Monday, October 12, 2015

Illuminations 10.12.15

"Boom! Butterfly effect."

Many wise people - okay, well, wise books, but also probably a person or two - have taught me that it’s our choices that make us who we are. In that vein, we have the theory of the butterfly effect, that even our smallest choices can lead to massive consequences. An exaggeration, surely, but most fairytale morals are. The idea of the butterfly effect isn’t, necessarily, to make us paranoid and questioning of every choice we ever make. Whether you get a blueberry muffin or a croissant for breakfast probably won’t become a life or death decision, but when you make a choice, you should be aware of all the possible effects.

Which brings me to video games and the idea of a moral choice system.

Games are a really fascinating medium to me because they’re just so…different. You can engage with print and visual media on so many levels, but always only after the fact. A game, on the other hand, demands your constant attention and engagement. It’s the ultimate first person narrative because it forces you to experience the events of the story in real time. Of course, like with any other form of media, there are good games and bad ones, held together with flimsy excuses for stories or centered around expertly crafted narratives, but I believe games are capable of telling fantastic tales, especially when they embrace what makes their medium so distinct.

Plenty of games experiment with choice, typically in terms of moral alignments or dialogue options, or else promising a variety of endings for the player to achieve. Typically these choices are pretty straightforward. In Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, you’re presented with choices that have linear payoffs. Do you save one member of your party or the other, dooming one to die? Do you steal from others to support yourself, or do you hold onto your morals in the midst of the apocalypse? You can easily predict what most choices will result in and see the thread of that choice follow through in subsequent events. Konami’s Silent Hill series is known for having multiple endings, depending on general behavior and a series of one-or-the-other decisions over the course of your playtime. But, generally, the level of choice is somewhat limited, and for good reason. A game’s a finished product and certain parts of the story will happen no matter what you do. Otherwise, how could it have a story? There’s no real way to have complete control in a game, like you can’t have complete control in a movie and force your favorite characters to kiss (even though they totally should). Usually, a wealth of choices merely increases a game’s replayability value by delivering new content based on new choices a player might make if they give the game another go.

But I’ve found that games are starting to push the boundaries of choice, upping replayability even more. Alex talked about Life is Strange a couple weeks ago, a recent game that incorporates the idea of the butterfly effect and presents the player with, apparently, a wide range of choices (I have yet to play it so I’m no expert). In a similar vein, may I introduce you to Until Dawn.

While Life is Strange dabbles with time travel, Until Dawn plays with the horror genre in some tricky ways. It starts with a typical set-up: a bunch of teenagers trapped in a secluded place evade murder attempts from a masked killer. However, Until Dawn veers off sharply into supernatural territory after sufficiently lulling the player into a false sense of security. Not to spoil things too much, but the true threat is far from human. The preoccupation with the decoy menace obscures that for most of the game, until, of course, it’s much too late. The game challenges you to save all the playable characters from grisly fates, like you’re the director of a campy slasher flick. It’s possible to save them all. Or kill them all. Or anything in between. Obviously these are the major choices, but they’re far from the only ones.

But what I’m really fascinated with is the fact that I’ve watched (most of) four separate playthroughs of this game, and it’s only getting more stressful to watch. I know the plot, I have a basic idea of what’ll be happening at every turn, and yet I am still terrified, because now I know when choices happen and the effect they have. Until Dawn engages the butterfly effect far beyond typical moral choice systems. Sometimes, a choice you make has an effect you couldn’t hope to predict, and now that I’ve seen different people play the game differently, I watch with bated breath, waiting for a mistake to be made. And I’m still learning things about the game, because a variety of actions can produce a variety of scenes and dialogue strings. No two playthroughs I’ve watched proceed exactly the same way, which is amazing. Trust me, I’m proficient in playthrough watching, and I’ve watched plenty of different people playing the same games, and, usually, the same stuff always happens. You get used to it. In my Until Dawn viewings, I’ve watched two to completion. One playthrough saved all the characters. The other got all but two killed. Anything is possible and I am terrified as I finish Playthrough Number 3.

And, much like in real life, the choices that can make or break your playthrough aren’t immediately apparent.  The game lets you find different pieces of evidence to figure out the intertwined mysteries: the identity of a masked man menacing your hapless teenage avatars; the cover-up involving a mining accident and something unspeakable that happened in the isolated darkness of the caves; and what happened to your characters’ two friends, who went missing a year ago (spoiler alert: they’re not around anymore. But how?). Failing to find certain objects can have negative impacts, from minor inconvenience, to injury, to death. Or, even worse, never finding out The Truth behind it all. And sometimes making “good” choices leads to ruin; the most obvious example I’m aware of is one character can get killed for deciding to try and rescue another. It feels like every decision matters, whether or not it truly does. The game is scripted and certain events cannot be avoided, but aside from that? It really feels like the player is in control.

Maybe it’s just me, but I could never write a story that allows for so much variance while still maintaining a coherent narrative, something Until Dawn manages to accomplish. Horror games especially tend to be linear, which isn’t a bad thing. You gotta rig up your jump scares and set up your monster traps, after all. It’s not bad to be structured. But I think Until Dawn’s an important entry into the genre, showing that it is possible to do things a little differently and still succeed.

So here we are, flapping our wings and causing hurricanes. 


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