Yesterday, the final episode of Telltale's Game of Thrones game finally hit Steam. The game had a lot of expectations to meet -- it promises, during every moment of gameplay, that your decisions will affect the story. After five episodes of strategy, manipulation and hard choices, players really wanted to see how they personally had affected the fate of House Forrester.
But did the decisions make any difference? Players familiar with other Telltale games won't be surprised to hear that the answer is no. Players experienced a slightly different path depending on one major choice from episode five, and events happen slightly differently depending on what strategy you choose in this episode. But otherwise, no. It doesn't make a difference. House Forrester meets the same fate. The same characters live or die, with one exception, and that one is only affected by a single decision in this episode, and not by anything that came before.
It's incredibly frustrating, considering how much the game emphasized that your choices matter.
Coincidentally, I also just finished the first season of Telltale's The Walking Dead, a game that affected me so much I took a week-long break between episodes four and five due to despair over what was happening, and cried all the way through the credits and beyond. But here's the thing. Choices don't really change things in The Walking Dead either. The plot progresses almost exactly the same, no matter what. Yet while Game of Thrones' false free will frustrated me, The Walking Dead still managed to feel emotionally resonant, and the choices still felt meaningful.
The difference lies in the kind of choices that the games offer, and in where their difficulty lies. In Game of Thrones, we're focussed on the potential result of our choices, while in The Walking Dead, it's the choosing in itself that matters.
(Note: the post contains mild spoilers for both The Walking Dead S1 and Game of Thrones)
In Game of Thrones, most choices are strategic. Do you swear your loyalty to Joffrey, or to Margaery? Do you keep this document because it could help secure your family's fortune, or do you destroy it because it might incriminate you? Even when forced to choose between two characters -- who lives, and who dies -- it feels strategic rather than emotional or moral. Unlike in other Telltale games, the game doesn't force you to choose, as a character, who to rescue. It takes the player out of the game, and has the player themselves select who should survive, like a not-so-benevolent god. Which character gives House Forrester the best chance of survival? Pick them, and send the other off to their fate.
In this context, we expect our choices to have some impact on the game. Players who make one set of decisions should see a different outcome than players who choose another. The game wants us to believe that we are responsible for House Forrester's fate, so we need to actually be responsible to at least some extent. If none of the choices make any difference to the plot, what was the point in making them at all?
This problem is most obvious with Mira, where literally nothing she does makes the slightest bit of difference, as far as I can tell. The game suggested I chose poorly -- I killed the guard (like 93% of players, it seems) and I kept the knife, and that was bound to come back to haunt me. But even those rebellious 7% of players who didn't kill the guard experience the exact same storyline, because of rumors that they did it. This could have been a brilliant moment where the apparently obvious choice led to disaster, and the tiny minority of players who were either super selfish or super savvy could gloat about their skill. But instead, it's either a game with an incredibly fatalistic message, or one that really fails to live up to its promise and its potential.
In The Walking Dead, on the other hand, the choices feel moral. Most major strategic decisions are taken out of the player's hands -- the protagonist acts without any dramatic "what do you choose??" moment for the player. This was slightly frustrating, at points, because the protagonist does some really stupid things, but at least it doesn't give us any false illusions about our potential impact on the progressing story. The fact that these decisions happen automatically also prevents the player from mentally taking the role of a general, making us focus on connecting with the characters rather than strategizing for their survival.
One of the game's most interesting choices, in my opinion, happens in the second episode, when one unlikeable character has a heart attack while you are all locked in a meat locker together. If he's dead, he's seconds away from turning into a deadly zombie, and you need to crush his brain while you still can. If he could be resuscitated, you'll be brutally killing a helpless man. You have no weapons except a block, and the child you swore to protect is with you. What do you do?
It doesn't really matter that the plot progresses almost identically, no matter what you choose. How certain characters feel about you changes, and how you feel about yourself as a player probably changes too. You don't get a chance to find out what the "right" decision would have been, but the question lingers, and not knowing what might have happened makes it even more impactful. The decision reveals something about yourself, as a player, and that's what makes it interesting.
In The Walking Dead, the moment of decision is the one that counts. The player is faced with an impossible choice while a timer ticks down, and somehow, they have to act. But in Game of Thrones, the choices are generally more considered and more strategic, and the player is focussed on the next, the "what will happen if I do this"?. There are a couple of revealing moral choices, particularly involving Mira, and especially in the final episode, but the overall tone is different, making the overall lack of control disappointing.
If Telltale can't craft games where every choice really does affect the story -- and that would admittedly be incredibly difficult to do on a multi-episode, multi-series arc -- they need to craft the choices so that lack of free will doesn't really matter. They need to recreate the feel of The Walking Dead, so that players are in an emotional role, reacting to situations in the best way they can. As long as players remain in the moment, Telltale produces incredibly fulfilling and emotionally resonant games. Once players are encouraged to look too far to the future, however, the game's spell is broken, and all Telltale's promises fall apart.