Two very important choice-based games using the Butterfly Effect were released this past year. The first was Life Is Strange and the second, Until Dawn—two very different tales that used choice in different ways. However, it should be noted that if the ending of one game is better than the other, that has to do with how choice was used.
The story of Until Dawn is about eight young adults—aged 18 to 19—who go up to a cabin one year after a tragedy occurred that left two of their friends missing. The game prides itself on the fact that you can ‘save’ all of the characters, but you must be careful with how you speak, act, and explore the area around the cabin. Every choice is brought before you. Even who you back in a verbal fight as well as your actions have real-time consequences, such as whether you stumble when chasing another character, because you may not survive the night.
In comparison, the story of Life Is Strange is about a young girl who is trying to stop a tornado while finding out about a missing girl in her town. Your actions toward other people do effect the story, and the game prides itself on the particular choices that you make—like telling a character about the tornado, or answering a question right in class. But many smaller choices do not have any impact, like choosing eggs and bacon for breakfast, or what you say when talking to your friends about past events. Yet most players felt like every choice they made didn’t matter, since there is a black and white decision at the end that doesn’t allow you to feel in control at all.
With the appearance of this new genre of storytelling in games, players want to feel like their choices matter. They want their decisions to be brought up and every playthrough to be unique, which both of these games bring to the table. Except, it seems that players believe that Life Is Strange did not care about player choice in the end, while Until Dawn allows for players to save everyone in the end—or to kill several characters.
The actual Butterfly Effect (or Chaos Theory) is when a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the world can cause a hurricane on the other. Both of these games use this theory very well.
In the short story A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury, which also uses the Butterfly Effect, time travel is very relevant. A young man travels back to the time of the dinosaurs, and he’s warned not to step off the path. However, he does, and steps on a butterfly while being chased by a T-Rex back to the safe area. While the man believes he did not do any substantial harm, he finds that when he returns to his time, pollution is thicker, the world is without any sort of color, and even the English language is different. When the man says he wants to go back and fix his mistake, the owner of the time machine says it is impossible. You cannot fix the past.
Every change is subtle—much like the choices you make in each game are subtle. In Until Dawn, did you look in someone’s bag to see what was on their phone? In Life Is Strange, did you answer a phone call or ignore it? Both of these choices are noted as game-changers in their stories, and bring across subtle, later catastrophic changes for the main character’s relationships.
I believe that the ending of these games have to do with each developer’s interpretation of the Butterfly Effect. Life Is Strange interprets the theory as something that can be fixed. With Max’s power of going back in time to a fixed period, she can change her choices. Instead of ignoring her phone ringing, she can answer it. They are all black or white choices. While in Until Dawn, you cannot fix your mistakes—you must live with your choices, and the characters will say this, which brings you into a grey area. Looking into someone’s bag leads to distrust between the characters.
Still, players do not like the ending of Life Is Strange because of the choices they must make at the end, which make it seem like none of the previous choices matter. However, if you look at it from the perspective of the Butterfly Effect, they do. Max learned something. She learned that by doing one thing, however small it is, it can change the course of nature.