When I played Telltale’s The Walking Dead and The Walking Dead Season 2 , I cried. I’m not afraid to admit it. Seeing the trials and tribulations that Clementine and Lee went through punched me right in the emotions, and the sacrifices that they had to make made the tears start flowing. I honestly cared about what happened to these fictional characters.
But in contrast, Life is Strange and Telltale’s A Game of Thrones: Episode 2 just came out, and I find myself struggling to actually care. In one game, it feels like none of my character interactions mean anything, and in the other it feels like characters, including the main characters, are entirely expendable.
But then I looked back on The Walking Dead and thought things weren’t that different. Many character choices all lead down the same path no matter what, and no one is more expendable than in the zombie apocalypse. I thought maybe it was because I had several seasons to connect with the characters in The Walking Dead , while Game of Thrones and Life is Strange were only on their first or second episode. However, I connected with Lee and Clementine almost immediately, from the first scene where Lee was stuck in a police car. So, what is the difference between these games? Why did I care so much for Lee and so little for Max and the assorted characters of House Forrester?
Let’s examine the games one at a time. First, we have Life is Strange , a game that is trying to follow in Telltale’s footsteps. Life is Strange is a game about choice, but unlike The Walking Dead , in which the choices you make determine who trusts you in a world where a split second wrong decision could mean life or death, the choices you make in Life is Strange determine your standing in high school.
Half of the time the puzzles you encounter are all about whether or not people like you. Do the skaters like you, do the artists like you, does the geeky girl with a drone like you, does the nerdy girl who got hit in the head with a football like you? Max, the main character, is characterized as a bit of a loner, sure, but whether or not you have friends doesn’t exactly feel like something that is terribly important. Heck, she moved away from her hometown for five years. For all I know, she doesn’t want to be friends with these people. I went through most of the game skipping many of these decisions.
Meanwhile, other decisions, such as whether or not the principal thinks I’m a liar for ratting out a rich kid, or whether or not he thinks I’m a liar for suspiciously keeping my mouth shut, are chosen randomly because I can’t particularly see what difference either choice makes. Sure, further episodes will probably smack me in the face with consequences, but these consequences were never established in Episode 1 . We never saw that talking or not talking to the right student might make a difference in my future. If, say, the skaters came to my aid when a bully tried to beat me up in the school parking lot, that might have been a good introduction to the game’s “choice matters” system.
As a result, choices seem meaningless, so I don’t particularly care about making them. Since Max is essentially a character made up of choices, by not caring about choices I don’t care about Max.
But now let’s examine the first scene of The Walking Dead . Here, Lee Everett is sitting in the back of a cop car with a chatty police officer talking to him while he gets taken to jail. It’s revealed that he was a former professor, and that his crime had something to do with his wife and a politician, but little else is revealed. Instead, you are given several different dialogue options in the first scene, all of which paint a very different portrait of Lee. He can plead his innocence, he can act belligerent toward the cop, or he can simply sit there in stony silence. All of these allow you to choose the sort of person that Lee is. Contrast this to Max, whose choices don’t really define who she is, just who likes her.
Similarly, the stakes of these choices were established early on. When talking with Hershel, you have a chance to lie or not, and that affects how he treats the rest of your traveling companions. Here, you know that if you make a “wrong” decision, the whole game can change, whereas the first time I realized that was the case in Life is Strange was when the final results screen came up and I was told about all the choices I never even encountered, because I didn’t talk to every character like an obsessed JRPG gamer.
In short, Lee’s decisions defined who he was, whereas Max’s decisions only defined what happened to her, and since all paths seemed to lead to the same end in Max’s case, I didn’t particularly care what path she took.
So what about Game of Thrones ? The decisions here obviously define who your characters are, right? I mean, in Episode Two you get to decide whether you will be a compassionate lord or a lord who seeks war. In Episode One you got to choose important members of your house’s council which defined you as diplomatic or aggressive. Surely these decisions determine who you are, right?
Well, right, but the problem with Game of Thrones , much like Life is Strange , is that we never really get to see the results of our decisions come into effect. A good example is from Episode Two , when you have the choice of attempting to force a suitor to marry Rodrick by having Rodrick’s sister forge a letter. If you do this, she marries you. If you don’t do this, she still marries you. In fact, the only thing that seems to change is that she seems upset if the letter was sent, but then pulls a major 180 if you at least say you are sorry.
In short, in Game of Throne s your decisions affect the characters but DON’T effect the environment, the exact opposite of Life is Strange . Whether or not you force your suitor to marry you determines whether or not you are a mercenary Lord who will do anything to protect his house, or a compassionate lord who sees people as things not to be traded, but since the game plays out pretty much the same, without even paying lip service to your decision, the decision itself seems mostly moot.
And this is where we see the problem. In The Walking Dead , each descision did two things. First, it informed the player about what sort of character they were playing. Each choice fleshed out the personality of the main character and the characters around them. Second, it somehow effected the environment around them. It made a difference in how the plot progressed, what resources you had access to, and what situations you found yourself in.
Life is Strange and Game of Thrones only have one half of the equation. Life is Strange allows you to effect the environment, but the decisions do very little to inform us of who Max is. She just seems like a pretty basic high-schooler, and the only difference appears to be whether or not she gets in trouble or has friends. Game of Thrones has decisions that inform you of who you are, but don’t affect your environment. This is partially because the game switches between characters too much to see the consequences of your actions, and partially because the game does a poor job of hiding when your actions don’t really have consequences.
Both of these situations lead to me not caring about the decisions I make. In Life is Strange , I don’t care because Max isn’t my avatar. She is her own character making her own decisions, and thus I am just a third party watcher. The only decision I particularly care about is whether or not I “lose” the game, otherwise the story will be just as entertaining either way. On the flip side, in Game of Thrones I AM playing as my avatar. I am making decisions I would make, but the lack of consequence blunts the impact, and so the act of making decisions only becomes a chore.
I think the obvious solution is to combine the two. Game of Thrones with time powers! Yeah, that’s a million dollar idea if I ever heard one.
What about you? Do you find it hard to care about decisions in games? Let us know in the comments.