I don’t think that I’ve directly stated it on this blog before, but I’m currently a Ph.D. student studying agency in interactive narrative. If that sounds like a bunch of academic nonsense, the more lay speech for what I do is this: I’m researching how much freedom players have to influence narrative outcomes in games with a built-in storyline, as well as how to identify areas of weakness is current game design tactics and how to increase the capacities for player agency without decreasing the coherency of a well-form story. If all that sounds impossible, that’s why there’s a Ph.D. involved. While there are various types of interactive narratives, a current trend in interactive narrative games is the implementation of a morality system whereby your moral choices alter the path and (sometimes) the outcomes of the narrative’s conclusion. As a result, I’ve also spent a lot of time dissecting morality systems and how they affect player agency in games. My baseline opinion about morality systems is that, when they are implemented or communicated to players via visual feedback systems, they significantly decrease both player agency and immersion. If you’d like to be persuaded on this issue, please read my article located here.
With that background in mind, I want to respond to an article Becky Chambers wrote earlier this month, about the morality systems in TellTales The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us. In the article, Becky argues that Telltale’s games offer effective agency in which the player’s choices carry weight and maintain meaning in and of themselves because the game does not force a morality system onto the player, at least not in the form of feedback. Chambers writes, of the two games by Telltale,
It’s all about story, and nothing but the story, so help you god. I think that’s a big part of what makes these games land as heavily as they do. Decision-making feeling organic, undiluted. The only think trackable is how many other players made the same decisions you did. There’s no judgement, no social coding. Just quiet statistics illustrating how arbitrary morality can be.
I too would praise Telltale for diminishing the amount of feedback offered to players following a narrative choice, and for allowing players to feel the weight of their choices as the narrative moves forward. I wouldn’t, however, praise Telltale as highly as Chambers does. Telltale still fails to balance (supposing that is their goal) interactivity with narrativity. The most glaring flaw in Telltale’s interactive narratives is that the choices players make are almost entirely arbitrary and thus contain almost zero agency.
Of course, this same complaint could be made of most interactive narratives today. The game is rigged, and the choices are fixed. We, as players, are only presented with choices that have been programmed into the system and which will, inevitably, lead to a predetermined conclusion in order to maintain narrative coherency and closure. Until the Holodeck is real, we must accept that all choices in games are, on some level, arbitrary.
The problem with TellTale is that it doesn’t bury this truth well enough. In fact, it remains glaringly obvious. The narrative is so fixed, so impenetrable, that regardless of the choices the player makes, the episodes will reach the same conclusion. There are no real forking paths – all roads lead to the same destination. When presented with the option in episode 4 of The Wolf Among US to visit the Jersey Devil or the Butcher Shop, the choice of either is moot. Regardless of where Bigby goes first, he will go to the other too. No sacrifice has been made. While the order of occurrences in the story may be subtly shuffled, the storyline itself — its narrative beats and measures — remain the same. Bigby will gather the pieces he needs to solve the mystery and the conclusion in the final episode will be, I conjecture, the same for all players, at least where the protagonist is concerned. The result is that while the game may provide small nuanced differences based on who Bigby saves or where he goes and in what order, the conclusion will be static for its protagonist and thus for the player. Though technically an interactive narrative, Telltale’s experiences hold onto the narrative reigns tightly and at the expense of an immersive and interactive experience in which players feel their choices really did matter or did alter the course of Bigby’s investigations.
That said, both The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead are inspired by and based on strict and static narratives, and thus it is fair to assume that Telltale’s narrative priority is meant to outweigh the agency of the player. In these specific stories, the player must stick to the canon of the stories as established by their original mediums. Telltale is giving players the opportunity to feel involved in the story, but not to be in control of it. Still, I’d be interested to see what Telltale could do with their morality system in a game that was entirely their own IP.