Choosy Zombies Choose Jeff

Telltale’s The Walking Dead series is some of the best work the studio’s ever done, and it’s actually right on the verge of establishing an entirely new genre of video game. Spoilers on the first two episodes.

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Last week I went on a caffeine bender and finally played the first two episodes of Telltale’s The Walking Dead series. It’s some of the strongest work ever to come from the studio — as good as they can possibly do without involving space gorillas — and probably the first to feel like an integrated and fully-realized work. Every single game that I’ve played from the studio has had some outstanding work behind it, but this might be the first series that feels as if all that outstanding work is working together, without compromises.

I’d been wondering how appropriate it’d be for me to write anything about the series, since I kind of worked on it. I consulted for a couple of months on the season set-up, characters, and overall season arc, and I wrote a first draft of the episode two script. But then, the episode and the series as a whole have changed significantly from when I left them, so at this point, I’m basically a mostly-detached observer. And as for whether it’s appropriate or not, I’ve never been that big on tact, anyway.

More than that, though, the series hits so much of the stuff that I’ve written about in theory on here, and it actually puts that stuff into practice. I can’t help trying to pick it apart and see where and how it works or doesn’t. It’s reaffirmed a lot of my earlier opinions, and it’s made me completely reconsider others.

(And it should go without saying, but: all of this is purely my own thoughts and shouldn’t be taken as being based on any kind of “insider” knowledge, much less representative of the company, or what the guys are actually trying to do with the game. I’m writing about them solely as games that a lot of my friends worked on, and I just happen to have been spoiled for what goes down in the first couple of episodes).

The Episodic Model

To be honest, I’ve never been a big proponent of the episodic model for video games. There are definitely some advantages — players really are more engaged in the story and characters; and it really is gratifying to have something you spent months working on last for months, instead of being played in a weekend and quickly forgotten.

But there are enough disadvantages to make the whole prospect seem like breaking even at best. Most obvious is the necessary reduction in scope: the difference between planning for a feature film vs. a television series, or a novel vs. issues of a comic book. It’s not even about budget; it’s the problem of cramming sometimes epic ideas into bursts of content that are actually producible by human beings.

Of course, we’re surrounded by outstanding television series, so it’s obviously not impossible to tell epic stories in an episodic format. The real question is how to do it in a video game. That’s made me wonder if it’s not the episodic model that doesn’t quite fit in games; it’s the sitcom model that doesn’t fit in games.

I’m most interested in comedy stories, and it’s tough to try to manipulate a deliberately silly plot into a format that emphasizes plot twists and reveals. Portal 2 did it well, but the end result still felt more like a series of set-ups and punchlines instead of genuinely resonant surprises. I’d say we managed to do it reasonably well in Sam & Max, too, and I’d even say that we pulled off a couple instances of the best that episodic comedy can do: a joke that’s set up in one episode and doesn’t deliver the punch-line until several episodes later. Still, after three seasons, we’d already pretty much exhausted what you can do with convoluted plot twists, and it was getting pretty formulaic.

I can think of only one comedy series that’s been successful at going for the long arc, with episodes that build on each other — Arrested Development. It’s a lot more common for comedy series to keep everything as stable as possible: smaller, self-contained stories that reset to a default state at the end of each episode. Audiences don’t watch sitcoms to get caught up in what the characters are doing, but to check in on what they’re saying. That’s inherently passive, and video game audiences have very little patience for that.

After playing two episodes of The Walking Dead, though, I’m really anticipating the next one. I’m not just waiting for another burst of content; I’m waiting to see how the story will be affected by what I’ve already done, and to see what I’ll get to do in the next part of the story. And even though I have a rough idea of how the finale will play out, I still have no idea how the finale will play out. A huge part of the appeal of the comic is the constant reinforcement of the idea that no one is safe, that anything can happen. It’s the same for the game: there’s absolutely no guarantee that the finale will take the usual episode 5 structure of revealing the villain and tying up all the loose ends.

