Wednesday, August 16, 2017

VIDEO GAMES: "Until Dawn" and the Butterfly Effect

Friends and long-time readers of my work know that the love of my video game life is the mastery of decision-making and consequences in gaming. It's a difficult thing to master, as choices tend to imply a "right" or "wrong" ending, which then requires the game to have an inherent morality to it. Undertale dodged this by making the "right" and "wrong" sides very straightforwardly "don't kill anyone" and "kill everyone," while Papers, Please employed the moral code of a fictional cold war company.

The issue with an inherent morality, as I've mentioned before, is that grey areas exist, and any game will by default exhibit a morality influenced by its programmers. Another solution, then, would be to remove the concept of morality from the game entirely and make the decisions about something else -- in other words, what the player themselves likes or dislikes.

I'm only halfway through Until Dawn, but I have no intention of watching a playthrough because this game has finally mastered what I've been seeing nearly done in games for ages. That is, it creates a genuinely personalized gaming experience not by challenging your morals, but by asking you to help it build itself as it goes.

Judging You

Peter Stormare appears as The Analyst, who meets with you between scenes to check in on how you're feeling. Or, more accurately, he takes notes on which characters you like and dislike and what you're afraid of. His first test for you is a photo of a farmhouse, with a hook-handed scarecrow in the front. Does it unsettle you? Why? If the scarecrow weren't there, would you feel better? What if he told you the farmhouse was haunted?

The check-ins get more and more detailed. Here's a book of scary things. Which is scarier, A or B? How about now? Okay, here are the characters so far. Which one do you prefer? Well that's funny because what you've been doing sure doesn't indicate that.

Oh. Right. He calls you out if your answers don't match your behavior.

Now, as I said, I've only played halfway through and I don't know endgame. I have my suspicions but I don't know for sure. But what I find interesting is the difference between my playthrough so far and that of my friend Rob. He and I see eye to eye on about 90% of things, with a few personal twitches here and there based on life experience. For the most part, he said while he watched me play, we made the same decisions. But there were one or two small ("small") instances where we varied from each other, and entire scenes were different.

That is some serious style. Also, none of these is an actual judgment call. Things don't happen because you made a good or bad decision. Things happen because, well, if you sneak a look at your friend's phone they're going to get back at you later. Or if you tell your friend you saw his girlfriend cheating, his attitude will be more frigid when you're all gathered in an empty house. Kind of like real life.

Your Worst Fears

Rob said the game would play best if I was completely honest. That meant not only reacting to the situations as I would personally, but also being real when it came to admitting my fears.

He wasn't wrong.

The questions seem sort of silly at first. Clowns or zombies? (Clowns, I said, because "clowns are real.") Spiders or roaches? Needles or dogs? You're encouraged to answer with as little thought as possible, and just go for your knee-jerk reaction.

The results come in pretty quickly, and what you get is a horror game tailored to you. Just judging from how widely the scenes differed based on one or two different answers, I can't even begin to imagine the enormous web of scenes and dialogues that vary just a little and the sheer amount of memory and programming that goes into choosing the horrors you're going to see lining the Analyst's office next time you visit him.

All things considered, it's one of the best ways I've seen to tackle decision-making in games. The programmers were smart enough to remove morality entirely by making it a horror game: one where very few will make it out alive, anyway. You jump from character to character, so you're not encouraged to "be" any one person, and their personalities and relationships change based on your actions. The only "right" or "wrong" decisions are arbitrary and in the moment and involve whether you'll get caught, not whether you're a decent human being.

From Here?

Now technically there are "Good Ends" and "Bad Ends" from what I've heard. So there's an ending where all playable characters can survive, there's one where they all die, etc. If you rate morality by how many live, then I guess there's that.

But this is a "teenagers in the woods" horror story. So its genre, by definition, encourages you to remove that aspect because you can expect some death and gore. It's what kind of story you get -- not if you get the "right" story.

I want to finish this game. I'm actively preventing myself from watching playthroughs or reading spoilers because I want to see how my game ends. My game, where I snuck a look at my friend's phone and chose not to shoot a squirrel just to show off and have been playing safe rather than quick. My game where needles are scarier than roaches. I kind of want to see what Until Dawn has in store for me specifically.

And seriously? That's something I want to see more of in decision-driven gaming. Less judging, less trying to find the "right" ending, more of a personalized adventure.