Monday, January 28, 2013

Dead By Dawn

I can definitely see why The Walking Dead won so many game awards last year. It has one of the most gripping stories I've ever experienced in a video game, and also reinvigorates the genre of the adventure game, my first love in gaming and a genre that has been written off as dead for over a decade. (I'll refrain from a belabored analogy about a deceased style of game lurching up from the grave and lumbering towards its critics.)

I'm not sure if there's ever been an adventure game as brutal as this one. There have been other "adult" adventure games, but even the edgiest fare like Police Quest or Phantasmagoria gets limited by its adherence to tropes or unintentional slide into campiness. Much like the comic and TV show, the game of The Walking Dead violently assaults any sliver of hope that comes into its world, building up an incredible atmosphere of dread and despair.

As I noted earlier, though, what's awesome about this game is that by placing you into the world, you gain a sense of agency that's completely lacking in the other media. Sometimes this feels horrible, since you can blame yourself for the bad things happening; however, you can crucially define your own reactions to the misery around you, and choose what kind of attitude you wish to project. I found that, often, the choices that made me think the hardest weren't the action-oriented, life-or-death stakes questions like "Should we hit the road while there's still daylight, or wait for the cover of night?" or "Should we burst in with our guns blazing, or try to sneak past them?" Rather, the questions I worried over the most were how I would frame our situation to others in my group. Would I reassure them and promise that everything would be okay? Would I try to joke and lighten the mood? Or would I seek to harden them, warning that life was bad, would only get worse, and we needed to do everything in our power to have any hope of survival?

I was also highly impressed by the episodic aspect of the game. Releasing a game in episodes is very common for Telltale - they do it in Sam & Max and other adventure games of theirs - but this is the first I'd played from them that was this highly serialized. You can jump in on Abe Lincoln Must Die without playing the earlier games and quickly get into the swing of it, but it's literally impossible to start in the middle of The Walking Dead without having played the earlier episodes and made your crucial decisions in each. This comes across very well in the "Previously On..." and "On the Next..." segments that open and close each episode, seamlessly covering your choices and the implications they create.

The episodic structure also lends itself to gameplay very well. Each individual episode is long and meaty enough to play over the course of a few days, assuming you don't obsessively play it constantly. Each individual episode has several points within where you can easily set it aside for a while without feeling like you're in the middle of a cliffhanger, and the end of each episode is also a natural place to take a break (though there are some pretty painful cliffhangers there). Personally, I really appreciate being able to take a break... I love the story, but it's so relentlessly dark that I like setting it aside to do other stuff.


The characters in the games were terrific. They're complex, varied, and well-drawn: you get a real feeling for what motivates them as individuals, and how to inspire them. As in real life, some people are enormous jerks, and there isn't much you can do about that; others are kind souls who will put up with almost anything you do. I'm still amazed at all the intra-group dynamics that the game supports as well... you can seek to control the flow of information, over who knows what, and that can have significant ramifications on how the story unfolds. These people have long memories, and the things you say in early episodes can pay dividends or come back to haunt you much later.

I found myself thinking a lot about Warren Spector's infamous rules for games, and particularly the one about avoiding forced failure. Basically, it isn't fun when the game forces you to "lose" at something (e.g., being knocked unconscious) without having alternative options (e.g., get the upper hand on your attacker). The Walking Dead is a game that's full of choices you can make, but it's also a game full of forced failure. It's an interesting kind of forced failure, though... people will die no matter what you do, but your choices can affect how they die, and why they die.

Particularly for this sort of game, which is a low-budget independent game with a complex script and a ton of voice acting, I can totally understand the very practical reasons for forced failure. Imagine that there are, say, ten people you can meet throughout the game. And, if any of them could be saved or killed at any time, there would be an unmanageably complex nest of game states, not just in the final outcome, but at any moment along the way. So, the game lets you control certain variables, but others will end at the necessary times, winnowing the field of choice back down to a few possible scenarios rather than the thousands that could be theoretically possible.

There are good dramatic reasons for forced failure as well: after all, this is a game about the zombie apocalypse, and it wouldn't carry the same punch if you could play a "perfect" game where absolutely nobody was ever hurt. Yeah, it sucks when someone I have looked after and gone to great lengths to protect is killed, but it's exactly that sense of hopelessness and senseless waste that drives this genre of fiction.


Episode Three was by far the hardest one for me, emotionally. There's plenty of intense stuff that happens in the final episode, and a lot that I regret, but nothing that tore me up quite as much as that death did. Much as it pains me to say it, I would probably have been willing to sacrifice everyone (except Clem) to avoid that.

I really like Omid and Christa. Heck, I like a ton of characters, but they were great, late additions to the party. I liked their relationship, and Omid's gallows humor, and Christa's self-reliance. I figured out Christa's condition sometime in episode four; I think I missed the opportunity to make her acknowledge it, but one of Lee's comments to her makes it clear that he knows what's going on.

Speaking of which: after finishing the game, I looked through the FAQs to see what I missed. A few things jumped out at me. First of all, I had totally missed the chance to learn about Molly's past: apparently, when you're left in the nurse station after Vernon and Christa leave, one of the tapes is new and explains what happened between her and the doctor. That said, I already had a pretty solid general idea of the pain in her past, and we eventually parted on a good note (I got a hug!). Secondly, I was really surprised by how many events that had occurred in the game, that I had thought were contingent on the choices I had made, would actually have occurred regardless. That's a testament to not only good storytelling, but great game development: taking two paths, that both lead to the same destination, yet make the player feel like that destination is unique to the one they chose. Specifically (and these are even bigger spoilers than usual):
  • I thought that Kenny jumped down after Ben because I had just spent so much time and effort emphasizing to Kenny how he needed to treat Ben better. After that happened, I thought, "Man, I bet if I'd been a huge jerk, and let Kenny keep on hating Ben, he would have let Ben die alone."
  • I also thought that Omid and Christa survived because I had asked them to look after Clementine, and figured that, if I'd appointed Kenny to be her guardian, he would have lived and they would have perished or left.
I figured that Lee was a goner as soon as he was bitten. I actually had a period of hope after deciding to amputate the limb; in both the comics and show, characters succumb to death after amputating a bitten limb, but at least a few are able to save themselves (Dale in the comics, Hershel on the show). I worried that I'd waited too long to amputate it, and that may have eventually proven to be true.

