Digital Culture

Choice-Driven Gameplay and the Demand in Multi-Layered Storytelling

Image Credit: Igor Karimov

By Milena Srandeva

Source: Screenshots of Life is Strange (2015) / Detroit: Become Human (2018) / The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan (2019)

Good stories captivate their audience, making them not only sink into new worlds but fully adopt the heroes’ role. In books, this can be achieved by first-person narration. In games, the equivalent is controlling a character through their point of view. But what separates literary from digital storytelling is plotline development, which in the last decade has turned games into a journey without a single specific and definitive conclusion.

And that seems to gain the support of the consumer. Since 2010 more and more game developers have aimed to grant the final decision back to their audience. Of course, such systems have been around for a while. Some of my favourite examples are the Fallout (1997) or the Baldur’s Gate (1998) series. Yet, they are named role-playing games (RPGs). Although ‘decision-based’ games (DBGs) are not an established genre, they can be considered an RPG sub-type. The main difference being DBG’s focus on the illusion of importance and freedom of choice. So why do these games decide to polarise the ‘choice’ option into a narrative compass?

Thrilling gameplay often relies on high stakes and tension, thus forcing the player to live in the action, to play more and get better. That is why many RPGs focus on conflict. For instance, let us take a look at Life is Strange. A series that debuted in 2015, it gained huge popularity which has still not subsided to this day. Its prime aspects are the creation of a familiar space, a high school, and realistic characters who experience moral dilemmas and hardships, altering the plotline itself. 

The incorporation of fantastic elements further fuels interest in that type of gameplay, because it often leads to exaggeration in action and setting. In Life is Strange, the player explores the role of supernatural abilities into the protagonists’ normal life. On the other end of the same spectrum is Detroit: Become Human (2018), a game centred on the evolution of artificial intelligence (AI). Its huge success is largely due to the revolutionary gameplay mechanics. That is, the ability to peek from different angles into a dystopian future and explore first-hand the ‘awakening’ of AI, and just how ‘artificial’ it is. Plus, experiencing the life of otherwise background characters can be quite enticing.

The combination of suspense, detailed worlds, and interesting characters should be enough for one game. Here many developers go a step further. Whether it is through multiple  perspectives, like in The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan (2019), or presenting all outcomes in an analytical diagram, DBGs success directly links to the focus of their mechanics.

A Flowchart from Detroit: Become Human (2018) [Contains Spoilers from the Chapter: Battle for Detroit]

The search for desired ending makes these games available for multiple runs. Even though most stories have one ‘good’ finale, this is often not defined by the developers but by the players themselves. By investigating different points of view and their multi-layered outcomes, the single player is almost placed in the role of a writer. Although any possibilities have already been inserted, they cannot start up without you. Make a choice.

Categories: Digital Culture, Gaming