Is there any such thing as a game which truly gives you the opportunity to make free choices? When you make game changing decisions, do they even matter.
There will be spoilers from both seasons of The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones & The Wolf Among Us. You have been warned.
I write this article at a very cynical time in my gaming career. Having just finished episode 5 of Telltale's Game of Thrones, I am still angry at the choice forced upon me at the end of that installment - but my personal connection to that decision isn't the problem here. As an emotional pay off, it works and it hurt, just like the TV series. The issue is whether my decision really matters and if it will change the outcome of the story?
After a good 10 minutes of a paused screen and thinking about outcomes, I saved Rodrik on the basis that he was the leader of Ironrath and was more likely to take command of his "army" (and that I think Beshka is a terrible character and I don't care if she's sad). After months of getting Asher back to Westeros I let him die after being back for a few moments. Thinking about it like that, it's a very heavy burden to carry and it works - I actually feel guilty. This emotional intensity would fade though, the moment I started talking to my friends about the episode.
Just like the first episode, when the hype was oh so real, a bunch of us rushed through and compared notes. However, no matter how aggressive, submissive, controlled or insane you acted, Ethan always dies. When you experience it, not knowing it is coming, it's a shock. In true GoT style, just as you're warming to a character, they die.
There are many examples in Telltale's games where decision making is false. The first time I discovered this was playing through the first season of The Walking Dead. You're climbing a tower and "the liability", Ben Paul slips and you have to decide to let the dead weight go or pull him up (by the way, you're on your way to a very limited capacity boat). I let him go, the bastard has been annoying me and messing things up for hours now and as dramatic as the fall was, I felt we would be better off without him. I'm cold, right? I finished the game and enjoyed the way things panned out. The ending between Lee & Clem is wonderful and you should experience it.
I was curious about things so I started browsing the web. I quickly found out that no matter what happens, Ben dies - even if you don't drop him. It felt cheated to be honest. I had been given a false sense of freedom. A little more research gave me the following "journey" map.
Click here to view the full map
You'll see recurring theme's in here. If you don't kill person A, person B will kill them. Whether you save person X or Y, both will eventually die. It really does hurt to look at this but I think it is incredibly important to do so.
It shows the fantastic effort from Telltale's team to create something that gives choices and arcing storylines. I take nothing away from the company - they are seriously smart. Having this information didn't stop me getting a further 3 games in the same style. It did however change the way I played. I started to second guess the system and work out what really mattered when presented with a decision. How would both journeys change towards the final destination? I know, I'm going over the top right? I actually agree, it's ruined the way I play.
At the end of The Walking Dead Season 2 I found myself in a position where my favourite character had gone a bit crazy. You have the option to kill him, or look away as he kills someone else. My brain decided quite quickly, he was going to die anyway, I knew the Telltale formula, so I would rather do it myself and bring and end to the madness. Problem is, I was wrong, he can survive. My previous experiences let me kill him and I never actually wanted to. You get so caught up in that moment that you react with whatever you have left and I fell back on logic because honestly, the emotional side of things was too painful. I think that says more about me than the game.
It burns me to know that I could have saved him.
This is why I keep playing.
I actually think the best game of the lot is The Wolf Among Us - but I think that's maybe because I have steered away from knowing what the other outcomes are. I also had nothing to base the series on, I knew no backstories, no agendas and I took it for face value. I think that's what you need to do with these games.
The main question isn't about the mask the game creates. It should be whether this matters of not. The game claims at the start that things are tailored to how you play and it's exactly true. There are some things you'll miss, some things that your friends will miss but at the end of the day it is a story. It may be cliched but the journey is more important than the destination. Going back to my original decision about Rodrik, I still feel like I made the right choice, just. I want the games to remain emotional and I hope this one proves me wrong.
All experience suggests that the fates of Rodrik & Asher are tied together and it is likely that whomever you chose to live will also die in episode 6, leaving Talia and Ryon to rule Ironrath. The two brothers are not the same and cannot be shoehorned into the same position in the story. Hopefully I'm wrong and Telltale are being even smarter than I can keep up with.
It's either that, or I do what my friend Anthony decided. He also thinks the decisions don't really matter so he decided to save Asher because at least then he could save some time as he wouldn't have to wait for Rodrik the Ruined to hobble around with his gammy leg.
Anyway. I'm a cynic.
Just off to download Tales From The Borderlands.
Am I the only one who feels this way?