Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Walking Dead: Review and Discussion

Zombies have been popular culture's undead of choice for a while now. They've spawned hit TV shows, popular movies, more video games than we know what to do with, and even a handful of board games whose main selling points seem to be "hey, this game is about zombies!" I never climbed aboard the zombie bandwagon, but when Alex recommended The Walking Dead (a video game inspired by the same comic books that launched the TV series), I decided to give it a shot. Besides, I'd wanted to play a good point-and-click style exploration game in the vein of Broken Sword or Monkey Island for a while.

The Walking Dead fit the bill pretty well, even though it became clear in the first few minutes that this game is not King's Quest: Survival Horror Edition. Point-and-click games have a set of tropes and conventions that players expect. You need to thoroughly comb old areas after you've explored a new one; you're supposed to try every single item in combination with every other item, and then use the new thing you made on every possible character. The Walking Dead dispenses of those conventions in favor of making the narrative move faster, and while that change in emphasis makes sense given the style and themes of the game, it also emphasizes just how much it pushes the boundaries of being a "game".

If the purest definition of "game" is a thing of decision-making and optimization, then most of the "game play" in The Walking Dead occurs in the narrative instead of in the mechanics. The bulk of the decisions you make are not ones about how best to defeat a certain monster or approach a tactical objective, but ones about which direction you want the story to go. As the game reminds you every time you start a new chapter (and they're called chapters, to emphasize just how much focus is on the narrative), the story is decided by the way you play the game. Ironically, it's really easy to criticize an "open narrative" game like this for not being open enough. As soon as you realize you've been given the freedom to decide which character lives and which one dies, you want the entire story to be malleable, and it's occasionally disappointing to realize the game would have played out basically the same way no matter which one you picked. (That's no knock on the game, because it would be impossible to program a game that was infinitely nonlinear.)

The "everything that rises must converge" realization was most true at the end, during the climactic conversation with the kidnapping stranger, which went more or less like this:
Stranger: Hey, I don't like this one thing you did.
Me: Well, I had a good reason for it, so chill out.
Stranger: Oh yeah? I don't like this other thing you did either.
Me: That was literally the only thing I could have done, and you know it. Get over yourself.
and so on, until Clementine showed up to whack the dude on the head with a lamp. Probably, the stranger still would have found some way to criticize all my decisions even if I'd done things completely differently, and Clementine still would have whacked him on the head with a lamp after he had berated me sufficiently.

Overall, Lee in my game was the compassionate, nonviolent, and honest sort. It would be fascinating to play through again making the exact opposite decisions, playing Lee as a conniving liar and kicking people out of the group as soon as they wronged me or proved themselves a liability. The biggest problem with that approach is that the game is so engaging and the dialog writing so realistic that it would actually be difficult to do, ethically and morally. And that's the one of many things that The Walking Dead does very well, drawing you into its universe and intriguing you to see how it might play out otherwise. Plenty of "moral choice" games sell themselves on the possibility of playing through again on the "other side," but realistically, most games are far too long to make subsequent playthroughs palatable. At between 10 and 15 hours, The Walking Dead is the perfect length to revisit: it's short enough that experiencing it again wouldn't seem like a terrible burden, but not so short that you've memorized the entire game after playing it once or twice.

A second strength of The Walking Dead's "moral choice" system is that there is never a "right" choice. In contrast to other games that display morality as a black-and-white spectrum (or blue-and-orange, if you're Mass Effect), decisions in The Walking Dead are more like your mom telling six-year-old you to choose between your Legos and your toy cars. You want them both, and it doesn't seem fair that you're being forced to make that choice, but there's no way around the decision.

Some of the smaller decisions that The Walking Dead forces you to make were a touch more subtle but still well-designed. There's one in Chapter 4, where you're in the sewers, and a zombie grabs you. The default option is to shoot it, which attracts the rest of the zombies and essentially gives you a countdown timer to figure out what to do next, but if you have the presence of mind to switch weapons and bash it with a wrench instead, you can explore the next section at your own leisure. But with the screen turning red, you need to make that choice very quickly, and it pays to keep a cool head and not freak out. Scenes like this one show how good the game is at creating a sense of urgency and rewarding not panicking.

Outside of the narrative, one of the best things the game does is portray Clementine as an actual character, something that games (and TV, etc.) are pretty reluctant to do with kids. There's so much legitimate development to her personality! Contrast her with Aaron from Lost, who, although much younger, was always a human plot device rather than a real character. And it's impressive that the quick-time events added to the game--they usually just annoy, but here they served the purpose of reminding you that in this world, you need to be ready to react and fight for your life at any minute.

Frankly, it's tough to call The Walking Dead a great game for a couple of reasons. The first is that there's not much "game" there. There is no real difficulty. You can't "win" or "lose". You can die, but only during certain scenes--and even if you do die, you restart and have an immediate chance to try again. The second and more important reason is that calling The Walking Dead a game is doing it a bit of an injustice. It's an immersive experience, and a surprisingly poignant one at times, whose strength is in the narrative and the setting rather than the mechanics or the challenge--and that's exactly what it is trying to be.