I recently finished Firewatch (short review: it’s great) and it got me thinking: when did games become so introspective and judgemental?
Let me explain.
Lately, as I’ve talked about before, my gaming choices have become more about experiencing well told stories and investing in characters rather than gunning down faceless foes in the online arena. It’s a type of game I find myself wanting to play more of now, where there’s little in the way of action but lots of interaction. I posited before that maybe it was an age thing, and I’m more certain than I ever was before that this is the case.
I’m a married man and a father, and am 100% in love with these types of games now. Where my own personal life experience informs my choices and drives the narrative forward. When I was playing Halo or Call of Duty into the wee small hours I was living at home, responsibility free and the biggest concern I had in life was…I can’t even think of what my biggest concern would have been, so worry free was my existence. Now? I have so much more to draw on. I don’t mean I’m now just a human meatsuit filled with neuroses and worries but I have real life experience. To coin the favourite phrase an old wanker of a manager I once had I’ve been to the ‘university of life.’ Although he said that mostly because he hadn’t been to an actual university.
SPOILERS FOR FIREWATCH AND THE WALKING DEAD SEASON 2
I’ve been through enough in my short life so far that a decision that would have once been simple(r) to make because of my lack of experience suddenly becomes that much harder. To bring it back to Firewatch, early on in the game Henry, the player character, has to choose between several options on how best to deal with an ailing spouse who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. It’s heartbreaking. In most cases there isn’t a good choice and a bad choice, just varying degrees of awful. Just like real life. I made my choice, one that I was ‘happy’ with in the moment and what felt like the decision I would make were I ever in that situation. My wife, sat beside me on the sofa, looked away when I was making the choice. She said she ‘didn’t want to know’ my decision. This never happened playing Sonic the Hedgehog.
Then, near the end when I was talking to Delilah, my companion throughout the game who you’ve become friendly with and possibly developed amorous feelings towards albeit on over walkie talkie, about the future, everything in my usual gaming brain - and the 'get the girl' mentality I've been instilled with from most media - made me want to run away with her but I couldn't make that choice. It didn’t feel right. It wouldn’t have been what I would do, and therefore I wouldn’t have made Henry do it. Technically I (Henry) was still married, even if his wife was thousands of miles away and wouldn't remember him. Earlier in the game Henry had, off screen, removed his wedding ring when his relationship with Delilah was blossoming. When the choice came later in the game to put it back on, I did. My own situation and experiences informed my choice so much so that I denied Henry a potential shot at happiness, going against everything my brain wanted for him in the moment. The caveat here is, as with most of these choice based games, the outcome is possibly inevitable and whatever was going to happen happens (I’ve only played through it once so can’t say for sure) but the great thing about these games is that they really hit you where you live. Your choices may not affect the ending, but you better believe they’ll affect your soul.
Which brings me to The Walking Dead.
Season two piled on the pressure, putting players in the shoes of Clementine, your charge in season 1, and forcing you to make life or death decisions in the face of hordes of undead. But those aren’t the ones I remember. They’re not the ones that almost a year later I still feel bad about. Legitimate pangs of guilt and regret. A major plot point in the finale concerns a new born baby. A year ago my son was around 6 months. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you this affected the decisions I made in the game greatly.
Through a sequence of events I’ll not go into in too much detail, Clementine has been more or less convinced that one of the remaining members of her group (Jane) has killed the baby because it will make traversing the zombie apocalypse that much harder, with all the crying and shouting that babies are wont to do. Kenny (a fellow survivor of season 1, whose life has really gone to shit over the two seasons) is outraged and lashes out at Jane for her actions and tries to kill her. Clementine can either do nothing or kill Kenny. I chose to do nothing and let Kenny kill her. That’s not what I feel bad about. Soon after, you discover the baby is not dead and you have to take care of him. Kenny and Clementine then come across a safe haven at which you could either remain outside in the wilderness with Kenny and the baby when they refuse to let all three of you in, or go into the compound but without Kenny. I chose the latter. I’M SO SORRY, KENNY!
Telltale Games excel at this type of complexity, as evidenced by their successes in whichever franchise they pick up and adapt (Game of Thrones, Tales of the Borderlands, The Wolf Among Us) all of which deal in the murkier areas of the human psyche. But where games were - and still are, in most cases - normally a bit of an escape from ourselves where we could live out fantasies of actions untethered to the mundanity of reality, these games dive head first into our brains and force us to ask questions of ourselves and whether or not we’re good people, be it as a forest ranger or surviving a zombie apocalypse.
Even a game as trashy as Until Dawn deals in similar themes. In it you’re practically encouraged to kill certain characters at certain moments but I found that I couldn’t bring myself to kill (or let die) the most hateful character, Emily. And she’s a straight up bitch.
Am I putting too much thought into this? Maybe it’s just me but I know when I’m thrust into a game where I have to make decisions constantly I always try to make the decision that in real life I feel like I would make, not the decision that’s best for the characters in the game.