rionaleonhart: final fantasy xv: prompto, the best character, with a touch of swagger. (looking ahead)
Riona ([personal profile] rionaleonhart) wrote2017-05-29 10:17 am

You'll Be All Right For Now.

I hope you like it when I talk at excessive length about videogames, because it's that time again. Ginger, old friend and new housemate, is replaying Life Is Strange, and it's got me thinking about narrative choices.

In the last year, I've experienced three games - Life Is Strange, Until Dawn, Oxenfree - in which the gameplay consists almost solely of making choices. There's the occasional puzzle in Life Is Strange, there are QTEs in Until Dawn, but fundamentally these games are about the player making choices to shape the story.

In theory.

In practice, these games have a linear story to tell. You can't drag the game down wholly different paths, in the way a Choose Your Own Adventure novel might offer. There are a handful of variables, but every playthrough will hit more or less the same story points and end in more or less the same way. Even in Until Dawn, where the way you play determines who lives and who dies, it's not possible to kill everyone off in the first few hours and make the game go '???? roll credits, I guess?' - certain characters are guaranteed to survive long enough to steer you to a predetermined endpoint. Ginger is currently doing an arsehole run of Life Is Strange, making all the horrible decisions they avoided on previous playthroughs, and at moments it's painful to watch, but it's still much the same story I experienced on my own run.

I mentioned this to Ginger, and their response was something I wasn't expecting: they put forward a case for games like this following roughly the same path and ending in roughly the same way, regardless of player choice. I'd always just assumed that 'your choices have as much impact as possible on the narrative' was the ideal point for these games to reach, and the current 'your choices can change small aspects of the story without actually changing the story's direction' situation was a result of budgetary and time constraints. But Ginger pointed out the social aspect to playing games like this: when you've finished a chapter or a game, you'll want to discuss it and theorise with other people playing the same game. If your choices could make Life Is Strange branch off onto one of ten different paths, that wouldn't be possible; you'd go, 'Hey, wasn't it strange when Max drank from the magical fountain and became a unicorn?' and nobody else would be able to discuss it with you, because only 10% of players even come across the magical fountain.

Thinking about it, this applies to fanfiction as well. In total, I've written ten works of fanfiction for these three narrative choice games, most of them set post-ending. If I hadn't been able to go 'yes, I know that the reader's playthrough will have ended in roughly the same way as mine and therefore they'll be able to tell what's going on here,' I'd never have been able to write them. I feel 'we'd better make things easier for the fanfic writers' is possibly not that high on the list of game developers' priorities, but I'm still glad that I was able to create things inspired by these games.

Life Is Strange also has strong themes of memory and nostalgia, of beautiful fleeting moments, of returning to where you came from and realising you're no longer the person you used to be. Would it be possible to write a game with twenty different endings and make its themes feel coherent?

You could argue that a game shouldn't try to be a film, and, while the developers going 'we know the story we're telling here; you can nudge the tiller occasionally, but we're the ones steering' makes for a better narrative, 'the reins are entirely in your hands! go wild!' would make for a better game. But I think I've been persuaded that greater freedom of choice shouldn't necessarily be the goal of all choice-based narrative games. Maybe Life Is Strange isn't an example of a genre that needs to develop; maybe it's a genre that's exactly where it needs to be.

It could still be fun to have the occasional cinematic game where your choices really do shape the narrative. But, for the moment, with all the budgetary issues involved, that might have to remain the domain of visual novels.

I do think choice-based games could do with fewer endings that explicitly undo the effects of all your choices, though. If the entire game consisted of the player making decisions, don't render those decisions meaningless!

(Anonymous) 2017-05-29 09:38 am (UTC)(link)
Some people get very annoyed by narrative games that don't make big changes based on your choices, but I think you've generally got it right here.

One of the earlier examples of a game that works like this is Telltale's Walking Dead games. Universally loved when they came out, moaned about a bit more now that when people replay they have a similar experience in a lot of places. But I think there are two issues that really come into play here.

1) Sequels. If you have a game that branches off into 10 different directions, then you want a sequel, you're snookered. How do you cater for everybody's entirely different endings and put it together into a coherent storyline? It'd be like designing 10 different games in one.

2) A lack of appreciation for what narrative actually is. Narrative is not just a story - not just major plot points, what happens, where you end up. It's the experience too: who you interact with, how you do it, what you feel. They're meant to evoke emotions in you and let you make choices you think are right; they're not really made to replay and 100%. It's about having a personal experience to you. Now I'm not saying that's right or wrong that it's that way, but thinking of a narrative just as what happens majorly is missing how we as people experience stories. I mean, imagine reading Harry Potter from Voldemort's perspective. You'd have the same events, but your narrative experience would be totally different (as would the narrative focus for that matter). Not quite that extreme with Life is Strange, but how you feel about Chloe will also heavily influence your reading of the story and what choices you'll make. (Chloe spent the first three or so episodes majorly pissed at me for not agreeing with her TERRIBLE CHOICES so I was evil eye-ing her for portions of it.)

