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Player Agency: Narrative Versus Personal

Player choice has actually been a fairly large trend this year. In fact, I wanted to make this a Year In Review post, but there is one particular aspect of player-driven narratives that I want to talk about over the general, emerging trend of growing controller-side agency. There has been a whole host of games that can mold and shift as players make choices such as Dishonored, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, Silent Hill: Downpour, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, and so many more, but there are two specific titles I’d like to talk about: Mass Effect 3 and The Walking Dead.

NOTE: there’s a good chance I may delve into slight spoiler territory for both of these games. I won’t go into heavy specifics, but if you have yet to play either one of these and want to remain 100% totally clean as opposed to just mostly clean, then maybe return to this after you’ve played them. That, or hit yourself in the head with a big book until you forget what you’ve read here.

Mass Effect 3 has had a tumultuous year. I’m past my knee-jerk disdain for the game—just as I assume most people are—but there is still a lot about it that bothers me. I may think it’s a perfectly fine game at this point, but nothing will help me get past the dissonance between the urgency of a crumbling Earth/galaxy and Commander Shepard having time to eavesdrop on people on the Citadel and deliver unto them long-lost relics that are easily found among battle-worn rubble.

Also how some of the Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 callbacks and character stories happen with one too many scoops of serendipity and one too many nicely tied bows on top. Also how incredibly useless it is to have to run from Reapers when you scan planets. Also how things included post-release as DLC should have been included as part of the original build because the stuff that happens with From Ashes and Leviathan are literal game-changers and are vital to elevating your enjoyment of Mass Effect 3.

But I digress. Though Mass Effect 3 is mostly a fine game and is undoubtedly the best-playing of the trilogy, the biggest problem was the ending. I don’t mean that the choices at the end were a little awkward or that it came across as lazy and rushed to simply tinge the cutscenes different colors (I really kind of didn’t mind it), but that there was so little of your input taken into account. It makes sense from a story standpoint about cycles and whatnot, but the final choice, regardless of which choice, pretty much negates everything you’ve done in the past two—now three—games.

Two of the largest running threads of the current Mass Effect universe are going to be basically undone for all the work you’ve done and relationships you’ve forged. Everything you’ve done for Legion and the Geth; Mordin and the Genophage; and the Quarians and the Migrant Fleet is pretty much moot once you finish the game. There are definitely some interesting thought experiments based on your choice, but that’s all forward-thinking (and somewhat inconsistent depending on if you played the extended ending). It kind of nullifies the hundreds upon hundreds of hours you spent shaping and saving the galaxy, and without the information imparted to you from the DLC, it’s also a bit of a deus ex machina resolution, which is historically the worst kind of resolution (next to 800×600 (badum, chssh! No? Okay, tough crowd)).

Once again, it kind of makes sense in context of the big reveal at the end, but you have to wonder: was this planned all along or did Casey Hudson & co. come up with it somewhere along the way? I have a feeling it was something of a mix of the two, but it does highlight the problem with player agency: at a certain point, everything must be accounted for. Eventually everything must be fully broken down into discrete endings or dovetailed into a manageable handful of possibilities.

The problem with the former is that it demands a lot of resources. You’ll have to branch out into an incredible amount of what-ifs and develop new gameplay scenarios, stage more motion capture for the new cutscenes, write and record new dialogue, and so on and so on. It will cost a lot of time, money, and manpower, not to mention cut off pretty much any possibility for a sequel unless you alienate the majority of your fans by choosing a canonical ending. The latter, however, is much more difficult to pull off. It requires elegance, trickery, and foresight from the very beginning. You have to plan for the dovetail and you have to plan on ways to make each and every catchall feel unique when it really isn’t.

And let’s face it: Mass Effect really went for it. It’s laudable what BioWare attempted, and had they pulled Mass Effect 3 off without angering half of the entire world, it would have gone down as possibly the greatest finale to one of the greatest trilogies ever made. Like, in any medium and any industry. That’s a lofty goal for anyone, but to pull it all off with just two years to work on it? I mean, I don’t think three years would have made it into The Perfect Game by any stretch, but maybe some of the more controversial and niggling bits would have been more cleanly resolved.

But player choice can be utilized in a different way: personal relationships. It’s just as hard to stick the landing on it, but it’s also much more manageable in terms of scope. Whereas Mass Effect had every action of Shepard influencing every corner of the galaxy, guiding the story into one of several bins at the end of the line, The Walking Dead focused on interpersonal choices. It’s narrative choice versus personal agency, and it’s a profound change in how branching storylines work.

Narratives operate within the realm of logic. Things have to make sense. As humans, we see dominoes fall every day; one falls, hits another, and that falls ad infinitum, and that makes sense. And that’s what stories are: a series of dominoes that fall in proper order based on the assumption that physics works. In the case of stories, physics is the rules of the world (via sci-fi or fantasy or whatever) and the dominoes are the actions and consequences. When something breaks this contract of how the movie world correlates to the natural world, we freak out. We get mad. When there’s a gap in the dominoes but they still fall regardless (deus ex machina, plot holes, etc.), it is egregious to us because logic—the same logic based on the same rules we’d established before—is broken.

The Walking Dead, however, focuses on personal relationships that you can forge and is much better off for it, and that’s because relationships don’t always operate on logic. I mean, sure, some of the choices we make will inform the flow of the overall story (like who lives and who dies), but that all feels incidental and totally perfunctory to how you shape your relationships with the survivors and (especially) with Clementine.

In the beginning of the season, most of my decisions were made with little to no thought. If anything, they were all utilitarian and made little consideration for my personal involvement in the affair. It worked, but then I developed a very strong, very odd false sense of loyalty to Kenny. I honestly have no idea where it came from. Maybe it’s because I saved Duck at that first farm and didn’t want to see the life I chose over another wasted or because it was always Kenny versus Larry and Larry was a dick or maybe it’s because Clementine and Duck were kids and kids need other kid friends. I don’t know. All I know is that loyalty made me make some very stupid decisions. And I came to hate him for it.

I then decided to go it alone, become that cold utilitarian once again. But that didn’t last long. I formed another strange, dumb bond that was torn in so many directions that I often felt like that I was going to get ripped into a million pieces and never manage to put everything back together. And it was all completely illogical. I can’t explain it to you even if I tried. I’m a human being like that and I sometimes make decisions with my heart instead of my head, and the heart is such a winding, twisted maze of enigmatic impulses and desires that I couldn’t possibly decipher it all.

And that’s how The Walking Dead succeeds. In the end, the entire season offers just about as much agency—maybe less—over the entire plot as Mass Effect 3 does, but because it offers you the ability to feel like you can intimately shape your personal relationships, the overall product is much more believable. You don’t have to fight against two other games (or four other episodes) of conflicting plot points or contrived mission outcomes. All you have to worry about is how your emotions feed into your decisions, and since that doesn’t operate on the same logic that makes you feel uncomfortable with how much time Shepard is taking between leaving Earth and attempting to save it (THERE’S NO TIME FOR DANCING OKAY MAYBE JUST ONE SONG), the lack of true influence on the story is forgiven.

The plot moves without you, but the relationships are yours to take and mold. Whether those decisions and changes are ever material to the world of the game doesn’t matter because they are real in your heart where thinking and logic don’t necessarily have purchase. But when your choices attempt to control the dominoes of a real world and its real consequences, we can see beyond the veil and see how it all breaks down. We are disillusioned instead of invigorated.

And then choice isn’t really choice at all.

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