Warning: This article contains spoilers for Telltale’s Game of Thrones and DONTNOD’s Life is Strange.
I am contemplating whether or not to kick someone off a 700 foot wall. An hour earlier I was just trying to decide what to have for breakfast. The first takes place in the cold north of Telltale’s Game of Thrones, the second occurs in DONTNOD’s Life is Strange, two adventure game siblings in what is now quite clearly a genre renaissance. While the deadly realm of Westeros is a far cry from the calm Pacific Northwest, the two experiences are not as removed as you might think. Both games bend genre expectations and explore their narratives while fully aware of their opportunities.
The binary life-or-death choice is Telltale’s iconic moment of player agency. Two people are in danger, you only have time to save one person’s life. What do you do? Like a classic philosophical dilemma, moments like these force you to rationalize about an uncomfortably difficult decision. Telltale is known for these sudden and often crucial narrative turning points, and they execute them fully aware of player expectations.
“The Sword in the Darkness,” Telltale’s latest Game of Thrones episode, begins with this very predicament. As Asher Forrester, the exiled prince of House Forrester, whose life do you save? Your Uncle’s or your best friend’s? Based upon what we know about Telltale’s The Walking Dead and the grim reality of the Song of Ice & Fire universe, there is a very real chance your decision could result in the death of one of these two characters. When put to the test, who does Asher value more? His uncle or his best friend?
Of course, players can (and do) try to justify their actions without having to choose sides. In this case, Beskha, Asher’s friend, is facing off against a dragon while his Uncle can probably handle himself against two faceless soldiers (at least that’s my logic). Also, regardless of your decision, both characters survive to live another day. Even so, the choice could set the tone for the rest of their relationship. Even the characters know the choice is a binary one, and their perspective of you can shift because of your actions.
There are similar moments in Life is Strange, but its narrative twist makes all the difference. Max, the game’s protagonist, can rewind time. Unlike the life-or-death moments of Game of Thrones, there is no immediacy to any decision. Max can, for the most part, rewind time and try again, changing her responses to explore new results. This is tantamount to loading a quicksave. DONTNOD knows we all want to create a perfect story, in which all actions are perfectly measured and considered, and they give us the tools to do so. Nothing is timed and nothing — at least at first — is permanent.
Rather than sap decision making of its dramatic tension in Life is Strange, the rewind mechanic disperses the anxiety of making decisions throughout the entire experience. One crucial decision in “Out of Time,” the series’s latest episode, is whether or not Max picks up her phone when her troubled friend Kate calls. The moment is innocuous. There is no sudden slow-motion to punctuate the scene, no dramatic lighting to spotlight the critical dilemma. Just a phone call and a faint concern that you might offend someone you care about.
In Game of Thrones, there is no right or wrong decision. The world is chaotic and violent. Saving one sometimes means losing another, and we know that in this world decision making is a zero-sum game. In Life is Strange, despite the time travel, the world is familiar. Yes, sometimes we offend a friend without meaning to, but there is a right and a wrong way of behaving. The challenge is navigating the social landscape well enough to know how to make the right decision. The game offers you the chance you rarely have to really think about your decisions before you make them, to consider all of the consequences, and to move on when you feel that you’ve made the best decision possible with what little information you have. This is a satisfying moment of agency, even if life does not hang in the balance.
Matters of Life and Death
There does come a time though, when life does in fact hang in the balance. See, sometimes picking up the phone to listen to a friend does make all the difference. In Life is Strange, Kate Moss, a young bullied teen, tries to kill herself. And depending on your decisions, she can do it. The weight of her grief can drive her over the edge, and despite your best efforts to talk to her, she can die.
In the world of Game of Thrones, I am ready to kill, to cross those moral boundaries I have set for myself and seek revenge. In fact, the best thing about the game’s diverse playable cast is that it liberates me to play flawed protagonists. Every decision that I make is tense and dramatic and rightly so. I want to use the adventure game genre to explore human behavior at its most extreme.
The real, human, lived, experience, is made of big and small decisions. Sometimes we really can save or condemn a life in an instant. We can change the world with a single act. Other times, the briefest moments of our life have profound repercussions. They build on each other, and before we know it, a word said in haste can mean anything. We can lose the ones we love without ever knowing what moment, of many, determined their fate.
When I play Game of Thrones, I try to create a compelling story about a family on the raggedy edge. I roleplay my decisions as each character, each with their own unique faults. When I play Life is Strange, I play a bit more like myself. I try to do what I think is right, and I make no decision lightly. Lately, I’ve been trying to not rewind at all, to be comfortable in my ignorance and to trust my instincts.
There are lessons to be learned here on the battlefields of Westeros and on the battlefields of social life. So far, the adventure game genre feels capable of exploring them all.