Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Delusion Of Choice: Narrative Bending In The Walking Dead [Part 1]

[I have some scattered thoughts on the topic listed above. I'm focusing on one small thread here though, for now. Minor spoilers ahead for the second episode of The Walking Dead video game series]


Part I: The Hunger Mini-Games

There was a moment of pure dread I experienced playing the second episode of Telltale Games' The Walking Dead, and it actually had nothing to do with zombies. My character, Lee Everett, was put in charge of deciding who among our party of ten very hungry survivors was to receive the four meager pieces of food being allotted for the day. This decision troubled me more than any other in the game so far (save for the decision between saving the lives of two characters, which I'll talk about later) because I knew I couldn't out-game this particular decision. There was no winning or losing here, and I couldn't just reload a save to try and perfect the scenario. I was just going to have to choose four people to give food to, and the rest were going to go hungry. End of story.

A few minutes later, after starting to hand out the food, I was presented with a decision that, conversely, I was actually easily able to out-game. When I got down to the last package of cheese and crackers, the game asked me decide whether to keep it for myself or to give it someone else. I thought this was a clever move in theory, but unlike my previous decision(s), I knew that obviously my character was going to just go hungry. Why? Because he's the protagonist, and the game wasn't actually going to make him/me suffer. Not enough to affect me as a player in any way, at least. I made a similar decision at the end of the scenario when the group stumbled upon an abandoned car full of supplies and debated whether or not it was considered stealing. "No thanks guys, but enjoy your ill-gotten gains. I'm pretty sure I'll be just fine," is what I said to the group, though I think my character may have been forced to say something a little less blatantly fourth-wall breaking.

It's easy to take the moral high ground when you know you're playing as the story's hero. I believe this kind of self-awareness can be worked around though (and since I haven't played past episode 2, for all I know it will be, so I'm mostly just speculating here that my character won't be adversely affected by his decision to starve himself). What if, after deciding to not give himself any food, any strenuous activity that took place afterward (including struggling with a lumbering zombie) was that much harder to accomplish (via button mashing or inputs)? What if for the rest of the episode/day, my character walked noticeably slower, making the player suffer the same way the character is? Then I'd actually have a legitimately tough decision to make (though for the record, and I know this is "gamey", but I would want to know in advance that starving myself would have these consequences, since I know I'd probably be grumbling to myself if I suddenly found my character walking at half speed).

The difference between the two decisions was that even though the storyline was going to more or else continue either way, I knew that handing out food for the others was about my character affecting his relationships with members of the group, as well as, on a very basic level, providing sustenance for some while denying it from others. It was a difficult decision with actual consequences (though not one that required any new branches in the storyline, which I can imagine is something of a nightmare for the creators of these kinds of games), as opposed to the choice of whether or not to feed myself, which was essentially a non-issue. For the record, if anyone's playing the game as well, I gave food to the two kids, the cheerful cooperative Mark, and as an olive branch to Larry the asshole. Big mistake on that last one.

In case it's not entirely clear, I am definitely loving this game, and I have some more thoughts on the overall topic of choice and narrative in games like these that I'll be talking about more in the near future.

Still To Come:
-"Fuck You Kenny!" - Thoughts On Building Connections Between Players & NPCs,
-Oh My Darlin' Clementine (Or: Please Don't End Like Mass Effect 3) and
-How To Make Death An Actual Threat

-Matt

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