A Thousand Steps Makes a Mile: Tiny Immersive Choices Are the Future Of GamesGames Features game design
I am not good at making choices. Analysis paralysis takes over when trying to pick a restaurant or movie or TV show; when multiple options are good, how am I supposed to know what the right one is? My lackluster resolve makes playing choice-based adventure games a chore, as I agonize over each and every choice, worried that making the “wrong” one will lead me down a less ideal story path. The writers of these games have to have a perfect playthrough of the game in mind during development, some way for you to see all the hard work they’ve put into the narrative. This destructive and restrictive way of playing has often steered me away from the genre, so imagine my surprise when two choice-based adventures flew to the top of my game of the year list.
Spoilers for Life is Strange: True Colors and Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy below.
I never touched the Life is Strange series, which could quite honestly be enough to revoke my queer gamer card. The games always interested me—superpowered teens coming-of-age is right up my alley—but the episodic structure and reliance on choices kept me away. I knew I could replay the chapters during the interim, experiencing every choice offered, but that seemed like an unsustainable way to play.
Last March when Life is Strange: True Colors was announced, my interest finally got the better of me: it was time to see what all the hubbub was about. I downloaded DONTNOD’s most recent venture Tell Me Why. Within minutes, I was enthralled by the game’s narrative: a pair of telepathic twins prepare to sell their childhood home and uncover the mystery shrouding the death of their mother. I loved the characters—particularly Tyler’s unabashed transness—and I loved exploring and uncovering hidden tidbits about the story and the people of Delos Crossing. However, the game leaned hard on either/or choices, demanding that players choose how the twins remember specific events. My nightmare had come true: there were correct options, each decision determining the strength of the bond between the Ronan twins. It was up to me to keep the family together, and although I succeeded, it was stressful getting there.
Life is Strange: True Colors, though? It’s different. Players control Alex Chen, an empath reuniting with her brother Gabe in the Colorado sanctuary of Haven Springs. Upgrading from its predecessors, True Colors comes as a whole package and allows players to explore almost the entirety of Haven Springs. The larger sandbox makes a world of difference; allowing curiosity and encouraging exploration provides naturalism to balance out the saccharine melodrama the series is known for.
The game leans away from anxiety-inducing binary decisions and focuses instead on tiny choices. Each small decision may seem insignificant at the time, but they ultimately build toward the game’s climax. If you choose to explore Haven Springs and talk with its inhabitants, you’ll find ways to connect with them. You can help Eleanor through her slowly worsening dementia, support Riley into leaving for college, or guide Charlotte through her grieving; you can just as easily not do any of that. The main story, focusing on Typhon Mining covering up the accidental death of Gabe, usually requires players to only interact with the two love interests—Steph and Ryan—and Jed, your surrogate father with a dark past.
Going off the beaten path and seeking out these easy-to-miss interactions often makes me forget that I’m making choices at all. What once felt like life or death transforms into the natural desire to help people, complimenting Alex’s empathetic-telepathy, the superpower of this entry. Exploring the town is a joy rather than a chore; uncovering bits and pieces of Haven Springs makes the place feel alive, a story being written with every step taken. Each townsperson in need that I stumbled across becomes important if only for a moment, someone that I have the power and responsibility to help.
Something similar can be said about Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. As Star-Lord, you lead the functionally dysfunctional team on a quest to save the universe and get paid doing so. Choices range from quick comments while exploring to massive decisions that shape the story and ultimately decide your ending, but the best ones fall smackdab in the middle of those two extremes. These minor deviations allow for a ridiculous amount of permutations to your playthrough, meaning the path that you’ve followed and the connections you have with your Guardians are likely different from someone else’s. You can hide a space llama to get a fine and no weapons, or you can hide some weapons and get homing missiles, a slightly more expensive fine and a mini-game with said space llama.
The writing team at Eidos-Montreal had to take into account all of these variations and write with them in mind; small dialogue choices that add nothing but flavor and team building pop up all over the place, especially when you’re deviating from the path. So many moments that I had within the game felt special because I felt like I was experiencing something no one else before me had. The game burgeoned from a single-player narrative into a single-person tale, something wholly and uniquely crafted for my eyes only.
While these smaller actions may feel superfluous compared to the bigger either/or moments, both games treat them as building blocks for their conclusion. Guardians’ endgame feels dependent on the bonds between the team, allowing them to fight and solve puzzles without your orders. Characters you helped hours before arrive and destroy entire enemy encounters, clearing the way toward the final confrontation. In True Colors, Alex stands in front of the town with a groundbreaking revelation that will either turn the town against you or see them stand by your side. Your little choices—helping at the flower shop, meeting at the bus stop, dancing together in the bar—add up in a big way: those who you helped believe you, and those you didn’t ignore you. The incremental build toward these moments feels so natural and realistic that however they side, the blame falls solely on you.
It’s these little hidden interactions throughout both Life is Strange: True Colors and Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy that illuminate a possible future within gaming. One where the technology and storytelling ambition align to allow every game to truly be unique, not because of procedural generation, but the care and craft of dedicated teams. They place breadcrumbs around the world for you to find, the ownership of each discovery embedding a deeper sense of interactivity and control within the player. These stories work because they are finite and purposeful, easy enough to follow barebones but with each hidden beat adding enriching fat and meat, making the meal even tastier.
When you’ve been given so much control and authority, it’s almost difficult to go back to the way things are, to games that want you to experience the story from point A – Z the exact same way as everyone else. My enjoyment of these games is certainly not diminished, but a little selfish part of me wants that control back, to feel special once again.
Mik Deitz is a freelance writer and Paste intern. They inhale stories in videogames, films, TV and books, and have never finished God of War (2018). Yell at or compliment them on Twitter @dietdeitz.