Spending Some Time Apart

One other thing that’s made clear by the first two episodes of The Walking Dead is the significance of the difference between episodic content and “feature length” content. From the start, Telltale’s understood that episodic development is its own thing. Dave Grossman has said in interviews that you can’t just take a full story and split it into chunks; each segment has to work as a self-contained story and have the requisite unresolved plot points to draw the audience into the next segment.

But I was never quite able to appreciate that there’s even more to it: there’s a unique rhythm to episodic storytelling, and mastering that can mean the difference between a good story and a great one. And more than any of the Telltale series I’ve played (or worked on), The Walking Dead suggests that rhythm, the sense that there’s more going on in the world and with the characters than what we see on screen.

Part of that is from the source material. Because the tone of The Walking Dead comic is essentially a post-apocalyptic soap opera, the characters all exist in this indeterminate state between completely prosaic and over-the-top melodramatic. That’s not a criticism; it’s essential for a story that’s not about the zombie apocalypse, but about what happens afterwards. In the 80 or so issues that I’ve read, action heroes like Michonne and even Tyrese are rare, and they don’t last long before they’re either killed off or made more human.

And if you think about it, the reason is obvious: spending an hour and a half with Indiana Jones or James Bond is exhilarating. Spending months or even years with them would not only be exhausting, it’d break any sense of realism. The characters in the Walking Dead games feel more real on the screen than they do “on the page,” and a lot of that is because of the time you don’t spend with them. Your mind fills in the blanks.

The time gap between episodes 1 and 2 was necessary for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was simply aligning the time frame of the games with that of the comics. This is a story that has to be set firmly in the aftermath of the zombie outbreak, not during it. And I’m now convinced that introducing a new character during the break was a good idea, if only to establish that the characters were actually doing stuff during that time, and didn’t just exist in suspended animation since you finished the last episode.

Silence As An Option

Speaking of the value of what you don’t see, I think one of the most successful design decisions of The Walking Dead games was to insist on timed dialogues and events, and “silent” dialog choices. It’s the idea that what you leave unsaid is as significant as what you do say.

I’d initially thought that the inclusion of “…” as a dialogue choice was at best a stylistic flourish. It’d add a sense of variety to exchanges. Maybe, along with the dialogue time-out, it’d liven up the monotonous and repetitive pace typical of adventure game dialogue trees. I’m happy to say that I was completely underestimating it; it actually changes the entire dynamic of the game.

In most traditional adventure games, the player spends 90% of the time in an idle state. Stuck on a segment of a puzzle, thinking of the right solution; or waiting in a dialogue tree to make the next choice and get the next short burst of content. I’d thought that that was baked into the genre. There was no real way to fix it; the best you could hope for was to alleviate it, by adding more steps to a puzzle or varying the pace of dialogue exchanges.

The majority of The Walking Dead episodes do away with the idle state — the world is moving on, with or without you. It’s strongest in the dialogues; you feel as if you’re in an active conversation, not just exhausting choices in a dialogue tree. When a timed event starts, you’re compelled to think quickly; you’re not just locked into an artificial situation where the story’s reached a climax but the game is just waiting indefinitely for your input.

And when the game reverts back to traditional adventure game sequences, it’s jarring. The story, and especially the direction, are strong enough that you can easily suspend disbelief, but there’s still a sense that the pacing has hit a wall, and you’ve switched modes from active engagement to passive, stumble-on-the-right-choice puzzle-solving. On the farm in episode two, it works well enough because the pacing of the story is supposed to have slowed down enough for you to feel “safe.” At the motel in episode one, it’s more frustrating. They wisely changed up the presentation from the usual walking around and picking up objects, to one of hustling between hiding spots surrounded by immediate threats, but it’s a lot tougher to shake the feeling that the story’s slammed to a halt. The game, and the zombies, are just waiting for me to find the right answer.

I’d seen a review describe The Walking Dead as the beginning of “Adventure Games 3.0,” and I don’t think it’s that much of an exaggeration. The episodes are relatively short — I finished each in under 2 hours, without knowing any of the final puzzle solutions — but none of it felt like filler. It’s been years since I’ve played an adventure game that delivered on that sense of constant discovery and exploration.

