Life is full of choices and the consequences of those choices. Choices that range from what to eat for breakfast, to life-altering choices like what celebrity retweets you should comment on. Making decisions is a large part of what makes our lives meaningful and unique. And in the entertainment that we choose to indulge in, it is the choices of the characters and how realistic those decisions are that capture us. Most entertainment mediums tell a singular story. The choices for the characters. make are not ours to influence. We are silent viewers and readers in every book, movie and television show we consume. Video games are the one medium in which our choices matter. Video games give us agency over how the story progress and what is important to us. The choices allowed us to have grown from the smallest of things into large branches that ensure no player has the same experience as any other. What began as simple options like choosing to use a warp tunnel or hunt down every star in Mario 64 has expanded to so much more. Players can choose how the story begins and ends. Players can choose who lives and who dies. The moral compass in which we choose to make the smallest decisions can create completely unique outcomes and experiences for us.
With the release of Detroit: Become Human, arguably one of the most innovative and in-depth attempts at a game based on player choice, we’ll take a look at some of the games that are renowned for giving players choices and selected a few of our favorites. These are some of the best Choice Matters games.
Mass Effect 2
The original Mass Effect series is one that is predicated on a continuous storyline. All of the choices you make in one game carry over to the next. In theory, this amount of world building allowed players to craft a story that was completely different than that of every other player. While this amount of choice uniqueness is worth a spot on the list by itself, Mass Effect 2 ramps things up and makes all of your choices culminate in one final Suicide Mission.
Mass Effect 2 makes one thing clear. Every. Choice. Matters. Other games attempt to make everything blend together into one story and tries to hide the important choices behind layers of gaming. ME 2 lets players know very early on that every decision the players makes will either hurt or hinder the final mission of the game. Do you befriend one race of aliens for weapon upgrades knowing this will ostracize a group that can give you defensive bonuses? A crew mate may request your help with a personal mission that is not completely legal but will have that crewmember be more devoted to you by doing so. Players are also given the choice fairly early in the game to embark on that Suicide mission once they feel ready. It was always a looming bit of anxiety in whether or not I wanted to undertake the mission or continue trying to gain additional allies and upgrades.
Once I did finally take the leap, every choice I made influence what happened and who is affected. Did I take the weapon upgrade but passed on defense plating? While I was able to cripple some of their ships but took heavy damage resulting in the death of a crewmember. Did I make the choice to help a comrade on a personal mission? Now that person is willing to go above and beyond to make the mission a success. This sort of cause and effect made me both yip for joy and cringe with regret as I played through the final mission and saw the fruit of my decisions play out in front of me. It was one of the greatest gaming experiences I have had and everything about it was crafted by my choices.
The Walking Dead: Season 1 (TellTale Games)
TellTale has made a lot of Choose Your Own Adventure Games. Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Batman and even Minecraft. Many of these are great stories and give players tough decisions within them. None has better or more impactful than The Walking Dead: Season 1. You play a man named Lee as he attempts to make sense of and survive a world that is plagued with the living dead. During this literal mid-life crisis, Lee meets Clementine, a small girl who is alone and scared and needing his help. As any rational kind-hearted person would, Lee takes the child into his care as he works to eke out an existence and deal with the issues that arise from living with zombies.
Sidekicks who need protecting are nothing new. The Walking Dead just one of the first games that did it in such a way that the character made you love them. Melissa Hutchinson’s performance as Clementine mixed with the superb writing made her feel real; truly someone you wanted to protect. And as such a person, the game constantly throws you into situations that not only push your ideas on what protection means (physical, psychological and emotional), you try your best to shield the girl from the worst of the situation. I found myself trying to spare her from viewing acts of violence or hate. I would try and work things out with people more diplomatically with her around. I would also react much more violently than my normal in-game decisions if she were ever placed in danger.
The Walking Dead stands out as an amazing Choice based game not because the player was given a true emotional attachment to Clementine. I believed in her innocence and I worked hard to protect it. Like a real child, I placed the safety of Clementine above my own. The first season ends with a powerful sacrifice from Lee. While the ultimate completion of Lee’s story (not the full series) ends with season 1, the route to get there is wide and varied. That makes all the difference. Because the way I interacted with Clementine felt poignant and honest. The decisions I made to protect her and love her felt like she was my actual child. My words throughout the adventure Clementine were the ones that I wanted to stick with her through any situation when she was finally on her own. And Clementine will remember that.
Pokemon Red & Blue
It’s dangerous out there! Take one of these. These words from Professor Oak kickstarted millions of peoples first foray into the world of Pokemon. Players had a choice; pick between Charmander, Bulbasaur or Squirtle as the first poke-companions on their Poke-adventure.
Other games on the list are here because of how the choices affected the story or the experience that was crafted from them. Pokemon is here because this one choice is one that every Poke-player (i’m done with the Poke’s after this) had to make and is a debate for Pokemon fans across the world. And players stand by that choice. You could never tell a believer in Bulbasaur and the ease he affords the first few badges worth of battles that Charmander and the brute force he provides later in the game is a better choice. This choice is a keystone of sorts (dare I say a Poke-keystone?). It built the base of our Pokemon gameplay experience and was a decision that friends could discuss all day every day.
It signified the uniqueness of each player who picked up a Gameboy and had to make the tough choice between a badass dragon baby, a cute turtle beast and the gardening experiment gone horribly wrong that is Bulbasaur. Whatever the choice we began with, this choice is what started players on the path to Catch em’ all.