I will begin by thanking Amras from The Gamesmen for being the one who finally forced me to play The Walking Dead by gifting it to me on Steam. (I was told, erroneously, by the website Can I Play It? that it would not work on my machine. I’ve since heard folks say that such websites operate on wild speculation and should not be trusted.)
I agree with all of the superb reviews I’ve encountered, and I’m happy to admit that I was foolish to avoid playing this game for so long. I’ve only finished Chapter One, and I’m eager to play the rest. That said, three problems are picking at my brain, and I want to get them out before I proceed with the rest of this superb adventure.
These are concerns I’ve had with other games, so please don’t think I’m picking on Telltale Games. It’s also worth noting that I’m quite impressed by the storytelling, character development, dialogue, and pacing of this game so far. This article contains spoilers for Chapter One of The Walking Dead, as well as Mass Effect and Heavy Rain.
Problem #1: The Past
The Walking Dead starts off in the middle of a story, after the player character, Lee Everett, has been convicted of murder. We, the players, learn about his past very slowly, through interactions with other characters, like the police officer driving the car at the start of the game. Sometimes we learn things through what the cop says, and sometimes we learn things by what Lee says.
However, at the same time, we are occasionally asked to give our opinion about a situation about which we know nothing. For example, in the first moments, the cop offers this line: “Could be you married the wrong woman.”
As best I can recall, our options as the player are:
- Could be I did.
- Or she married the wrong guy.
- F#@% you.
How on Earth are we supposed to answer this with any sort of clarity? The game is putting us in an impossible (and asinine) bind here; Lee, the character, knows infinitely more about his own past than we do — and yet we are being ordered to make a decision about how to respond to a situation we can’t possibly understand.(We don’t even know who was killed!) Why are we even given this choice? What is the value of this dilemma?
This, fortunately, is the exception to the rule, and most of the decisions we make are more lucid, based on information we have absorbed. (I also realize that, to some extent, every decision we humans make is based on incomplete information.) But it put a bad taste in my mouth at the start of the journey.
The reason it’s such bad game design is because we players are being forced to construct a past that has already been constructed. Therefore our response to the situation is akin to a game of “Guess which number I’m thinking of”. Maybe we’ll be lucky and guess “correctly” (according to the actual events of the past) and maybe we’ll get it “wrong”, and construct a history at odds with the game truth. (This dovetails with Tim O’Brien’s concepts of “war truth” and “story truth” as explored in his novel The Things They Carried.)
Of course the ideal in these games is to give the player a kind of “blank slate” character, which we fill out as we proceed. This is the approach taken by BioWare in Mass Effect. We join Shepard as an established presence in the military organization of which s/he is a part, but we get to choose the backstory that precedes the start of the game.
Lee in TWD is sort of a blank slate, but we have the baggage of his murder conviction to wrestle with. It adds an intriguing twist — Will we try to atone for his actions, or carry on with a thirst for violence? Or perhaps we’ll approach it from the perspective of “I didn’t do it”, aided by the cop’s suggestion that maybe Lee didn’t do it, since he never tried to convince anyone that he’s innocent?
There’s nothing inherently wrong with trying this approach, and I think what the game really wants is for us to create an attitude toward Lee’s past, rather than imagining the events themselves. Still, asking us in the first scene of the game to weigh in on the invisible past is just silly. They should have stuck to the larger philosophical questions during those opening moments.
Problem #2: Placement of Possibilities
This next bit is a simple matter of UI configuration and screen real estate. Let’s approach it by looking again at Mass Effect. Shepard’s moral universe is pretty simple: You can choose to be a Renegade, or you can be a Paragon.
Plenty has been said about this morality system (and others like it), but what interests me most is the decision about where the indicators are placed, and how this decision affects us gamers.
