The Walking Dead and the Illusion of Player Choice

The following may contain spoilers from the Mass Effect series and Walking Dead Episodes 1-3.

Choice systems, generally found in games as the "moral" variety, are a tricky beast. Their inclusion in a series can add to the narrative and make the player feel involved or important within the game universe, giving a sense that their actions have meaning and their story is personalized to them. It's undoubtedly the reason behind the success of the Mass Effect series, which otherwise would've been considered a fairly standard third person shooter with relatively high production values.

Rachni Queen in ME3

There is an inherent risk with investing in such a mechanic though. The more variables that are added and tracked, the more difficult it becomes to give them the weight they deserve. One needs to look no further than the Mass Effect 3 debacle to see what happens when things don't go according to plan. Rather than shaping the narrative, choices imported from previous games became little more than an extra paragraph in your codex or a flighty one-liner while walking down a hall. Even more egregious is when weighty, complex decisions are glossed over or completely ignored in favor of streamlining the story. In Mass Effect 1, the player was tasked with deciding the fate of an entire race. Were the player to spare the last remaining Rachni, the queen would show up in ME2 to remind players that she won't forget how they saved her. In Mass Effect 3 you discover that even if you killed the last queen, there's still another one that takes her place, essentially allowing Bioware to change one or two lines of dialog and get away with accounting for both possible outcomes. Naturally, this upset players who thought their choices had real meaning.

But wasn't this about the Walking Dead?

You're right, which brings me to the Walking Dead. The 5-episode series from Telltale has been an absolute joy to play. Essentially a third-person adventure game in the vein of Heavy Rain or any of Telltale's other titles, The Walking Dead has been quite adamant that your choices have meaning and your interactions with characters have weight. As former history professor and convicted murderer Lee Everett, you're tasked with surviving the zombie apocalypse while ensuring the survival of your own Short Round, Clementine. The story is engaging, the writing and pacing is wonderfully intense and the art style is gorgeous. Few games have kept me on the edge of my seat like The Walking Dead has.

The way you interact with characters and the decisions you make have both immediate consequences, i.e. choosing to save the life of battery-challenged reporter Carley or everyone's favorite self-insert Doug, as well as long-reaching implications of how you interact with your merry band of misfits. Throw your lot in with the wrong people and you might find yourself lacking an ally when you really need it.

Unfortunately, I've seen a lot of people look at the first few episodes of the Walking Dead and say, "wait, our decisions mean nothing! No matter what we do there's no way to stop Lily from shooting the only survivor who has our back." And they're right - there's no path through the game that allows you to save Doug or Carley. You can't completely control the story and no matter what there are elements beyond your control that will always happen. And that's okay.

The importance of the illusion of player choice, i.e. what the Walking Dead does right.

What the Walking Dead does so well is it makes the player feel as if every choice, every conversation and every decision has the potential to be meaningful. It consistently throws in references of your prior actions. Tell Clementine in the first episode that the farm barn smells like shit, and she'll repeat you later on, generally making you feel awful for being a somewhat poor role model. Kenny will remember all the times that you helped him (or didn't) and isn't averse to bringing it up. Kill someone instead of showing them mercy in front of Clementine and the game lets you know she will remember that. Though these examples are really nothing more than small references and have seemingly little meaning in the overall game, they give the impression of a game world that reacts to the player and accounts for the individual. Could some of these innocuous choices come back to haunt you? With the game series still

going on, it's hard to say, but the possibility of every action possibly having a consequence weighs heavily on you as the game progresses. It makes you second guess yourself and wonder if you made the right decision, if perhaps you had said something differently then Lily wouldn't have shot your friend or Larry wouldn't have died in the freezer.

And therein lies the importance of the illusion of player choice. There's no way Telltale (or any company) would have the resources to make a game that fully accounts for every player decision and branches the story accordingly while still hitting the same story beats and keeping within budget and time constraints. It goes back to something David Cage said prior to the release of Heavy Rain, and also in the ramp up to his newest game Beyond: Two Souls: "I would like people to play it once … because that’s life. Life you can only play once … I would like people to have this experience that way. I’m fine with [people reloading saves to avoid bad endings], but the right way to enjoy Heavy Rain is really to make one thing because it’s going to be your story. It’s going to be unique to you. It’s really the story you decided to write … I think playing it several times is also a way to kill the magic of it."

