Article by contributor Ryan Hodge.
Recently, I finished all ten episodes of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, Seasons 1 & 2. Like many players, I instantly fell in love with the feel of the game. The air of hopelessness, of desperate survival, seemed to permeate everything about it. When the credits finally rolled on S1, E5, I was just as misty eyed and ready for more as anyone. Yet, I came away from the experience strangely unfulfilled. I liked the game just fine, but it felt like something was missing. I just couldn’t place what.
I played the whole thing again in its entirety and, all at once, I understood: “This game series adapts to the choices you make. The story is tailored by how you play.” This was the claim made to me by the game from the moment it started…and it is, frankly, a lie. Despite the capable writing of its characters, the game as a whole always lurched toward a single conclusion. Stumbling into a room full of zombies wasn’t harrowing, nor was it evidence of blundering or thoughtlessness; it was just annoying.
I recall one scenario quite distinctly: Lee (the hero of Season 1) and Clementine wander into a train station at one point. Despite this being an unsecured room, the player is forced to use his only weapon to prop the door to allow light in (rather than something more reasonable like a shoe or the station’s many boxes), the immediate area is revealed to be empty. Now I stress here, it didn’t seem to be empty–it is empty. I purposely made it a point to scan the room for threats before continuing. Yet, the moment Clementine was boosted over a locked and gated room: BAM! Instant zombies
For me, this scenario wasn’t scary; I wasn’t proceeding with any sense of unease. The room was freakin’ empty! It was physically impossible for the walkers to be where they were when events unfolded. So when those walkers did appear, the whole sequence felt so artificial and forced. Despite its claim, the game didn’t “adapt” to my choices to scan the room or to search for a less inconvenient doorstop. In fact, it almost never recognized an attempt to favor caution over blundering into a situation.
I’m not sure what spurred this decision on behalf of the designers. Perhaps it was an attempt to reinforce the notion that danger could appear at any moment. However, if so, such an attempt backfired when I felt cheated by the game’s story rather than shocked or startled.
And therein, I think, lies my chief disappointment with Telltale’s The Walking Dead. For all of the richness in its narrative, it is incredibly cheap when it comes to conveying its circumstances and (to a large degree) its gameplay. The game does not adapt to your choices. In fact, the gameplay of The Walking Dead is so particularly shallow that it actually might be a stretch to call the title a ‘game’ at all. Indeed, it could be argued that it’s more an ‘interactive novel’ than a proper video game, which means that it does not ‘adapt’ to your play style as it claims …and I think that is a remarkable waste of potential.
Now I feel compelled at this juncture to remind the audience: I liked Telltale’s The Walking Dead. Honest to God, I did! The point, however, is that when I attempt to think about TWD’s central game mechanic and how it relates to the story, I have difficulty concluding that a central game mechanic even exists. It can’t really be called an inventory-based puzzle game, as actually very few of the title’s challenges actually consist of puzzles. It can’t really be called an action game, as large stretches consist of nothing more than conversation. It can’t even be called a ‘choose your own adventure’ game, as all plot threads flow into one inexorable conclusion via nigh-invariant circumstances.
So what is TWD? Well, as I said before: it’s an interactive novel…but it could have been so much more. The difficulty in categorization of the title could have actually been its greatest strength, rather than its most glaring weakness. The excitement I retained, going from episode to episode, was that I had genuinely no idea what was going to happen next. In a game like Call of Duty, or even the excellent Bioshock: Infinite, I could pretty safely assume that I’d be shooting people for the next four to eight hours. In TWD I could be fixing a train, using a rolling tractor for cover against incoming fire, or trying to talk a madwoman out of shooting me and still have no accurate means of predicting what would follow.
Too bad Telltale decided they didn’t want to make any of that fun or give it any truly appreciable impact of the unfolding of the plot. I realize that I’m being a bit harsh here, so I’d love to give an example of a sequence I thought was executed quite adroitly. In the first episode, a woman is trapped on the second deck of a motor inn. The inn is infested, but not overrun with walkers. It is possible to rescue her; however the walkers need to be dealt with in a particular order and with a minimum of noise. The sequence unfolds with the survivors utilizing a variety of tools from spark plugs to screwdrivers to quietly dispatch the walkers without alerting the horde.
