Welcome to the second episode of 'Dialogue Options', GamesRadar's new weekly video show where we put our gaming theories, and opinions to you, asking questions that we'd like us all to have a good old chat about. This week we're talking about decision based games and what the future could hold for them.
Warning, the above video does contain spoilers for Until Dawn, and mild spoilers for GTA 5 and Detroit: Become Human.
With Supermassive Games revealing that Man of Medan will be part of an anthology of decision based horror games that will inevitably see us murder our favourite characters because we made them go left instead of right that one time, and Cyberpunk 2077 (opens in new tab) constantly teasing more information about the multitude of features that will have an impact on your storyline, from lifepaths to skillsets, it seems that the rise of decision based games is happening, whether you chose it or not.
A ‘decision based game’ seems too broad of a term, however. As it leaves games like Detroit: Become Human (opens in new tab) and Until Dawn (opens in new tab) tarred with the same brush. When, in reality, your choices in Detroit will mould and warp the morality of your characters and their futures. Choosing an aggressive route too often could see NPC’s turn against you, being a pacifist could be more convincing, or make you an easier target. Until Dawn, however, is a lot more ambiguous. Choosing to save someone could kill them, being careful could have deadly consequences and not picking up a diary in an abandoned mine can lead to your head getting squashed (but when does it not?) Where Detroit entertains the idea of both pacifism and aggression have their merits and ignites discussion about humanity, human rights and technology, Until Dawn entertains the idea that if you don’t run down a hill quickly enough your girlfriend's jaw will be ripped off. Sorry.
There is the distinct feeling that a lot of games that are sheltering under the ‘decision based game’ umbrella are simply giving us the illusion of choice. I was somewhat forced by my younger brother to replay Supermassive’s playlink game Hidden Agenda through multiple times, and was frustrated how linear and repetitive it was, given the stress it puts on choices and consequences. Games like GTA 5 (opens in new tab), however, are transparent when it comes to game changing decisions and don’t seem to feel the need to be defined by them. At the end of the game you are faced with three options, each with a different outcome. But games like Telltale’s The Walking Dead, however, take four episodes and countless decisions, but in actual fact, can also be boiled down to a single ending.
So where, if anywhere, will the line be drawn? As exciting as the idea of shaping the story around you is, having to play the same game multiple times can lead to you having to suffer through tutorials and introductions so many times you want to make the real life decision to just turn your console off. A third attempt at saving all characters in Heavy Rain (opens in new tab) meant that I had a recurring nightmare where I was walking around a shopping centre yelling "JASON!". And I’ve probably washed more dishes in Kara’s tutorial of Detroit: Become Human than I have in real life.
(An honorary mention has to go to Oxenfree, however, which has a fascinating take on replaying a decision based game. What’s French for De Ja Vu?)
The concept of everyone’s play through being different, whilst exciting, also changes the way we would discuss games. Talking to your friends about the character death you all experienced at the end of a new game might end up becoming a discussion about how your friend made a much better choice than you, and kept them alive until the end, thankyouverymuch.
And, just to throw even more rhetorical questions into the mix, the rise of decision based games is accompanied by the rise of people reading online guides and tips, to get the ending they want. Is this dampening our enjoyment of games? Similar, in part, to me making sure every Harry Potter House quiz I take, I give the most Ravenclaw answers possible, thus making the quiz virtually redundant.
It’s also sad to think that there is the potential for countless bits of gameplay and cutscenes to go completely undiscovered by players. Much like Charlie Brooker admitting that there is a scene in Bandersnatch that he is unable to access, no matter how hard he tries, we could experience multiple play-throughs of a game, and only skim the surface. There is nothing more frustrating than making decisions on a second or third playthrough, and realising they are too similar to your previous game, and getting the exact same cutscenes and outcomes again. Maybe the amount of endings should be limited? Todd Howard will probably disagree. Is the payoff always worth the amount of choices you have to make? What do you think the best and worst aspects of decision based games are?
Let us know what you think, and be nice because I will remember this. I’ll see you in the comments and thanks for watching.