The moment you take a look behind the curtain, you can see all the moving parts. You can see which decisions make a difference, which don't, and can see all possible outcomes. But by doing that, you're robbing yourself of that illusion. These games require not only Telltale to account for your decisions and do a good job of making them feel important, but also ask the player to demonstrate a sufficient suspension of disbelief. It's true that who lives and who dies might not matter in the overall grand scheme of plot points in the game because eventually you end up at the same destination, but in your own story and world, all these events do matter. Because they shape the decisions you make in the future, no matter how big or how small. It's that sort of role-playing aspect that really appeals to me and many others, especially in a game as emotionally impactful as The Walking Dead.

So what do you think? Do you think Telltale is doing a good job accounting for player choice? Is the illusion as important as I think it is?

Thanks for reading.


Is it possible for G4 to hit a new low? Because I think they did.

You know, I thought things were bad when I skipped over the channel and saw nothing but Cops and Cheaters re-runs for days on end. Then they mostly got rid of Olivia Munn and I thought, "well, at least most of the people on Attack of the Show aren't as awful as she was, maybe things could be looking up."

And then I get this.
I'm genuinely curious: who the fuck are they marketing their channel towards? I have no clue. No clue at all. And it's awful, because I want G4 to be good. I remember what it used to be, and I remember how wonderful Tech TV was and I realize I'll never get that (on a TV station) again.

About Sony execs bowing at their press conference

I don't know much about Japanese culture, but I know that bowing is a pretty big deal and a sign of respect or something like that, so when Hirai and the others bowed for seven seconds I'm assuming that was a pretty big deal and something that's probably lost on a lot of people who aren't familiar.

I know Giant Bomb has a few people who are a lot more experienced with Japanese culture than I am, so am I correct in assuming that the bowing is a pretty big apology coming from the executives of a fuckhuge corporation like Sony?

Figured I would make it a blog post so people could ignore it if they wanted.


Payola and game journalism

I just finished writing all this crap for an editorial in my print journalism class. It seemed something worth posting, if only to see what others thought. I know it's kind of long.


                When deciding what movies to go see or what albums to buy, most people turn to reviews and ratings. Video games are no different. It’s arguably more important for the average gamer to have a reliable way to determine the quality of a product – after all, buying video games can be an expensive hobby. The average price of a new console is usually around 300 dollars and the average price of a game is generally 50 to 60 dollars, three times the cost of a movie ticket or album. With more and more emphasis being placed on these review scores, review aggregator Metacritic specifically, it seems that more publishers are willing to resort to less-than-honest tactics to secure a high rating. Where radio stations used to get paid off for playing a song on-air, game journalists are now experiencing a new kind of payola – one that manifests itself in advertising pressure, job perks and swag.

                This payola, whether effective or not, has had serious effects on the credibility of some media publications. In 2007, editorial director of GameSpot Jeff Gerstmann was dismissed from his position. Shortly after he was terminated, rumors began to surface that his termination was the result of a negative review he had given to Kane & Lynch, an action game by publisher Eidos Interactive, who at the time was paying GameSpot to advertise the game heavily on the site. Although the official reason for why Gerstmann was terminated has never been disclosed, the loss of credibility from the site presumably caving to advertiser pressure led to many other editors leaving the publication.

                Advertising pressure isn’t the only hazard to the public perception of game journalism. At E3 2010, an industry trade show usually used for new game announcements, Microsoft gave away their newest version of the Xbox 360 for free to all the press members in the audience. Rather than maintaining their composure as journalists, many members of the press cheered loudly and celebrated their free swag on Twitter. At the same show, Microsoft cast the press in the role of actors in a Cirque Du Soleil performance, shattering the separation between journalist and advertisement. Although no one can say for sure whether or not the free console swayed press favor to reporting Microsoft’s conference in a more positive light, the way many members of the press embraced the blatant public relations move certainly cast doubt on their own credibility.

                As the arbitrary Metacritic score becomes more and more important to the industry, determining the fate of jobs and entire development studios, publishers have definitely found ways to secure higher review scores. Only offering advance copies of a game to certain publications, perceived pressure through advertising and throwing special events for press to attend are only a few ways that publishers may feel they can secure these higher ratings. It is up to game journalists to maintain a professional distance from publishers as to not let these things affect their coverage. Much like how the FCC requires radio stations to specify when a song is being played as part of “sponsored air time” as per the result of the payola scandals of the 1950s, games press should consider documenting the events, advanced copies and other things they may receive from publishers to maintain their credibility in the eyes of consumers.


How much DLC is too much DLC?

