Break up the binge… and the backlog
The restrictions that governed our lives for the past few months are easing up a little now, and although many of us will be heading back into society with something new to talk about from our adventures through Netflix (or Stan, or Disney+, or Foxtel Now, etc.) or the depths of our gaming backlogs, I’m here today to talk about a different type of experience: narrative-rich interactive dramas with complex characters, tense action, more tears than even Death Stranding can offer.
2020 has been an absolute hell of a year so far, and although we’ve got no idea what the rest of the year’s going to throw at it, we do know that we’re heading towards a new console generation and that means plenty of gamers are starting to look at their backlogs a little more closely. Whether you’re still isolated, getting back into life’s normal flow or just looking for something to help you de-stress, there’s nothing like digging your heels into another world — especially when that world brings you up close and personal with motion-captured actors and ensures that you’ll make a deep, personal connection with everyone that blinks at you. Better yet, you can share this experience with your friends; interactive dramas can mix up your movie nights by letting you dictate what happens next.
Let’s have a chat about the interactive drama genre, and go through three of the major players in the space!
At the end of 2018, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch made waves as it brought the choose-your-own-adventure formula to a streaming platform, sneakily exposing the masses to the kind of narrative gameplay that’s been around since the early 2000s. Bandersnatch had viewers make a series of decisions for the main character, on a timer, and came with multiple endings based on the decisions they made; in other words, it followed the design philosophies we’ve seen from the narrative genre’s big three: Telltale Games, Supermassive Games and Quantic Dream.
Branching endings and dynamic, world-affecting choices are nothing new in video games (or novels), and powerful moments of emotion and character have always been a defining feature of great games (looking at you, Last of Us). Learning from this, Telltale, Supermassive and Quantic Dream have committed to taking emotion and narrative to the extreme, combining individualism with philosophy, pop-culture with morality and choice with dire consequence. Story-rich gameplay also appears in walking simulators like Campo Santo’s Firewatch or point-and-click experiences like Dontnod Entertainment’s Life is Strange, but nothing quite scratches the itch like those unique games that offer free-flowing cinematics dominated by quick-time events.
Tell us a Tale
Telltale Games has been developing brain-tickling, episodic narratives since 2004, shifting to more cinematic experiences with Back to the Future: The Game back in 2010. Telltale has worked with existing properties like CSI, Wallace & Gromit, Jurassic Park, The Walking Dead, the Fables comics, Batman, Game of Thrones and even Minecraft, reimagining those pre-existing worlds to either retell or expand upon their stories, and it’s done so with great success.
The sheer breadth of storylines Telltale has produced since its foundation in 2004 means that there’s something in the studio’s library for everyone, and its games are always accessible — Telltale likes to condense the experience with more linear stories than other interactive narratives. That is in no way a negative, though: by making them less complex, Telltale has made its graphic adventures much easier, much more binge-worthy, and much less daunting to play through multiple times. Batman: The Enemy Within is an excellent example of this, guiding you to one of only two dynamic endings (with many, many minor detail changes, of course) that are both wholly worth the time you’ll invest to get to them.
It’s easy to let Telltale’s preferred cartoon-esque art style lull you into a false sense of security, but the studio’s storylines can go from frivolous to fantastically dark very quickly indeed, so it’s important that you check the classification before you share it with younger members of your family. Tales from the Borderlands, one of the funniest games I’ve ever played, is a pleasure for both young and old (and completely canon to the main Borderlands series), but Telltale’s Batman releases have some more graphic scenes that make it more suitable for mature audiences.
Telltale’s experiences do require a bit of a public service announcement, though: each and every one of them seems completely committed to breaking your immersion. I strongly recommend playing them offline without any notifications, as they constantly try to upload your responses to the cloud which stutters the gameplay and results in a whole bunch of arbitrary achievements, “triumphs” and comparisons to the way everyone else played the game.
Of course, Telltale did suffer through a “majority studio closure” back in 2018, a messy procedure that reignited the discussions about the need for a game developers’ union, but a new management team brought the beloved studio back last August, and it kicked off its new life in a big way: with a 47-second teaser aired during The Game Awards last December, the studio announced that it had started work on The Wolf Among Us 2 — perhaps its most anticipated title — again, with its original writer, composer, and directors as well as the voices of Bigby Wolf and Snow White.
Telltale has another ace up its sleeve, as well: Crowd Play, a system that allowed other people to join a friend or streamer’s game and have a say in the decisions the player was asked to make. It was a fun feature, and it would make a fantastic addition to new Telltale experiences now that the isolation period has shone light on remote interactions, but Telltale hasn’t made mention of it yet — it’s very possible that the technology (and servers) fell by the wayside after Telltale’s original closure. Still, it’s well worth holding out hope for; it’s a novel feature that can add another social layer to these wonderful experiences.
Supermassive Games was already an award winner when it joined the narrative scene with 2015’s Until Dawn, a game that gave players the power to force young people (including Bohemian Rhapsody’s Rami Malek, Heroes’ Hayden Panettiere and Camp Rock’s Meaghan Martin) to make extremely dumb choices in what was essentially a slasher movie. Supermassive reacted to Until Dawn’s unexpected success by releasing a VR spin-off, Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, and a prequel, The Inpatient, but neither performed as well as the original.