Quick-Time Events

Speaking of rhythm and pacing: Quick-Time Events. I still hate them.

I understand why they’re there, and The Walking Dead does handle them about as well as any game possibly can. It changes up the pacing. It gives a sense of immediacy and time pressure to a story event. It’s only used in scenes of physical action, and it gives the player a direct physical action to perform. And it avoids the pitfall that a lot of people joked about when they first heard that an adventure game company was making a Walking Dead game, that it’d be nothing but choosing the verb “SHOOT ZOMBIE” over and over again.

Still, it’s a completely meaningless abstraction — mash A then X to fend off zombie? — that invariably ends up feeling like a crutch. I’d welcome any change to either make it at least a little more cerebral, or to at least better match the action on the controller (or keyboard) to the action on screen.

For instance: have the four controller buttons map to four weak points on the target’s body, so it’s not just “press A” but “press the target’s weak spot based on the current animation.”

Or even simpler: take the example of the hacking tool in Batman: Arkham Asylum. Using it on the Xbox 360 was an almost brain-dead mini game of twirling the two thumbsticks until you felt the controller vibrate the right way. But I don’t think it was supposed to be sophisticated; it was most likely put into the game for the same reason QT events were: to change up the pace, and to give a direct, tactile interface between the player and the action. What made it work, though, was that it wasn’t just a meaningless, artificial abstraction. Whether Batman would actually carry a 360 controller around with him is beside the point; what mattered is that the actions you were taking as a player corresponded exactly to what your character was doing on the screen.

Feedback and Stats

Speaking of things I hate: I would’ve thought that I’d absolutely hate the decision to alert the player with an on-screen notification whenever he makes a choice that alters the story, and I’d hate the inclusion of a post-episode stats screen showing how many other players made the same decisions as you did.

But I didn’t. I thought both worked well, and it never once occurred to me to turn them off.

If you’d asked me, before I played the games, what I thought about having the text “CLEMENTINE WILL REMEMBER THAT” in the middle of a dialogue exchange, I would’ve said that it was the worst, least subtle idea imaginable. In practice, though, it works. It doesn’t break my engagement in the story; if anything, it increases it. It’s a constant reminder that the things I’m saying might have repercussions down the line, even if they’re not immediately visible. Essentially, it’s taking the place of a dramatic dun-dun-dunnnnn music stinger, and ends up being even more subtle because it’s happening on a “separate channel.” It’s speaking to the part of my brain that’s still aware that I’m playing a game.

The end-game stats might end up being just a gimmick, but it’s a gimmick that’s already paid off. They’re shown after the story’s ended, so they don’t break the engagement there, and instead start off the post-game speculating. I still wouldn’t assign too much significance to them, since assigning numbers to player motivations is never an accurate science, the decisions are often more binary than they’re presented in the game, and players will still assume “video game logic” is in effect instead of treating situations in the game as they would in real life. But it’s already obvious from reading the message boards that the stats spark between-episode water cooler conversations, exactly as they were intended to do.

Death

Death in The Walking Dead games feels more like a stylistic necessity than a genuine gameplay mechanic. It’d just be silly to make a game with this much death in it and have it be impossible for your character to die. But the death of the player character hasn’t been meaningful in any game, ever since they stopped taking quarters.

The bigger aspect of the SCUMM model that’s still very much intact is that you can’t completely ruin the game for yourself; every problem has a solution, and you can’t get yourself into a situation where the story can’t be finished. The biggest difference here: first, while you can’t make a decision that breaks the game, you most definitely can make a decision that makes you feel terrible. In fact, there are several points where you have to.

The “YOU HAVE DIED” screen isn’t a real deterrent in any meaningful way; if you do something that gets you chomped, you can just reload and try again. But knowing that you can take an action that pisses off a character you wanted to befriend, or even kills a character that you wanted to save, is a much stronger reminder to be careful and think about the consequences of what you’re doing.

And the final few sections have significant spoilers for episodes 1 and 2 of The Walking Dead game, so I’m putting them after a spoiler warning.

