The Walking Dull

the walking dead, the walking dull, laser time

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.

the walking dead, the walking dull, laser time
Wait, maybe they’re MAGIC zombies!

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.

the walking dead, the walking dull, laser time
Oh, don’t you give me that look.

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.

the walking dead, the walking dull, laser time
If only.

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.

the walking dead, the walking dull, laser time

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.

the walking dead, the walking dull, laser time
“They need people like us.” “Damn right they do.”

Who will you become, indeed?

Ryan J. Hodge is a sci-fi author who works for Konami Digital Entertainment (all opinions are his own). His latest book, Wounded Worlds: Nihil Novum, is available now for eBook and Paperback.

Check out his thoughts on the Gotham premier among other things he has written here.

9 thoughts on “The Walking Dull

  1. I think I come at the Walking Dead, and games like it from a different angle than you. I hear the arguments you eloquently put forth in this article alot, and I completely understand them, when I look at it from your angle. Even from mine, I agree with alot of what you say. But in the end, I think I look at it as something different than you do.

    I see these games as a story being told. You have a measure of influence, but the story will be told, no matter what choices you make. It’s like the now infamous diamond. The game starts one place, can branch out, but it must in the end reach the end point. And I see the limitations the developers are faced with. If you make every choice matter fundamentally, and branch off, creating it’s own timeline, basically, you’re going to have to create huge parts of the game that the player will never see. I can think of no developer today that has those extra resources to spare, unfortunately.

    So what’s left to you? Whenever this comes up, I go back to a single instance in Mass Effect 3.

    ***Spoilers for Mass Effect 3***

    At some point in ME3, depending on the choices you’ve made, you may find yourself with a gun raised, aimed towards one of your allies who’s walking away from you, and with a few seconds to decide whether to pull the trigger. The choice, as it turns out will have very little mechanical impact. Very few of the following scenes will play out drastically different, because of it. Very little will change.

    Yet for me, this is one of the most impactful choices any video game has ever presented me with. Not because of how it changes the story, but because of how it changes how I see the main character Shepard. The enormity of the decision doesn’t play out in the form of a new ending, or a giant branch in the story, it plays out silently in that it changes what kind of man (or woman) your Shepard is, and what he (or she) is willing to do. It affects not the narrative, but the protagonists soul.

    And that’s enough for me.

  2. I think the fundamental problem of games like TWD or Mass Effect regarding choice, is that in order for choice to actually matter and make a difference, you would then have to create both story AND gameplay and content to back each different choice. That require a huge ammount of resources and dedication. And in a day and age in which you see most developers falling in over themselves to either reduce cost or increase profit… Well, no one is really willing to put that much effort into section of a game that players might never even see depending of their choices.

    Also… I’m someone who isn’t that into TWD. I played the entire first season, and thought it was well written for the most part, definitely, but still wasn’t sure it was the pinnacle of storytelling like so many people claimed it was. Then I played The Last of Us… and in hindsight made me feel like TWD wasn’t that big of a deal, since I thought TLOU’s story and characters to be so much stronger than TWD’s.

    Then I played the second season up until chapter 3… And I haven’t played it since. I honestly wasn’t very invested in Clementine anymore, and much less any of the new characters save Kenny. I’m not at all against games that focus almost solely on story rather than gameplay, but TWD didn’t hook me as has as it seems to have hooked most people.

    Then again, I guess I just don’t get the franchise in general. I have watched both the series, and read the comics. And I feel both are entertaining… But again, kinda fail to see the massive hype surrounding them.

  3. I was going to make a big long response to to this but I just realized that I got bored of talking about The Walking Dead games a year and a half ago, so instead I’ll give a TL; DR of what I would have said. I hope you’re ready, because I suck at editing and this is going to be long and have next to nothing to do with the subject at hand.

    If you’ve ever played a story driven game but were unsatisfied with the lack of narrative diversion, just get into visual novels. They strip out the boring, half-finished filler gameplay that takes away from the amount of resources that could have been used amassing a larger writing staff and replace it with exactly what you want more of — story.

    If you’re sitting there, staring at your screen right now thinking, “That sounds like too much effort. Why do legwork to see what interests me in the genre when I could play whatever flavour of the month dribble IGN tells me to?” you are a stupid person and don’t deserve to be spoon-fed but I’ll do so anyway.

