Monday, 24 July 2017
Telltale Games - The Beauty of Meaningfully Meaningless Choices
It's always amazing to think how so many internationally successful gaming franchises seem to embrace their flaws. While we often praise publishers and creators for pushing to overcome their failings, in the case of others it is all too often ignored. With Call of Duty you have the most irritating of modern war cliches and bullet-hose mechanics, with Bioware it's how they handle relationships, and with Telltale it is always how little your choices seem to matter.
In Telltale's case it's hardly a new criticism, in fact it's a very old one by this point, and something people picked up on quickly following A Wolf Among Us. Yet, just how massive a failing is this really? Furthermore, if it is a flaw which undermines their greatest selling-point - shaping and influencing the story - why do people keep coming back en mass, hungering for more? To fully explore the best and worst of this, you need to look beyond simply the endings to how the story as a whole shapes up, and what the developers account for in their creations. In fact, you need to look into how many similar games handle their choices on the whole.
Rather than a single straight line or even a basic road map, the story of any choice driven game often resembles a drawing of an onion. Yes, that sounds stupid, but just wait to see where I am going with this. You always have exactly the same starting point, the same general set of consequences, events and an inciting incident to kick things off. From there it branches out, following one of a variety of lines as the plot broadens. Point leads to point, choice leads to counter choice until you have an infinitely broader series of options to navigate and sort your way through. However, after a while, it begins to close those down one by one, shutting them off or leaving them at a certain point in the game, until you are left with one of a variety of relatively similar endings.
Almost anyone who brings up this sort of "narrowing of the finale" will always cite Mass Effect 3 these days, but you had similar situations well before that. Knights of the Old Republic, for example, had plenty of decisions and choices which led up to its ending. Yet, the ending itself and the events which governed how the entire finale would play out, were ultimately shaped in only the last two or three hours of gameplay. From the moment you crashed down upon Rakata Prime (or Lehon if you prefer) to the Star Forge itself, almost every core decision ultimately shaped the finale more than anything you had done up to that point. It was where you were given the choice to kill almost everyone in your party, where you could choose to rejoin the Dark Side, or even to stay with the Light and end the Star Forge's threat.
So, what was the point of everything leading up to then? If each individual story, each action for better or worse would only come up once and was never mentioned again, what was the point in doing them?
The point, ultimately, depended upon two things. Ignoring the fact that they often did carry over to the finale in very small ways - even if it was just a character talk and reflection upon past events - it was a chance to see more of the world. By following through with those quests, stories or even options as a whole, you learned more about the figures involved, the lore and were given the option to try something fun. In Summoner II, for example, many of your decisions as Queen ultimately offered little benefit to the overall story and did nothing to change the finale. Yet, it was always well worth continuing to play through them because of what each segment might offer, because of how the individual quest stories might branch out and because you could alter their end by acting in a different way.
The other, and much more critical, point was how they impacted upon the player. Not the story, not the finale nor even the basic stats of the character you played, but the person sitting with a controller in their hand. To actually offer a Telltale example for a moment, think of Bigby's interactions with the Huntsman in A Wolf Among Us for a moment. Ultimately, while he is a suspect, he ends up having little to nothing to do with the actual crimes taking place. What you do with him alters nothing in terms of how the story concludes, with a threat removed and the world seemingly changing for the better. Yet, your interactions will ultimately decide whether or nor the two characters opt to bury the hatchet and move on, or end up still being foes thanks to Bigby's methods. Equally, you have opportunities to help or harm others which only factor in on individual episodes, such as revealing the truth to Flycatcher or even killing someone who has repeatedly threatened your life.
Each of these moments does help you to shape the story, as it reflects upon Bigby's character. Do you want him to be a Dirty Harry style cop who barges into funerals and beats up suspects? Are you playing someone who would go easy on a child in an interrogation due to their age? It helps to offer far more roleplaying opportunities and smaller alterations to the story and - in some cases - and even reflects upon what sort of person the player is when pressed for time. It might not ultimately reshape much of the overall narrative until the very end, but it will reshape what sort of character you are playing in that world and how certain relationships play out. Plus, even without this aspect, a great deal of desperation or a tense atmosphere can also be drawn from such moments. After all, while it hardly helped to rework the entire tale, the decision to remove Lee's arm due to a possible zombie infection still remains a narrative high point in that story.
If you want an example of how this sort of "Character is what you are in the dark," moments which worked brilliantly in other games, you need only look into the Witcher series. Witcher 2 similarly branched off, granting players the opportunity to decide how certain events played out based upon their alliances, morality and personal decisions; yet it would always end with the same overall results on a large scale. Witcher 3 was the same only it was infinitely more divided and broken up, with its individual tales and stories offering little to no impact upon when and how you finally overcome the Wild Hunt. Freeing a deserter from being consumed by Drowners ultimately to learn he went on to slaughter refugees en mass will change nothing. Yet, it's delivered well enough to make the player feel like hell.
