Life is Strange: The Balance of Choices

Card games require close balancing to ensure that certain mechanics are not too strong or that a card doesn’t push every other card out because of its power level. Multiplayer shooters require that no weapon or item is too strong, that all classes are of roughly the same power level, and that players have some incentive to play every class. Modern adventure games need a different kind of balancing, based on the player’s decisions.

Only a specific subgenre of adventure games has the number of decisions of something like The Walking Dead by Telltale games. These games are like choose your own adventure books in video game form. One reason this style is so compelling to players is the difficult choices they are forced to make. The developers want the choices to be difficult; major decisions shouldn’t feel trivial. To this end, it is important that certain choices are as close in “value” as possible, for lack of a better word.

One of the best examples of a development team getting better at this over time is the game Life Is Strange, which concluded with its fifth episode last year. Without spoiling any of it, each of the five episodes has several important decisions you must make for your character, and at the end of each episode, you can see what percentage of the player-base chose each option. In the first episode, the choices were quite one-sided. For example, you see someone in the bathroom at your school almost shoot another student, and you have the choice to report him or not. If you choose not to report him, you essentially let him get away with it. Most people would say something so as not to endanger everyone else’s lives in the whole school. The vast majority of people chose to report him. It’s possible the developers took the statistics into account while developing the next episodes, or they just planned on making the decisions harder as the game went on. Either way, each successive decision in the later episodes felt like it had more and more weight behind it. Every choice was difficult and had very real consequences no matter which option you picked. In other words, the choices became roughly equal in difficulty as the game went on.

The brilliant thing about Life Is Strange is that you can rewind time, so it lets you see the immediate consequences of your actions. However, you can only rewind time for about a minute into the past at first, so you have to choose one option and commit to it eventually. This kind of eases you into the complex decision-making, much like training wheels, as you have some leeway to go back on your choices. However, eventually, your powers start to weaken and sporadically stop working, so you’re stuck with many of your decisions with no chance to rewind. Naturally, these decisions are usually the hardest. Dontnod Entertainment, the developers of Life Is Strange, did an excellent job of making sure that the decisions never have an obvious answer, just like most decisions in real life. They are designed to pull two separate halves of your brain against each other to decide which decision is better, like playing tug of war with your mind. Those decisions are the most intricately “balanced”; they pit yourself against others, or the needs of few against the needs of many. Dontnod mastered balancing very different ways of thinking about a problem against each other.

If you want to play Life Is Strange for yourself, it is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC. The first episode is free as of a few weeks ago. A second season has been confirmed by the developers, but no release date is available yet.