The Trouble with Clementine: Choice in Games (An Exploration)


Telltale Games did something incredibly right when they put together last year’s The Walking Dead.  It probably could have been a disaster: an existing and hugely popular intellectual property (though Telltale has often shown themselves deft with other people’s IPs), a narrative-driven rather than action-driven zombie game, and an 8-year-old for a main character.

So why did it work?  There are a lot of reasons— the well-rounded characters, the interesting dialogue, the fact that everyone loves zombies (that is actually a fact).  But I think an argument can be made that the success of TWD lies in the gameplay experience itself, one constructed with binary choice after binary choice, all within time constraints that create a tense, fast-paced game where the quieter moments are much-needed respite.

Towards the end of Episode 4, Telltale presents you with a gut-wrenching choice: whether or not to save a particularly troubling character from a gruesome death (and he deserves death, trust me), as far as zombie apocalypse deaths go.  As with everything in the TWD series, decisions are mostly confined to knee-jerk reactions: the timer runs out, and you’re forced into them, as you would be in real life.  This makes everything feel immediate and visceral, and character deaths are therefore even more difficult to stomach.  As you debate the life and death of this character, another one of the ragtag group of survivors joins you and gives you a look.  Originally, this character was Clementine— which significantly impacted whether the character in your hands lived or died.  Unsurprisingly, nobody wanted to kill someone in front of the kid.  “You can’t be cavalier about [the power of Clementine in the scene], otherwise you guys will totally stop trusting us and see right through us,” Vanaman says.

TWD goes one step further in the land of choice: at the end of every episode, a summary of players’ choices is shown, and you can see, in clear, stark numbers, which side of the line you fell on with major choices.  It’s an interesting and powerful tool: what did you choose, why did you choose it, and what did everyone else choose?  It’s this simple statistical element that shows you with brute force that the decisions you make in the heat of the moment are often yours and yours alone.  And they’re never easy– nor should they be, in a zombie apocalypse.

It’s hard not to wish you’d been given this ball to throw at the end of Mass Effect 3.

Another complex chapter in game choice is Irrational Games’ BioShock, generally lauded for being one of the best stories in games (it won the BAFTA for best game in 2007)— but not the best game for choice.  The best discussion of this is Clint Hocking’s 2007 blog post, “Ludonarrative Dissonance in BioShock“, the post that coined the term ludonarrative dissonance, which is probably a phrase best left inside the gaming world.  In essence, Hocking argues that the two contracts of the game, the ludic one and the narrative one, are in direct contrast to each other: you have to help Atlas to move forward in the story of the game, but this contradicts the Ayn Randian idea that you only succeed by helping yourself.  (As an example of this, you’re given plenty of opportunities to save the haunting Little Sisters or harvest them for much-needed ADAM.  There is no true incentive to harvest the Little Sisters— abstinence from the activity results in rewards later.  The idea of choice in BioShock is proven to be nothing but.)   

Games like BioShock, and its elegant successor BioShock Infinite, are narratively about choice without being mechanically supported by it.  In the end, this is what the BioShock world is about.  BioShock Infinite removed the pressure of existing in this Randian environment and instead encouraged choices, small though they were, that were informed by personal beliefs, rather than a game-dictated one.  These choices ultimately don’t matter, except in the slightest ways (provision of gear, etc.), but that’s what BioShock is about: illusion of choice.  Any contract the games make with the player are broken, slowly and deliberately.  BioShock is the anti-choice game.

BioShock 2, developed and produced by 2K, rather than Irrational, diverges from this model to instead embrace a much more choice-driven game, though these choices are primarily reflected in a variety of game endings.  While BioShock 2 is perfectly playable, it is this change in theme that makes it a different kind of game altogether.

A discussion of choice in games would be lacking without bringing Quantic Dream into the fold.  Heavy Rain is a game drowning in choices, from the most negligible (to let your kid watch TV or make him do his homework) to the more significant (life or death decisions).  Main characters can die, forcing the narrative into different avenues, depending on the individual death.  There are eight potential endings, far more than the 3ish that Mass Effect lays claim to.  One of the unique narrative challenges to Heavy Rain is that (spoiler alert), at one point in the game, you take control of the killer without knowing that you are the killer.  This feels disingenuous– a little like a broken promise to the player– and in fact removes player agency.  The struggle here of course is the one between the mechanics and the narrative of the game; how does Quantic Dream retain the mystery of their game while still giving their players agency?  It’s a question for future games– and one that we couldn’t discuss without Heavy Rain creating it.