In between those two expansions, Supermassive also released its own take on Telltale’s Crowd Play feature, embedding its version, known as PlayLink, into the crime-focused drama Hidden Agenda in October 2017. Hidden Agenda didn’t go over poorly, but it also didn’t perform nearly as well as Until Dawn did. Supermassive Games obviously realised that its strengths — and the narrative genre’s potential — lie in horror experiences; although there’s a considerable market for an Until Dawn 2, however, Supermassive opted to go in a different direction, announcing that its latest release, Man of Medan, would be the first of eight planned instalments in the Dark Pictures Anthology.
It is in the cliché that both Until Dawn and Man of Medan shine, with both giving Supermassive the opportunity to put its own spin on a different horror movie trope: Until Dawn played on the cabin fever cliché that Friday the 13th made famous, while Man of Medan fished up a ghost ship to serve as the setting for a bloodbath. In both games, even the most minor decision can result in one of your characters dying (which they may or may not deserve…). As someone who grew up watching films like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th, having actual decisive power in this genre is an amazing experience — especially when you get to embody the Final Girl trope yourself.
Supermassive has shown its commitment to shared experiences by building game modes Shared Story and Movie Night into Man of Medan, focused on online sharing and passing the controller to one another respectively. The studio also took accessibility into account by giving players the option to remove the time-out of quick-time events, and to hold buttons rather than mashing them in certain scenarios.
The studio is planning to introduce new horrors to the Dark Pictures Anthology with Little Hope, set in small town America and using witches as the narrative focus. If Until Dawn and Man of Medan are anything to go by, Little Hope is set to be a great way to mix up future fright nights.
Playing the Dream
The grizzled veteran in the narrative game space, Quantic Dream was creating unique, interactive experiences long before anyone else joined the party. With visionary director David Cage at the helm, the Paris-based studio has five games in its library, with 1999’s The Nomad Soul serving as a statement of its intent to create these narrative-based experiences over “traditional” action-packed adventures. Since then, the studio has gone on to release Fahrenheit, Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls, and most recently Detroit: Become Human. In the latter four titles, which have all been released on PlayStation 4 (either at launch or as re-releases), the studio has also shown a stubborn commitment to using the DualShock 4’s motion controls — and its even less-utilised touch screen function — for better or worse.
With its cinematic immersion and conceptual storyline combining supernatural entities with gritty procedural crime, Fahrenheit (also known as Indigo Prophecy) was absolutely ground-breaking when it released in 2005. Fortunately for modern gamers, Aspyr saw fit to remaster it onto both PC and PS4 back in 2015; despite Aspyr’s work in giving all of the original textures a coat of HD paint, it still looks very much like a PS4 game — and yet I’d still recommend it above anything else in the narrative games space to this day.
Quantic Dream’s best-received game, Heavy Rain took everything that the team learned from Fahrenheit and grounded it in harsh reality, focusing on empathy, trauma and relatability. Once again using an ensemble of playable characters to interconnect the narrative, Heavy Rain offers some truly distinct and rewarding narrative branches. It also offers some truly traumatic and adrenaline inducing sequences (the finger scene or the car chase, anyone?), Heavy Rain will make you feel all of the emotions, from euphoric to devastated and back again… although the game’s community has put out a variety of hilarious memes (JASON!) that are sure to alleviate any emotional trauma it elicits.
Boasting a star-studded cast and stunning motion capture to match, 2013’s Beyond: Two Souls had a lot to live up to but unfortunately failed to capture what made its predecessors so great. It took weird to the extreme (almost as if Hideo Kojima had taken the reins), focusing on a single story about spirituality and telling it poorly. The original release was actually a chaotic, disjointed experience, to the point where Quantic Dream saw fit to restructure it entirely for its PS4 re-release the next year. The biggest disappointment, however, came at the end of the story: after crafting a whole narrative experience focused on the strength of female agency and defining your own identity, it was an absolute slap in the face of progression — and downright lazy — to focus the ending on your relationship status. Even re-released, Beyond: Two Souls was a disaster; I’d only really recommend it if you want to play all of Quantic Dream’s games, and even then it’s totally worth skipping.
We’ll finish on a highlight, though. Detroit: Become Human may very well be the perfect interactive drama (although I’m a little biased since sci-fi and philosophical discussions about the validity of artificial intelligence are exactly my jam). As a true spiritual successor to Heavy Rain (because it’s pouring all the time… get it?!) and an absolutely beautiful testament to modern graphics, Detroit: Become Human does a lot of things right: it nails the narrative side of things with an incredible, multi-faceted story that is enthralling, emotional and so easy to invest in and characters that you’ll genuinely start to feel for by the end, and combines that with some technical brilliance; the main menu itself is incorporated into the game, evolving as the story progresses based on the decisions you make. It even encourages you to play through it again and again, not just because it’s amazing but because it shows you the single most horrifying flowchart that ever existed after each chapter — a chart outlining the path that you took… and everything you missed out on. It’s a completionist’s nightmare, but I didn’t mind and I’m sure you won’t either.
Whether you’re holed up in isolation, reaching out as restrictions ease up, or just wanting to mark the end of a generation by playing some of the experience it’s had to offer, now is as good a time as any to diversify your gaming and experience a new form of storytelling. Whether it’s the interactive graphic novels that Telltale’s served up, or the hyper-realism that’s come out of Supermassive Games and Quantic Dreams, the interactive drama genre is not only here to stay, but it’s shaping entertainment as a whole; just check out Netflix’s Bandersnatch or the recently-released Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy Vs. The Reverend interactive movie to witness its influence and get a look into the future of entertainment.
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