Remember “special effects”? I mean the actual phrase. When was the last time you referred to a movie’s computer-generated imagery as “special effects”?
People don’t use that term anymore, because they’re not really all that special. Most films involve some form of visual effect or image compositing technology. The same is true of video games, which are, by definition, computer generated. That’s why you don’t hear as much raving about “graphics” in games as a big draw anymore. Looking “lifelike” has become the de rigueur for most video game titles.
And I suspect most game developers know this, so they’ve begun to explore alternate ideas to hook gamers besides amazing graphics.
One of them is what I call “the special effect of choice.”
After growing up in the ‘80s when books wanted to be like video games (Choose Your Own Adventure), many game designers ended up doing the opposite—creating games that functioned like books, with a basically linear design that consisted of clearing out bad guys and fulfilling other secondary objectives in order to level up.
But now games are placing a higher emphasis on choices. Fantasy and RPG titles have been doing this for a while now (the Mass Effect series comes to mind), but now it’s happening in episodic titles too—especially in a brand-new episodic series from Square Enix / Dontnod Entertainment called Life Is Strange.
Life Is Strange is similar to Telltale Games’ Walking Dead series, because they both ground their stories with realistic dialogue and methodical character development. It’s less about action and more about drama. Cinematic in appearance, they’re probably almost as much fun to watch as to play.
In that way, they’re the first games to hearken back to the Choose Your Own Adventure books of my youth, because every conversation presents the player with a series of options for how the main character responds. Should you tell the truth, or hide the truth? Should you flatter your way into someone’s good graces, or is it better to cut them down to size? Every choice has a consequence, though some are more obvious than others. When you reach the end of the episode, you’re given a brief recap of all the choices you’ve made, along with stats regarding how many other players made similar or different choices.
This choice mechanic is one of the things that make episodic games like Life Is Strange feel so…well…lifelike. It’s full of choices, and all those choices have ramifications, ranging from the obvious to the obscure. Playing games like these give me opportunity to pause and consider what my life would have been like if I’d made different decisions along the way. What if I hadn’t moved when I did? What if I’d gone to a different school? What if I’d stuck with that sport instead of quitting halfway through? It’s easy, especially when confronted with a set of circumstances that feel less than optimal, to wonder how things could’ve gone differently.
In that way, Life Is Strange plays like a form of existential wish fulfillment. Unlike the Walking Dead, it introduces a time-altering mechanic where Max, the angst-riddled teenage girl at the center of the story, mysteriously develops the ability to rewind time to make different choices, like an ever-present cosmic do-over. Because of this difference, the Walking Dead games are, comparatively speaking, a little more true-to-life, because none of us actually gets to relive our moments.
But even if we could, we might find that choice element to be something of a mirage.
Consider that in these games, the choices you make do make an impact, but once you replay the game, it becomes clear: that impact is limited. The attitudes, the words characters say in response to you, those change. But the main contours of the game are the same. The same music cues, the same locations, and the same overall problems to solve.
Which, to be fair, is necessary when you’re dealing with the finite limitations of hardware and software.
But God is infinite, right?
I believe God is all-powerful and that He has everything under His control. So who’s to say your situation would be all that different if you made different choices? What if you might’ve found another way to fail that challenge? Say there’s that special someone you always regretted never sharing your true feelings with. Well, what if you went back in time to tell that person…and they rejected you anyway?
Not to be a big downer here (too late? sorry!) but the Scriptures are full of messages that demonstrate a tension between our free will and God’s infinite power to shape the past, present, and future. And even though God definitely gives us the freedom to make choices about how we live, I’ve learned that sometimes my daydreams about alternate timelines are a way of subtly buying into the idea that I’m the master of my fate, and that all I have to do is make the right choices and I can have the kind of life I want.
As if the story of Job doesn’t exist.
I think, more than anything else, God grants us free will because He loves us, and love cannot be coerced. So the everyday choices we make are opportunities to interact in His broader story of love and redemption for humanity. Our choices can change circumstances, sure, but they also change us. The more we thoughtfully participate in loving submission, the more we level up with His characteristics—love, joy, patience…you know the rest.
Those are the kind of special effects I want to see more of.
Those computer-generated abs, though…those would be nice.