the walking dead

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.

A Conversation about Race in Video Games

by Sidney Fussell and Jed Pressgrove

Note: This conversation occurred via email and has been edited for clarity and grammar. Sidney Fussell’s writing on race, gender, and video games can be found here. Last but not least, a special thanks to Veerender Jubbal for providing the idea for this conversation.

BioShock Infinite, The Walking Dead, Post-Racial Climate

Jed Pressgrove: Video games tend to get off the hook a little easily when it comes to race. It’s difficult to compare the importance of race to that of gender since they are both connected to class, but it’s interesting that we tend to see more criticism of gender in games compared to criticism of race in games. Look at Grand Theft Auto V. It has a black protagonist, though I didn’t hear much at all about its handling of race. But GTA V not having a female protagonist made quite a few headlines and led to a lot of analysis about the game’s intentions.

Then again, many games don’t give people as much to examine when it comes to race. Just as a simple example, I could name several good or well-written female game characters off the top of my head because there are many female characters, good and bad, to consider. But I would have trouble naming good or well-written characters who aren’t white or Japanese — it wouldn’t take long to run out of potential examples. And the black character I created in Fallout 3 doesn’t seem much different than any other character I could create in the game. Games often come across to me as very post-racial and safe, which strikes me as a limitation.

Sidney Fussell: I think there’s a real fear in engaging with race/racism in games that leads to many developers either omitting them completely or hoping palette swap options will suffice. This is the bare minimum, post-racial climate we find ourselves in, and it’s one I wish more people questioned. In 2014, it’s absurd for racial awareness and a more evolved understanding of racism to be dismissed as “niche.”

Two big releases, BioShock Infinite and The Walking Dead, both had interesting takes on racism I’d like to explore. Jed and I may disagree about The Walking Dead (it’s excellent, he’s wrong), but a scene midway through “Starved for Help” winningly subverts the post-racial “safe zone” many games hide in. Protagonist Lee Everett, the rare Black everyman, and redneck Papa Bear Kenny attempt to break into a locked door in a barn. Kenny asks if Lee knows how to pick the lock because “You’re…you know…urban.” Lee responds with a frustrated “Come on, man!” before a guilty and embarrassed Kenny quickly apologizes and the two come up with a different plan for entering the room.

The brief exchange is played for laughs but does more to humanize the duo and characterize The Walking Dead’s world than the hours of hackneyed melodrama in BioShock Infinite. When I say I want a game that’s conscious or aware, I’m asking for a game where the characters are shown having a relationship with race and racism. Lee and Kenny like each other very much, but they still harbor assumptions about each other based on race. And that’s how it is in real life. We all have relationships with racism — we overcome it, capitulate to it, conceal it, etc. Kenny awkwardly tried to excuse and sanitize his own racism, but he’s no villain. He’s human — he makes mistakes and occasionally says stupid shit. The Walking Dead doesn’t trot out racism just to remind us that racism is bad; it uses racism to show how identities affect the dynamics of a relationship — identities that the game observes and engages and doesn’t colorblindly ignore.

I think The Walking Dead’s approach is a much better way of engaging with racism than BioShock Infinite’s. For all of Infinite’s allusions to miscegenation, lynching, genocide, eugenics, etc., Booker and Elizabeth have no relationship to the racism that surrounds them. Instead of exploring either character’s prejudices or privileges, Booker’s stoicism and Elizabeth’s naivety ensure they are never “colored” by racism. They recognize it as a moral wrong but have no relationship to it. Racism only touches the game’s villains, implying it as the unique attribute of the corrupt and monstrous, as opposed to something everyone deals with and has a relationship with their entire lives. It’s an archaic take on racism that privileges the isolationism the game reserves for Booker and Elizabeth. It’s especially frustrating since Booker begins mowing down black men Resident Evil 5 style in the game’s final act, (color)blindly deciding they were as bad as Comstock’s men.

A racially conscious game is one that recognizes relationships with race/racism aren’t voluntary and doesn’t use racism as a strawman to characterize the bad guys. That’s neither the identity of racists nor the function of racism. It’s a frankly pathetic way to mimic social evolution.  It’s time games stepped up and made the same commitment to narrative innovation and character exploration that they have to technical advancement.

Jed Pressgrove: You’re right about that scene between Lee and Kenny in The Walking Dead; it goes beyond humorous intentions and serves as a great example of commentary on race. But Telltale’s The Walking Dead could have gone further like George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. The black protagonist in Romero’s film ultimately struggles against the social construction of race. Lee Everett (and everyone else in The Walking Dead) is ultimately at odds with fictional zombies, not race. The majority of the game tries to manipulate our emotions about survival rather than compel us to consider social reality.

