Writing in the middle of the night to exorcise my demons. Or zombies, as the case maybe. My brain is over-full from The Walking Dead videogame. So I may as well write about it.
This is a game based on The Walking Dead comic book, but following an entirely different cast of characters. While I had some fundamental problems with the comic book
, it wasn't clear that they would apply to this game, and the game received rave reviews, so I figured it was worth checking out.
TWD is, for want of a better descriptor, a point-and-click adventure game. That's what Telltale Games started making when they were founded, years ago. But they have been gradually pushing on the limits of the form, and are approaching something new and cool. TWD does feature some 'puzzles', but they are far less emphasized than is standard for adventure games, and also the weakest part of the experience. Instead, the game focuses on narrative and direct interaction.
A brief media studies digression: Postmodernism in general, and postmodern horror in particular, has had a fascination with audience complicity going back at least to Bertolt Brecht. These stories like to call attention to the function of the audience *as* audience. If they didn't *want* to be entertained by these horrors, the horrors would not exist, so the audience is in some sense morally culpable for what happens.
TWD manages a similar effect *without* the postmodernism. Because you control the protagonist's actions, you are automatically complicit, without necessarily being reminded that you are "audience" and removing your immersion in the story. As a game designer myself, I am still aware of how tightly they are controlling the story, but the fact that they require you to actively drive the action forward is still surprisingly powerful.
One early example is when the protagonist/player is confronted with a trapped-but-animate zombie that needs to be searched, and therefore needs to be rendered inanimate. This zombie was, in life, an important person to the protagonist, and now he has to 'kill' them. He has a blunt object, and the game provides a cursor that you can -- *must* -- place over the zombie's head and press the mouse button to swing. Four. Separate. Times. From a strict UI design perspective, this is meaningless busywork, involving no player choice, and no interesting challenge. But it is nonetheless emotionally *hard* to keep pressing that button, and the camera angles and animations while you do so tell their own story in miniature. It's a microcosm of the whole game, right there. I should note that they only use this technique where it will be emotionally impactful. If the characters decide to leave their safe-house and sneak through the sewer system for half a mile to reach the next important plot location, the game just cuts directly from leaving the safe-house to them coming out of the sewer. But if you have to sneak up slowly on something, you'll be pushing the 'forward' button every step of the way.
The game contains many interactive dialogue scenes. The writing and voice-acting is top-notch. The animations are impressive, though they still aren't quite out of the Uncanny Valley. When presented with a dialogue choice, you are usually on a timer, and if you don't act fairly quickly, you'll just say nothing. Which is sometimes exactly what you *want* to say. This is one of the only games I can recall that understands the value of negative space in dialogue -- how silence is sometimes the most powerful line there is. The choices you make in the dialogue only rarely affect the broad outcome of events, but can have a large effect on what the other characters think of you -- and what you think of yourself. The game is rife with no-win scenarios where you struggle to choose which is the least horrible alternative.
With a name like "The Walking Dead", you might think that this was a zombie game. Only sort of. Yes, there has been a zombie apocalypse, but that's setting, not theme. In fact, this game is an example of a genre that is becoming more common as the average age of game designers goes up: this is a story about parenthood. Very early on, the protagonist comes across a small girl named Clementine, and bonds with her as they save each other's life. She becomes his surrogate child, and is the emotional focus of the game. You not only want to protect her (difficult in and of itself), but you want to set a good example for her. This makes the aforementioned no-win decisions even more emotionally devastating than they would be on their own.
Those difficult decisions are a big part of why I am up in the middle of the night. My conscious mind is aware of how constrained the choices in the game actually are, and is furthermore committed to owning those choices I make, even the ones I kinda regret after the heat of the moment has passed. But my *subconscious*, sleeping mind is another story. *That* part of my brain doesn't understand the no-win scenario, and has been endlessly replaying, doing a brute-force search of the possibility space in order to find some outcome that is less awful than what I did experience. Not that it *can*, because my subconscious is a really lousy storyteller. So, sleep, but not very restful.
I haven't yet finished the game. There are five episodes, each running between 2-3 hours, and earlier tonight I finished episode 4. One could theoretically play the whole game in one sitting, but I think it actually benefits from being drawn out, so I've been playing it an hour or so at a a time intermittently for the last few weeks. Theoretically, they could still fumble the ending, but I don't believe they will. In fact, given what happened in the penultimate episode, I'm pretty sure I know how this story ends, though I don't yet know exactly how I'll get there. But I'm definitely going to walk that road.