Every so often a game comes along that presents a series of choices to me, the player, that I absolutely agonize over. This isn’t completely because of the immediate consequences of those actions, which are usually pretty obvious, but more because I know that the choices are going to have an additional level of unforeseen consequences much further down the line. Games like this make me sit there on the dreaded ‘branching choice selection screen’ for an embarrassing number of minutes because I know that no matter what decision I end up making about my character’s immediate future, I am going to regret it in some manner down the line.
It’s interesting to me, then, that as rare as it is to have a game do that to me, I have managed to play two of them in quick succession. One of them was from a very expected source. Dragon Age: Inquisition was a game that I always expected to provoke this reaction, this choice-anxiety in me. Player choice in narrative is kind of Bioware’s thing, after all. It’s what they do. Even if no other part of the game lived up to my expectations of it, I had been confident even without playing it yet that Inquisition would give me personal narrative by way of selecting exactly which part of my emotional gut I wanted to be punched in.
But that’s the thing about expectations. They make you expect things. So I tightened up my emotional abdominal muscles and prepared for a pummeling.
And then managed to get completely sucker-punched by Life is Strange.
On the outside, the games could not manage to be more different. One is a high fantasy role playing game, and the other is something of a point-and-click adventure game in the vein of, for lack of a better example, Sam & Max. One features an expansive fictional world with tons of lore and backstory, and the other takes place in a small town in Oregon where the outside world barely manages to creep in. And one features a hero who can acquire vast amounts of personal and organizational power, and the main character of the other is a (mostly) ordinary eighteen-year-old high schooler. However different they are, though, both games have the same core mechanic: your character must make choices that will have drastic and far-reaching effects on the worlds of the respective games.
How is it, then, that one of the flagship games from a studio who has built their entire reputation on the inclusion and emotional impact of player choice could be upstaged by the second game from a studio whose first game, despite its name, was not particularly memorable? Well, it really boils down to two key things: the kind of character you are playing, and how the consequences of your choices are presented, both in the immediate sense and in the wider context of the game world.
In both Mass Effect and Dragon Age, the characters that you play as are always the sort of people who are able to acquire power and influence. Of course, this is something to be expected given the settings. Ever since Dungeons and Dragons, the staple of playing in a high fantasy setting is that no matter what you start out with or who you start out being, you can always achieve more. More wealth, more power, and more influence can always be obtained through more adventuring. What this ends up doing is creating a game world that is, in some manner, transformed by the desires of the player’s character and, by extension, the player. Sure, your actions still have consequences, but you can be certain that things are going to fundamentally turn out okay for you because you’re the Inquisitor, the Gray Warden, or the Commander. You can screw things up by playing the game badly or by making bad choices, but if you want to protect someone you can be reasonably certain that the means exist, even if you have to make tradeoffs somewhere.
In Life is Strange, you aren’t anyone powerful. You have no reputation (other than being a little flighty and having an uneven GPA), no armies, no skills that you can build up by slaying progressively harder monsters, and no world that can be shaped by your will. Your problems are those that could affect any eighteen-year-old. Do you rat out a kid who brought a weapon to school, even though that kid has influential parents? Do you take the fall for a friend who gets caught with drugs? Do you erase the link to an embarrassing video to stop it from going viral? Sure, you have just as much power to change the world around you as you would in a game of fantasy adventure, it’s just that your world is smaller. More real. And at the same time, even that small world is far, far bigger than you and has the ability to crush you like a grape under a steamroller.
Which brings me to the second thing that differentiates Life is Strange from a Bioware-style choice-driven narrative: the way that consequences are presented. It is pretty commonly known at this point that the choices in Mass Effect and Dragon Age carry consequences that aren’t necessarily apparent at first. In fact, sometimes it can even be hard to tell which choices will even have consequences at all. If you rescue someone in, say, Dragon Age: Origins, will that person end up being important a decade or so later in Inquisition? At the same time, though, it seems to me like Inquisition went out of its way to telegraph its meaningful choices ahead of time. In one quest, you are given a vision of the future that you are trying to prevent, and from that point on, whenever a Very Important Choice is offered to you, the consequence is pretty much spelled out for you ahead of time. Maybe you won’t know what will happen in the subsequent years and decades that will pass between this game and the next, but it felt to me like there wasn’t a whole lot of surprise. The thing giving me pause when I made those choices was the issue of what sort of world I wanted to create, not whether or not I should be making the choice at all.
In contrast, the key element of Life is Strange is that you are told explicitly when a choice is going to be meaningful, and often you are shown the immediate consequences right away. The mechanics of the game (which are also the mechanics of the only real power that the main character possesses) allow you to rewind nearly any choice and make it again. You can see how a conversation will end, and then rewind it to try and make it turn out better. You can craft what you think is going to be the best possible ‘present’. The catch is that the power only works for the past thirty seconds or so, so you can’t rewind entire days of time (without, you know, resetting the game). While this seems very similar to how things are presented in Inquisition, it isn’t. At all. Knowing the immediate outcome doesn’t help when any choice could potentially be equally bad, or worse, not change anything in a positive manner at all. There is no “It’s going to be okay because I’m the Inquisitor”. In fact, the more things keep happening in Life is Strange, the more it becomes obvious that while you have the ability to alter the future by making different choices in the present, what you do not have is the ability to make anything better.
An interesting thing ends up happening, though: the more you play the game and the more choices you are confronted with, the more you seek out information that will help you make those choices. The more you know about the situations you’re being put into, the more of an informed decision you can make about what you are making better and what you are sacrificing. And in return, when the world pushes back on you, you can be more confident that while you may not have done the right thing, you absolutely did the right thing for you at that moment in time. It really amounts to this: in Inquisition, you are shaping the world, but in Life is Strange, the world is shaping you.
So which is a better game? It depends on what you’re in it for. But when it comes to that old ’emotional investment’ thing, Life is Strange has made me second guess my choices a hell of a lot more. Maybe it’s because the choices feel more real. The situations presented in Life is Strange, even with the sudden superpower that seems right out of an X-men comic, are a lot more down to earth than what you find in other games. They’re things that ordinary kids have to deal with, and they have to do it without a superpower. It’s fitting, then, that during one of the hardest things you have to do, your power is taken from you and you have to handle the situation just like anyone else would have to. But really, this just makes the characters in the game more human, easier to relate to, and more real. And that, more than anything else, is how you really grab someone by the feelings and twist.