*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.
These 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.
At 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’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.