…and why it’s a perfect example of an experience only possible through gaming. What do you mean “It came out two years ago, have you been living in a cave?”
The point and click adventure genre was always more character and dialogue focused than action-oriented games, and in retrospect it’s unsurprising that as gaming continues to mature this genre has seen a fair bit of a resurgence. Not to poo-poo the sheer action-blasty-kill-splat-death joy of a ‘mindless’ shooter but you get the point. There’s probably a whole thing to be written about games writing in general, even in the action-shooty genres gamers are expecting to see fully-voiced dialogue (even when this costs a huge amount to implement in sprawling RPGs and MMOs), mainstream audiences get annoyed about things like facial animations and romance options. Technical ability and good writing are bringing more options to developers, whether you’re going for stylistic ultra-violence (say, Bulletstorm) or seemingly humdrum existence (say, The Stanley Parable)
The Walking Dead game by Telltale has a great atmosphere (or is that aesthetic?) overall, despite not being super high quality (in sheer polygon or resolution counts). LIke the comic book, it mixes the stylstic and realistic in good measure. In fact, despite the grim colour palette it’s worth remembering the comic itself is completely black and white (well, grays) – in that sense the game is more ‘lively’ than the comic… but then, it is, you know, animated and interactive too! Either way, in the game or the comic, it’s an appealing visual style for the general themes of misery, bleakness, isolation. (Hooray for the slow zombies too) Robert Kirkman famously stated the core inspiration or idea he wanted to explore was the idea of “what if a typical zombie-apocalypse movie just never ended?”. Anyway, I shouldn’t be trying to review the whole thing, get to the ending. (Spoilers, duh!)
Throughout the game you, the player, exert control over the main character, Lee, making many choices along the way. The particularly ‘big’ choices are in some ways the carrot at the end of the (narrative) stick, and to be fair this is true of many narrative-driven games. There is no high score to go for, no point in doing a speed run (nevertheless people have done that). Your motivation is to progress the narrative, and through your choices, shape it.
Many other sources (here and here) have discussed whether these seemingly weighty choices throughout the game, really have much of an impact at all. On one level, no, and sadly this is the biggest spoiler of all. There is pretty much only one main narrative thread to follow. I won’t reference cases, but essentially some of the supporting cast are doomed to die – it’s just if you save them earlier on, they meet a different fate later. On another level, the choices (from the large to the small ones) are there throughout the game and provided you get sucked into the general atmosphere of the piece, they are very effective at giving you a sense of agency. It’s a real triumph for what is a 80% narrative-driven game, the remaining 20% being puzzles and some odd quick-time-esque combat/action scenes (that keep the sense of immediate threat up). Maybe there are other examples of this working in games before, or interactive ficion, or whatever, but I think Walking Dead is roundly accepted as having broken new ground in the overal quality of delivery. Just because the choices have limited mechanical impact on the game, doesn’t mean that they don’t affect the players experience and emotional response.
Anyway, the ending. Oh no, wait, not the ending, the bit in the middle first. (It is relevant to the ending) One particularly gruelling choice was in the case of Kenny and Katjaa’s (8-10 year old?) son, Duck (not really a major character by any means). In my playthrough I’d saved him from death once before and had a funny moment when he helped solve a puzzle. Duck gets bit in one scene and is slowly dying. You speak to the parents, obviously both in despair, you all know what has to be done, they carry him off into the woods. While explaining the situation to your somewhat adoptive daughter Clem, there is a gunshot and you run off to find Katjaa has committed suicide, leaving Kenny and Duck. (Particularly shocking because A: you naturally expected one of them to have shot Duck ,and B: Katjaa was one of the more level-headed of the group, even persuading Kenny that Duck was hopeless)
Now, do you persuade Kenny to kill his son or do you take that on yourself? In games, we don’t get ambigious options very much – or we do, but they are kind of irrelevant. Now, we’ve already said that techincally, Duck must always die, one way or the other – Katjaa will always kill herself too. But because WD is fully committed to a narrative-driven / choice-driven experience, you feel the impact through playing, through the choices themselves.
I chose to have Kenny kill his son – why? It gives him a sense of closure? If anyone had to do it, it’s better the son “see a familiar face” or be there right to the end? Cynically, I also wondered whether it would (literally and figuratively) come back to bite me in the ass if I looked too ‘pushy’ about it. Choices! Later in the game, with Kenny, we came across an emaciated and mostly incapacitated zombie child that had been locked in a loft presumably by it’s parents. Obviously this brought things up for Kenny and (I think?) he flat out refuses to do it (not that I assumed he would).
Right, the ending then.
Skipping ahead, various other endings have met various other characters (good and bad respectively), and it’s just you, Lee and Clem in the typical “surrounded, trapped, doomed” scenario. Lee has been infected by this stage (and may also have cut his own arm off in a sadly unsuccesful attempt to cure himself).