    Go read the Infinity series, which consists of Ever17, Remember11 and we don’t talk about the other one. Once you’re finished with that, feel free to check out anything anyone involved made. Steins;Gate is a good step forward and as someone who has never watched ANY anime let alone S;G (which could be based off of the VNs for all I know/care) you don’t need to know jack or shit going in. After that it’s time to get serious. Start Sengoku Rance. After that you can move deeper into the series or branch out into whatever you want, since you should be versed enough in the genre to find your own way around.

    If any of that giant fucking wall of text was too much for you I’ll summarize it quick-like.

    Get into visual novels instead of this Telltale garbage. How do you get into it? Start with Unteralterbach and then spend the rest of your life playing Artificial Academy 2. Happy hunting, shitlord.

    1. Yes, because using that kinda of arrogant, condescending attitude is gonna make anyone want to pay attention to you. *rolls eyes*

  4. Yes they are magic zombies. It’s my understanding that the zombies in the Walking Dead are that way because of a plague. If this were the case and the plague spread to the entire earth over the course of several months then the entire zombie population would die off relatively quickly. You can’t beat biology. It irritates me every time I see a preview for a new episode of the television series. I believe the story takes place over the course of months and then years. By this point in the Walking dead universe all the zombies should have died off. It annoys me to see zombies being a continued threat in the Walking dead story. The characters and dramatic plot points are more than enough to carry my interest. Continuing to see zombies, when they all should have died off by now, shatters my suspension of disbelief. I hope this gets remedied soon.

    1. Isn’t the reason why there are still zombies that everyone who dies turns into one? So there’s always being created new ones?

      But sure, if you want to look at it that way, the whole thing wouldn’t work from the start. A rotten corpse like modern zombies are, would never be able to support itself. It would simply not have the energy. It’s all about what you’re willing to accept for your own immersion.

      1. I appreciate your respectful response. I agree with you completely. It’s all about what fantasy you want to immerse yourself in. The idea of super-powered people fighting with laser swords is ridiculous and yet I love Star Wars. I guess I am just done with the zombie craze. I sick and tired of all the games, shows and movies that deal with it. I don’t want to crush anyone else’s enjoyment of it though. I hope that the many people who enjoy the Walking Dead TV show, comics and movies are able to continue getting new content and enjoy it.

  5. Having played both seasons multiple times and seen all the different possible outcomes, I have come to terms with the fact that no matter what decisions you make, the overall story remains the same. And that’s because I realized that in the larger scope of this world, you are just one person, not everything you do can change the world. As a little girl in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, you don’t have that power. There’s no way that you could have prevented Carver from bashing Kenny’s face in, because you’re just a little girl, you don’t have any control in a situation like that. There’s no way that you could have realistically prevented Lilly from shooting Carley/Doug because it was a spur of the moment scenario that you had no control over. The only thing that you do have control over is how you choose to react in those situations. And that’s what The Walking Dead excels at. Maybe there’s an argument to be made as to whether or not it should bill itself as “adapting to your decisions” but it doesn’t make the story any less good.

    Another reason why the game wouldn’t be able to change the entire layout of the story depending on every single individual choice you make is because it’s virtually impossible to program a game with that many different scenarios. A company like Telltale does not have the amount of time, money or resources readily available to exploit in order to make that scenario possible. And for as much you can complain about how nothing you do has any impact on the story, the ending(s) of Season 2 is a huge gamechanger depending on what you do during the Kenny/Jane fight and what you choose to do after that.

    This was a very well-written piece and you bring up some valid critiques, but I do think that you are expecting way too much out of this series.

  6. I really loved Season 1, I love what Telltale did and how they did it and I was enthralled with the experience from the very beginning. I also very much enjoyed 400 days and will probably enjoy Season 2 when I get around to playing it.

    However after finishing Season 1 I tried to go back and do things differently and was disappointed to find out that I couldn’t really effect the storyline at all. I then realized that the choices I made only slightly effected the plot but mostly only effected conversations.

    I think the game does a great job of making you feel like the choices you make matter and if you only played the game once that’s great. But when you play a second time you see the flaws and the cracks in the foundation and you loose a little bit of the magic.

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