Choices That Matters is a criminally overlooked game. At the time of writing, there isn’t a single review that has been captured by Metacritic, and it’s so obvious why: it’s a text adventure game. There’s only one graphical element in the thing, which is a little face that represents your in-game AI partner. And sure, he emotes like a little champion, but otherwise the developer is asking players to remember how much fun Zork used to be. It’s all text, in other words, and where a visual novel might draw people in through the beauty of the art, people in 2020 find raw text boring. And so they end up missing gems like Choices That Matter.
This game tells a gripping story that immediately throws you in a world of conspiracies, murders, mysteries and a dash of science fiction… and obviously, on that basis, I’m not going to go into details because that would spoil the surprise (this is one of the rare examples of spoilers really being a thing). Choices That Matter depicts a world in which the sun keeps “switching” on and off, and science is struggling to understand why. What’s more, the scientists that are investigating the phenomenon are being killed. And so you and your AI partner, Moti, are tasked with getting to the bottom of it.
It’s a real page-turner, pulp-fiction stuff. The developer characterises the game as being inspired by the Choose Your Own Adventure novels of yesteryear, and that’s a good summary of its narrative quality. It’s not Shakespeare (or whatever else you see as great literature), but Choices That Matter has a winding, rapid-pace narrative which sets an effective scene and engages vividly with the imagination. We don’t see all that many games that rely on connecting with the player’s imagination (since in most games we have visuals and art and big explosions to do all that work), and so this ends up being a refreshing little experience for how much agency and onus it places on the player to paint the picture as they play.
The key feature of Choices That Matter is right there in the title: you’ll be making choices, and a lot of them at that. The developer cites over 2,400 choices to make through the game, and where most video games track the time that you’ve been playing, Choices That Matters tallies up the number of decisions that you’ve made. With so many choices to make, you’re really encouraged to let your own moral and intellectual core to guide you – with games that have fewer decisions the temptation is to “game” things to get specific outcomes out of the narrative, but trying to navigate specific paths through Choices That Matter is a much more difficult since you would need to play this a few times through just to figure out what triggers a different result to each major narrative beat.
Obviously, there’s no way to experience the entire narrative in one (or a dozen) playthroughs, and one of the really neat things about Choices That Matter is that at the end of each chapter it shows you how many players have ended up in the same position as you. Being told that you’re one of just 22 per cent of players to discover a hidden bunker in the snow behind a mansion is a neat bit of trivia… especially since the outcomes of the dozens of decisions that you made to get up to that point don’t necessarily make the outcomes clear. Before that little screen popped up I thought the bunker was absolutely critical to the narrative, but apparently only 1/5th of players even see it. More than a few times I was surprised with the path my decisions would be taking me. Not because they were “cheap” or arbitrary in their outcomes, but rather just how well so many decisions flowed together.
This is a game of truly impressive scale, too. With some 600,000 words of text, Choices That Matter avoids turning those decisions into a rapid-fire sequence and instead is able to contextualise each and every one of them. Some will give you more pause to think than others, but it’s those other, seemingly minor choices that you need to watch out for, lest chaos theory set in, and the little decisions you make in the start spiral out to some shocking revelations towards the end.
Having written visual novels myself I know just how difficult it is to turn decisions and branching narratives into something cohesive and interesting, regardless of the direction that the player takes through the narrative. I shudder to think what a wall of sticky notes would look like to map out a game with 600,000 words and nearly 2,500 decisions. Choices That Matters is a game of breathtaking scope that takes place in the most modest kind of game possible; the humble text adventure. That it tells such an excellent page-turner of a story with all those words and branching paths is the icing on the top.
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The critic was provided with a copy of this game for review.