Who remembers Goosebumps? I was never the biggest reader as a child, but I always had time for one of R.L Stines spooky stories for kids. Specifically the ‘Give Yourself Goosebumps’ series, which was their version of the Choose Your Own Adventure stories that were popular in the 80’s and 90’s. Like those in the main series they were simple reads designed for younger audiences, with enough atmosphere and creep factor to keep you on the edge of your seat. But it was the agency of choice that drew me in. It was a unique form of storytelling I hadn’t experienced elsewhere at the time, encouraging the reader to be actively involved in the narrative in a way most stories simply didn’t. You the reader made the decisions, so success or failure was on your shoulders…at least until you turned back to the previous page (with one thumb in between the pages so you knew where to turn to) and made the choice that didn’t result in death or turning into a statue…not that I ever had to do that…
While the choose your own adventure style books aren’t as popular nowadays, the concept itself is experiencing a revival. It has simply evolved from books to video games. Joining forces with the adventure game, player driven narratives are back in style thanks to the overwhelming success of Telltale Games’ 2012 Walking Dead series (which won many ‘game of the year’ honours). The same agency of narrowed choice is there, but instead of a faceless and zero personality ‘audience avatar’ designed to allow anyone reading to become the protagonist, now you control people with motives, personality and meaning.
These games lack a definitive genre of their own right now. They sit somewhere between the point and click/text based adventure games which were also popular in the 90’s, and the visual novel, a genre that is extremely popular in Japan and Asia. This hybrid variant features an element of in-world exploration and involvement, but the crux of the gameplay comes from the social interactions and decisions the player has to make that branches the story in different paths. You decide how you interact with people, who to trust and where to go much as you might in a traditional Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) style novel.
One of the first modern game to popularise the concept in the mainstream was the 2010 Playstation 3 exclusive Heavy Rain. Building off of publisher Quantic Dreams’ previous gameplay efforts, Heavy Rain was a murder mystery told from the perspectives of four different protagonists. Your ending and the people that survived depended on your in game choices and performance. It was described as an interactive novel, and while its lack of traditional gameplay made it inaccessible to some gaming segments, the critical and commercial response made it a must play game of the PS3.
That’s not to say player choices affecting the ending in video games is all that unusual. Plenty of role playing games from Pokemon to Mass Effect feature decisions that can ‘branch’ a story down different paths. But where that is a gameplay element attached to a grander game of exploration, warfare and in the latter’s case inter-species relationships (Team Dextro!), Heavy Rain and other more recent examples use the CYOA formula as the main feature and selling point.
The primary batch of these games come from Telltale Games. While their Walking Dead games act as the standard bearer for new games in the genre in both execution and design, the company had been experimenting with the CYOA game being split into ‘episodic’ chapters that are released over several months. Thanks to the success of the Walking Dead and their follow-up The Wolf Among Us (based on the Vertigo published ‘Fables’ universe) the style of game has been established and legitimised in video game popular culture. The latest example of the genre, Life Is Strange (Dontnod Entertainment), is achieving commercial and critical success after two released episodes. And personally I couldn’t be happier.
Right now the same drawbacks that existed for Heavy Rain are still around in Walking Dead and Life is Strange. You don’t play these games for their action, and considering games like Call of Duty still dominate the market share (which took out spots #1 and #10 in the top selling video games of 2014), slower dialogue driven games won’t win over everyone. Instead of action, you instead get deeply personal character stories. Clementine, star of the two Walking Dead seasons, has made more grown men tear up than the ending of Fast and Furious 7. Without relying on action to purely drive a story, these video games instead use more intimate ways to build tension and moments of significance. The fact that games like this can succeed (along with games like Journey) is proof the industry is growing and branching out like other forms of entertainment have before them.
There are claims that these aren’t true ‘games’, generally citing the lack of active gameplay beyond the social interactions, ‘quick time events’ and A or B choices, but that’s simply not true. Navigating the relationships between your character and those around him/her is a game of deduction and risk management. Make the wrong choice and your story path becomes riddled with complications. Say the wrong thing to someone, and you might lose their trust. Miss certain clues and there might be no ‘right’ answer for you. Although creators of Life Is Strange have pushed the idea that there are no correct choices in their game, encouraging the player to freely direct the protagonist Max in her story.
There’s a pivotal moment in episode 2 of Life is Strange where you’re faced with a harrowing situation. If you found certain clues and acted in certain ways, you might be able to avoid a disastrous situation. Otherwise, you’re forced to blindly try and luck your way through a scenario. Give Yourself Goosebumps did the same thing. Some paths were blatantly wrong, but sometimes you needed to read for clues to know how to answer a knight’s question or whether the haunted house was the right place to hide in. And the book wasn’t afraid to call you out on missed clues and bad decisions. The games are less about straight up killing you though, and more on changing the scenario. Rarely do you encounter a game over screen like you might in the books (given publishers want you to buy every episode, there is an incentive to keep the story going regardless of player choices). The Walking Dead and Life is Strange both love throwing dilemmas your way, where all possible choices seem fraught with problems.
The episodic nature of these games is worth discussing too. Telltale has certainly established this as the norm for the genre right now, and the games better reflect the plot structure of a television series rather than a movie like many games. Each episode will have a couple of key choices along with more minor story defining options that build toward the climax of a plot or subplot. It breaks everything up into easy to digest chunks, and much like a TV program you can choose to play as its released or wait and then binge through the entire season. The main problem right now with this strategy is while TV shows often go week to week, the average wait for each episode of these games is one to two months, breaking the connection to the story somewhat. Of course you could just wait for all the episodes to be released, but who has that kind of patience.
All video games carry an element of player agency. Even the most linear of games relinquish control to the player to move or jump. And freedom to do as you please is all the rage in wide open sandbox games like Grand Theft Auto or Minecraft. But while games like Life is Strange and The Walking Dead feature stories more linear than their advertising would like you to believe (most roads lead to the same end goals, it’s just the posts may have been moved) they still manage to provide the player with a sense of control and importance to the plot. Guiding a Clementine or Max through their lives becomes a deeply personal investment, and being able to compare and contrast your choices with other players at the end of each chapter only furthers the personalised playthrough. Just like in a CYOA novel, there are only so many pathways you could end up going down, but when you become invested in the story, the rigid structure of story conventions becomes a secondary thought to the rigor of whatever challenges are in your character’s way. Their very life (social or literal) is in your hands after all.