The Walking Dead and the Consequence of False Freedom

*This has some spoilers all the way to the end of the game, so don’t read if you haven’t finished it yet.*

If you’re anything like me, you probably played through Telltale’s The Walking Dead and enjoyed the impact that player choice had on the story. As you made each decision, whether trivial or dire, that constant notification at the top reminded you that someone would remember and that it could come back to haunt you later.

It could have been as small as a little white lie or as big as choosing to save one  life over another.  Someone will remember it. For players, that notification served as something that we needed to remember. By doing that, we fell directly into Telltale’s trap.

The Walking Dead doesn’t offer players much choice, but it sure fooled me.

The decisions you make don’t have much of an impact. Sure, Kenny/Carly/Clem might look at you a little differently, or you might find yourself running through a different dialogue tree because of something you said, but as soon as that conversation is over, nothing has changed, despite what that little notification wants you to believe.

207610_screenshots_2012-07-17_00010These small choices might be meaningful to you and I, but they don’t do anything to alter the storyline any further than we have in our head. They’re what I’d consider “fake choices”, as they give the appearance of choice, but don’t do anything to alter the storyline one way or another, while “real choices” –like choosing to kill someone off or separate from the group– don’t have any real effect.

I don’t mean to belittle the choices that you made while thinking that you had some real impact on this preset story; that’s the game’s conceit, which it realizes perfectly.

When these real choices surface, the game tricks players into thinking that the decision is so monumental that it must have some effect on the course of Lee’s path in a meaningful way. It then dismisses that choice by having it play out the same way regardless of which direction you chose.

Whether you chose to save Doug or Carley at the end of the first episode, both still die in the same way at the beginning of episode three, so in the end, what choice was there really? You just ran through the second episode with a different character skin who didn’t do much of anything, as that would have altered the path too much. It didn’t matter who you chose, the argument still went the same and either one died at Lilly’s hands.

At the end of episode two, you are confronted by a car and the tough choice to take all of the supplies from it or not (the tension arising from the rationing “decisions” from the beginning of the episode). It’s made to seem like one of the biggest decisions of the game, but the consequence of this decision in chapter five is static regardless. If you take them, that’s given as the main reason for the finale. If you don’t, it’s just a throwaway line and another reason is given instead. You’re guilty by association with the thieving characters you can’t control. For a game lauded for its insistence on the importance of player choice, Telltale’s choices seem to matter an inordinate amount.

I chose for my version of Lee to enter episode five alone. That’s how I wanted to play it out. I left everyone else behind and was ready for my personal vendetta, the Final Redemption of Lee Everett. That isn’t how it played out. The game brings everyone back for a “we’ll live and die together” moment that completely trivialized the choice that I made.

2012-11-08_00019At the end of each episode, you’re presented with a screen filled with global statistics of key decisions and how the aggregate of players sided. This is probably the best tool at reminding you “Hey, you totally shaped this story, remember?” right before you go talk about how “your decisions” mattered.

The outcome is the same, but Telltale doesn’t want you to see that.

The purpose of this post isn’t to rag on The Walking Dead –It’s one of my favorite games of the year– but rather to make clear the misrepresentation behind it. The game was praised by the media, including myself, for “finally bringing storytelling into the hands of the player”, when in actuality, it doesn’t really do that. It doesn’t matter what choices you make, whose life you save, or even how you decide your Lee would act; it all ends the same way.

Where’s the player input in that? How does that alter the way that we see narrative design in games?

It doesn’t.

It’s difficult to find a balance between the story that the author created originally and the story that the player alters, but that shouldn’t be an excuse for trivializing the choices that the player makes.

As much as people deny it, Mass Effect 3 is a great example of player input actually having an influence on how things play out in the end. Characters can die and everything moves along; there are no attempts to trivialize that by bringing things back into a “perfect” ending like there is with The Walking Dead. It gave you the chance to alter your ship and crew across multiple timelines through an entire trilogy of games, using the decisions that you made to pivot the narrative. It didn’t try to correct that or pull it back into something that’s the same across all versions of the game no matter what choices were made, it honored the decisions that you made. Shephard’s actions mean something to the world, even if there aren’t notifications popping up in the corner constantly reminding you of that through some false sense of importance.

Hell, even the epilogue in Spec Ops: The Line valued player choice more than The Walking Dead. It allowed you to make your choice and stick with it, even if that meant that your story ended a different way than the developer might have liked. It didn’t try and pull things all back together neatly and say “this is the definitive ending”.

