telltale

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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Loaded Questions Vol. 4

Loaded Questions is a new weekly 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

Daniel Cánovas: The “gaming is art” topic is becoming less interesting to me each day. Maybe only the act of creating them is art, but that’s not the question I want to ask you. Have you ever heard the expression “To read is to live twice”? With this expression in mind, I decided to compare playing to reading, and I ended up developing a short text that made me reappreciate visual novels. Do you think it’s valid at all to say, “To play a video game is to live twice”?

Jed Pressgrove: It’s possible I have heard someone say “To read is to live twice,” but my memory gets worse every year. Regardless, I am familiar with the sentiment behind that expression. There is a feeling among many readers that literature, more so than any other art form, allows one to tap deeply into the human condition and spirit. I don’t feel this way, mainly because a lot of literature is poorly executed.

That aside, my answer is straightforward: sometimes to play a video game is to live twice. I think of Vaida’s Talks With My Mom. Playing that game was like living in two ways that I’ve never lived. I’ve never had to experience the pressure of fitting into a heterosexual feminine category like the girl protagonist; I’ve also never felt the concern of a mother who just wants life to be traditional and simple for her daughter (and herself). In Nier: Automata, I got a strong sense of the hate, fear, and willful ignorance that can drive one to genocide, especially during the segments where I watched the bodies of robots explode due to the lethal combinations and hacks I performed as 9S.

On a final note, as great as “living twice” can be, I don’t think it has to be the ultimate goal of any game. People who expect games to be just like literature or movies or whatever are unrealistic and shortsighted. Games can be many things. They can be living twice, they can be sports, they can be puzzles. I try to appreciate and criticize them for what they are.

Question 2

Álvaro Rico: What do you think is the most important factor for you personally at the time of writing a good review?

Jed Pressgrove: Conviction. I have to believe in what I’m saying, even if no one shares my opinion. I have to be willing to put my thoughts and feelings out there. Style and technique are important, but if I didn’t have conviction, I wouldn’t bother writing reviews.

Question 3

Serge Soucy: After watching some footage of Detroit: Become Human, I began to think about choice in video games. I’m not talking about how a player would approach a situation (for example, “Should I attack a monster from afar or up close?”), I’m thinking more about games with morality systems that are designed to challenge players’ minds. What are some great examples of games where choices made have real implications that arouse emotions, and what’s the worse case of a game that tries to cash in on this idea but fails to do so?

Jed Pressgrove: To address your first question, the first game that comes to mind is Choice: Texas. In my review, I talked at length about the story of Leah and how the game’s presentation of choice emotionally transcended the dialogue that the United States was having about rape and abortion.

Another game that fits your description is the original Fallout. There are few games with Fallout’s level of freedom. During one game of Fallout, I decided to kill everyone, whether I would deem them bad or good. Just kill every last person I could find. What started out as an amusing diversion for a kid (I was in my teens at the time) ended up giving me an incredibly hollow feeling. It wasn’t just that I had made a complex game one-dimensional; the experience suggested that exterminating life can never satisfy a person.

You might also be interested in The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. A pivotal decision in its first chapter has an undeniably large effect on the game’s second chapter and how you perceive the different factions and individuals in the story.

As for your second question, I’d have to go with Telltale’s Game of Thrones. It is by far the best example of a game whose only purpose is to cash in on the idea of emotionally charged choices. Telltale’s work (and its influence) is largely a disgrace to storytelling and game design, and Game of Thrones’ mindless imitation of the HBO television show cannot be excused in any way.

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.

Episode 4: A Wolf in Andy Griffith’s Clothing

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: Consider watching The Andy Griffith Show if you haven’t.

Similar to the doctor who saves Sheriff Bigby, the latest entry of The Wolf Among Us (“In Sheep’s Clothing”) sews up the wound caused by Episode 3’s dumb, hackneyed violence. Although Episode 4 has a fight scene that could have been cut, it refrains from Episode 3’s tired comparisons of Bigby and the X-Men favorite, Wolverine. In fact, Episode 4 gives Bigby the potential to resemble a more profound character. Players who choose to make Bigby unsympathetic to Fabletown’s citizens will miss the most interesting development of the series: Bigby as Andy Griffith (not in attitude, but in purpose).

Before Episode 4, The Wolf Among Us couldn’t make a clear statement about community, power, or responsibility. Eric Swain’s review of Episode 3 provides insight into this lack of focus:

The Wolf Among Us has been rather obviously about the economic inequality plaguing Fabletown and how the power structures in place have either been inept, willfully blind, or actively complicit in the plight of the downtrodden and soon to be downtrodden. I feel like no matter how obvious this theme is and the messaging of it may be, it is lost due to the presentation of the murder mystery that is central to the plot of the game.

