Video Games bear an interesting burden as the only art form you can be bad at.
Before you raise any protest, yes, video games are most certainly art. Every time you look over a gorgeous landscape in Destiny, every time a musical swell in the Legend of Zelda urges you forward, every time you come up with an elegant stealth maneuver in Metal Gear Solid, that is art at play.
In the last decade a narrative device has been perfected in video game storytelling. The decision wheel. I thank Bioware, the studio behind mega hits Dragon Age and Mass Effect, for that. The decision wheel is a way to choose your own adventure through conversations in a game. They let you control the flow of conversation, making it easier to feel like your character is an extension of yourself. Most importantly, they can be used to make decisions in a game that will ripple out and effect the rest of the game’s story.
In my humble opinion, the perfect decision wheel is when there is no “right” choice to make. Everyone I know, including myself, is a cynic. We can all see narrative beats coming from a mile away and there is always a “right” option.
But sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes a game can put characters and moments together in a way that catches even the most logical person off guard. In those moments it stops being about “beating the game”. It starts being about making the choice you can live with.
Coming back to Mass Effect, specifically Mass Effect 2, there is only one perfect decision wheel in the entire game franchise. It appears when you are fighting a ship full of an enemy machine species called the Geth. You are given two options. One is to kill every Geth on the ship. The other options is to rewrite their “code” so they are no longer your enemies.
Genocide, or steal their free will away. You can tell yourself that the Geth are just machines and have only ever been acting on code. But they have religion and society. They have fought wars for the right to be called equals. In that moment, when you must make that choice. I had to stop and think about it.
There was no right answer that day, but I chose to rewrite them. Was it the right choice? Well, Mass Effect 3 removes a lot of nuance by making it clear that, yes, I made the wrong choice. All those Geth were freed from their reprogramming and turned on me. To be honest, it does detract from that decision, Bioware’s crowning achievement in my opinion, but I will never forget my first encounter with that choice.
The Walking Dead video game from Telltale Games, which is better than both the shows and comic, is rife with these. You play as a man who finds himself the caretaker of a young girl, Clementine, in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. It isn’t about your survival, it’s about hers. Time after time you must make questionable decisions for her sake and by the end of the first season (as an episodic game, TWD comes in seasons) you must confront each of these choices in turn to prove that you are worthy to protect Clementine.
The game is exhausting, and you wonder if you’ve made the right choice after nearly every interaction. Instead of watching someone like Rick Grimes be concerned with doing the right thing in this world, these become your real concerns. And there’s no way to go back and make a better choice.
And then there’s Life is Strange
Life is Strange is art from start to finish, no question about it. In the game you play as Max Caulfield who, along with her friend Chloe, try to unravel the disappearance of a girl from their high school. It’s episodic like The Walking Dead, and relies heavily on binary choices where there isn’t a right answer.
But there’s a twist. Max can rewind time.
It’s a useful skill, and game mechanic, that lets you answer questions right in class and solve all sorts of puzzles, but it also makes every decision that much harder. When Chloe is hit by her step father, the head of security at your school, you can rewind time to prevent it. Only then, he sets his sights on getting you kicked out of school. You must choose, your education or Chloe’s momentary safety.
Max and Chloe are our main protagonists, and I found something strange happening to me over the course of the game. I was, as Max, falling in love with Chloe. I wanted, needed, for them to end up together. I started manipulating events so they could be together, and happy. Which meant rewinding time, many, many times to ensure everything turned out alright.
Life is Strange throws moment after moment of this at you, to the point where you feel like you are abusing your abilities, all while increasing use of your powers throws off the natural balance of the world. Yesterday the final episode of Life is Strange came out, and when the final choice arrived I had to put down my controller and think for nearly 15 minutes about what decision I could live with myself for making.
The game begins with Chloe’s death. She is shot dead right in front of you and your desire to see her live is what activates your powers in the first place. Then, in every subsequent episode, Chloe’s life is put in danger again and again.
If you’re a fan on Lost, you might recognize this as Desmond seeing Charlie die and saving him over and over. Or it’s like in Final Destination. Basically, Chloe has to die. And the town the game is set in is hit by a massive hurricane in it’s final episode, destiny coming for Chloe.
Chloe realizes this and asks you to make a sacrifice. Go back in time to that first moment and let her die, thus undoing all the changes you have made as Max. My brain immediately registered that as the “right” thing to do. The choice is made astoundingly clear. Either let Chloe die, or sacrifice the entire town.
And like I said, I was in love with Chloe and Max together.
This time I decided to be selfish. I saved Chloe one last time. I wasn’t going to go through all of this, saving her all these times, just to kill her in the end.
Life is Strange emotionally wrecked me, and I recommend it for everyone, regardless of video game skill and interest.
This was a game far beyond needing to “beat” it. This was a story I needed to experience. This was something that blinded me with it’s characters and emotions to the point that I didn’t see the big twist coming.
I always see the twist coming. And no, what I mentioned in the spoilers isn’t the big twist.
Life is Strange is something that will stay with me for a long time. Most video games that are objectively art should, much like Journey did in an earlier post. There were no right or wrong choices, and I feel compelled to start a new game. But the real irony is how well that would play into the developer, Dontnod’s, hands. It’ll be traveling back in time with knowledge of the future, and I’m scared of finding out what I can and cannot change.
P.S. Life is Strange also has a sublime soundtrack. Take a listen.