‘The Walking Dead’ feeds off player’s choices

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“No one is safe in “The Walking Dead.”

Unlike the power fantasies zombie-related media typically induce, Telltale’s “The Walking Dead” is about dreadful choices; forced, dysfunctional relationships and the clash between Darwinist survival and civilized morality in the zombie apocalypse. As resources inevitably run low and tensions rise, the choices you make will always hurt someone as much as they will help someone else. But at its core, “The Walking Dead” is an emotional story that successfully implements player choice in powerful ways, a rare achievement in the space of interactive storytelling.

Based in the same universe as Robert Kirkman’s “The Walking Dead” graphic novel series, the series begins with you controlling Lee Everett, a Georgia professor on the way to prison as the first stages of the outbreak occur. En route, your vehicle derails, and you end up traveling alongside Clementine, an 8-year-old fellow survivor in search of safety. Lee’s relationship with Clementine is at the forefront of the game and is perhaps the strongest example of the well-written characters crafted by the decisions the player makes. For every hard decision, such as sparing or killing a potential threat to your group, Clementine will observe it, and this will shape the development of her character throughout the episodes.

“The Walking Dead” thrives on its characters.

Three factors play into this success: well-written dialogue that provides depth into every character instead of establishing him or her as an archetype, voice acting that makes every character into a believable, flawed person and a facial aesthetic that is able to emote expressions even without dialogue. These characters feel like real people — each with his or her own problems of trying to care for one another while ensuring personal survival — and it immerses you in the world. Telltale understands that when joining forces with random people during the apocalypse, you’re bound to be with jerks as well as compassionate people, but all of them have emotions nonetheless. Thus, when someone does die (which is quite often), it is hard to react with apathy. The foundation of the narrative and choices made in the game rely on your ability to build relationships with the other characters, and without this, there simply would not be any consequence to your actions.

The adventure-game format perfectly fits the character-driven narrative, even if it does not fully exploit the format. While not much of the game is spent exploring small environments and solving puzzles, these moments are great breathers between the scripted, linear action sequences and the panic-influenced choices made throughout the game. Its episodic format (of which all five episodes are out now) lends itself to a grander narrative within its allotted time, as the breaks between episodes provide a good separation between each mini-narrative arc while still preserving the mood from episode to episode.

What synthesizes all of these elements is how player choice is handled in the game. There is no good/evil binary system (like in “Mass Effect”); rather, every choice is a different shade of gray. Telltale’s focus is not so much on consequences, however, as it is on the choices themselves. Some choices will lead to the same result no matter what, but your choice will change the way everyone else will perceive you. Choices don’t affect the world as much as they shape the implicit narrative. Each choice reflects the struggle of surviving in this world, which often comes down to a survivalist versus moralist dilemma. Every decision is gut-wrenchingly hard because you care about these characters, and when you have to betray them for your own survival, it haunts you through the rest of the game.

“The Walking Dead” is a journey that does not squander its time but instead makes every moment as meaningful as it is engaging. Its ability to create an emotional narrative in a game is matched by no other.

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