During conversations in Mass Effect, the Paragon and Renegade options (in their trademark red and blue colors) tend to appear in the same places along the dialogue wheel. This leads us toward establishing a “usual” path, although of course we’re free to choose differently at any time. There is obviously no right or wrong answer in these situations, but it’s worth pointing out that we humans tend to view red things as wicked or prohibited (stop lights, warning signs, horror movie posters), while blue is often presented as calming and angelic (sky, water). Note, too, that the Paragon option usually appears above the Renegade option, and is therefore (probably) the first option we consider.
The Walking Dead (at least the PC version, as I’m playing it) takes things a step further. Dialogue options are arranged vertically, with number keys (or arrow keys + return) used to select our choice. While there’s no blatant color-coded morality system in TWD, the first choice is usually the conciliatory or kind-hearted option, while the curt and rude options (as with the cop, above) appear further down. (To make matters more interesting, there’s usually a timer adding pressure and forcing us to read quickly.)
Is it fair to say that the first option is usually the way the gave developers want us to go? Or at least the path they expect people to take? I hate to speculate about this sort of thing, so it’s probably best if a developer from Telltale just agrees to an interview and we can get some answers.
For all of its many, many, many problems, Heavy Rain broke some important new ground with its approach to this question of response indication. When a player character has to say something, the options swirl around her/his head. Therefore we encounter these options in random sequence, making the above concerns obsolete.
There are other considerations here, like the correlation between what we players see and what the characters say (or don’t say, in the case of Dragon Age: Origins). But every minute I spend babbling here is a minute I’m not playing TWD Chapter Two, so let’s just move on.
Problem #3: Simple Binaries
Let me pause for a moment and repeat how impressed I am, overall, with the writing and story of this game so far. After one harrowing experience, Lee talks with another character about how he made an enormous decision in the blink of an eye. He says something like: “We didn’t make a choice back there. It seems like you do, when you look back on it. But in the heat of the moment, you just do what makes sense.” This is an important point (and one I had been making to myself, as I reflected on that stressful scenario).
The thing to remember is that we are being dropped into fabricated scenarios designed to force a specific dilemma. We develop these things all the time when we’re young — you probably debated with your friends: “Would you rather be blind or deaf?” There’s no third option, and no way to avoid choosing. The context is stripped away, and we’re left with a very very simplistic choice to make. (Like in The Simpsons Episode 5F19, when Ron Howard pitches a movie by saying: “He’s got a heartbreaking decision to make about whether his best friend lives … [dramatic pause] … or dies.”)
This is not how things happen in the real world. As the Keymaker says in The Matrix: “Always another way.”
I think I had a chance to find a third option at one point, and of course part of the excitement in this game is that we don’t get time to think, and as a result we’re plagued forever by doubts and worry about what we might have done differently. (I also realize that, as a writer and a Creative Writing teacher, I’m in constant deconstruction mode, always looking at stories from the point of view of the creator, and considering how the story is told — and what’s left out — at every turn. Sometimes I feel like this guy.)
Still, it’s worrying that I’ve already encountered two crossroads moments of exactly this type in Chapter One alone. It’s getting old and predictable. (I have faith that Telltale will mix it up more as we proceed, but let this be my testament to irritation with oversimplification.)
As I’ve said before, there’s a regrettable tendency to lead players along a pretty narrow path in games, with only a few options of relatively minor significance along the way. And as I’ve said before, this is obviously a requirement of the limited time, money, processing power, file sizes, and other restrictions of video games in 2012. But it’s a little annoying to remember that there’s no way we could ever wind up anywhere other than the hotel at the end of Chapter One.
That’s not to say this isn’t a fantastic game, because it is. The Walking Dead does a superb job of creating genuine empathy for characters, anxiety in tight spots, and authentic relief when the danger subsides. But I’m waiting for that truly revolutionary gaming experience, where I’ll have the chance to dramatically alter the course of events with huge, significant consequences for myself and the other characters. Developers talk about this all the time, but we haven’t seen it yet.
We’ll get that experience some day, and — based on the quality work I’ve seen so far — I believe Telltale Games just might be the ones to make it happen.