It Doesn’t Always Matter When Choices Don’t Always Matter

[Originally published June 6, 2016]

A common complaint I’ve noticed in the reception to choice-based narrative games is that some of the choices don’t matter. Okay, fine. If a game fails to capitalize on its core design, then I can understand why a player would feel frustrated. But I think we should qualify that criticism a little bit.

Is the player meant to feel empowered? If yes, then a purposeless choice is a valid complaint. Take Mass Effect. If the outcomes of a player’s decisions were out of their hands, then Shepard wouldn’t be an effective avatar of power. Those games are all about how great and cool and dope of a dude/lady Shepard is. That character’s choices have to matter, or the narrative illusion crumbles and falls like so much dirt in a hurricane. This is – by the way – the reason people threw the mother of all temper tantrums over the ending – the binary A/B/C choice pulled the rug out from players’ aggrandized self-perception. What’s this? My choices didn’tmatter? I’d better react in a reasonable fashion. Nahhhhhh jk jk time to put some companies on blast. It was a psychotic expression of a totally valid complaint – a knee jerk reaction to the destruction of the power fantasy. Not every game is about empowerment, however, and that’s where the importance of choice starts to break down.

The Walking Dead takes place in a universe where the player is meant to feel weak, helpless, threatened. Their character is an insignificant, frail, disposable avatar. The supporting cast is a constantly expendable revolving door of the dead and the dying. The player isn’t meant to feel strong. They’re supposed to vomit with excitement, puke with pleasure, shit with fear, etc. They’re supposed to feel like complete and total garbage. The Walking Dead is all about the choices that don’t matter. There is no triumph in the struggle, no reward for the journey. Telltale’s writers are wrathful and cruel, holding the player in open contempt via their narrative. True Yahweh’s. When a choice doesn’t matter, it’s because it isn’t meant to. Even small choices – like how you distribute the food in Episode 2 – are only there for the player’s benefit. The narrative will continue on, unchanging in its brutal course, but the player will feel the impact of how Kenny berated them for not giving his family any food, because Kenny sucks and is the worst and I hate that guy so now his family doesn’t get any food, are you happy now, Kenny, are you happy now. The player will remember how hurt Clem looks when she discovers one of their little white lies. These choices don’t matter to the narrative, but – hopefully – they matter to you.

These are not strict guidelines. As with all rules, there are exceptions. All the decisions in a choice-narrative can be executed poorly, but not because they do or do not matter. I understand the appeal of wanting to have an effect on a narrative. This is an interactive medium, which affords us with opportunities not found in other narrative forms. That being said, we need to acknowledge that not every narrative needs empowerment. Not every narrative needs the same techniques. Not every narrative needs decisions that matter. We can remember to keep this in mind, but only if we choose to.

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