Horror vs. Suspense

One of the things that’s consistently surprised me about reactions to episode two is the number of players and reviewers who say that the big reveal was telegraphed too early, or “I knew early on that the farmers were bad guys, but I liked the episode anyway.”

For years I’ve been under the impression that horror movies had moved entirely into post-modern territory, and that there was no going back. Audiences know all the ins and outs of horror, so there’s no way to get genuine surprises out of a straightforward horror story anymore: you’ve either got to get involved in the gross-out arms race, and keep raising the bar on gore until you get a shock reaction; or you’ve got to go the Scream and now Cabin in the Woods route and make it self-referential. (Or you’ve got to be Sam Raimi and just go all in on style).

Add zombies to that, and you might as well just give up right there. (Especially if they’re not even fast zombies). Zombies have been strip-mined for so long that any potential for real surprises is long gone, which is why it was such a good idea for the Walking Dead comic (and by extension the game) to focus not on the zombie apocalypse, but on the survivors of the aftermath.

The premise of episode two — what if Paula Deen and her sons turned out to be cannibals? — made it pretty obvious what the tone of the episode was going to be: this one was going to be balls-out, over-the-top horror. Going for suspense, with plot twists and shocking reveals, would’ve been a mistake. Instead, it had to go for horror: the constant, unshakable dread that something terrible was going to happen, and there was absolutely nothing you could do to avoid it.

I’d assumed that once players saw an idyllic farm with a well-fed family in the middle of the zombie apocalypse, every single player would immediately say, “Yep. Cannibals.” So it was the story’s job not to keep that reveal a big secret, but to put just enough reasonable doubt in the player’s mind so that you’re not making an obvious joke of it and deflating all the tension (“Fuck this farm!” followed by a chase sequence set to “Yakety Sax”), but you also don’t have the player spending two hours saying, “Come on, just get it over with already.” The whole episode’s essentially an extended Don’t Go Into That Room! sequence, culminating in a literal Don’t Go Into That Room! sequence.

In case all that sounds defensive, it’s absolutely not. I’ve been watching the whole thing with detached, Mr. Spock-like fascination. Is it actually getting in sync with what the audience is really thinking, or is it just playing a trick on them to assume that a non-twist is going to be effective? Does that approach make the whole thing hopelessly “meta?” Is everyone in the audience second-guessing what the story’s trying to do, or is it just the most jaded of us? Can you still make a horror story by taking a straightforward, earnest approach and setting up the audience for a genuine surprise? I really don’t know the answers, and that’s awesome. It makes me think that Scream hasn’t irreparably damaged the genre, and there’s still an audience for horror stories that don’t make a display of their own self-awareness.

And it’s even more interesting when you think about what it means for horror stories in games. All of the “survival horror” games that I’ve played are only “horror” inside the cut-scenes and boss fights; the actual gameplay is all suspense. Walking through a hallway in Resident Evil waiting for zombies to jump through the window. Wandering in the fog in Silent Hill as the radio static ratchets up the tension. Going into a haunted house in Fatal Frame armed only with a magic camera.

They’re plenty scary, but they don’t deliver the same sense of dread as, say, watching Regan in The Exorcist show more and more signs of demonic possession, and having to watch her mother slowly fall apart as she has no idea what’s going on. (Blasphemed crucifixes aside, the most horrifying scene in The Exorcist for me is the spinal tap, because we in the audience just have to watch as everyone is helpless and hopeless and completely unaware of what’s really happening). And they don’t deliver the same feeling of everything-has-gone-to-hell panic as watching Shelly Duvall stumbling through the Overlook in The Shining, freaking out at every doorway and waving her useless butcher knife at ghosts.

One reviewer made the connection between Lee climbing up the stairs in the St. John house and Martin Balsam climbing up the stairs of the Bates house in Psycho, which is awesome, even though I’d been thinking of Tippi Hedren climbing up the stairs to the attic in The Birds. (Speaking of which: the game has you going from a motel to a big house set up on a hill that might as well have Norman Bates’ name on the mailbox. And players still thought it was supposed to be a big secret?) But as cool as that is, it just makes me want to ask: did it evoke that just as a visual reference, or did the scene actually work for that reviewer the same way in the game as it did in the movie?

