Choice is seen as a lot of things (an inevitability, an illusion, a burden perhaps?), but marketing a choice based narrative in games has always been seen as a huge selling point. To feel like your choices matter is important to many people who play games, but introducing interactive choice in a linear narrative can be difficult to implement for developers, and sometimes turns a good game sour.
This is fairly evident in Dontnod Entertainment’s hit game Life is Strange, which features a girl named Max’s ability to manipulate time and try to stop an incredible storm from destroying the town of Arcadia Bay.
Throughout the game, you’re asked to make choices for Max in order to continue on with the story. Some choices are entirely optional in the game, although ‘major’ ones are marked by a certain sound and filter that appears on the screen. Since the game was episodic, it slowly came out over the course of a year, and fans were eating it up. Were you able to save Kate? How many times did you water Lisa? Were you Pricefield, or Grahmfield? The choices to make for Max seemed vast.
From the very first episode, many of us that were heavily into the game and active in the subreddit made a prediction that in order to make everything go back to normal, Dontnod would make us kill off Chloe. This seemed like an entirely predictable ending and with the way Dontnod was showing off their savvy, we all put it to the side thinking that it was too lazy of an ending for this ambitious team to go for. Except that they did.
The fact Dontnod went with this ending enraged many fans. It was reasonable, but a very rushed and lazy move to its consumers, especially since it rendered all of your choices in the long term useless. Every decision made, every choice presented to the player that they took time to think through and decide what was best to do, was now pointless. Yeah, you didn’t overwater and kill Lisa, but who cares now? You were able to save the town and the people you love, but the girl you spent months trying to romance (and pissing people off to protect) is now dead and it was all for nothing. People are never happy when they feel like their time has been entirely wasted.
This is an issue with choice based games that feature agency as a selling point: “Your story is unique! You craft the experience! But in the end none of the things you did mattered at all.” This is infuriating to a lot of people that are playing games because why should being able to make choices be a major reason to buy the game if the story doesn’t acknowledge the time you put into the game? As Nicky Case points out in their talk, Systems, Stories, & Shenanigans, from Eyeo 2015, it’s a real issue for developers too. The game industry already works their developers to the bone in order to get their games out, and to have a truly great choice based game the system that would need to be implemented is so complicated that there would never be enough time to finish other aspects of the game. So how are we able to tell a story with choice and a (potentially) linear story without angering the same people that will make, or break a game?
Night School Studio, an indie development team made up of people previously associated with Disney and Telltale, created the game Oxenfree which is a choice based game featuring a linear story. Unlike Life is Strange, this game features an ending where the choices you made both does and does not matter by using one of the best ‘bang for your buck’ tenants, replayability.
Oxenfree‘s storyline includes many choices that the player must make to determine different endings for the game and will tell you the outcomes you’ve received at the very end when Alex tells the player everything that has happened to the group since they escaped Edwards Island, but at the very end of that narrative discussion a strange phenomenon happens; a staticky glitch noise is heard and all of a sudden Alex begins to tell us that she needs to leave if she wants to meet up with Ren in time for the ferry since they’re heading over to Edwards Island for the bon fire they went to in the beginning of the game.
The game then offers a different mode to play through called ‘New Game+’ where the player goes through the game again as Alex, but with slight differences. Alex will sometimes comment that Jonas and Ren have told her something before, or the ghosts will reference your first play through of the game. They essentially create a narrative explanation of a time loop that can never be broken which does two things for the players: It offers a reasonable explanation as to why the game never truly ‘ends’ even though they got their desired ending, and it validates their choices while still creating meaning for a new play through of the game. Oxenfree is a wonderful example of how game developers can make players feel like their decisions mattered without deviating from the intentional storyline of the game. While it isn’t a perfect fix for this issue, it’s definitely a creative loophole in a very messy argument for choice based narratives.