

Perhaps this sense of artificiality is intentional on Cage’s part. After all, Detroit: Become Human involves androids having messy awakenings about the purpose of their existence. Take Markus. His story has been criticized for evoking the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. However, these critical accounts have rarely mentioned the other references in Markus’ story: the perspectives of Descartes and Gandhi are alluded to via quotes and actions, and Markus frees the minds and spirits of other androids by touching them, a frequent reference to the miraculous hands of Jesus Christ. Although the allusions can feel like flippantly borrowed ideas with little depth, is it possible Cage is trying to say that androids are rather green and confused in their newfound humanity?

If so, the emphasis on our roles as players with choices throws a monkey wrench into Cage’s goal as an artist. Compared to the protagonists in Cage’s story, the audience of Detroit: Become Human has far more experience with the state of being human. We know that relationships in life often can’t be boiled down to whether someone likes us less or more, as implied by the game’s red and green arrows. We know that sometimes when we make choices, we’re not necessarily thinking of locked and unlocked paths in the vein of the game’s post-chapter flowcharts, which encourage us to admire the story for its replay value rather than its moral value. Despite how engrossing Detroit: Become Human can be, its player-choice marketing is always ready to rear its robotic head, separating the audience from the supposedly visceral and contemplative feelings of its heroes.

Pregnancy Review — A Game That Should Have Been Aborted

by Jed Pressgrove

“Who the fuck are you?”

Lilla, Pregnancy’s 14-year-old protagonist, directs this question to the player early on, but she should have posed it to her developer, Locomotivah. Lilla has become pregnant after being raped, and you are her guide of sorts, clicking away at dialogue options. After she asks the above question, you can choose to tell her you’re an adviser, a friend, or her conscience. It doesn’t matter. Locomotivah’s goal is profoundly banal, the latest attempt to one-up Telltale Games (The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us) on player choice/agency. Whereas Life Is Strange tries to top Telltale by maxing out the latter’s methods like an amateur, Pregnancy has a more savage ploy: using in-detail rape to hook you into a shallow lecture on abortion debate.

You have to wonder whether Locomotivah or Kotaku’s Mike Fahey, who laughably said Pregnancy “is a harrowing journey that countless women go through every year,” ever played or heard of Choice: Texas, which expresses the life politics of abortion though the dreams, strengths, and insecurities of different women. Pregnancy just goes for the gut. Background pictures accompany the game’s text, and you soon see two big hands wrapped around a girl’s throat, the image static but with a haze effect. Locomotivah draws out the scene with choppy descriptions like “A lot of pain. Inside.” and “A cry. Mine. He laughs.” This scene might trigger people who have been been sexually assaulted or make others uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean it’s meaningful communication. The sexual violence horror merely sets up the pins for Locomotivah’s focus on player ego and, later, lukewarm political bowling.

The fourth wall is shattered as you talk to Lilla, who even prompts you to type your name — anything to reinforce an illusion of player importance. Eventually you respond to Lilla’s pro-life and pro-choice suggestions. Based on how you guide her, Pregnancy flips the script at the end when Lilla announces that she can make her own choice. As if this conversation with a conscience couldn’t be any faker, Lilla adds “I feel plenitude” when making the decision that is the very opposite of your supposed advice. Locomotivah wants to let you down gently with this closing text:

“Note: Hey, please don’t get mad at Lilla … In this game Lilla’s final decision will always be the opposite of what the player allegedly wants. There are valuable arguments on both sides of the discussion.”

Pregnancy then goes full Telltale with post-game statistics on the decisions of players. The final cherry on top is a list of links to pro-life and pro-choice websites. Locomotivah tells us what we already know: an abortion debate exists.

Nothing valuable precedes that stupid ending. At best, everything about Pregnancy amounts to bland acknowledgement of reality. Like Pregnancy, Choice: Texas illustrates a pregnancy due to rape with the character of Leah. Choice: Texas emphasizes how social institutions play out in rape’s aftermath, as Leah seeks guidance from her pastor while facing judgment from certain church members. Pregnancy merely pushes spiritual tokenism when Lilla asks you if you believe in God before dismissing her own belief about providence with as much attention as she gives The Hunger Games and Jennifer Lawrence. This approach favors a perspective based on secularism and an all-powerful consumerist identity. While Leah in Choice: Texas implicitly faces spiritual hardships based on her interactions in society, Locomotivah has Lilla mention God and hypocrisy for an appearance of depth.

Immature “hardcore” gamers will mock Pregnancy for all the wrong reasons. The cursive pink title font, the mawkish piano, and the impersonality of player advice are only symptoms resulting from a more significant problem. Indie trash like The Walking Dead, Gone Home, and Always Sometimes Monsters want to drive discussion on human nature in specious terms. Pregnancy’s mockery of personal experience and player choice is a response to this miserable canon. Shock and trickery are the new empathy.

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.

Death Plays Favorites — Postmortem: One Must Die

by Jim Bevan

Postmortem: One Must Die is one of the few games that knows how to illustrate the concept of player choice effectively. As an agent of Death, the player must claim the life of one of six people at a fundraising event in Galicia, a nation torn apart by civil unrest. The results are not only determined by who dies but also by interactions with the potential targets before the decision is made.

Each nonplayable character has personal views regarding the national conflict, with quality dialogue trumping the need for voice-overs (though there are a few insignificant spelling and grammatical errors). Some characters advocate preserving traditional culture by any means necessary either because of deeply ingrained pride for their heritage or outdated prejudices. Other characters favor progress no matter what, not caring about those unable to adapt or believing that social advances should be reserved for a select few. Conversing with the characters provides the opportunity to learn more about their views and to challenge thought, whether to alter agendas or, at the very least, to inspire reconsideration of more extremist opinions. Newspaper clippings and journal entries provide further information on the national conflict, which can further influence your decision.

Once the player takes a life, articles will appear describing the national implications of the death. Did your decision prolong or shorten conflict between rival factions? Did Galicia become more progressive, or did it remain stuck in the past? The final outcome is unpredictable since conversations with the nonplayable characters, both the prominent members of society and the common people, have a greater effect than originally considered. In my first playthrough, I inadvertently convinced a waiter to quit his job, persuaded a young student to join a violent rebel group, and, most shockingly, influenced a woman to become a serial killer because she needed human corpses for medical research. The game is a great analysis of how something seemingly insignificant can create a strong ripple effect, how “the right decision” can result in something much bleaker than intended. In this way, the game reflects current feelings on the electoral system. In almost every election voters must select from several undeserving candidates by deciding which of them is the “lesser evil,” hoping that they’ll choose someone who won’t necessarily make things better but less worse.

Poor Richard’s Almanac had a short poem titled “For Want of a Nail” that examines how seemingly innocuous events can lead to massive consequences. Postmortem is one of the strongest pieces to embody this concept. While each playthrough can be completed relatively quickly (about 20 or fewer minutes, depending on how invested players become in conversations), I imagine many will return to the game in order to see how different decisions play out, to see if they’ll finally claim the necessary victim and influence people in a way that will bring about peace. The dilemma of whether we can foresee the results of our political actions makes Postmortem a relevant challenge.