With the release of Dragon Age II rapidly approaching, I've been thinking about the role of DLC in games. I've always been a pretty big believer that DLC is a great thing when done properly. Bioware and Bethesda have shown that DLC can breathe some life into an older title and really expand on the universe...but horse armor and in-game DLC salesmen have shown that there is a darker, more nefarious side to downloadable content.

Day-One DLC for Dragon Age II (via Bioware forums)

 Adder of Antiva, Bow - Signature Edition
Seeker's Bulwark, Shield - Signature Edition
Apostate's Courage, Staff - Signature Edition
Might of the Sten, 2H Sword - Signature Edition
The Exiled Prince, Companion - Signature Edition

Lion of Orlais Shield, Shield - All Pre-Orders
Fadeshear Sword, 1H Sword - All Pre-Orders
The Black Emporium, Store - All New Game Purchases

Hindsight, Belt - Penny Arcade Promotion
Staff of Parthalan, Staff - BioWare Promotion
Hayder's Razor, 2H Sword - Completed Demo

Evra's Might, Ring - Dragon Age Legends
Air of Confidence, Ring - Dragon Age Legends
Evra's Trophy Belt, Belt - Dragon Age Legends
Ivo Family Crest, Amulet - Dragon Age Legends
Dura's Blue Flame, Amulet - Dragon Age Legends

The Irons, Belt - Pre-Order Bonus @ EA Store
Ring of Whispers, Ring - Purchase Bonus @ Epic Weapons
Ser Isaac's Armor, Armor Set - All New Dead Space 2 Purchases
Amulet of Ashes, Amulet - Pre-Order Bonus @ & Best Buy

Lothering's Lament, Book - Demo IF Activations ≥ 1 000 000 By March 1
The Far Cliffs of Kirkwall, Book - Demo IF Activations ≥ 1 000 000 By March 1 


"Surely he must be in jest!" you say, sitting at your computer and reading this wall of text that can't possibly be what he's claiming. But no, I assure you that this is a complete list of all the DLC available for Dragon Age II before the game has even hit retailers.
It just seems like there could be a better way to do this. They're throwing DLC everywhere like it's no one's business. Play our Facebook game? Here's some rings and belts. Play the demo? Here's some weapons! Pre-order the game? More weapons!  Order before a certain date? Get all this stuff for free that we'll charge other users for later. Buy a real replica sword or weapon and we'll give you a ring.
I like DLC, I really do, but I can't help but question why half of this stuff couldn't just be in the game. Even if they made some effort to tie it into the story, like you need to do a quest or two before you can obtain all this crazy equipment. By the looks of things, I will start this game with more equipment than I can carry.
But I'll do it. I'll play your Facebook games, and I'll download your demo and I'll order your signature edition spending hours on the release day not playing your game but downloading your DLC. And all shall tremble before the might of Isaac Hawke, overpowered medieval space engineer.

Worried about the Silent Hill 8 Soundtrack? Probably shouldn't be

As a huge fan of the Silent Hill series, I understand that a lot of people (myself included) were concerned with the fact that Akira Yamaoka left Konami to go work with EA and Suda on their newest game. After all, how could you replace the guy who came up with Theme of Laura, Promise, or any number of Silent Hill songs (which could take up an entire blog themselves with their sheer awesomeness.)

They announced that Daniel Licht, who's primarily known for his work as the composer for the awesome serial-killer show Dexter, would be taking over Yamaoka's position. Kotaku just posted a sample of his music for the game and I must say that it sounds pretty damn good.

You can definitely hear some influences from the Dexter soundtrack, but it's looking pretty promising. If he can hit the right mood (which he seems to be doing well, if the clip is an indication), then I'm pretty damn excited.

Buy Portal 2 on PS3, get it for free on PC

While I was highly skeptical of some news last week about cross-platform play for PS3 and PC versions of Portal 2, I was proven wrong - hard. Valve announced today that not only was there cross-platform play, but that it would include all of the benefits of Steamworks including Steam cloud support and PS3 owners would get a code for a copy of the PC version for free. Granted, it has to be locked in to your PSN account but still - that's a crazy deal. Valve is certainly setting a hell of a precedent here for their new PS3 support - I hope it pays off for them. Do you think other games (not necessarily just Valve but maybe some indie games) could support this kind of stuff in the future as well?
What's more interesting is whether or not it will affect Microsoft's stance on their platform. Valve has made it pretty clear that they weren't too keen on being forced to sell TF2 updates or the lack of Steam support on 360 - will the assumed success of this perhaps make them change their opinion?