I’m a bit late to the party on The Walking Dead, as I tend to be with games in general right now. I would have liked to get in on the series earlier, to enjoy each episode as it came out and wait in suspense for the next, but I simply couldn’t afford to. On the plus side, that means I get to go on an archive binge.
In point of fact, episode 3 left me too emotionally exhausted to continue playing right away, particularly since there are a number of other pressing demands on my time this week, and being able to focus on them without thinking about the… things I’ve seen… would be nice.
This is the only game I’ve ever played that’s threatened to give me a survivor’s guilt complex.
Extremely vaguely stated spoilers may or may not follow. If you are of an inquisitive mindset, you may be able to infer some plot points. If you’re a spoiler-phobic sort, you might prefer not to read the rest of this.
“A game is a series of interesting choices,” is how Sid Meier put it. This quotation usually tends to be processed in the context of the games he has made himself, elegant systems-driven strategy games, so it’s interesting to view The Walking Dead through this lens. In most games, the narrative is merely a backdrop for this systemic gameplay space. Games which wish to emphasize the narrative tend to do so by making it bigger and shrinking the gameplay space smaller which, of course, tends to devalue player input.
The branching narrative structure of the game helps avoid this issue. Obviously The Walking Dead didn’t invent the branching narrative, but it takes it as a design ethos further than most, going to extraordinary lengths to make the choices presented as difficult, relevant and, most importantly, numerous as possible. Every interaction with the game has some tiny element of choice, whether you choose to ask a difficult question or let sleeping dogs lie, press someone to commit or back off and let them come to you.
The path ahead is obscured by branches. At the tip of each branch is a tragedy of different weight, and you have to navigate them blindly.
There’s no guarantee that the consequences of your actions will be at all what you intended.
I tried to do everything for the best, I really did. I tried to help everyone, to trust everyone, and when it came down to it I tried to do what was best for the group.
Sometimes reasoning isn’t what people need.
The group buckled under pressure, in disastrous fashion, and some characters who I had come to care about died.
Somewhere, in my computer, is locked the reason why. Somewhere, in my computer, is locked the alternate reality where they survived. Or perhaps there was no way they could have. Perhaps they were doomed.
But the very possibility. Did I do something wrong? Should I have been more forceful, and picked a side and stuck to it and stomped on this conflict before it combusted? Is it because I didn’t that someone is dead? Is there some alternate reality where this didn’t happen?
it’s very strange to find myself asking myself the same questions that survivors have asked themselves since the beginning of time, and know the answer is actually out there, locked in binary.
Most relationships in games are transactional. You’re nice to people because you want them to like you because you want to see the PG-13 sex scene or get the good ending or get the ultimate weapon. You do side quests for them so that they’ll trust you so that they’ll give you the key to the temple. As Lee, in a world full of zombies, I want these characters to like me so that they’ll have my back, and so that they will trust me when I need them to in order to save their lives. I want them to be happy because it upsets me when they aren’t, even though I know everything will probably go to shit anyway.
We only write stories about zombie apocalypses because we believe it’s worth it to keep fighting after everything is lost anyway.
The greatest insight of The Walking Dead was to immediately, in the first few minutes of the game, let you know what you’re fighting for.
And really, when you remember what you’re really fighting for, most choices are already made for you.