Supermassive Games’ Until Dawn does a lot of interesting things no narrative-heavy adventure game has. Its hyper-realistic facial animations and textures have set a standard for the graphical capabilities of the next generation of consoles. Perhaps more importantly however is the game’s butterfly effect, which has set the bar for dynamic interactive cinematic gaming experiences.
The butterfly effect is a simple yet highly effective mechanic. Much like the chaos theory coined by philosopher Edward Lorenz, whereby a slight change in reality creates a ripple effect significantly changing the chance of a future event, each decision the player makes creates a chain of potential events, branching the narrative down a specific path or scene, sometimes allowing for a revelation or character development. This effect can allow for a completely different gaming experience to a friend, sometimes even including different characters, scenery or, in the case of Until Dawn, scares and deaths.
“You could have a character come out of the game as heroic or rather unpleasant depending on what you chose to say or do”, Supermassive Games’ creative director Will Byles said. “Characters’ relationships with each other and their personality traits change [depending on your choices] too”.
Choosing to give a flare gun to one character instead of another, for instance, can change one character’s fate and remove the potential character arc of another character’s fear of becoming a supernatural being. Repetitively taking a short risky path when chasing after a kidnapped friend can lead to her surviving (and a short scene of her being dragged into a barn), while taking the safe path will result in the player failing to save the victim.
This creates a very personal journey that’s needed for a game based on player choice. The player feels completely immersed, making morally conflicting or what is perceived as simple choices before witnessing the consequences of their actions.
Telltale Games have tried to have this same affect on players’ morals and sense of decision-making in their modern episodic franchises. Some of the player’s choices in The Walking Dead dictated whether characters survived till the end while some of Bigby’s player-decided actions in the Fables comic series inspired, The Wolf Among Us, influenced characters’ interest in helping Bigby solve a murder case. Telltale’s flaw lies on their failure to give these actions any weight, creating bland consequences for the players’ actions that are similar to the other potential outcome. The characters feel grounded but the narrative feels linear regardless of the player’s influence.
People once argued that the lack of unique grounded endings or ramifications in Telltale Games’ franchises was justified by the grand production costs and extra time that could be spent creating completely different endings. It was just not worth the extra month – or even year – to add an extra scene here or there. The addition of Until Dawn’s Butterfly Effect has completely disregarded this outdated view. Until Dawn’s long-winded development was for the most part a result of the entire game being ‘filmed’ by motion capturing the twelve actors. The multidimensional story was no doubt created before they began filming, and reports of Hayden Panettiere filming on set only began surfacing two to three years ago.
The Butterfly Effect is dynamic and fresh, and much like Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis system, it has become a staple of the narrative-based adventure genre – just as much as Shadow of Mordor should become the standard of open-world action-based stealth adventure games.
Developers like Telltale Games and the studio behind Life is Strange, Donned Entertainment, need to adopt this mechanic and give weight to the decisions made by the player. I want to feel like keeping a character caught committing a criminal act alive instead of killing them earlier in the seasonal series was worth it. Telltale Games are well-known for challenging the player’s morals through characters’ attitudes towards the playable character – “Clementine will remember that…” – but Supermassive Games goes the extra mile by placing the characters’ lives and the game’s narrative in the hands of the player.
The branching narrative tool also greatly encourages players to replay the game, something that narrative-based adventure games should opt to have. Until Dawn is designed to be played numerous times.
“No two people on the planet will take the same path [in Until Dawn]”, Byles said.
The butterfly effect narrative allows for over 50+ variations of endings, from all of the teenagers surviving the night to everyone being mauled by wendigos to even the existential fear of a character turning on another in fear that they’ll become a beast themselves.
“There’s no empirical answer really to how many decisions you make throughout the game”, Byles said. “There are mathematical permutations of eight people, all of whom can live or all of whom can die in any order in any number of ways”.
These vastly different endings provide various experiences, encouraging players to replay the game to discover a different scene, different approach to a situation or even completely avoid the given scenario.
Putting some of Telltale’s newer and incomplete series aside, games like The Wolf Among Us and Life is Strange suffer from a lack of an incentive to replay the game. A universal problem with story-heavy decision making is the short amount of time it takes to experience the entire narrative. Most of Telltale’s seasonal franchises can be blitzed through in less than ten hours with some episodes lasting slightly more than a full hour. Again, adopting Supermassive Games’ Butterfly Effect will solve this. Creating a game with various endings, for instance, having Bigby Wolf enact capital punishment and corrupt Fabletown’s judge, jury and executive system, or the criminal surviving and killing everyone in The Wolf Among Us, entices players to replay the game, solving people’s complaints that narrative-heavy games are short and not worth the money.
Until Dawn’s Butterfly Effect is the new standard of player-choice based games. Its various branching narratives and ability to explicitly and subtly show the player the grounded consequences of their actions, challenges the player’s sense of decision making like no other game in the genre. Telltale Games, a development studio famous for its characterisation and morally challenging player decisions, needs to adopt this system. Providing the player with dynamic outcomes and even scenarios that can only occur if the player follows a certain narrative path, gives reality to the player’s decisions and the game’s virtual world, bringing the rest of the genre into the present generation of player-choice games.
This feature was first published on Press Start Australia on the 16th of September 2015.