In this moment, I felt a genuine sense of tension, not because if I failed I’d get my guts chewed on, but because if I failed; it was because I made a bad call. I actually felt accomplished and relieved when I was able to complete the challenge with no mistakes and no casualties, and was craving a chance to prove myself again. But, to my recollection, no comparable sequence availed itself again.
Its absence is sorely felt throughout the remaining nine episodes and, indeed, the gameplay and the game narrative are poorer for it. When one of the group is accused of siphoning supplies to bandits; rather than having the accused (and falsely at that) summarily shot by the side of the road, why not a trial or investigation where evidence is discovered, weighed, and argued and ultimately have the PLAYER make the call as to who’s guilty? If gameplay is ‘tailored to our choices’, then why must all of our choices be superficial? We go to the same places and meet the same people and suffer the same end no matter what we do. Why?
Because the ‘pointlessness’ was the point. The Walking Dead was never meant to be a fairytale, and it certainly isn’t. According to writer Gary Whitta “All choices are equally wrong”. I take this as meaning that you’re meant to feel like a tiny, insignificant speck amid a world gone wrong just trying to do something, anything to survive even though every step you take seems to make things worse. Frankly, having Carley getting her head blown off on the side of the road during a heated exchange was just more realistic. Ben never able being able to have his moment of redemption despite his desire for it –despite you going out of your way to give it to him- is just more plausible. All of that makes a damn good story.
But does that make a good game? It would be ridiculous, of course, to suggest that the player finish in a state where the group is intact and everything is wonderful. Programming limitations aside (which are substantial), it just wouldn’t fit with the theme of the game to allow the player to reach a state where he gets to keep everything he’s worked for…but that’s predicated on the notion that the player had to work for it in the first place. This is the weak point of its gameplay and its story.
As we move on to Season 2, the pointlessness of everything was emphasized by there being almost nothing to fight for. Clementine was simply pulled place to place with no real overarching objective. Rather than allowing for a more free-form story in that case, the narrative becomes even more restrictive as any attempts to plan ahead or favor certain relationships over others results in no appreciable changes to how the story plays out.
There was one segment where Clementine was tasked with completing an objective in a silent warehouse office. Despite the implied urgency of her mission, I took a moment and had her search the manager’s desk for anything useful. Fortune smiled as she discovered a Derringer pistol; which might be useful if I ever found myself in need of a quick upper-hand in a fight.
That very need availed itself in short order when Clem was given the opportunity to ambush an antagonist character. I thought myself oh-so-clever to have taken that extra moment to think rather than clumsily go about my business, however I found myself growling with frustration when my shot did little but annoy the antagonist. As with so many other sequences in TWD, this moment plays out the same whether you secure the pistol or not; thus rendering my forethought utterly pointless.
The proverbial icing on this sorry cake was perhaps the promotion for S2,E5. “Who will you become?” is the haunting question the trailer asks us a Clementine shivers alone in a snowstorm.
As it happens, the answer is “No one the writers didn’t want you to.” Early in the episode, you are given the opportunity to execute an enemy. I felt that was a good choice and went with that option. However, despite giving me the option to support that decision, the game denied me and forced me into a sequence of events I knew would be ruinous. “Clementine isn’t that detached from her humanity” a Telltale director said in an interview. “Then why did you give me the option, Mr. Director, sir?” I ask.
The sad, missed opportunity of The Walking Dead is that despite hyping the value of ‘choice’, most of the game events simply happen to the player, rather than because of the player. We are rarely given the opportunity to own our action; to live with the consequences of a bad call. Saving Shawn was never going to happen. Saving Carley was never going to happen. Saving Duck was never going to happen. You, the player, can make decisions almost at random and have the game play out the same.
But imagine the power and the burden of knowing that you could save someone, you could stop something from happening; but you just weren’t fast enough, clever enough, or good enough.
There’s no darker story than knowing the apocalypse you live is the apocalypse you chose.
Who will you become, indeed?
Check out his thoughts on the Gotham premier among other things he has written here.