I don’t normally put spoiler warnings on this blog, but given how recently The Walking Dead came out, I’ll make an exception: spoilers below.
If I had to try to put a finger on what makes The Walking Dead so different from other narrative games I’ve played recently, it’s the way the game avoids framing characters in instrumental/mechanical terms. (Or at least in traditional game mechanical terms: Roger would doubtless point out here that narrative is a mechanic!)
Contrast The Walking Dead with Dragon Age 2, for example. There are many purely narrative interactions in the latter game: wandering around town listening to your party members chat with each other, for example. And even when it comes to your relationships with each of the individual party members, the gaminess doesn’t get in your face too much: there’s an explicit slider, but The Walking Dead also suggests the possibility of sliders, albeit implicit ones.
But still: your party members in Dragon Age 2 all have their own class characteristics, with direct effects on combat and exploration. At a basic level: you can bring whomever you want into most dungeons, but if you don’t bring at least one thief, you won’t be able to open chests, and that will have an impact on your gameplay that you may not be willing to put up with. And beyond such basic choices, there’s the fact that you’re constantly leveling up your party members, choosing how to allocate those skills, and observing the effects of those skill allocations in battle.
Then there’s a meta-level consequence of the construction of your party members in Dragon Age 2 (and, of course, your construction of yourself): it puts a set of archetypes at hand. I actually really appreciated the ways in which Dragon Age 2 stepped away from the omnipresent “hero of destiny saving the world” storyline, but it’s still there in the background, together with a standard set of companions to accompany you on that quest. I like archetypes, and I’m fond of that set of them, but still: I’ve seen them enough, and in particular I’m tired of seeing those archetypes constantly presented in a context that is dominated by combat.
(The Walking Dead is, of course, not free of archetypes itself; and some of those archetypes have been explored at length in other video games recently as well. But it turns out that there’s a big difference between a game where you spend most of your time killing zombies as efficiently as possible, with narrative fitting in the margins, versus a game where you spend most of your time talking to other people or thinking about talking to other people, with zombie combat held in reserve as (often quite dramatic!) punctuation and as an omnipresent threat intensifying your narrative interactions.)
The character that I ended up being the most interested in (or at least most interested in my responses to) was Kenny: I’d never had interactions like those with him in a video game before. At first, I felt like an ally of his: we were both fathers (or father substitute, in my case), he seemed like a pretty competent guy, and the other person who was looking for power, Lilly, was allied with somebody who was actively hostile towards me. I didn’t necessarily feel that Kenny and I were close friends (for cultural reasons if nothing else), but still: given the potential alliances, I was on his side.
That relationship got more complex in the second episode. As that episode opened up, it became clear that Kenny didn’t see me as as strong as an ally of his as I’d thought I’d been acting towards him. I don’t know how much of this was that I might have been giving more guarded responses to him than I’d remembered, how much was that events might have happened off-screen in the two months that the characters had experienced between the events of the first episode and those of the second episode, and how much is just different people reading the exact same different interactions in different ways.
Whatever the explanation, it gave me space to reconsider relationships. The episode made you take a more active role in leadership questions; that got me more sympathetic towards Lilly. Her dad was still a hostile, aggressive asshole, but I could at least start relating to him as a father. (And, stepping back to video game questions: I was first annoyed at a hypothetical relationship meter not behaving like I expected it to, but then I realized that I didn’t know if that meter existed and I’d have a richer play experience if I didn’t worry about it.)
And then Kenny killed Lilly’s dad, in the first scene in which the game took my breath away. That’s The Walking Dead right there: you have a life-and-death choice in front of you, one side is probably the right one in terms of future survival but you’re not sure it’s a choice you’re willing to make, you have to make a choice faster than you’re comfortable with, if you don’t make a choice somebody else will, and no matter what, you have to deal with the consequences to your relationships. And, stepping out to video game land, it shows another difference from what I’d expected: the game designers are quite happy to give you a facade of choice that all lead to the same life-and-death outcome. (Larry dies no matter what you do.) But the existence of those choices forces you to confront them despite their lack of traditional game consequences; and that affects how you relate to other people, how you relate to yourself.
In Episode 3, Lilly seems to be trying to hold things together, but is also showing signs of potential paranoia. Except that it looks like what she’s suspecting really was happening; I guess she wasn’t paranoid, after all? Which leads to us following Kenny’s plan; I’m dubious that it’s a good idea, but staying put won’t work any more, so let’s go along with him.
