Only 1% of people touched the pregnancy test. Correction: only 1% of people stuck by their decision to touch the pregnancy test, give or take. More on that later.
Doing nothing is rarely rewarded. Rightly so, you might say; why would anyone deserve a reward for not doing something? Lazy cockroaches. But life is full of admirable, helpful and otherwise positive moments which welcome — and, in some cases, require — conscious disengagement. Avoiding the priority seating on the bus, in case a needy person hops on at the next stop; not telling your brother that you accidentally saw his fiancée in a decade-old pornographic film; being the one person who doesn’t laugh when a stranger falls over in public. Every day, most of us choose not to flip out and kill a bunch of people, even when we want to. On the reverse, you might decide not to go to a party or stand by while a crime is committed.
All this altruistic idling and conscious, directed lethargy has its own set of checks and balances in everyday life, as personal feelings, relationships, laws, time constraints and moral codes keep you from doing one thing or another; but how do you represent that in a video game? How can you simulate the lack of data brought about by deciding to avoid something? Computing, and consequently gaming, can often be very trigger-based. This happened and it caused these other things to happen. Switches get flipped on and off, they don’t record how deeply the user pondered the flip, or the decision not to flip anything at all. Digital, interactive systems generally either funnel you down a specific, linear path (or a path with ultimately inconsequential branches), offer rigid binaries as choice nodes, or pepper their experience with many levels and types of active decision-making. The choice where one takes no action is rarely considered. We’re talking about video games, after all, forward momentum and decisive action.
In RPGs — any game that includes a quest system, really — there’s generally some attempt to replicate the freedom of doing nothing. NPC Kevin approaches the player character and humbly requests assistance getting his cat out of a magic tree. Choose to help, and follow the quest wherever it may take you, or decline, and move on with your life. These are almost always practical decisions; you have too many quests on your plate, or the mission itself didn’t sound particularly interesting. Maybe it sounded interminably dull, but you took the job anyway to secure those fat stacks of loot and experience inevitably waiting on the other side. Amazing things might happen between now and the end of that quest, but there’s no player engagement involved in deciding whether to go or not.
The option is perfunctory at best, providing the comforting feeling that you have a choice without actually giving you anything meaningful to choose between. At worst, it’s a joke at the player’s expense. The very idea that you could play a game and decide what you can and can’t do. It brings to mind that one tongue-in-cheek choice in every game book, where the reader is given the option to go home and get some sleep instead of breaking into the haunted robot amusement park to find a malfunctioning time machine. But the book version, at least, gave some sort of closure; a little snippet of hilarious, punitive, sarcastic or sinister prose aimed at making sure you knew you were a boring twit for choosing your own lack-of-adventure. Video games treat uncollected quest threads as forgotten timelines, wisps of what could have been floating around ineffectually like those little worms that collect in your eyeballs. Didn’t pick up the quest from Edwina to kill her cheating husband? No problem, she’ll just stand there, waiting. Forever. Right next to the dwarf seeking a lost book and the mysterious masked man who wanted to give you the keys to the spooky mansion on the hill. They’ll never bother you again. Nor will their consequences, because there were none.
If adventure games are your thing instead, the options shrink further. Decades of welcome writer excesses and audience cravings for spades of wit and lore have trained players to be interaction machines, grinding hot spots and inventory combinations beneath their mouse cursors. No stone left unturned, unmoved, untalked-to, unexamined or un-used-with-pot-of-blurple-paint. Since exploration and examination are the name of the game, the idea of avoiding any event, person or object seems a little ridiculous.
Life is Strange has a fascinating quasi-solution to the problem of simulated nothingness: time travel. The game recently released its second episode, and orbits a central conceit which has yet to be explained, namely that Max Caulfield, an otherwise ordinary teenage girl, can reverse time. The concept has its grand moments, of course, where dead people never die and visions portend the appearance of enormous apocalyptic tornadoes, but it’s in drilling down into the thoroughly mundane events of Max’s life that the super power gets really interesting. It can fix mistakes. It creates a new timeline where certain things haven’t happened yet — although we now have foreknowledge of them — and other things don’t happen at all. And immediately we can see the potential applications for everyday life, a hundred thousand tiny moments where doing something different, or doing nothing at all, would improve our situation. Maybe you’d erase that awkward conversation you had with the girl at the McDonalds counter, or make it so you didn’t accidentally chuckle when someone mentioned their dead mother. Personally, I’d probably use up my time travel batteries reversing my malignant clumsiness.
Recall that pregnancy test. It’s on the floor of Dana’s dorm room — Dana is the presumed-promiscuous cheerleader type — and it’s a shameless piece of player bait. You want to touch it; you need to touch it. Every adventure game you ever played is goading you into picking up that urine-soaked medical stick and adding some pithy commentary to the ether. It is, of course, a bad idea. If this were real life, most people would know enough about society, humanity and general decency to avoid rifling through another person’s things and making sharp assumptions about their private medical business. Plus, Dana is sitting right behind you at the time. Sure enough, if you do grab the test and stare at it like an unspeakable monster, Dana explodes. You get yelled at, ejected from her room and probably feel like a terrible person. But then you remember that you can rewind time, so it never happened. Maybe you leave without the subject of teenage pregnancy ever coming up, maybe you civilise yourself and bring up the subject in a way that doesn’t embarrass or offend the girl, in case she needs a friendly ear.
Whatever happens, it’s clear from the statistics that people didn’t touch that pregnancy test. Except, of course they did. They touched it, then they stuck a crowbar in the spacetime continuum. That 1% is the lie we collectively tell ourselves about being decent people. It’s the barely visible scar of our less-than-pure instincts, hastily covered over by a thin veneer of democratised societal values. Max’s time travel powers are a science fictional and very physical representation of human thought processes. They are the struggle between what we want to do, what we can do and what we should do. Playing as Max gives us a unique view of every side of the big cosmic die. In the end it only ever lands one way, but our knowledge changes those outcomes and changes our perspective of them. We act, but we don’t, and it’s important both ways.
It’s a bit of a fudged solution. Life is Strange allows us to experience the weight and consequence of inaction by also showing us the actions we are avoiding. You’re still likely to do everything in the game just to see what you can do. But it adds an extra layer of introspection to the process. Telltale’s recent games started a ball rolling with their now-infamous “Character will remember that” notations, forcing players to think ahead based on the knowledge that they just did something for which they’ll be held accountable. Life is Strange takes it a step further, with a simultaneously ominous and vague butterfly and the simple message “This action will have consequences.” Consequences unknown to both Max and the player, which would make anyone hesitate. If this was The Walking Dead you would more or less be stuck with whatever was coming your way, but now you’re a time traveller. You can’t avoid cause and effect, but you can attempt to direct it. These sort of thoughts begin to approach that intangible and vital concept of Doing Nothing. Deciding evolves from a mere switch point to an event in and of itself; the experience of choosing action or inaction is as much part of the game as picking up items or talking to characters.
We can’t always be socially awkward time-travelling teenage hipsters. But that spirit of thoughtfulness over simple, mechanical task completion is exactly what will let people make and play games that access the more nuanced aspects of human experience like the conscious or unconscious failure to act. And it’s precisely because video games are an interactive medium that the idea of taking no action is so compelling. Think of the death of Andrew Ryan in BioShock, think of Bigby’s ellipses-marked silences in The Wolf Among Us. Think of poor Max Caulfield, obsessively papering over her potentially infinite mistakes until nothing ever happened.