I hope you like it when I talk at excessive length about videogames, because it's that time again. Ginger, old friend and new housemate, is replaying Life Is Strange, and it's got me thinking about narrative choices.
In the last year, I've experienced three games - Life Is Strange, Until Dawn, Oxenfree - in which the gameplay consists almost solely of making choices. There's the occasional puzzle in Life Is Strange, there are QTEs in Until Dawn, but fundamentally these games are about the player making choices to shape the story.
In practice, these games have a linear story to tell. You can't drag the game down wholly different paths, in the way a Choose Your Own Adventure novel might offer. There are a handful of variables, but every playthrough will hit more or less the same story points and end in more or less the same way. Even in Until Dawn, where the way you play determines who lives and who dies, it's not possible to kill everyone off in the first few hours and make the game go '???? roll credits, I guess?' - certain characters are guaranteed to survive long enough to steer you to a predetermined endpoint. Ginger is currently doing an arsehole run of Life Is Strange, making all the horrible decisions they avoided on previous playthroughs, and at moments it's painful to watch, but it's still much the same story I experienced on my own run.
I mentioned this to Ginger, and their response was something I wasn't expecting: they put forward a case for games like this following roughly the same path and ending in roughly the same way, regardless of player choice. I'd always just assumed that 'your choices have as much impact as possible on the narrative' was the ideal point for these games to reach, and the current 'your choices can change small aspects of the story without actually changing the story's direction' situation was a result of budgetary and time constraints. But Ginger pointed out the social aspect to playing games like this: when you've finished a chapter or a game, you'll want to discuss it and theorise with other people playing the same game. If your choices could make Life Is Strange branch off onto one of ten different paths, that wouldn't be possible; you'd go, 'Hey, wasn't it strange when Max drank from the magical fountain and became a unicorn?' and nobody else would be able to discuss it with you, because only 10% of players even come across the magical fountain.
Thinking about it, this applies to fanfiction as well. In total, I've written ten works of fanfiction for these three narrative choice games, most of them set post-ending. If I hadn't been able to go 'yes, I know that the reader's playthrough will have ended in roughly the same way as mine and therefore they'll be able to tell what's going on here,' I'd never have been able to write them. I feel 'we'd better make things easier for the fanfic writers' is possibly not that high on the list of game developers' priorities, but I'm still glad that I was able to create things inspired by these games.
Life Is Strange also has strong themes of memory and nostalgia, of beautiful fleeting moments, of returning to where you came from and realising you're no longer the person you used to be. Would it be possible to write a game with twenty different endings and make its themes feel coherent?
You could argue that a game shouldn't try to be a film, and, while the developers going 'we know the story we're telling here; you can nudge the tiller occasionally, but we're the ones steering' makes for a better narrative, 'the reins are entirely in your hands! go wild!' would make for a better game. But I think I've been persuaded that greater freedom of choice shouldn't necessarily be the goal of all choice-based narrative games. Maybe Life Is Strange isn't an example of a genre that needs to develop; maybe it's a genre that's exactly where it needs to be.
It could still be fun to have the occasional cinematic game where your choices really do shape the narrative. But, for the moment, with all the budgetary issues involved, that might have to remain the domain of visual novels.
I do think choice-based games could do with fewer endings that explicitly undo the effects of all your choices, though. If the entire game consisted of the player making decisions, don't render those decisions meaningless!