While I disagree with Swain that The Wolf Among Us has “obviously” been about these things from the beginning, he is correct about Telltale allowing the murder mystery — and corresponding trashy elements — to overshadow social inquiry. Up until Episode 4, The Wolf Among Us has been a tease as far as power structures are concerned, getting no help from Auntie Greenleaf’s deceit or Bloody Mary’s moronic appearance. But Telltale has finally gotten serious about addressing the politics of class. “Either way I’m getting screwed,” laments Toad, who doesn’t see hope in the above-the-law Crooked Man or Snow White’s business office. Clearly, Fabletown needs an Andy Griffith, an authority figure who keeps the community together while consciously avoiding power trips. If you’re convicted to turn Bigby into Andy Griffith, The Wolf Among Us becomes as much about community well-being as personal redemption. By explicitly tying Bigby’s morality to the preservation of community, Episode 4 surpasses Episode 2 as the strongest entry in the series.

At long last, Telltale’s preselected big choices have lost their obviousness and dominant relevance, meaning that Episode 4 requires more consistent moral thought than its predecessors. To keep the Fabletown community together, Episode 4 is all about what you say to people — or what you don’t say, a distinction Andy Griffith knows all too well. Although Snow White isn’t comical like Barney Fife, she has a similar by-the-books shortsightedness that can be held in check by withholding information. Following White’s strict mandates in Episode 4 is not only toxic to the confused Fabletown community; it confines you to another tired video game about order.

Like Andy Griffith, Bigby can see that order doesn’t always gel with the realization of community. Consider that you have the opportunity to let characters like Toad and Colin be themselves. Refusing to disconnect these characters from the community is reminiscent of Andy Griffith giving Otis, the town drunk, the responsibility to put himself in a jail cell. A trickier moment in Episode 4 is when you meet Tiny Tim, who works as a doorman for the Crooked Man. The game forces you to consider Tim’s disenfranchisement as a disabled Fable in light of his troubling association with the criminal mastermind. To be an Andy Griffith for Tim, you have to walk a line between order and respect. Even the pretentious Beauty and Beast deserve a better community leader. Beauty and Beast resemble duped Americans whose aspirations were exploited by subprime loans. “We were royalty once,” they cry. For a Wolf in Andy Griffith’s clothing, their debt isn’t as important as taking down a predatory lender in the community.

The great message of The Andy Griffith Show is that not everything should be done by the book. Of course, the show is much more family-friendly than The Wolf Among Us, regardless of your choices as Bigby. But playing as close as you can to Andy Griffith in The Wolf Among Us reveals a lesson about community: people first, rules second. By the end of Episode 4, Bigby can transform into a paragon of ironic wholesomeness: although Andy Griffith rarely smoked in his show, Bigby lighting a cigarette while facing a crime boss and his gang recalls how Griffith, no matter what, was cool, collected, and strong. Despite the Episode 5 preview leading me to believe that The Wolf Among Us might get very stupid again, Episode 4 shares a compelling fantasy about community leadership. Doesn’t that beat everything?

Episode 3: The Wolf Among Us Stumbles

by Jed Pressgrove

No one could blame the latest Wolf Among Us episode if it were simply trashy, but I wouldn’t let my garbageman play this. The monotonous violence that essentially bookends this entry (“A Crooked Mile”) suggests that inspiration can be fleeting in Telltale’s rigid format. The decision to release adventures in five-episode shells clearly favors business over creativity. Only a few moments of hesitation and reflection keep Episode 3 from being straight-up filler.

Telltale thankfully hasn’t forgotten the hook of The Wolf Among Us — how the soul and duty of the Big Bad Wolf are intertwined. Even in this weak episode, the moral fiber of the game remains far more sophisticated than The Walking Dead’s sentimental and violent babysitting simulation. That a simple choice about respect for the dead is considered a major decision highlights a subtlety in The Wolf Among Us that most games don’t have (A Game of Cat and Mouse comes to mind as an exception). Moreover, the influence of Snow White on one’s actions is legitimately powerful, as pointed out by Alexa Ray Corriea.

Unfortunately, The Wolf Among Us also seems to be interested in being a dumb action show, which doesn’t work given the increasing gravity of its story. The gunshots in this new episode have a Harrison Bergeron effect, dulling the game’s intellectual senses. Forget about the annoying button mashing: the violence demonstrates little more than the fact that we can liken the Big Bad Wolf to the indestructible X-Men character, Wolverine (as if the hair, attitude, and Jean Grey/Snow White similarity weren’t enough). The last big decision is simultaneously an unimaginative Berserker Rage reference and a holdover of The Walking Dead’s corny “Whoya gonna save/kill?” dynamic. This lame conclusion is punctuated by a new character who comes onto the scene like a Dragon Ball Z villain, full of boring, idiotic things to say. Yep, this isn’t trash; it’s more like litter.

The limited commentary on class struggle can’t overcome how dull the investigations are compared to those of the first two episodes. The single exception is the investigation of Auntie Greenleaf’s house. This scene, however, exploits political tensions as opposed to presenting the moral and legal concerns of the situation coherently.

The Wolf Among Us has become more sentimental and obvious with this glaring fragment of a game. Even without endings, the previous two episodes were unique, energizing stories. Episode 3 is Telltale playing that old television trick of fulfilling the obligation of a numbered episode. Asking ourselves why we crave another episode can tell us a lot about the last one we experienced.