Is it even possible for a game to work in the same way as a horror movie? Can you take advantage of a situation where the player knows more than the player’s character does, when everywhere else in the game, you’re expecting the player to be completely aligned with his character?

And if so much of actual horror is based on a feeling of helplessness, is that even compatible with a game, which is inherently goal-directed? It’s the player’s job to find solutions for all of the problems the game sets before him, and there’s always an implicit contract between the developer and the player that guarantees it’s always possible to “win” the game.

Telltale’s got three more episodes (and a recently announced second season) to experiment with exactly how horror works in games, and I’m excited at the prospect. And this series is better suited to get it right than any straightforward survival horror game, because it’s already changing up the goal-driven, every-lock-has-a-matching-key approach typical of narrative games. So much of the series involves, as Tycho from Penny Arcade described it, presenting the player with a game that he can’t win. It’s not about giving the player problems to solve, so much as showing the player what it feels like to have a problem that has no perfect solution.

Choices As Branch Points

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Telltale’s been selling the series as being all about player choices, from the website right up to the reminder at the beginning of each episode. And they’ve followed through with it; the game’s full of them. More significantly, they’re all permanent. None of them (at least none that I’ve noticed so far) give you the option of going back to try again, without either reloading a saved game or “rewinding” back to a decision point.

There are basically two types of choices in narrative-based video games: ones that result in a significantly different branch in the plot; and ones that are experiential, where the plot remains fixed, and the difference is in the way that other characters (and the player) react to the choice.

I always thought that branching plots in games were at worst a harmless waste of time. I don’t think they add anything significant to the experience, but if you’re a studio that’s got BioWare-level budgets, what’s the real harm?

After playing the first two episodes of The Walking Dead, and reading the reactions from reviewers and other players online, I’m beginning to think that including branching narratives isn’t harmless. It’s not just that they’re more trouble than they’re worth, production-wise; they actually have a significant impact on the player’s experience:

They encourage meta-gaming. As soon as you set up a situation in which players are aware that they’re going to get different content based on a decision that they make, you’ve taken them out of the story and into the meta-game of maximizing the amount of content they see.

We saw a smaller scale version of this in Sam & Max, where players would realize the “right” solution to a puzzle or the “right” choice in a dialogue tree, but still exhaust all the other choices, to make sure that they’d seen and heard all the jokes available before having that area closed off to them. That puts them back into the traditional adventure game idle state, where they’re not acting as the character would act — I want to solve this puzzle right now because it’ll advance this awesome story — but instead essentially choosing jokes from a menu.

They’re based on content, not systems. One of the most significant choices you’ll make in the series, by design, is whether to save Carley or Doug in the climax of episode 1. I’m actually fine with that bit of branching content — apart from the obvious problem that 75% of players don’t seem to realize that an affable, friendly guy who knows how to fix everything is a million times more useful in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse than a suspicious and dismissive woman who can shoot well but doesn’t know how batteries work.

The reason that choice is fine is because it’s not really a branch; you’re essentially choosing one “tool” or the other to use throughout the rest of the game, instead of making a binary choice between cut-scene A and cut-scene B. It’s more like selecting a Fighter or a Wizard class at the beginning of an RPG; it’s a modifier that has the potential to have a ripple effect through the rest of the game.

Other choices, though — for example, the choice to leave Atlanta during the day or to wait until nightfall — do nothing except give you two different bits of content.

They have rapidly diminishing returns. Not just for production, but for the player. Again, if you’ve got the budget for it, then it could seem like there’s no reason not to make tons of alternative scenes that allow the player to tailor his own experience however he likes. But the problem is that tendency for players — and I’m including myself, of course — to jump out of the story and start meta-gaming.

Once you’ve given the player a choice that results in two dramatically different scenes, every subsequent choice is going to be compared to that one. You stop assessing your decisions based on how they fit into the story, but on how much of an impact your choice is making on the presentation. “When I said this, it gave me a night-time shootout with a zombie teenager, but when I said that, it only changed one line of dialogue. Lame!”

