The recent Telltale Games series – The Walking Dead, which is currently in its second season, and The Wolf Among Us, based on Bill Willingham’s Fables - make great use of that phrase. They provide the player with relatively limited choice, but they put you in control of how you behave towards others, how you treat them. You may just have tried to cement a shaky alliance by siding with a frightened father over the rest of the group: Kenny will remember that. Or you have just had your character, Sheriff Bigby Wolf – yes, that’s the Big Bad Wolf of fairytale fame in human shape -, beat up a murder suspect in the hope of scaring a confession out of him: The Woodsman will remember that.
The Telltale games, especially the recent ones, have mostly received good to great reviews, but there’s been criticism of what they do since the beginning. Choice and consequence: these are one of the Holy Grails of many gamers, and a fair number of them see the choices in the two aforementioned series as shallow at best, false at worst: the plot largely remains the same, regardless of what you do and what the other characters remember. If someone is fated – or, more accurately, written – to die, they will die. Sometimes the plot may branch in small ways, but these branches are usually closed quickly in favour of a tightly constructed story arc.
What changes, though, is your relationship to the characters you interact with. Kenny will remember that you sided with him at a time when he felt most alone – and, perhaps more important, you will remember. You’ll feel like a good guy, or conflicted over siding with a decent but choleric man who acts before he thinks. The interaction may be shallow in one sense, but in another it is far more nuanced than the binary, “Choose your own adventure”-style story choices in some games lauded for giving the player agency. I don’t dislike those games, but I find Telltale’s, let’s say, relationship-based interactivity more engaging. Their games give you the sort of choices that at least I can relate to: in real life, I rarely am faced with deciding between remaining loyal to a corrupt lord that nevertheless provides stability or joining a rebel army whose dedication to the cause borders on fanaticism. The choices I have are usually about my attitude towards others and how I express this: do I snap at someone because I’m tired and they pushed the wrong buttons, or do I let it go? These are the decisions that in aggregate shape who I feel I am.
Obviously games are often escapist fare, and many enjoy making decisions that they are unlikely ever to face in real life. I won’t deny that the escapist side of games appeals to me too – yet I like some reality in my escapism. I like to feel with characters in unreal worlds that nevertheless resonate and feel real to me. In that respect, I usually stand with good old Marianne Moore, not just with respect to poetry: I want “imaginary gardens with real toads in them”, and not just toads but Kennys, woodsmen and Big Bad Wolves that, for their red eyes and sharp claws, are relatable, are people. Telltale’s choices aren’t epic, they’re human-scale, and they are a large part of what makes their tales of the zombie apocalypse and of exiled fairytale characters trying to make a life in ’80s New York interesting to me: the premises come to life most in how they juxtapose the fantastic and the real, the supernatural and the essentially human. Being an asshole or a nice guy, taking the easy way or sticking to your beliefs, even if you can’t change where things end up, perhaps especially when these choices end up not making a dent in reality – they nevertheless define who you are. Games, perhaps more than other media or art forms, offer interesting ways of expressing yourself.
Clementine will remember that. As will I, because that decision was mine in a meaningful way. When I choose to side with one faction over another in The Witcher II, I do so because I want to see all the material the developers created, to get my money’s worth. I know I will go back to choose the other faction later on. When I make choices as an ex-con trying to do right by his surrogate daughter in a dangerous world, or as a sheriff with deep-rooted anger issues trying to solve a murder, most likely I won’t go back to listen to the other branches on the dialogue tree. I’ve made my choice, and I, too, will remember that.
P.S.: There’s one instance where The Wolf Among Us uses, and subverts, the “_______ will remember that.” trope to great comedic effect. The game’s almost worth playing just for that.