But Lilly really was paranoid, as it turns out. And then things go horribly wrong for Kenny. (Tears running down my face in that scene.) And, all of a sudden, Kenny’s plan becomes the only thing he has left to hold on to. (Well, maybe not the only thing he has to hang on to: there’s his increasing hatred of Ben…)
And this turns out to be one of the major themes of the final two episodes: how much do I want to go along with Kenny’s plan, and to the extent I want to go along with it, how much am I doing that because it’s the right thing to do, how much am I doing that to support Kenny’s leadership, how much am I doing that to humor Kenny and give him something to cling to, how much am I doing that because I think a plan would be useful and nobody else has an idea?
By this point, I really didn’t believe in his plan, but the game didn’t give me a lot of other options. But his behavior is so very human: I’m as guilty as fixating on a solution as anybody, and he’s doing that with the added pressures of first seeing yourself as the provider figure and then having everything else ripped away. At this point, he needs something to cling to: his plan for a boat is that focus.
And while I disagreed with that plan—trading one unknown situation for another didn’t seem like something to count on—for all I know it would have been the right thing! Which brings us back to the ways in which this is such an untraditional video game: in pretty much any other game I can think of, if somebody had strongly presented a plan like that, then following it would have been a route to success, possibly the only route to success. I can imagine games where you can benefit from actively avoid somebody else’s plan, too, but not here: here, you have to think enough about the plan to decide to whether and how you’re committed to it, only to have a reminder that outcomes are not within your control.
So, that’s Kenny: I liked him less and less as the game went on, I agreed with him less and less, but that dislike and disagreement never led to a lack of sympathy. An amazing portrayal not just of a character but of a relationship. And a relationship that depended, I think, on this being a game: I can imagine a book or a movie giving me as deep or deeper insights into Kenny’s character, but the feelings about my relationship (or the point-of-view character’s relationship) with the Kenny wouldn’t be as strong. Because, over and over again, I had to think about what that relationship meant to me, how I would respond in some circumstance given our history; without that interactivity, there would always have been an extra layer of distance. (I’m sure many other players ended up feeling quite differently about Kenny than I did.)
That’s how my relationship with Kenny changed over the course of the game; but, of course, my most important relationship in the game was that with Clementine. I imagine this game is like a punch in the gut to any father; its horrificness might be surreal enough to make me disconnect from that aspect of the game, except that Clementine is so well drawn in so many ways. Figuring out what we mean to each other, with the primal instinct of: she’s a scared kid, I need to be there to help her. Flashes where she’s just a normal kid finding joy in moments of life; flashes where she’s a precocious eight-year-old, but not unrealistically so; flashes where she’s freaked out by the world around her; flashes where it turns out that she’s the one helping me instead of me being the one helping her.
And watching her grow up over the course of the episodes. With significant steps in that regard in the middle of the third episode, at the end of the final episode. But with you as the father figure helping her up both of those steps; and that ending, that ending.
I don’t have as much to say about Clementine as about Kenny, as it turns out, but that is in no sense a weakness of the game. What’s going on there is that so many of the interactions with Clementine felt right that there’s not as much for me to pull out; Kenny, meanwhile, made me just uneasy enough that I needed to take out that feeling periodically and look at it.
But that unease, while perhaps with him and perhaps with me, was never with the game. And over and over again, the game made such smart tonal choices.
Which brings me back to where I started: the game’s developers had access to a tonal palette that wouldn’t have been available in most games, because most games would have had mechanics in place that would have swamped a huge range of the spectrum of relationships. I’ve never appreciated point-and-click adventures as much as I have when playing The Walking Dead: adventure games traditionally swamp narrative concerns with their own mechanic, that of (often frustratingly obtuse) puzzle solving. But The Walking Dead shows how the lightest of touches of adventure mechanics gives room for the relationship design space to expand in other ways.
And I wish more games did that. Not necessarily using adventure game mechanics: I’d like to see games where the mechanics more actively reinforce relationships while allowing room for a meaningful, personal range of responses. I’m nervous about entwining the mechanics too tightly with relationships (c.f. that puzzle box article I keep coming back to), though: the negative space in The Walking Dead is important. (As it is in Bhaloidam, a game I’m very much looking forward to playing further with my VGHVI companions.)
There have to be more design possibilities out there, though. I certainly never would have expected to react this way to a point-and-click adventure game about zombies, after all; though maybe that’s silly, Left 4 Dead is more focused in its own way on relationships than any other shooter that I can think of, after all.
2012 has given me (has given us all) a lot to think about in what I want out of games, what we can get out of games. I look forward to the next wave of games that learn from this year’s.
This post has not been revised since publication.