Dark Souls, Life vs. Death, Gamifying Personal Experiences

Jed Pressgrove: I think part of the reason games in general lack narrative innovation and character exploration in terms of race is that games are too concerned with death. A fixation on death tends to center on the self. How do I stay alive? What would I do in this life-or-death situation? These questions distract us from other questions, such as: how do different people live? This brings me to an interesting thing I recently saw in Dark Souls, a game obsessed with death. When you’re creating a character in Dark Souls, you can change the skin color/ethnicity of your character. While this option might satisfy some, I think the game leaves a lot to the imagination. For example, if you choose the Great Swamp color/ethnicity, the game tells you that the character faces prejudice — the character is darker than white. Yet there is another character with darker skin who comes with no such description of prejudice. All of this suggests that race is merely a play thing in Dark Souls. In the game’s eyes, all protagonists/players are made equal through death, but such a mentality distracts us from questions about life. I’m not trying to say that Dark Souls is irresponsible so much as illustrative of how games often encourage us to think of death as the main obstacle in life. Meanwhile, social constructions like race are simple background characteristics.

What’s interesting to me is that we do see many games breaking away from the “do or die” mold of classics like Space Invaders and Donkey Kong. Games like Actual Sunlight and Dys4ia clearly encourage us to consider the lives of different people. And we’re even seeing some games stay true to the old-school survival mentality while incorporating truths about social reality — Grand Titons’ combination of trans woman identity and shooting is a fascinating case. At some point I expect to see some very personal accounts about race in games. The question is when?

Sidney Fussell: “How do different people live?” is a great starting point for exploring identity in games. I think zombie media is an especially apt space for this question, because characters are stripped of the institutions that mask their prejudices. Kenny’s misconceptions about black criminality would’ve gone largely unquestioned in his native Florida, and Lee’s elitism is, if anything, encouraged among academics. Their partnership is great because it’s so implausible in the “real” world, where these institutions function to segregate us. But as much as I liked Walking Dead, it was only passingly concerned with how people live; the game is about how they die. Or un-die, I guess.

Dying is as ubiquitous a mechanic in games as pressing Start. It usually means failure — if the player avatar dies, it means you’ve screwed something up. I think a game like Dark Souls is interesting because dying isn’t the Ultimate Failure, it’s part of learning how to play the game.  It’s pointless to tell the player “don’t die” — it’s unavoidable. I think this is an acknowledgment of how similarly pointless it is to tell players “don’t fail.” Just make dying/failure part of the play process, and its meaning changes from “you’ve failed” to “you need to learn something.” It’s an interesting way to become comfortable with death/failing and is really the only aspect of Dark Souls (“Dark Soils” as I besmirch it on Twitter) I’d like to see more games adapt. If dying wasn’t the only way to communicate certain meanings to players, we might see life explored in more interesting ways.

I haven’t died yet, so if I wanted to make a game about some aspect of my life, I’d need some other way to convey failure/miscalculation/error.  I think indies exploring people’s lives are expanding our vocabulary of game mechanics, “breaking away from the ‘do or die’ mold” like you said and encouraging different ways of communicating success, failure, winning, etc. Speaking personally, my friends and I once joked about gamifying (that’s a thing, right?) a racial aspect of my job. I talk to people on the phone a lot, who then come into the office with some line akin to “Oh, I didn’t expect you to be Black!” which I’ve never managed to inure myself to. We imagined a Guitar Hero style quick-time event where the player inputs commands to alter my voice to sound more typically Black. On reflection, I realized “winning” meant I’m avoiding the awkwardness, but capitulating to a problematic definition of Black voices. And “losing” meant I’d have to endure the awkwardness but get to screw with (white) people’s ideas about what Black people sound like, talk like, etc.

I think exploring race and identity is a great way to complicate meanings and mechanics in games because life is complicated. I think translating that fluidity in gaming would make for more interesting, inclusive games. We all win and lose in various hazily defined ways that don’t involve rag-doll physics or torture gorn. I’d love to see games tackle messy notions of identity because I think it allows for new aspirations for the medium beyond simply being profitable.

Jed Pressgrove: Your idea about gamifying someone’s “racial” voice might also apply to certain white people. I only say this from my experience as a Mississippian, but there’s this idea of some poor Southern white people “trying to be black,” including the use of pronunciations and expressions that people associate with “blackness.” But are all of these poor whites really “trying” anything? I think the game idea you mentioned could tackle that tricky question that often gets overlooked in favor of simple stereotyping: why does anyone sound the way they do? It could be a learning experience about background and politics.

Preaching to the Choir, Racial Utopia, Progress?

Jed Pressgrove: Of course, there’s a fine line between a learning experience and something seemingly noble that confirms our expectations. Since our last exchange, I played through Always Sometimes Monsters, which touts the innovation of your racial/gender/orientation status affecting events in the game. I played as a black gay man. Interestingly, I felt the game reminded me that my character was gay more than anything else. There were only two instances where I felt the game commented on my character’s racial status in an honest way, and in both cases it was to show how uncaring a nonplayable character was. In the abstract, this game seems to say that race is an outmoded notion bought into by assholes, as opposed to a deeply ingrained idea that we should overcome as individuals and a society. I can say that Always Sometimes Monsters is a little more ambitious than fantasy games with elves, but its commentary amounts to a few “preaching to the choir” moments.

