This week on Extra Punctuation, Yahtzee dives into the choose-your-own video game genre and why games like The career are not as innovative as the developers think.
During slow publishing months, I usually go to Nick the editor at the beginning of the week and say “Whaddaya got?” and it will throw away all the revision codes it thinks I might use. Not so long ago, he launched As Dusk Falls, a new branching narrative game from Xbox Game Studios. And after a look, I felt a deep sadness. No, I don’t want to play Choose Your Own Adventure Books anymore. I already did The Quarry this year and I only did it to get rid of David Arquette’s horrible facial animation.
Have you noticed how every time one of those Choose Your Own Adventure book games comes out, whether it’s As Dusk Falls or a Supermassive game or something from David Cage, the marketing always tries to push the branching storytelling as a bold new revolutionary method of storytelling? Hoping, no doubt, that we will have forgotten the last twenty years of video game history. And I guess I’m exhausted by them now because I’m sick of repeating that it’s not a new kind of storytelling. It’s as old as…well, as old as choosing your own adventure books. But at least choose your adventure books which might actually take very different paths. In a video game, more often than not, the paths cannot stray too far from each other because they will all use the same locations and characters. Spending all that time developing assets that a significant percentage of parties won’t even see is simply not an efficient use of development time.
And what’s even the point? Do “interactive storytelling” which should logically be suitable for interactive media? Allow the player to feel like they’re directing the course of the story? Nobody ever asked that. Nobody’s ever watched Taxi Driver and said, ‘Well, that was a great movie, but I would have liked it even more if he had asked me right before the end if I wanted Travis to go shoot on the pimp’s house or if i had he instead went home and roughly masturbated. That would have killed the whole impact, wouldn’t it. Hookup path games have a similar problem to games Endingtron 3000. You know Endingtron 3000 is when a game has multiple endings, but it’s only decided by the very last thing you do.And the end result is a game that feels like it never ends. has no real ending as none of them have any impact while you can just go back and pick another one.The story of the branching path is basically written, a whole story with no impact.
And it doesn’t feel like the player is directing the course of the narrative because they usually can’t predict the outcomes of their decisions. It feels more like the game is holding back content and we’re going to have to replay it a few times to get our money’s worth. I’m okay with the plot choices if it’s part of an immersive sim or an RPG because it’s part of roleplaying and it’s often tied to the gameplay element you might decide to get upgrade X or upgrade Y as well as a story point, but when it’s an As Dusk Falls situation and there’s no gameplay other than the story, there’s no basis for me to base it on and it’s just an adventure book to choose from.
There have been plenty of great game stories that have given me the strong emotional reactions I crave, but I’m willing to say I can’t think of a single instance of a branching story achieving that. Subtitle? The good ending series is basically a completely separate plot from the bad ending series, it doesn’t matter. Silent Hill 2 and Spec Ops The Line have multiple endings, but all the emotional stuff happens before the branch, the endings just change how the protagonist moves forward. So, in conclusion, can we please wrap it up with the fucking choose your own adventure books. It’s way too much effort and it never pays off. And the big joke is that there are games that have achieved what those games are trying to achieve – which is an interactive narrative in which every player has a unique experience – with relatively little effort.
First example: XCOM. There have been individual soldiers in my playthroughs of XCOM games that I’ve grown more attached to than all of the characters in all of the Supermassive games combined. And the game does relatively little about its ending. It randomizes each soldier’s name, nationality, and appearance from a small group of options, and that’s about it. But you know what? It was enough for my brain to fill in the rest. So after surviving a few Mad Jock McTrousers missions, the Scottish demolitions expert becomes the apple of my eye, and everything he does takes on a new depth of meaning. He misses a shot, it’s because he abused the whiskey during the flight. He successfully brings back an alien corpse, he puts on the first dibs to make haggis from the remains of the autopsy. Uh. It’s okay, my grandfather was Scottish so I have the right to say all that.
It’s as if all the game had to do was click on the pilot light with the random elements it provided that ignited the gas burner of my emotions. And the more effort a game puts into the procedural character creation system, the more varieties of qualities and behavior types it puts, the better the payoff. A story is basically just the actions of certain characters. Thus, a procedural character creator IS a procedural story creator.
Look at the Nemesis system from the Shadow of Mordor games. This is probably the best example of what I’m talking about in the triple-A space. The actual scripted stories of these games I can take it or leave it. You’re a grizzled type of hero who generically smolders with suppressed rage, you have a ghost in your ass, and you hate things that are bad. And nothing significant can happen because it might spoil the plot of the Lord of the Rings movies. But everyone I spoke to who played these games came away with a different story to tell about what they did with the randomly generated orcs. All they had to do was fill the procedural system with as many different personalities and behaviors as they could imagine, complete it and trigger it and people were emotionally engaging with it ten times more than with the guy with a ghost his butt.
See, that’s what I mean by “interactive storytelling.” A branching plot is not interactive storytelling. They are just two standard non-interactive stories sitting next to each other. The one unique thing about video games that you need to understand is that ultimately they are an experience created through a combined effort between player and author, and that applies to the story as well. All the energy that goes into creating the different branches of a choose-your-own adventure game seems so out of place when I look at what games like Shadow of Mordor have achieved by putting less work into the story. . Let go of the reins a bit and let the player’s own imagination come to meet it halfway.
Oh, and since I know for 100% certainty that this is going to be brought up in the comments, I better acknowledge the next game lest I be accused of forgetting it: Dwarf Fortress. That was it.