And it raises a broader question: how do we keep story while retaining the fun of playing a game?  As Tom Bissell says, “Stories are about time passing and narrative progression.  Games are about challenge, which frustrates the passing of time and impedes narrative progression.  The story force wants to go forward and the “friction force” of challenge tries to hold story back.  This is the conflict at the heart of the narrative game, one that game designers have thus far imperfectly addressed by making story the reward of a successfully met challenge.  According to [Jonathan] Blow [the creator of Braid], this method is “unsound”, because story and challenge “have a structural conflict that’s so deeply ingrained, it’s impossible” to make game stories strong.  Can better writing solve this?  In Blow’s mind, it cannot.  The nature of the medium itself “prevents stories from being good”.”  This problem is only exacerbated by choice in games: how do you retain the gameness of a game while embracing a story based on choice?

Another interesting chapter in the evolution of choice in games is BioWare’s Mass Effect trilogy, a game so predicated on choice that it enraged legions of fans when its final entry closed out with a whimper, not a bang.  One fan was so angry about the perceived departure from promises made by the studio all along that he filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.  The problem was this: BioWare billed its game as being in the hands of the player but then wrenched it away in the final moments with an ending that I’m now an apologist for, which is an article for another day, but that most people still revile.  Players called for a rewrite of the ending, wanting one that embraced the hours upon hours of choices they’d made, the worlds crafted through those hours of choices, and the Commander Shepard who was a result of those choices: battle hardened, wiser, sadder, whatever he or she may have been.

The outrage speaks to something different than so-called false advertising: it speaks to our longing to have ownership over games, to feel like we can effect change in the game world.  Sure, we know that a game has to end how it has to end, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t want to feel good about the way it ends.  I don’t want to admit how many hours I’ve spent in total on Mass Effect, but a playthrough of all three games might take you 60 hours— more time than you might spend with certain friends or family members in a year.  The anguish we felt (and indeed, I seriously considered rescinding a fan letter I’d written to BioWare days before finishing ME3) came from wanting to validate those choices, the ones that cost us friends, the ones that would win or lose us a war.  What had we fought for so long and so hard for if, in the end, our choice came down to one of 3 colors?

The appeal of ME isn’t the often-clunky combat or the mini games: it lies in its customizability, from the gender and appearance of Commander Shepard to the romantic relationships he or she engages in and finally to the broader narrative beats— genocide, murder, death.  Life.  A discussion between ME devotees demonstrates the differences in gameplay experiences: shortly after my first or second run at ME3, a friend referenced a moment in which he’d been forced to murder a companion character who’d been present in all three games because of an earlier decision to murder another companion character.  These were moments I’d never seen— and ones I’d have to go back and make different choices in order to experience.  This is the power of choice in games.

BioWare’s excellent coda to Mass Effect 3, their “Citadel” DLC, demonstrates the results of our in-game choices in very clear ways: after a massive battle (though not the final one), your Commander Shepard retires to an apartment on the Citadel, where you can throw a party of your own design.  You can control the invitations and the mood of the party, and as you wander around the apartment, watching the characters you’ve spent hours with as they bounce off each other like pool balls, you see the world you’ve made in action.  Dead characters stay dead.  Old lovers reminisce.  Everyone has a beer.  If anything, “Citadel” is what makes the Mass Effect series replayable until it’s mechanically impossible to do so: the potential differences from play through to play through seem never-ending.  This was what we wanted for our Mass Effects.

So the question is this: where do we go from here?  It’s hard to avoid the sense that the only place to go from here is outward: to expansive games with more choice– and if this is on the horizon, I think we can all afford a little excitement about it.  The alternative is the equally enjoyable linear play through of games like Naughty Dog’s Last of Us and the Uncharted trilogy.  There’s no illusion of choice, no expectation for it, but the narrative is excellent, the characters are strong, the dialogue great.  These games will always have their place at the forefront of the industry, but the games discussed above offer a glimpse into the future for the potential that games have, the ability for games to give the players agency in ways we never have before.  Choice in games requires an investment, both on the part of the studio and the player.  It requires a commitment to the idea that a lot of the hard work the village of devs and designers will do on any given game might never be seen. 

And maybe in some way it means a validation and elevation of writing in games– and the role of writers themselves– because the challenge of choice in games is ultimately a storytelling one.  If we look at these games the way we look at a choose-your-own-adventure novel, we’d be looking at thousands and thousands of pages of story nook-and-crannies.  According to Tom Bissell in his great book Extra Lives, the original Mass Effect script had 300,000 words.  (By comparison, Moby Dick logs in at 224,000, and those are all ones you’re actually supposed to read.)  This is stunning when you consider that a lot of those words become recorded voice— many of which might never be heard by any players but the most devoted completionists.  We can see why it might not be an easy undertaking.

But it’s one with significant reward.  The promise and power of meaningful choice in games is summed up best like this:  In an interview with Peter Molyneux, Vanaman says that after a play test, that an 11 year old did, the kid was asked to say who his favorite character was.  “Lee,” the kid wrote, “because he makes all the best choices.”  And he’s right: the best choices in games are the ones we get to make ourselves.