The Illusion of Choice or the Inevitability of Fate?

I was obviously quite late in my decision to begin playing The Walking Dead Season 1 by Telltale Games. After all, the game has been out almost two years and has won several awards, many of which where game of the year. I have had both friends and family attempt to convince me to play this game and yet I continued to put it on the backburner. The reason I dodged this game was because it was extremely popular. Popular games and I usually don’t mesh too well and it is usually because the popular games are the ones that don’t push the genre forward and are instead in favor of appealing to a wider audience. After having finished the first episode of The Walking Dead I had discovered that it indeed did not improve the formula for the adventure genre. In fact, in many ways, it had regressed. Gone were the days of searching screens for an item that you would need to combine with an item you obtain in the future in order to solve a puzzle. Instead, The Walking Dead focuses on the dialogue. There is actually very little in the ways of item collection or puzzles in The Walking Dead. But that is forgivable. The adventure genre was pretty much dead, save for Telltale making the Sam and Max and Monkey Island titles, and revitalizing it required a new approach that would appeal to “core” gamers. What I found to be interesting was the lack of meaningful player choice in a game that touts how every decision will make your playthrough of the game unique.

Starting from the very beginning the player is thrust into a situation to save either a reporter or a IT guy during a zombie attack. Both had plenty of lines and some decent character development prior to the attack. There were even two separate scenes, one for each character, that helped solidify them as a person. Yet as soon as the attack is over, the person that you decided to save takes on a much more passive role in the game. They tend to talk less during cutscenes and the ideas they present are usually more about them than anything meaningful to the narrative. Episode 2 sees this character out of the view of the camera for most of the episode(during this time the character is walking back to the motor inn to gather the rest of the crew to take back to the farm). The beginning of Episode 3 sees this character killed regardless of whether it is the reporter or the IT guy. The story was not changed because of your decision and the outcome is identical(ie. the events of Episode 3 and further will never have either character present). The idea to give so much attention and weight to a meaningless choice is very transparent in this example. There are many instances where the choices and their outcomes do very little to actually affect the story but this was the first that stood out to me and, from this point on, created a very hollow feeling regarding any of the future decisions that were asked of me. While this is a contained case we can look at the possible endings for the game and see that they are all the same as well. The majority of Episode 5 is unaffected by the choices leading up to it. Lee will sit with the kidnapper and listen to his story, you will be given the choice to kill him or not, you will wade through a street full of zombies and pass out, and Clementine will drag you to a store where you will die after some parting words. In this sense, despite the 11 hours of decision making that is supposed to make the game unique to you, none of your choices matter. And gamers ate this up? After Mass Effect 3 actually had 3 different endings(though also not really based on your decisions up to the ending) and gamers hated it. But a game that is self described as unique for each gamer actually having little variance in its narrative and it is instant gold.

While the main game had its flaws I felt that 400 Days was a much better use of the ideas that Telltale pushed with The Walking Dead. Using each chapter to tell a self contained, small tale was perfect. It gave just enough time to get to know the characters as well as to set up a “difficult” decision to make. It also kept with the themes of “the humans are the monsters” and “banding together for survival” that were expressed in the core episodes. There was one incident that pulled me out of the game and made me question the game logic though. During Bonnie’s story you end up in a cornfield being chased by flashlight carrying humans. It isn’t really explained why her and her friends are being chased by these people, but it isn’t really that important either. There is a scene where Bonnie is hiding behind a tractor holding a shovel as a weapon. The camera is positioned as to show a shadowy figure with a flashlight walking towards the tractor. To advance the player is required to click on the pursuer which begins a cutscene with Bonnie swinging the shovel and hitting her friend in the face. If the player fails to click on the shadowy figure a cutscene plays where Bonnie is presumably killed after being hit with a flashlight. The fact that the two outcomes contradict the other is extremely souring. This basically means that the shadowy figure was simultaneously both the friend and pursuer and neither one of them. And that your actions determined who the shadowy figure became. Failing this sections means saving your friend but also means getting the game over screen. This is a time when a real decision that could affect the gameplay could have been made. All of the “choices” in this game have been apparent ones. The game spells out the choice and gives you a countdown timer to make it. Choice through actions, though, is less transparent and much more powerful. Allow a player to make a decision without knowing she/he made one is the next step in these types of games. In this situation, a player who is quick to pull the trigger would swing the shovel and kill Bonnie’s friend while a more cautious player, or even one who is paralyzed by the situation, will end up saving Bonnie’s friend. Both outcomes would progress the game and it would feel natural instead of forced. While the outcome would be mechanically identical to the reporter/IT incident found in the main game(a character being alive vs dead) the mechanics of the game would be far superior.

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