Then again, the appearance of racial harmony in a story isn’t necessarily indicative of a colorblind fantasy. I guess the question is whether the harmony feels odd or authentic.

Sidney Fussell: As a player, I’m not interested in either extreme. I don’t want a utopic Captain Planet kumbaya setting, nor do I want pure racial tribalism. I’m interested in empathy and exploration. I’m interested in game mechanics, settings, and characters designs that are diverse, insightful, and entertaining. I think one-off micro games — how speech affects racial perception, for example — that are specific experiences can handle this a bit better. I mostly play RPGs, and while fantasy epics routinely tackle racism through metaphor, I find it has a sanitizing effect.

I once wrote about the problematic racial attribute system in older Elder Scrolls games. Specifically, how Redguards (ostensibly Sub Saharan Africans) having bonuses to Strength and penalties to Intelligence is problematic. The popular counter was that Nords had a similar attribute dynamic, so it “wasn’t racist.” Of course, the difference is history — the expectation for people within the African diaspora to be athletic and unintelligent has been backed by everything from science to religion to academia to literature for centuries. I find players aren’t necessarily adept at translating these metaphors into concrete ways of understanding race or racism.

I also think the Grand Conversation on Race in Games needs to talk about the metric by which we measure progress. I’m certainly thrilled to see more brown folks on the covers of games as well as discussing and critiquing them, but with this new generation that I’m paying hundreds of dollars to be a part of, I think it’s critical that we set goals. Utopia isn’t anyone’s goal, but it’d be nice to at least start chipping away at the culture of contrasting backlashes we slip backwards into whenever something/someone is deemed racist, homophobic, etc.

If games can make players feel like they’re the world’s greatest heroes, strongest marines, most cunning thieves and secret agents, they’re more than capable of changing a few minds and making a few players go, “Huh. I don’t think that way, but I can see that.” I think it’s time developers aimed higher for themselves and for players and let go of the “oh no this is too political” fears that have stuck in the past hardware cycle. And contrary to popular belief, I think a Conversation may be what starts that process.

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.

Ground Zeroes Is Bad Television

by Jed Pressgrove

“She also had a message for you: ‘I’m ready for the worst.'”

“Sounded a little too cheerful to me.”

With dialogue like that, would it be surprising if director Hideo Kojima finds inspiration in the dumb nihilism of Telltale’s The Walking Dead? Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is the latest video game that wants to be a television show. It goes all out: Kiefer Sutherland, a film actor who became a big television star in eight seasons of 24, voices the protagonist Snake (fans disappointed about the absence of David Hayter fail to see the significance). But the game is more silly than shrewd, as evidenced by the villain Skull Face, a mindless idea that hopelessly recalls Killface from the satirical cartoon, Frisky Dingo. More often than not, Kojima’s jealousy of television leads him to stupidity, not brilliance.

“Open world” continues to be nothing more than an advertising slogan for spoiled yet freedom-starved audiences. Essentially, Ground Zeroes is a collection of episodes that all take place in one location — a stealth sitcom. The episodic nature of Ground Zeroes puts it more in line with Batman: Arkham Asylum than Batman: Arkham City. Side missions — tantamount to television filler — have to be unlocked by beating the main mission, which has more cinematic flair than your average television show (similar to “smart TV” like Breaking Bad). The fantastic production values of Ground Zeroes has led some critics to compare it to the filmmaking of Alfonso Cuaron, a man who has risen to limited fame by copying the superior camerawork and framing of Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick.

Rather than do something shockingly different, Kojima hopes to outdo Jack Bauer when it comes to shocking darkness. Ground Zeroes entices its post-9/11 audience — what easy prey! — by blandly referencing real-life politics and war. Kojima believes that acknowledging Guantanamo Bay by itself will allow us to see video games mature before our eyes, but the director’s personal fantasy of revolutionizing video game content somehow results in the gore of Mortal Kombat.

The sight of a tortured woman’s guts in Ground Zeroes signals a new dawn in gamer confusion. At a very basic level, the scene raises the question: am I playing the latest entry in an action franchise or watching torture porn? Others will yell “Misogyny!” as those desensitized to grossness attempt to explain how tacky horror visuals fit into the “Metal Gear Solid universe.” This scene and the rape allusions might make and break connections between people in the video game community. This confusion allows Kojima to continue living his absurd dream of reincarnated film director and savvy television show creator.

Misogyny isn’t the problem with Ground Zeroes. The problem is that some feminists would love Ground Zeroes, and all of its meaningless political posturing, if it didn’t contain a tortured and raped woman prisoner and instead starred an “acceptable” female protagonist. Some gamers, of all political persuasions, have worshiped so much “AAA” and indie cynicism that they are no longer aware of what constitutes an imaginative video game. They don’t care that Ground Zeroes doesn’t innovate stealth (the bullet time is embarrassing shoehorning), contains less humor than the superior Metal Gear Solid III, and feels less fluid than the Arkham games. They just want more crap to talk about before the actual game, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, is released. Kojima, inspired by addictive and trashy television, is ever willing to serve a well-produced package of crap.