[This post contains no story spoilers, but does contain discussion of game mechanics which could be considered slightly spoiler-ish.]
This game series adapts to the choices you make. The story is tailored by how you play.
This is the message that greets the player at the beginning of every episode of Telltale’s The Walking Dead game. But is it true?
After finishing the final episode last night, I resisted the call of the pillow and had a bit of a dig around some spoiler-heavy threads on the game’s official forum. Like me, most people had really enjoyed the experience, but there was one recurring negative response. In essence:
“The decisions I make don’t actually change anything! Everything’s the same at the end! Telltale are liars!”
By this stage, I had already read a great deal about how specific elements of the game’s plot were altered based on in-game choices, and it certainly seemed true that most or all of the major plot beats would inevitably occur, regardless of which decisions I’d made. So a part of me wanted to grab a pitchfork and join the accuser brigade. There was only one problem: despite knowing what I knew about the limitations of the game’s plot-branching, I’d still loved the experience of playing, and I still felt as if my decisions had been important.
Thankfully, there were a few forumites rebutting the accusers, and it was through their responses that I realised what was actually going on: The Walking Dead is not a game about branching plot possibilities, it is a game about emotional choices and the relationships that form in response them. It’s just kinda, sorta pretending not to be.
Consider that most videogames are designed to appeal to logical, “left-brain”-style thinkers. Whether based around action, strategy or puzzles, games have always (with a few exceptions) been for the rationalist in us. They give us control, they give us some clear goals, and then they set us on our way. There are some who argue that a game without a defined goal isn’t a game at all, but a toy. These characteristics make sense in the context of the games industry: developers have in the past overwhelmingly been males with an appreciation for logic (that’s what games are built on, after all), and no great reputation for social and emotional skills. When we think of “choice” in games, we tend to think of either unstructured open worlds “sandboxes” or rigid branching story
In games that contain stories, plot is usually treated as one of those rational systems – an A to B journey (with possibly a choice of C) against which the important “gameplay” can happen. Rarely are characters or relationships portrayed with the kind of emotional depth you would find in a film or novel.
In Walking Dead, they are. In fact, the bulk of the gameplay consists of exploring emotional spaces. While the staged “you must decide whether to save character X or character Y!” moments are the most clearly dramatic, and thus get the most attention, the bread and butter of the game is actually the time-limited conversations, where you have to choose what to say on the spur of the moment, often with the result that someone or other thinks less of you. Actions may speak louder than words, but in Walking Dead, the bulk of your actions consist of choosing which words to speak.
Characters remember what you say, and will treat you differently based on how you treat them. And thus – while there obviously aren’t infinite permutations – there are probably at least hundreds of ways this emotional journey can vary from player to player. More than enough to make it feel like this was “your story”, even if everyone is tracing the same basic plot.
In the context of the quote at the top of this story, many are assuming that “story” equals “plot”. Indeed, that was my first instinct. But story has at its core something much more important – producing emotions in its audience. It is about meaning, and plot is merely a narrative shape that helps express that meaning. Branching plot means absolutely nothing on its own, and it is a good way to end up with an unevenly-paced story, and for a developer to spend an awful lot of extra money. On the other hand – if you can focus on varying the emotional journey of your story while maintaining the larger arc of the plot, then that seems to me like a better deal for both developer and audience.
So Telltale have not lied to us. But they have tricked us, by using the word “story” in a way that we are unused to in games. And I believe that they did this for a couple of very good reasons.
The first is marketing. Humans being the conservative beasts that we are, we’re very suspicious of change. We like the things we’re used to, and think they’re the best things that could be. Imagine Telltale had used this line instead:
Your relationships with other characters adapt to the choices you make. Your emotional journey is tailored by how you play.
This could easily have turned off a large portion of the game’s potential audience. Sure, it could also have brought in others (potentially more female players, for example), but the odds are that their original choice was the best way to maximise the appeal to existing “gamers”.
The second reason is that the illusion of a possibly-branching plot helps heighten the emotional impact of the choices that the player makes. But the important thing is that the illusion is just as effective as actual branching would have been. Ben Ebell has already written a great article on this point over on Bitmob, which is worth a read. But I just want to conclude by thinking about this notion of “illusion”.
Some may prefer to call what the Walking Dead does with its plot “cheating”, but in fact all art involves the creation of something out of nothing. And thus all art is – from this perspective – illusion. The trick is in constructing your meaningful story so that the audience can’t see the strings. Or – even better – so that its impact is emotionally powerful enough that they stop caring that there are strings. The Walking Dead is a great game (and in my view a great work of art) because by the time you see the strings, it has you by the throat.