Friday, September 7, 2012

The Delusion of Choice: Narrative Bending In The Walking Dead [Part 3]

[I'm back with more analysis on The Walking Dead video game series. Minor spoilers for the first episode]


Part III: Oh My Darlin' Clementine (Or: Please Don't End Like Mass Effect 3)

Every episode of The Walking Dead video game opens with a message that says: "your choices affect the story." Let's get this out of the way right now: this statement is not entirely true. There are many times that when presented with a choice of what to do or say, the plot will continue on as planned regardless of your alleged "choice," with at most a different line of dialogue spoken by other characters.

This is the reality of crafting a plot-heavy video game. Players want to feel like they have control over the story they're participating in (this is why they're playing The Walking Dead video game and not just watching the television series or reading the comic book), but Telltale Games doesn't have the writers, the budget or the time to craft a game with thousands of sprawling storylines. Understanding this limitation is the key to appreciating the game, which I still contend is one of the best story-driven video games to come out in a very long time.

The "narrative bending" that takes place in the game still allows the player to make some difficult choices, even if the story ultimately snaps back into place and hits the same beats regardless. I was initially disappointed to see that the infected woman I'd mercifully allowed to commit suicide in my game still wound up killing herself in my friend's game when he declined to give her that option (she manages to snatch the gun in a scuffle if you don't simply hand it over). But even if the writer's weren't inclined to created two diverging paths for the storyline - one where this woman was alive and slowly turning into a zombie because you didn't have the heart to do what you know is right, or dead thanks to your heroism and long-term decision making ability - your character did still take a moral stand, so a sort of balance is struck between the player and the writers.

I do have one big concern though, regarding the final narrative bottleneck known as the ending of the game. I'm worried this same gesture will feel like an awful cheat after however many episodes of incredibly painful decisions, big and small. This is what happened earlier in the year with Mass Effect 3, when hundreds of choices made over the course of three sprawling, 40+ hour games were whittled down to ostensibly a few color changes in a two minute cut-scene. After a massive outcry, the creators of the game added a minor update that at least made the game feel like it had three distinct endings, but it still fell short for many, myself included.

In the short term, I'm ok with the story plowing forward regardless of my decisions at the time. But I'm really hoping the series is planning an actual tailored payoff for players at the end. Here's my biggest example: while venturing through the zombie apocalypse, I've been having dozens of small conversations with Clementine, the little girl I've been protecting since I met her at the beginning of the game. She has provided the motivation for me/my character to power through all the depressing, end of the world insanity going on. Every choice I make in a line of dialogue with her reflects my character's pragmatic desire to keep his young companion informed while preserving whatever little bit of innocence is still left in her.

I'd like to think that there are hundreds of different Clementines in the world being created right now, born out of the many different conversations players are having with her. Some of them are toughening up, some of them are cowering in a corner somewhere in fear. I want to believe that the Clementine I'm protecting, the Clementine I'm maintaining a 100% honest, caring relationship with will not be the same one every player sees just before the credits roll (and so help me God, she will make it to the end credits). Because if she winds up the same little girl with the same heart and same view of the world no matter what I said or did, then what the hell was I fighting for all this time?

Still To Come:
-How To Make Death An Actual Threat
-And Probably More!

Also: Check out Part I and II if you haven't yet (or just, you know, scroll down).

-Matt

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