It's true, though, that visual novels are the main source of "choices really shaping the game". Look at stuff like Root Double, with its many, many endings (both bad/death endings and actual endings). As you said, if I were to write, first you have to contextualise where you're writing from. Or there's the Zero Escape games: all very different endings. In fact, Virtue's Last Reward is heavily linked to one specific ending from Zero Time Dilemma (or the other way around depending on how you want to look at it).

Trying to think of a non visual novel example. Ah, I know. I used to write a lot for Heavy Rain, several of which were post-game stories. I always had to start off with a contextualisation author's note "follows Character A epilogue 1, Character B epilogue 3 ending" etc for where it placed the actual characters.

Heck, I've been playing Persona 5, which is truly excellent and I would heartily recommend (though you know I'm a Persona series fan) and the Persona series is so curious for giving lots of choices with how you spend your days etc. It's not going to earth-shatteringly change your game 99% of the time, but it's your characters life, you choose who they hang out with, or where they go, or what they do. Because for the game's calendar, you're that character. What order you do things in will also influence your read on characters or their motivations... and how much you like a character will in all likelihood affect whether you want to hang out with the character A or character B.

Interesting topic this, anyway.

wolfy_writing: (Default)

[personal profile] wolfy_writing 2017-05-29 09:40 am (UTC)(link)
It makes sense that games as a storytelling medium would benefit from limited choices. If you leave it completely open, you have no characterization and no plot, because people will make the completely random choice. Even on top of the computing problem, I don't think it's humanly possible to come up with a meaningful story that works for every possible choice. (Especially allowing for how many people respond to games with random/nonsensical choices just to see what happens.)

And yeah, if you've limite the choices to ones that make the story work, make sure every choice you do give people is meaningful.
wolfy_writing: (Default)

[personal profile] wolfy_writing 2017-05-29 10:05 am (UTC)(link)
I was thinking of how characters are defined by their choices, but yeah, the order in which things happen makes a huge difference to characterization as well. You can't have development without chronology.

Good point about the illusion of choice! That can be great for building suspense and other purposes. It would need to be done carefully so the choices aren't undone, but it can work if they only seem meaningful.

(Anonymous) 2017-05-29 10:09 am (UTC)(link)
Final Fantasy XIII is a particularly interesting example given my thoughts on narrative as all the characters are very strong, they have clear character arcs (whether or not people like the characters), and with the way the party splits you get nice focuses on relationships between certain characters. I will still argue that the plot is quite incoherent. I couldn't tell you everything that happens in XIII because I don't understand it: largely as I don't think the game does any decent world building to understand the context of the world you're in (with the possible exception of the constantly updating data log, but your game should not depend on people reading that to understand the story... bit like FF15's "KINGSGLAIVE GOES HERE, BETTER HOPE YOU WATCHED IT BECAUSE WE'RE NOT GOING TO EXPLAIN IT BEYOND THESE 30 SECONDS OF CONTEXTLESS FLASHBACKS, LOL" moment). But in XIII you do get that excellent character experience if you actually pay any attention rather than frothing with rage about it being linear all the time. (FF10, also being linear, is similar with having what I feel are fairly strong characters... well, most of them, some have less focus than others. The story, not being relegated to optional reading material, is stronger too.)

As for XIII-2, I liked it a lot (probably preferred it to XIII in a way because I felt like I wasn't really meant to understand anything more than "paradoxes eating everything, lol" whereas in XIII I constantly felt I was dumb and missing stuff the game expected me to understand). I think in some ways it'd have made more sense character development wise if the game made it clear what events the characters go through first, even if we don't see them that way. To use the VLR example, it doesn't matter what way we as Sigma experience events because we make revelations at the same time as him. But Phi does not experience events in the same order, which is clear in certain paths - the one where Phi betrays as we betrayed her (even though we haven't yet), in Dio's ending where it's clear that Sigma has not experienced anything to do with the bombs before but Phi has). But if you look from the beginning to the end of the game those characters still develop in how they interact despite experiencing events out of order.


(Anonymous) 2017-05-29 10:37 am (UTC)(link)
Yeah, the characters carry that game. If you're gonna do what they did with the plot, you gotta have something to carry it... and the characters do it with a vengeance. Some people really hate certain characters too, which I consider good writing: bad writing is having characters nobody really has strong opinions on. If you're making people feel, that's great to me.

a group of strangers are flung together by shared misfortune, try to cope with their sudden death sentence and gradually learn to work together

Haha, you could actually say that about Persona 3 FES, though in a very different way to XIII! Made me laugh, anyway. Persona 3 and 4 are another interesting contrast to this character chat actually: in Persona 4, all the main characters become very buddy buddy, they're very close knit friends and it's quite charming. In Persona 3, people who would clearly never actually hang out by choice are thrown together by their abilities and some very bleak stuff happening. I always liked that your party members have their own lives and character arcs that don't tie into the main character in Persona 3, too. NO, I'M NOT GOING FIGHTING TONIGHT BECAUSE I'M STUDYING FOR MY EXAMS. YOU GO IF YOU WANT TO.

