This was another fantastic year for video games. The console cycle has been winding down, and developers (both indie and triple-A) are squeezing everything they can out of these machines before the new ones come along. Thanks to that, we saw games like Journey, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Far Cry 3, Asura’s Wrath, Fez, and so many others come along. However, something stuck out to me this year that I think is more important than any one single release: giving the player the ability to make choices.
In an entertainment medium that is all about being an active participant in the experience, it has only been a few years since developers took it upon themselves to give players agency in how a story unfolds. Games like Bioshock and Mass Effect were heralded as early paragons of storytelling in the modern generation, challenging players to make up their own minds at critical points throughout the narrative. They represented a push to elevate the industry as a whole by telling more mature and diverse stories.
Despite this advance, the choices that games began offering to players usually boiled down to binary paths. Gamers weren’t affecting the universe they were playing in so much as they were deciding between the “blue” ending or the “red” ending. The reality was that the writing still could not support the weight of true freedom, and the stakes in video game storytelling remained relatively low. It seemed like everyone wanted to shoehorn a “morality system” that dictated the story’s direction into their game, whether it needed one or not. What started as a revolution became a bloated trend that developers and publishers used so they could put another feature on the back of the box.
Then, 2012 happened. Mass Effect 3, Spec Ops: The Line, Call of Duty: Black Ops II, The Walking Dead, and plenty other releases I haven’t had a chance to play yet have revolutionized player choice.
In a single year, the most creative minds in the industry managed to craft a multitude of experiences that redefined what it meant to give players control. Say what you will about the ending, but Mass Effect 3 weaved in the ramifications of choices players made almost five years ago in the first game and tied a bow on the 200+ hour space opera. Spec Ops: The Line made players face the monster of a man they had created through their choices and even inspired this 50,000-word epic by Brendan Keogh where every choice and implication is analyzed. Black Ops II tied your actions (or inactions) to the story in a seamless way, radically altering the outcome depending on your choices and performance of mission objectives. You know you’re onto something when it ends up in the latest Call of Duty game.
The Walking Dead is in a league of its own and has forever changed the way I will look at video games. Without delving into spoiler territory, the game used my decisions against me multiple times to make me second-guess what I had done and, more importantly, legitimately care about the consequences. By the time you reach the end of the first season, your Lee Everett could have done things entirely differently than my Lee Everett, but we still would have experienced the same moving story where no choice was the right one.
These stories and experiences signal a true shift in the way games are made and played. We’ve been given the chance to project our own persona onto the characters we control. It is a feat that developers have been chasing for more than a decade, and there is finally a blueprint on how player agency should work in games. That is why I’m declaring 2012 the year of player choice.
Also posted on PixelRated.