Lee (aka, YOU the player) looks and sounds very near to death. You have a little bit more moving around to do, but it’s much slower than before, with Clem propping you up. You try to open a door with a ‘tap Q as fast as you can’ type of action (that you’ve done so many times before) but you don’t have the strength.
At this stage it’s surprising enough to be in a situation, where you the player are pretty much certain you are going to die. Of course you can die a million times in some games, but it’s rare to have that happen in a truly final way, let alone the drawn out, slow and kind of gory way shown here.
Your last ‘mission’, as you are slumped on the floor has you talking to Clem to solve a few final puzzles, except that where previously your ‘avatar’ Lee would have done these actions themselves, now the same controls result in you telling Clem what to do. There’s some great moments – pick up a bat to break a window – which would have been a mundane puzzle/task previously, becomes incredibly poignant with Clem holding a bat (far too large for her to hold properly) and with Lee saying things like “look out for broken glass”.
There’s a little ‘action’ scene of sorts, where a zombie gets loose and you can only watch and try to shout (very hoarsely) instructions. In the heat of the moment, an ornament gets knocked over and you can only watch as it clonks you on the head. The screen blacks out for a second (teasing you with your inevitable doom).
Very quickly though (after most players probably shouted NO! at the screen) you wake back up and manage to slide the bat over to Clem who defends herself. I think it’s the first time she’s ever had to defend herself and it’s a slow and brutal process. What a relief, she now has a gun (off the zombie) and the keys to get out. It’s pretty much (a very short) final boss of sorts, combining all the things about the game and the world you’ve learned and putting you in a scenario where you just have to ‘flow’ and make quick decisions. It feels naturalistic, the mouse and keyboard ‘disappear’, YOU are Lee making those decisions.
So do you tell Clem to leave you or to shoot you? (I chose to be shot) Obviously it’s a painful choice and a moving end to any story, but there’s so much going on I’ve had to make a list.
– On a basic narrative level, you the player feel bad for Clem. Clem has recently found out her real parents (who you were searching for kind of throughout the entire game) are dead (zombies). Also you’ve had to do such things throughout like cut her hair off/short (for practical reasons) and more recently smear entrails over both of you (again to help survive).
– Clem now has to go without her somewhat adoptive father figure too. (you the player / Lee)
– On a gameplay level, you the player also feel bad for ‘losing the game’ in the traditional sense, even though this is the only conventional way to complete the game. The choices may be railroaded but they are very well disguised.
– On a narrative level, you feel bad that the character Lee is going to be no more.
-On a gameplay level, while Lee has his own characteristics you’ve had a great influence in shaping the kind of man he is. So both you the Player and you the ‘Lee’ are both dying.
– On a gameplay level, you might actually be a kind of composite of both Lee and Clem throughout the game. In many respects, Clem’s wellbeing is the players main objective, so you feel bad that your main avatar (Lee) is dying leaving your secondary avatar (Clem) alone. This is emphasised in the nature of the last scene where you are indirectly ordering her about and makes for a good segueway into her being the main avatar in the second game.
– Additionally, as with any good work of ficiton there’s sadness that the story/experience is coming to an end too.
– Narratively of course, there is some painful dialogue required to convince a child to shoot their adoptive parent.
All in all you make a few last dialogue choices (“Make sure you keep your hair short”, “You’re smart, you’ll be okay… etc”)
Lee seems to fade away for good saying: “…and also….” (nothing… cliffhanger…)
You have one last line to pick. I chose:
“I’ll miss you.”
AND ITS SO TRUE (BLUB BLUB BLUB SNIFFLE) ON SO MANY LEVELS. Yep, I was tearing up throughout the last scene but the last line really got me.
Because I will miss them! I’ll miss Lee, I’ll miss *playing* as Lee, I’ll miss Clem, the characters will each miss each other, I’ll miss playing the game because it’s over, Clem will miss Lee and ‘me the player’… wow.
This is probably an inelegant way of explaining it, really, the point of this was to say that it’s a really good example of something only a game could do, and it kills you on so many levels at once.
(Having now watched the alternative, leaving without being shot, this probably would have had the same ultimate impact. You get a similar length of scene and not much in the way of different dialogue. In some ways it’s even the more logical and nobler choice – why waste a bullet she might need later? what about the noise? what about becoming too accustomed to killing and death?… OH GOD WHAT HAVE I DONE! Anyway, it reinforces the idea that despite ‘railroading’ a particular end, games can have choices that are still meaningfull in the ‘process’ rather than the end product.)
Anyway, to cheer us all up again, here is an appropriate scene from Friends -actually it would be hilarious to do this scene as a Walking Dead style choices game thing. Someone make it happen?