They limit the player’s “possibility space.” By that, I mean that giving the player a choice between a finite number of predefined scenes is actually more limiting than “railroading” them into a linear narrative.

For example, look at that dialogue tree that lets you choose to leave Atlanta during the night or during the day, and compare it to the dialogue you have with Herschel inside his barn. It could seem like the day/night choice is “richer,” since the player’s getting more substantial feedback and a greater sense that his actions are affecting the story. But in neither case are you actually changing the flow of the narrative; you’re always going to head south from Atlanta, and you’re always going to end up getting lectured by Herschel.

The difference is that one is a simple binary decision, while the other is an ongoing series of more granular and more varied decisions. How much are you going to say and how much are you going to withhold? How important is it to get him to trust you? And most significantly: are you going to change your mind and decide to be more or less forthcoming while the conversation is taking place? I’d say that the conversation is a lot more “empowering” for the player, because he’s more engaged throughout the entire sequence, and because he’s got a wider range of more nuanced choices.

They’re arbitrary, instead of working to establish a consistent theme for the narrative. Again ignoring the question of production, there’s still an issue of how far you can go with your branching points before you’re telling a completely different story. The bigger you make the choices, the less those choices actually mean.

Up to a certain point, any customization options you give to the player are purely cosmetic. I said this instead of that, or in my version of the same cut-scene, he was carrying a walking stick instead of an axe. After that point, though, any options you give the player are making an entirely different game.

What if they’d gone even wider with the day/night choice, and given the player the option to head south to Macon or head back north to downtown Atlanta? If the same characters get into the same events, and it’s only the background scenery that changes, then why bother? Why am I making choices that don’t mean anything? And at the other end of the scale: if the story diverges significantly because of the change in location, then what is it that makes this version of the story better than that one, apart from the fact that I chose it?

For a more concrete example: the scene with the bear trap at the beginning of episode two. The scene ends in one of two ways: you fail to cut the guy free, and he gets eaten by zombies; or you’re disgusted at having to cut the guy free, and one of the teenagers gets eaten by zombies. I’m not crazy about the inclusion of the other teenager.

(I realize that it may seem extraordinarily shitty to be engaging in “they changed the story!” grousing on a public blog, but: a) see my point above about having no tact; b) I’m in a minority of 1, since every single message board post and review I’ve read calls the scene out as being a highlight of the game and working exactly as it was intended to work; and 3) I’m honestly not grousing, but just pointing it out as a real-life actually-exists-in-a-released-game example of how choices work in game narratives).

In my opinion, having a spare teenager who’s invariably doomed to die undermines the intensity of the bear trap. If you’re confronted with a life-or-death choice — I’ve got to do something absolutely disgusting and horrible in order to make sure this stranger doesn’t die — it’s got less of an impact if there’s another stranger who’s going to die no matter what.

Of course, the player doesn’t know at the beginning of the scene that the other teenager’s going to die no matter what — I reckon I’m the only person outside of Telltale who knew what was going to happen as soon as the scene opened. (And they still changed it on me, so I failed the first time and had to restart). Plus, it’s a testament to the writing and direction in that scene that it works as well as it does: the fail-to-cut-the-band-director-free branch has an intense feeling of “everything has immediately and irrevocably gone to shit” that you rarely see outside of a Coen Brothers movie. And the other branch is less satisfying, but is still an effective conclusion to the scene because it reinforces the feeling that that the approaching zombies really were a serious threat.

Still, I’d argue, it’s ultimately arbitrary. Stylistically and tonally, it’s great: it’s a tension-filled introduction to an over-the-top horror story. But it no longer has any repercussions in the rest of the narrative. The purpose in the story is the same: it’s the event that teaches our group of survivors the rules of the comic, that everyone is infected, and it’s not the zombie bite that causes the dead to come back. That’s crucial to the meat locker scene later.