Because of this, the idea of having a series of following a set series of events with a few personal alterations does not seem to be a problem. Instead, it seems to be how Telltale have chosen to approach them of late, especially with their more serious outings.
Because of the desire to ramp things up and ultimately increase the overall scale of the events in question, there seems to be a push to focus more upon building towards the end. There's this idea that the episodes are only leading towards a conclusion until, rather than enjoying the story on an episode-by-episode basis, you're focusing much more upon how things ultimately play out. Unfortunately, this exposes more flaws in their narrative and opens the way for more questionable moments in how the developer executes its stories.
Perhaps the single greatest example of this is A Game of Thrones.This was a game which featured a multitude of engaging and entertaining individual moments, but kept reminding players of a big impending final battle. Much more was done to link events together because of this until you were just left questioning what was the point.
For example, while playing as Mira Forrester (someone in King's Landing), you are given the opportunity to betray the trust of others in order to help your family. Yet, each and every one of these ultimately falls flat and even remaining in the good graces of your immediate employer results in no benefit for you. You can treat others with kindness, help those you want or abandon everything in the name of your future, only to still be utterly screwed over in the end. This would not be so bad if her every action did not link into this immediate focus upon helping her family above all else, and characters did not keep coming back to her. You can treat a Coal Boy like absolute hell the entire way through - even leave him to die - but he will keep coming back to assist you for seemingly no reason. These moments only serve to repeatedly undermine the smaller relationship moments and decisions which strengthened previous games, and they're rife throughout the experience. In fact, it's even worse in many cases.
One of the big story elements present is the fact that there is a traitor among your band of heroes in that game, one giving vital information to your immediate enemies. With your House under threat of extinction and severely undermanned, this is a grave crime and you are constantly left questioning who it is. Well, the result turns out to be the one high ranking person you did not make Castellan - effectively your right hand - out of jealousy. This would be bad enough as it's something not based upon personal decision but just one single choice, and seems to ignore their histories and individual quirks. However, it becomes utterly ludicrous as events become increasingly worse and utterly nonsensical if you do not make the choices Telltale expected you might.
As a personal example - I ended up choosing to make Duncan (a successful politician and administrator) my Castellan over Royland (a veteran commander and skilled knight) specifically because he would often offer alternatives. I wanted someone who would offset my character's more direct and confrontational approach rather than side with it, and to get the best of both worlds. As such, when the time came and Royland was revealed as traitor, he had no reason to do so. I had been agreeing with him almost the entire way through, so the only thing he could bring up as a failing in his big rant about how I was failing the house was to cite not bringing some guards to a meeting. The story is unfortunately rife with these sorts of moments, which shatters the illusion and exposes the railroad tracks of Telltale's narrative at many key points.
Even counting this, you then bump into the problem of the overall final episode. Specifically, that after you have done everything up to that point to build an army and save the House, falls flat. No matter what you do, events play out in almost exactly the same way, until the final few cutscenes are almost identical, merely with a few characters switched around. The changes did not reflect upon your choices or truly alter the outcome in any way, but instead simply rearranges a few decisions on what leads up to that moment. Each proves to be sadly quite superficial, and there's ultimately no possible way to actually alter the events in any meaningful way. This could have worked if handled properly, perhaps as a tragic ending. Yet by repeatedly foreshadowing this event heavily in past episodes and then robbing the player of all choice, it proves to ultimately be extremely unsatisfying. A point which is only made worse when you take into account heavy sequel baiting and a lack of actual closure.
Now, many of you might argue the same of other Telltale games, but this largely isn't true. The vast majority of them still gave you a solid choice or three in terms of how you wanted it all to end, often to the point where you could have several variations on the same finale. Not, as the case was here, just a few secondary events leading up to it. For example, Tales from the Borderlands offered a multitude of various major decisions which shifted how the end was presented, up to the point where you can murder several thousand people in order to get at the villain. A Wolf Among Us (just to cite it again) offered several endings depending upon how you dealt with the villain, altering how you are viewed by the populace you protect. Even The Walking Dead, especially Season 2, granted a few very distinct choices which shifted the context of the finale and just how bleak the story's end truly was. In most of these you were granted a level of control and decision making, but that seems to have been forgotten of late.
With the announcement of A Wolf Among Us 2, a new The Walking Dead and a follow-up to their Batman series, Telltale is sticking with keeping as many series running as they can. Yet, they seriously need to sit back and reevaluate just what made their stories so effective in the first place. Without doing that, it honestly seems as if we will end up with a perfect "how this all went wrong" when comparing the originals and later releases.