[Until Dawn spoilers ahead!]
Few things get the heart rate up like “Character X will remember this”, “this action will have consequences”, or an explosion of transparent butterflies from the corner of your screen. When making decisions in choice-based games you can never tell what will trigger these ominous whispers through the fourth wall, nor can you often tell whether the consequence will be positive, negative, or somewhere in between… or indeed if it will be a noticeable change at all. You chose not to share your nachos with another character? Maybe they’ll be grumpy about it for five minutes while they get their own snack. Maybe they will later abandon you, bitterly, at an opportune moment, leading to your untimely death.
I’m relatively new to this whole video game thing, so the prospect of little old me making decisions that impact the piece of fiction I’m engaging with is still exciting and stressful. WB, who I played Until Dawn with recently, is an old hand with a lot to say academically about the shifting landscape of choice-based gaming mechanics through history, their evolution beyond ‘bad’ and ‘good’ selections and the growing demand for player interactions to mean something to the product, but my novice ass is just looking on in awe that I can create a unique story by pressing (or not pressing) buttons.
To clarify, not everyone in our game actually died. But it was enough to be jarring, knowing that we had caused those deaths with our actions or inaction (or, in one terrible case, our inability to keep still while clutching the PS4 controller in hellish fear). Until Dawn is a sort of interactive horror movie that puts the lives of eight horny teenagers in your hands as they take a weekend retreat in a secluded, iced-over mountain lodge where two people disappeared the year before. I almost felt a Mother Hen-ish sense of responsibility over these kids, because for the story to even start they had to make an incredibly stupid and inadvisable decision, and thus I felt a duty to guide them to safety since they were most likely going to bugger up on their own. Sometimes I was able to help, sometimes not.
For example, the first death—and all the deaths are preventable—seemed to deliberately throw this protective, logical attitude back in my face. Jessica, our local thirsty ditzy blonde, was dragged off by a mysterious thing, and as her boyfriend heroically followed, the player piloting his buff form around faced multiple points where they have to choose a “safe” or “quick” option. I chose to stay safe, because if he tried to take a shortcut and ended up falling into the river and breaking an ankle, who would save Jess then? Turns out taking so many “safe” options ensured that Mike arrived too late to save Jess and led to her getting mauled by a deformed cannibal monstrosity. So no, kids, do not stay safe.
I feel like toying with expectations like this is an interesting ploy—really, when it came down to it, we had absolutely no way of telling whether “safe” or “quick” would have been better, because either could have been fine, or either could have earned us a cruel jab in the gut from the game designers. On one hand this kind of lifelike randomness adds to suspense, and it would be interesting—and let’s face it, quite funny—to have a game that sets you on wildly different paths depending on seemingly innocuous choices you make early on.
There’s even an in-game example of this: should you choose to harm a bird during target practice, it “upsets the balance of nature”, leading to one of the characters getting attacked by a bird and cut, which leaves a trail of blood that lets a psycho killer find where they’re hiding. Who could have seen that coming, right? Apart from knowing that it’s generally cruel to hurt animals, no one could really foresee any logical path between a throwaway moment in the tutorial and a life-or-death situation hours later. It’s really pretty neat.
On the other hand, of course, this kind of plot tree can also be intensely frustrating in its level of randomness. The rise in popularity of choice-based stories signifies a trend: players want to have an effect on their game. To a large degree, the unpredictability of choices (instances that have you going “what?? Why will this action have consequences? What did I do???”) creates suspense and speculation, and in retrospect an appreciation for the intricacy of the decision map hidden beneath the surface of the game. But if minor decisions have almost unconnected major consequences the player can start to feel like they’re not in control.
One of the reasons I get stressed out by having to make choices is that a) as much as I cluck I am actually not ready for the responsibility of saving eight horny teenagers from madness and death on a mountainside, and b) I get obsessed with what the “right” choice to make is. Often the point is, these days, that there isn’t a “right” choice or even a Good End vs Bad End scenario, just the story you create with your decisions. There is no one narrative the developers set out to tell, unlike a book or movie—they have created the elements and placed them into your hands to let you rearrange them. This, of course, creates an air of self-entitlement in a lot of people, where they demand complete control over events and get mad when their choices inevitably lead them to one set of endings.
It would be impossible to program a completely unique ending based on every decision the player has made, and in fact to engineer a game where every choice you make matters, but it’s still understandable to want them to, and for you to see some sort of logical progression in them. As fun as the idea is, if tiny, seemingly innocuous decisions end up deciding the fate of the universe fifteen hours of gameplay later, people are going to feel the opposite of involved in the storytelling process. If the fate of a character’s life is literally in their hands, as in the case of Until Dawn’s “don’t move!” function, well, they’ll be messed up about it for hours afterwards.
Because when something happens, whether it’s instant like the above example or based on a series of choices across the scene or even the entire game, and it’s because of you—you! Yes you! You set these characters on this path. You built this relationship. You created the chain of events that is now tangled around the hero. You put something in motion that whirred away quietly and moved the gears of your game in a way no one else’s did—it can be incredibly immersive and powerful. When a game gets that right, it’s a feeling like no other.
I could have saved Jess from her clichéd death, but my choices did not result in that outcome. Perhaps my pressing guilt—and curiosity—will lead me to replay and make different decisions, leading to the creation of a whole new story and a whole new web of unlocked possibilities. It’s all in our hands, and as daunting as that is, I’m quite enjoying it.
Not the jump scares though. I’m making the real-world sensible choice to leave that crap behind.