But it loses some of the thematic purpose. Whether character A dies or character B dies feels arbitrary; that’s not the choice that interests me. Either way, a body’s going to be delivered to the motel, dialogue choices will refer to the necessarily vague “your friend,” and somebody’s going to come back to life without having been bitten. I think the more interesting choice is “I can make the decision to do something horrible, if it means saving lives” vs “I can’t do this, and someone else will have to do it for me.” With that, it doesn’t just foreshadow the premise of the meat locker scene, it foreshadows the central choice of that scene: can I basically murder a human being, based just on the assumption that he might be a threat? And what all is factoring into that decision: is it a crass political choice to gain favor with one character or another? Is it a petty decision just based on whether I like the guy or not? Is it just selfish, so that he doesn’t reveal my secret? And the question that’s been lost: am I doing it just to prove something, because I wasn’t able to do it earlier?

In other words, it’s the more complicated branching narrative that feels arbitrary to me, while the version that “railroads” the player into only one outcome (guy gets his leg chopped off, the only question is who does the chopping) has me making more interesting decisions.

(And since there’s apparently no way to write all that without sounding like a hyper-critical douche, I’ll just point out that ten years ago, I never would’ve believed I’d find myself talking about that kind of thematic subtlety in the context of a video game. Telltale’s always been good at storytelling, but the amount of thought and planning that’s gone into The Walking Dead really is remarkable).

They dilute the impact of experiential choices. Finally, because of meta-gaming and the diminishing returns of branching content, players start to underestimate the importance of more subtle (and more interesting) choices. It’s absolutely not the case that video game audiences can’t appreciate subtlety; it’s simply the case that none of us who play games (or watch movies, or read books) are particularly good at handling mode switches.

And when you have a choice that results in a significant plot change, that sets up a different set of expectations from choices that actually require you to think about what you’re doing. “What happens when I do this?” is a fundamentally different mindset from “How does it make me feel to do this?” The former doesn’t just allow detachment; it encourages it. It becomes an experiment, and it’s the way that we naturally play most games. We know that there’s nothing real about the experience, so there will be no repercussions from just trying something out to see what it does. If we don’t like the outcome, then reload and try something else.

But when a game requires deliberation and empathy, the weight of the gameplay is in the choice itself, not the outcome. Approach that with the mindset of consequence-free experimentation, and you’re invariably going to be disappointed. “I made this choice, but nothing happened.” The player who says that has already lost the value of the choice: something did happen; you made a choice.

Choices As Player Agency

This is where I’ve been the most pleasantly surprised by The Walking Dead. Checking out the reviews and the message board posts, I’ve seen an overwhelming (and unexpected, and unprecedented) case of video game players getting it.

I said earlier that I assumed audiences were simply too familiar with zombie stories to be surprised by them anymore. Add the inherently detached nature of video games, and then the even more artificial nature of adventure games, and I thought it’d be next to impossible for players to approach the game with genuine empathy and engagement. We know that games are escapist “murder simulators,” where even the most impressionable player is still aware the entire time that none of what’s happening on screen is real. And we know that adventure games are sequences of contrived set-ups for puzzles with ridiculously over-complicated solutions.

I thought that with that many layers of artificiality, players would go through The Walking Dead episodes in much the same way as I go through a slasher movie: it’s exhilarating, and I’ll jump and cringe at all the right places, and I’ll have fun watching it, but I’ll never once consider any of the characters to be real people, or any of the actions to have any real consequences. It’d be style over substance, which when done right is not at all a bad thing.

But I was wrong, and that’s terrific. Players are trying to get into the mindset of the characters, instead of treating them as lab experiments or empty shells. They’re reacting to events in the story instead of constantly second-guessing or ignoring the plot to get to the action. They’re thinking about their decisions and justifying them afterwards, instead of making arbitrary choices just to see what happens.

Of course, there are still complaints that it’s a “cop-out” when the game presents a choice that doesn’t dramatically change the storyline, or that it’s just an “illusion of choice” when a game tries to make you feel something instead of just show you something. And of course, there are still the hard-line adventure gamers who complain that there aren’t enough puzzles or that the puzzles that do exist are too easy. Even if The Walking Dead somehow manages to reinvent a game genre, it’s not going to reinvent the internet.

But the complaints are overwhelmed by the people who are genuinely engaged, and even among the complaints, a majority of them still acknowledge what the game is trying to accomplish: the focus isn’t on branching story, or puzzles, but on the overall experience.