It respected your choices.

The Walking Dead presents its narrative in a unique way that I’m personally a fan of, but I’m not sure it’s accurate to call it a choice-driven narrative. The gameplay is only choice (outside of the few on-rails shooting segments), but the narrative culminates according to Telltale’s design, not yours. Unfortunately, this is how most people see and present it. By that token, The Walking Dead is one of the most overhyped games of 2012.

It’s tough to fault the gaming public. The hype is due in part to the episodic nature of the title. After the first episode, we thought, “I can’t wait to see how my choices from this episode impact what happens next!” Then episode 2 fed us even more choices and even fewer consequences.

We were teased at the end of the second episode by the supplies in the car. We knew that it just had to have some impact on a huge moment later in the game, but that moment never came. We kept waiting for there to be some actual effects to our cause, constantly sharing our choices with other players, as if to compare how things were different between games, which actually makes the whole hype partially our fault. The very choices that we thought were going to evolve storytelling in games were marginalized in a few lines of dialogue.

I was disappointed, but the emotional connection to these characters was too grand, and I didn’t notice the curtain pulling over me, or care to admit it. And that’s a shame.

Follow me on Twitter at @alexrubens.

  • Justin Amirkhani

    The question to me is whether or not we consider the choice making process inside our own minds as a game, or whether we need the game to provide clear and defined differences based on the outcomes of those choices. A great deal of The Walking Dead runs on the assumption that the player actually makes the effort to struggle with the ethical implications of each choice rather than purely a mechanical one. There is no win/loss state for choosing one side of a moral dilemma over the other making each decision ultimately irrelevant save for how they make you feel. This isn’t a specifically bad thing, but it makes it no more of a game than flipping through a pamphlet of tough moral questions.

    The game isn’t in the programming, the game is inside you, that’s what sets it apart. Under any scrutiny this game falls apart, but in the moment when you’re willing to suspend your disbelief of the situation and recognize what the game’s asking you to think about rather than why it’s asking you to think about it, then it becomes something special. To me, that’s the best an interactive narrative with limited dialog options can possibly provide.

    • Vertigo

      I agree with this one. The choices are not about the result, but about how you get there. It’s an emotional journey and while the result may be the same, the choices make you think whether there was another way I could do it and they definitely make you feel something. That’s how they make the game personal.

  • Stéphane Houle

    Would the game have the same impact if you could get a “perfect” ending where everyone lives? I don’t think so. The game was more about character interaction than anything else and that part was done to perfection. Real consequences would have meant shitty endings just because the devs would have to create other endings even though they have their favorite one already. I doubt they’d put as much time in the alternative paths.

  • Ryan

    I agree with your points, but every game with a choice mechanic does this to some degree. I think ME3 isn’t as different from the TWD as you give it credit for. Though characters can die in the Mass Effect series, all the main story beats continue forward, much like in TWD. Characters get ‘re-skinned’ all the time like Carly and Doug – Kaiden/Ashley, King Wrex, Legion. I’d say that TWD is more effective, but that only may be to the very intimate nature of the story, as opposed to the the universe-sweeping plot of ME. Choice is always “fake” in this way – no matter what you choose, you’re at the mercy of the developers. That’s not a bad thing.

  • Chris Leggett

    I agree with the underlying point of this piece, but I also agree that the Mass Effect series is largely guilty of the same thing. Two key differences, though, are that: a) there’s more of a game attached to Mass Effect’s illusion of choice, and; b) there are consequences to your choices and actions in Mass Effect insofar as it’s a matter of experiencing some of the content or not experiencing it. For instance, if Garrus dies in ME2, you don’t get to develop his story further in ME3.

    There’s an argument that those kinds of consequences aren’t the point of TWD, and the consequences are more on a personal level, but I think people put too much weight into that. Kenny might give you a disapproving look after you choose a comment (with the words “Kenny will remember that” appearing on the display), but it does very little to inform how he actually responds to you in future. For the most part, the consequences of these decisions manifest themselves internally within a player.

  • Sean

    I think I’m ok with the choices all leading to one final path and it ultimately ending the same way. Having open-ended gameplay that can change for everyone would lead to a much more difficult development process. Take for example, if every dialog/choice in the game lead to a different path. Lets say there are 25 discrete choices in each episode, with 2 or 4 options in each (5 of the major branches and 20 dialog choices). we’re talking about what, (5*20)^4 + (5*5)^2 = 100000625 different possible paths. From a software engineering perspective, that’s very difficult to program for and very difficult to test. Even if we just said the 5 major branches are the ones that matter, (5*5)^2 = 625 paths, which is more feasible but still rather unrealistic to develop and test. In the end, its easier to have one main path that have some differences in dialog and other minor things, but lead down the same basic path.