Anyways, I found that whole final episode very touching... sad, of course, for a multitude of reasons, but it also felt like I could say goodbye to this character who I'd been playing for so long. Getting bitten is a death sentence, but also freeing (that sequence of walking through the streets to the hotel door is incredible) and an opportunity to focus on what's most important in life.

One aspect of The Walking Dead that has gotten a lot of attention is the final report: at the end of each episode, you can learn how your choices compared to those made by other people. One thing that struck me was the difference between the first episode and the subsequent ones. In the first episode, almost all of the major decisions players could make came down to about 50/50; in some cases, that meant that as many players were "bad" as "good" (e.g., lying to their companions). The one exception: a strong majority of players (I want to say something like 80%?) chose to save Carley. In all the later episodes, though, I noticed that solid majorities of players regularly chose the "good" options. (Just to be clear: certainly not every choice is a clear-cut good-or-evil situation. It's impossible to play Lee as a fully bad man, even if you wanted to. I just mean, for the cases where there did seem to be a clear "right" decision to make, most people did the good thing.) I kind of suspect that this may be because the first episode is available for free, and anyone can try it; the people who are playing the later episodes are the ones who bought them, which likely means that they have become invested in the story, which probably means that they are thinking deeply about the situations the game places them in and feeling drawn to virtuous behavior. Or - and this just now occurred to me - maybe it is because, after seeing the final report after the first episode, players are vaguely aware that someone is watching them and potentially judging their behavior, and so feel some sort of social pressure to be good.

I think that I generally made "good" decisions that sided with the majority of players. Some exceptions:
  • I didn't loot the station wagon at the end of Episode Two.
  • I (and the majority of players) did not shoot the bitten woman at the start of Episode Three.
  • I saved Ben in Episode Four.
  • I didn't fight Kenny.
  • In the end, I didn't want to make Clem shoot me (much as I couldn't make Kenny shoot Duck), so I accepted life as a walker.
Oooh, I haven't written about Kenny yet. We had a very complicated relationship, and I'm impressed with how well the game was able to keep track of all our nuances. Basically, I generally tried to be a good friend to everyone, which often included Kenny and his family, but made him mad when I refused to take his side in an argument against another group member. I consistently helped out Duck (saved him on the farm, fed him cheese and crackers, deputized him, got him water, ended his pain), was honest with everyone about my past, but refused to attack Larry, supported Lilly (even after she flipped out), and was never too enthusiastic about the whole boat plan (mostly because I've seen the remake of Dawn of the Dead). I felt it was a little unfair that Kenny kept ragging on me for minor slights instead of all that I'd brought to the group, but it did feel like a realistic relationship in this kind of supremely stressful world. At the end of Episode Four, he seemed very ambivalent about me; I mentioned that Clementine was like family, and he emotionally thanked me for all my support and pledged himself to Clem's cause.

I was intrigued by the survival debates that crop up near the end of the season. It feels like what we've been doing (gathering a group and holing up somewhere) is the worst possible solution; you become a target for less friendly survivors, must deal with inter-personal friction, and see people picked off one by one. Two seemingly successful alternatives are presented. First, Molly's approach: always be by yourself, and never stop moving. Other people can make mistakes and slow you down. Grab what you need to care for yourself, and avoid other people. Secondly is Omid and Christa's philosophy, which has caused this very unlikely duo to survive in a world that has killed far stronger people: stay out of cities, and stay away from large groups. This is a question that's very much on Lee's mind at the end of the season: should they keep trying to find a boat, or try and live in the countryside? The cities have been horrible so far, but would another place actually be any better?

A note on the very ending: I asked Omid and Christa to look after Clem, and told her to find them by the train tracks. The ending is ambiguous, but I feel pretty sure that, at least in my story, it's the two of them. The silhouettes certainly seem to be walking like the living and not like the dead, and the relative heights of the figures seem right for those two (though, with the uneven hill terrain, it's hard to be sure of that). Clem's expression certainly seems worried, but I choose to believe that she's just expressing a healthy caution about her situation, and will shortly be reunited with the others.


Telltale Games recently announced that they will be making a second season of the game, which is awesome. They haven't started work yet, and I'm very curious to see what direction they go in. I think that, of necessity, the games will need to be less serial than the comics or TV show. I could see them telling a completely new story, also set within the new world, with perhaps some minor crossovers with the comic and the first season of the game. Apparently, Telltale is checking to see if they can let players import their first game as a "seed" to the second season, which I think is a really good idea; I see it less like, say, importing a Mass Effect 1 game into Mass Effect 2, and more like [how it should have been when you] import Dragon Age: Origins into Dragon Age 2. A few broad strokes and character outcomes will be honored, and make you feel like your choices have lasting consequences, while also giving the developers a relatively clean slate to play with.

As for whether I would actually play that second game... I don't know. I'm still kind of furious at something that happened in my game, but my temper may have cooled by the time the next season comes around. If nothing else, I'd like to cast my vote for well-designed, thoughtful story-based games. It's awesome that an independent developer is having the impact that they are, and hopefully stuff like this will help prompt the major studios to follow suit.

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