There’s a situation early in episode two that shows better than anything else the value of player agency, and demonstrates why it’s not entirely hyperbole to suggest that The Walking Dead is developing a new type of game. You get four pieces of food, and you’ve got to distribute it among ten hungry people. There are absolutely no consequences in the traditional game sense — you won’t lose the game by giving food to the “wrong” people, and you won’t run into a situation later in the game where the decision you made earlier has a negative effect. There are no consequences in the traditional adventure game sense — it’s not a puzzle with any one right answer.

I’ll even break my pledge to stay a detached outsider and say this: originally, I’d thought that it’d be necessary in this episode to keep track of who’d been fed and who hadn’t, and how long your own character had gone without eating, to put some kind of modifier on the game and especially the combat sequences (similar to the malaria mechanic in Far Cry 2). As it turned out, not only was that completely unnecessary, but I’m now convinced it would’ve lessened the experience.

That would’ve turned it back into an input/reward system: I pick this choice, I get this response. I take this action, I’m rewarded with this event. That’s mechanical. What made it into the game is entirely experiential. It’s not at all about what will happen to me if I don’t do the right thing; there is no “right” thing, and it’s all about how I feel while I’m making the choices in the first place. Again, all the weight of the experience is on the choice, not on the outcome.

It’s easy to get the impression that all of us who play video games are borderline sociopaths incapable of taking a set of characters and a story at face value — and not only from first-person shooters and fighting games, but from the various torture rooms in The Sims. There’s a disturbing Ayn Rand-ian undercurrent to every narrative game, where we stop thinking about characters as actual characters, and instead value them only so far as they can help us win.

It’s possible that having The Walking Dead as source material provides a perfect contrast to the usual conventions of games: when you’re surrounded by death, individual life becomes more valuable; when you’re forced to think of people as pawns who’ll either help you survive or get you killed, you rebel and start seeing them as human.

That could be the case, but I’m more inclined to believe that Sean and Jake just finally found the way to keep players engaged in the experience as a whole, without constantly second-guessing what’s going on or jumping back and forth between the mind of the player and the mind of the character. Some of it is just plain good storytelling: don’t just have a familiarity with the source material; understand exactly how and why it works. Don’t be afraid to tell an earnest story. Don’t make a child character too stupid or too precocious to be believable. Put the major plot developments and action sequences in the right places, and don’t lose sight of what all the plot developments and action sequences actually mean. And of course it doesn’t hurt that the rest of the team is all working at the top of their game, with some fantastic art direction and cinematic direction and the predictably solid voice acting. (I’m going to be a hypercritical curmudgeon there as well, since southern accents, especially set in Georgia, that are even slightly off are still enough to make my teeth hurt).

But I think at the core of it is the same basic idea that’s stayed intact from the time I heard it about a year ago, all the way through the final release: give players characters that they care about, have them make decisions that actually have consequences because they can’t be unmade, and keep the emphasis on player agency. It takes a good bit of trust in the audience to believe that they don’t need to be constantly rewarded with cut-scenes to stay engaged, that players’ actions can take on significance to them just by virtue of the fact that they’re the ones who made them happen. I’m glad to see that it actually worked, and now that I’ve got only the barest idea of how the rest of the season plays out, I’m really looking forward to seeing where the story goes next.

3 thoughts on “Choosy Zombies Choose Jeff”

  1. Incredible article. I agree with everything and really liked your analysis of choice and how it applies to game theory. As someone who loves the story of games, but play each as a solipsistic bastard, I think Walking Dead is a great success in making me treat others less as NPCs. Though I still faced the Meat Locker as a purely political choice.

  2. Wow, fantastic writeup!
    And yes, to me it belong to Adventure 3.0 too. And I think it succeeds where Heavy Rain fails about choices, as I’m far mor concerned about Lee than the 4 characters on Heavy Rain.
    Now I’m courious on how TT will apply the Modus Operandi on the other series too (Fable and King’s Quest – expecially the latter it’s very hard to accomplish…).

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