    Now, on the topic of choice, I think what bothered me the most is that some choices were basically ignored and what happened went against what I chose to do. Specifically in episode 1, saving the Herschel’s son. I made the choice to save him because an adult is more useful than a child, but the game didn’t respect that choice, Herschel’s son died anyway and Duck was save. Similar “choices” happened in all the other episodes as well it seemed. Why give me that choice if it doesn’t make a difference in the immediate outcome?

    • fhnuzoag

      Well, like the developers said once, the choice with the two sons is not about Duck vs Shawn – it’s a trick to present it that way. It’s about *your relationship with Kenny*. The game didn’t allow you to succeed at saving Shawn, but Kenny will remember that when it came down to it, you chose to save someone else instead of his child, because his child isn’t useful to you. If you allow it to, that choice can colour all of your relationship with Kenny. That’s actually the choice you’ve made.

  • 0xFADE

    It seems almost like this is possibly -better- storytelling then actual different paths. They are able to focus their energy on the more important things.

    Perhaps like a game that has a map but only takes place in one town compared to another game with a map of an entire world. They may both be equally large but the one that takes place on the world just feels larger.

  • Crias

    The fact of the matter is that for any large set of variables (decisions), it’s impossible to give a unique result to every combination. You have to make the outcomes converge.

    Mass Effect is no exception. Killed Wrex? Brother takes his place with a dialogue switch. Killed Thane? Kirahe takes his place, and if he’s dead then the counsellor dies. That doesn’t affect anything either, just a dialogue switch and a different stat-check.

    But when a player is playing through these choices in isolation they really feel like their decision had a real impact. It doesn’t matter that it’s an illusion, the player is connected to the story they created. The only problem comes up when the illusion is broken.

    You killed the last Rachni in the entire universe? Don’t worry, we had one more. Further, no matter how many of your friends lived or died, here are three choices for an ending with no explanation as to how that was impacted by your other choices, or how it affects the world. (They added epilogue with DLC, but only when people complained.)

    The problem with these kinds of decisions is that they don’t feel organic. They break the illusion, like a magician accidentally letting you see behind the curtain. You were quite content to be “tricked”, even knowing it was a trick, but the magician revealed the secret and now you can’t un-know it.

    So where does Walking Dead fall into this? I listened at length while my friends described to me the decisions they made. One was absolutely amazed by how his blunt honesty turned Clementine from a frightened little girl into a hardened survivor who didn’t hesitate to do what needed to be done. Sure, the consequences were an illusion, but in his head he connected deeply to the characters and his decisions affected their motivations and personalities. As far as I’m concerned, that says it all.

  • Sean

    The thing is, that the Walking Dead game is one of those games that is actually pretty good at creating the illusion that your choices matter. And its a game that probably should only be played through once where you can craft your own story. Of course the illusion will be shattered on subsequent playthroughs ending pretty much the same, but if you play it once and take it for what it is, whether the choices really mattered or not, you got a really good story in the end.

  • discrider

    I don’t know. I thought the Walking Dead was a great movie. I think that if you went into it thinking you were getting a game, you were setting yourself up to be disappointed. I mean it’s a five episode zombie apocalypse “game”. If it wasn’t severely railroaded most people’s main character would be infected by episode one, with a game restart certainly required. So I went into the game with that mentality, that it wasn’t a game and that it was instead a choose your own adventure movie and wasn’t bothered by these reskinned choice outcomes at all. It was all about the narrative rather than any sort of self-direction, and I found that quite good.
    The decisions that disappointed me the most were not the ones with no “effect” on the game, which as you’ve implied were all of them, but instead were the ones I didn’t get to even pretend to make. Spoilers ahead. Episode 4, I would have gone to find Clementine’s parents right away regardless of the boat hunt. But that was never an option. I would have preferred not to get sucker bit too, but no. Also, in Episode 5, on the roof at the pit, without the stupid kid with you, Clem’s radio fell into the pit instead. My Lee said “Forget it, it’s just a radio”, yet that didn’t prevent someone jumping down and sacrificing themselves for it. If one of these choices existed, say, Lee acted carefully and didn’t willingly put himself into a position to get bit, but Lee got bit anyway, I still would have been happier with that result because Lee would not have acted against the character I was building. Even if the story didn’t remember at all.
    The fake choices were good. The authors can’t direct the movie they want without guiding the characters down the appropriate collision paths. But when these choices feel ingenuine because the motives aren’t right or consistent with the characters the viewer is following, that’s when the whole illusion comes crashing down for me.
    Still, I’d like to know how Carley fixed the radio for Clem. At least Doug knew what batteries looked like.