Having said that, one of my favourite characters in Persona 3 is one that the entire English fandom seems to despite, but they have a good character arc! I love a good character arc. And again, I refer back to the comment on the FF13 cast: if people are feeling massively strong emotions about a character, even negative ones, that often means good writing.

Persona 3 trailer if you're curious:
kalloway: (GW Pair)

[personal profile] kalloway 2017-05-29 11:06 am (UTC)(link)
The only game I can think of where it's completely possible to get a very different ending based on choices and/or run into completely different scenes (I've played the game multiple times and still not managed to trigger some that I know are there!) is Shadow of Destiny, and it's a short adventurey game from the PS2 era. And even though some choices change everything, there's still some very good likelihood of ending up in the same spots (though this may be due to player nature - something that worked one time generally works again, except when it doesn't).

I know when the first Fable game came out, there was a lot of talk about choices determining outcomes in games but the Fable series never quite got to where it aspired to be (unfortunately). I don't know if it's necessarily a hardware/space/time/budget constraint (though I'm sure that's a lot of it) to only have certain 'choice' moments and otherwise get to the same general spot, and I don't know if it's in order to have a generally unifying experience. Maybe both.

If there's a single story to be told, yeah, maybe a completely random ending or two is fun, but otherwise, the story is there to be told, especially when the game has gone as far as to give narrative choices. That just means more consideration has been given to the story. But it's still a single story and does need to get to its end. (and other stories are what DLC and sequels are for)

kalloway: (Default)

[personal profile] kalloway 2017-05-29 12:06 pm (UTC)(link)
The same team also did Time Hollow, a DS game, iirc. (I think I have Ghost Trick, but I've never gotten around to playing it...)

Suikoden IV has an early-game joke end where, instead of trying to get off a deserted island, the party decides to stay there. From there, the character portraits and whatnot all change and you can keep playing life on the island as long as you want until you turn the game off. ^^;;
wyomingsmustache: (Default)

[personal profile] wyomingsmustache 2017-05-29 12:39 pm (UTC)(link)
Honestly I can understand why CYOA games aren't really CYOA, but someone needs to actually get on the CYOA games proper. People will write fanfiction for the very niche version of the show they were watching where two characters literally swapped personalities because they can't admit their fave has flaws and the character they hate is preferable, and people will read it, so what's wrong with a game having multiple possible endings and the fanwriters can choose between them for what to write?

Though, then you get into the problem with Undertale, where the fandom collectively decides which ending is the "correct" one whether you like that one or not.

(Undertale, as I understand it, was the closest you can get to a CYOA game right now- with three main endings depending on how you play the game, and a lot of things that go differently based on how you played the game before. But even that is pretty linear: you can't go "well I don't want to fight Asgore, I wanna just stay in the temple with Goat Mom forever, roll credits", or even have a branching path where you explore the temple rather than leaving.)
wyomingsmustache: (Default)

[personal profile] wyomingsmustache 2017-05-29 01:01 pm (UTC)(link)
Definitely. And players being made aware to begin with that a game has multiple endings based on how much you kill is all well and good, but spoiling the details so players only play certain endings is kinda rude. (Especially since how someone else chooses to play has no effect on your game at all.)

The fandom even tried to do that with youtubers, when I was pondering Commander Holly's playthrough I looked at the comments on the first episode and they had killed a monster by accident, and everyone was getting upset because they weren't doing a true pacifist run. Like, okay? So? There's a shitton of pacifist runs on the site, go watch one of those. Let her discover the game on her own and enjoy watching that experience.

Like it was a game with three possible endings and loads of possible choices, but the audience watching only ever wanted to watch the same one over and over. So you'd think a CYOA game would make the youtuber market easier to cash in on, but maybe not.
clawdine: (Silent Hill nurse)

[personal profile] clawdine 2017-05-29 03:12 pm (UTC)(link)
Beautifully written!

Maybe Life Is Strange isn't an example of a genre that needs to develop; maybe it's a genre that's exactly where it needs to be.

I think Life is Strange is essentially a visual novel where the mechanics in the game lend the player a sense of agency--and that's why its narrative is so powerful.
kephiso: Victor from Yuri!!! on Ice in front of the sinking sun on a field close to my home (Default)

[personal profile] kephiso 2017-05-29 08:26 pm (UTC)(link)
This is a really interesting view point! I've only played Life Is Strange (and then not even completed it, since the teacher has an uncanny resemblance to my favourite teacher during grade ten, and I couldn't go on with that association in mind), but I can see what you mean... and yet... the thing I chafed at most (and which was another factor in not completing it) was how there was only 'one right choice' in the Bay or Bae ending, and... ugh.