player choice

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.

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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.