art credit on pixiv: https://www.pixiv.net/en/users/2550807
A videogame is an experience.
It will show you a storyline and help you reach a certain goal that was written by someone or even a group of people.
You have to fulfill that story.
Often enough, we’re introduced to characters that show us a world full of wonder, we take their place and live vicariously through them, trying our best to protect them. We are shown their narrative, their emotions and feelings where they come from and what they do. The protagonist will have choices and moments where you have to help them out to get to their goal, but in a choices game where your choice matters it is inherently different.
Because now your choice will determine how the story plays out.
Everything you do, whatever choice you make the protagonist will either thrive or be lost because of your choices. This is no longer about getting to the next level because your skills and abilities allowed you to get there, it is more about how you are going to clear the level.
In a way, choice-based games can be compared to very immersive movies depending on their structure. Sometimes it just feels like the player is holding the camera to a story that isn’t his own, on other occasions it’s a truly immersive experience that holds your own choices as the standard.
Oh, this character died?
It’s your fault.
This character lived?
That’s thanks to you.
Your choice matters, because without it the story wouldn’t progress. The player becomes an integrated part of the story in some way or another. Either through their choices and what he makes the protagonist do, or through actual breaking of the fourth wall.
In this blog post we’ll be looking at these three very unique games that center their whole plot on the choices of the player alone. It will contain spoilers for the games Undertale, Life is Strange and Telltale’s The Walking Dead. You have been warned!
But why are choice-based games so unique? What is it that makes them special?
First of all, games with broad possibilities and diverging timelines based on different decisions are very hard to develop, as every action basically splits open a new line of possibilities.
Strawberry or Chocolate?
It may look like a simple and unassuming choice, but how can you know what consequences await you afterwards?
A simple two option choice splits the plot into two different lines, leaving one separate from the other. It mimics reality, because we choose things on the daily and open up new doors for ourselves with no care in the world. The only reason why we find it so interesting is because of one handy feature.
The reset button.
That is right! The reason why we can see the different paths diverge is because instead of in real life, we cannot see the other scenarios of what if because there is no way to reverse time.
After playing a game and getting a certain ending or certain outcome in the middle of it, we can merely reset the game, open a new save point or even get the possibility to replay the scene. It is almost too easy.
Undertale: Taking responsibility
With a game like Undertale, the player might start out as pretty smug and confident until they realise what kind of game it actually is.
For the ones that don’t know, Undertale plays with the player’s ability to use the reset button and alternate between three main endings. There is the possibility for the player to either be completely pacifist, neutral or go into the genocide route. As a human, you fall down into the Underworld, where creatures called monsters live.
These have been isolated from humanity and the outdoors for a long time after a horrible war has broken out. As a human, the way you interact with the monsters and if you choose to fight or talk, kill or have mercy changes everything around you.
If you want to find out who the real monster is in Undertale, check out Makii’s post about that exact question, as she goes into detail of how Undertale works!
The thing that makes Undertale unique as a choice-based game, is that you have the ability to reset your timeline as usual and retry when you’re uncomfortable with your decisions.
But the game knows.
Especially two characters, Flowey and Sans are very well aware of your escapades as the player. If you reset shortly after killing for the first time to go back to a pacifist route the flowery companion will call you out on that. Your choice does not only matter in Undertale, it is how you choose and the remembrance of wanting to change your decisions that make it so interesting.
Although it is pretty obvious that the game is made so you can play whatever route you want in whatever order you desire, what makes Undertale so frighteningly beautiful is that you’re constantly self-aware of your actions.
The game dialogue completly changes in the genocide route, giving only monosyllabic answers or no answers in your textbox, while in your pacifist or neutral route you can actually befirend every character and bring peace to both humans and monsters.
The question is, what do you want to do?
As the player progresses, there is always a slight urge and curiosity to do something that might not be so peaceful. It’s human nature to be curious, but Undertale takes your decision making even further and pushes another thing onto the player.
You can’t just kill without any consequences, as Flowey will catch you doing so, and even if you’re completely pacifist you will probably kill the dummy or Toriel because you’re used to fighting things without killing them in-game.
Undertale’s choices toy with the players psyche and guilt, while making sure that you’re held accountable for your actions.
But what if no matter how hard you worked, even as a player with a choice you just couldn’t outrun fate?
Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Choice is an illusion
Although we’re talking about games that base their story on your choice, what if you realised that your choice matters, but not for the actual plot?
Let me explain.
In Telltale’s The Walking Dead, you start off playing as one character but gradually learn the perspectives from very different viewpoints. In a world now suddenly ridden with a virus that makes the dead walk again, you have to do everything you can to survive.
You start off as Lee, a man who is determined to keep the cute and innocent Clementine alive while he scours the world for a safe place. On that adventure, as a player you get lots of moments to choose between specific things.
Keep the weapon? Search for shelter? Teach Clementine how to shoot?
All of these choices have definite consequences, because after a couple of scenes you might’ve needed that weapon or your shelter suddenly gives out on you. Clementine might need to help herself if Lee is not there, and depending on what you decide you might lose people on the way.
The only problem with this particular game is, that sometimes and especially in very big decisions where you have to sacrifice people or choose between two allies, your choice suddenly doesn’t matter.
In this game, there are often feints of choices which feel extremely weighty like deciding if you want to save one of two friends Carly or Doug in season one, or deciding to cut off Lee’s arm to save him from turning into a walker.
The Walking Dead gives one the illusion of choice sometimes, where you’re not even sure if your choice actually matters, until it’s already too late.
So even if your choice matters, the story still might be as unrelenting as life itself, because some things can’t be changed.
Even if you can change the flow of time, is that a good thing to do?
Life is Strange: Not all can be changed
Life is Strange is a game that truly embodies the properties of a highly immersive movie. The game is even split into parts that are called episodes, and the player decides the fate of the characters that are in the game.
As the protagonist Max comes back from a five year absence to her hometown Arcadia Bay, she suddenly realises that she can change and reverse time when she saves her childhood friend Chloe from getting murdered.
Max finds out afterwards that a huge storm is coming to destroy her home, but she doesn’t know how to stop it yet.
From that moment on, whenever you decide to change the situation drastically by reversing time or saving something that was lost before, a small butterfly will appear at the corner of the screen alerting you constantly.
This action will have consequences.
The game shows us the familiar butterfly effect, in which a sudden and small action can spiral into something more and more catastrophic in the end. It stems from the thought of the mathematician Edward N. Lorenz, in which he asks if a butterfly flapping its wings in brazil can cause a tornado in texas.
As the player you get the opportunity to try and save many situations by stopping or rewinding time, until these choices open up alternative timelines which conclude in even worse events for Max and especially Chloe.
Max keeps trying to reverse the bad ends and changes everything that is remotely negative, she gets stuck in a cluster of timelines that all turn into a nightmare.
In the end it is found out, that Max herself has brought the calamity that is the storm pending to destroy Arcadia Bay and she stands before the ultimate choice:
Save her hometown by reversing all of her actions and letting Chloe be killed in the beginning, or only saving her friend.
One is thrown into a setup where the small butterfly warning is overlooked until it is too late, which just shows us that in the end, the choices we make are the ones we should stick with.
No do overs.
How have you found these choice-based games? Do you think they’re unique or are there any others that you would see in this list as well? Let me know in the comments!
Until then, see ya for the next tea time!
ooh~ a butterfly!