  • Benny

    You say Mass Effect 3 does it right. I would say that Heavy Rain does decisions best of all games from the current generation.

    The story continues and is altered quite a lot. You will never see a game over screen, even though your current player character can die.

  • Doug

    The very fact that the article is asking this question is testament to how well the game approaches storytelling. Illusory agency is still agency when you’re in the middle of the thing, and that’s all that matters…unless we want to come to every game with a fully read-up strategy guide, and that’s tantamount to flicking to the end of a book, and then complaining the book didn’t create any suspense!

  • Brendan

    Thank you for writing this and good timing too because I just finished episode 5 last night (the 4th). I enjoyed TWD very much, I thought the writing was wonderful and easily superior to the its TV counterpart which often seems to lack focus and emotional depth. The characters are well presented, there are both scares and laughs, plenty of suspense, a little action and an emotional climax at the end. I enjoyed myself all the way through, but grew suspicious as to just how meaningful my choices were once I completed the game and viewed the stats.

    I did not like the way the game ended after the emotional climax of Clementine having to say goodbye to Lee as he turned, it is essentially a cliff hanger so I assume they are planning a sequel. Lee died for Clementine, so not showing her fate robbed me of closure at the very end – it has to be a set up for a second season.

    Even though I enjoyed the initial ride and would recommend this game to anyone who doesn’t exclusively play shooters, I did feel a little cheated that my choices in the game meant squat for subsequent playthroughs. TWD is a one and done game, there is little reason to play through it a second time. I picked Doug over Carly in the pharmacy because he was crafty and I figured he would be more useful in keeping Clementine safe, but it didn’t matter who I chose. I saved Duck over Shawn because my natural instincts were to save the child over the young adult and I sided with Kenny against Larry because he was my ride and owed me for saving the life of his son, but he would have been around for the rest of the game anyway. I chose to show my bite to the group because I needed their trust if I was going to save Clementine and I did not loot that station wagon in the woods, but none of this really matters once you beat the game and look back. I also sided with Kenny when it really counted, but he still chewed me out a couple times toward the end over trivial little disagreements, this is where I truly grew suspicious of how thoroughly the game was tracking my decisions or if they even mattered. Remember the Bladerunner game back in 1997? 13 different endings all determined by the decisions you made and how you interacted with different people. The story was great and the replay value was high, it was the pinnacle of point and click adventure games and The Walking Dead does not meet its standard. Still, it goes to show how a great story can sway me into overlooking and forgiving the very shortcomings I hold against other games in the genre.

    So it was a great ride while it lasted, but I can’t say I’m particularly hyped for a second season if the major (not the secondary) choices don’t have a greater effect on how the game plays out. Now that I know that the consequences of my actions are illusory, the choices I have to make won’t have the same effect on me.

  • Katherine

    This is essentially the same argument I use when I explain to my peers why I don’t hold Mass Effect on a pedestal. Same illusions, same veiled linearity.

  • Jeremy

    Author makes some very good points, though I think there’s something to be said for the idea that the choices the player makes are meant to shape who Lee is, not the world he lives in. Lee is not an earth-changing hero, like Shepherd. He’s just a dude caught up in a catastrophe that is much bigger than he is. Things are out of his control. In the end, the only real control he has (and thus the player has) are to define who is is as a person – how he reacts to the world he lives in.
    Speaking of games that do player choice well (in the world altering sense), I don’ t think the Witcher 2 comes up often enough. Creating two completely different Act 2s, where you play on different sides of a war depending on your choices, was brilliant.

  • Boyd

    Jan.5.2013@11:47 pm – Brendan says:
    “… Lee died for Clementine, so not showing her fate robbed me of closure at the very end – it has to be a set up for a second season.”

    A little late, but still hoping you read this: You can see Clementine one more time after the credits :) Well, atleast, I did.

  • Liliam

    I got a concern, im in the middle of the game, but i’ve heard that Lee dies, is there ANY way in which he doesn’t get bitten and die?