Words: Kenny Redublo
Waking up in the back of a crashed police car is never a good situation. Lee Everett crawls out of the wreckage, disoriented. The driver is gone and a shotgun is left unattended. Two shells left. It’s enough for now. Lee hears voices from every direction. Unfriendly voices. The cover of the woods should provide him enough time to figure out his bearings.
Lee finds the driver, but something’s not right. His eyes are white and look at Lee with an animalistic hunger. Lee knows he’s just been arrested by this cop, but this is inhuman. The cop has a broken foot but he shows no concern. He keeps stumbling toward Lee.
Lee cocks the shotgun. If he shoots, he’ll be in worse trouble than he already is. If not, he’s dead. It’s life or death. What should he do?
With a push of a button, the player decides Lee’s fate. This is the beginning of the Walking Dead video game, an episodic title by Telltale Games for most modern video game consoles, even mobile devices like the iPhone or iPad. The video game is based on the Robert Kirkman comic, which has also been adapted into an AMC television series. The setting of the Walking Dead is of any zombie fiction, but what it does differently is its focus of the human condition. It questions the acts of humans when civilization crumbles. What Telltale’s video game adds to the Walking Dead experience is giving the players a bigger sense of weight to their own decisions. This is the aspect of a video game that comics, film, or television cannot provide. Visuals can get more lifelike and sounds can get clearer, but the importance of this moral interactivity is what can evolve video games as a serious medium and provide something film, books, or television have not before.
The Walking Dead is about Lee Everett. He was arrested for the murder of his wife’s lover and was on his way to prison when the zombie outbreak occurred. Lee’s past is put on the backburner in order to focus on the choices the player must make throughout the game. It’s less of a distraction and more of a foundation for players to build their image of Lee or themselves in the situation. The player’s interpretation of Lee is developed further with the addition of Clementine, an 8-year-old survivor Lee encounters in the first episode. They are dependent on each other, even if they are strangers. But in this desperate time, strangers are vital to survival, for better or worse. The inclusion of Clementine provides the player with a sense of duty and consequence. Are the choices made for Lee’s or Clementine’s benefit? It plays around with the conflict burden versus attachment. As many other survivors met throughout the course of the game, Clementine is a constant. Her innocence as a child conveys the feeling of care over mistrust, which the other survivors may have ulterior motives.
Player choice is primary to gaining that sense of involvement. It gives in to the idea that the player’s actions greatly affect and manipulate events in the world, either socially through character interactions or how characters react to your actions. It creates the difference between staged and reality. Games differentiate themselves with this concept from other narrative media.
A Gut Reaction
The use of player choice in games opens a way for games to affect gamers as people. The presentation of choice disregards the concern for points or rewards, but to immerse players into a character’s situation.
“It comes down to personal preferences in those situations,” says Ben Janca, gamer and Twitch.tv broadcaster. “I don’t try to think if [the choice] is good or evil.”
The choices come less from a perception of morals, but more from a gut reaction, especially in the case of The Walking Dead. Early adventure games like Grim Fandango or text adventures didn’t have a limited time window to make a choice. There was a no negative outcome for taking time out to look at the choice objectively.
“You just have to do it,” says Hayes. “The time mechanic keeps you subjective.”
One of the first major choices is when Lee must kill the zombified babysitter. It is a life or death choice but it matters in the way it is carried out. The player can approach the situation brutally, mashing the button with instinctual fear, but what comes out of the situation is all in front of Clementine’s eyes. It’s an exercise of instinct over logic or survival over innocence. Are the player’s motives to ensure safety or preserve the innocence of a child? The surprise of the outcome is the notification that Clementine will remember everything that took place. It’s a reminder of how these choices will impact the rest of the game. Be it major or minor, these choices have impact.
A Universe of Choice
One franchise that capitalized on player attachment is Mass Effect. Mass Effect is a science fiction epic trilogy for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, and now the WiiU that kept every choice recorded throughout the series. The main character, Commander Shepard, is portrayed physically and morally by player choice. Shepard can be male or female, and a noble or brash commander. The player can choose whether or not to punch a nosey reporter in the face, or calmly talk his or her way out of the situation. Players can choose to pursue romantic relationships with fellow teammates or keep their distance. Each choice has their benefits in gameplay, like new abilities or equipment. The Mass Effect series exercises choice on an epic scale in a literal universe. The sense of fictional scale is on par with the Lord of the Rings series, or Star Wars.
As with those literary and film series, there is a barrier of entry and can cater to the most loyal fans. Mass Effect is expansive and uses moral choice as supplement to its universe but it’s one bullet point on an expansive list of features.
One Life, One Choice
One titles that made that bullet point into a defining feature is Heavy Rain. This PS3 exclusive adventure game is boasted as more of an interactive film, due to its heavy influences from noir, crime scene television shows, and films like Seven. Heavy Rain asks “how far will you go for someone you love?” The question is posed to the player and the four interconnected characters controlled. Each character has their different motivations when faced with the overarching plot of the Origami Killer, a child murderer connecting each character.
The game presents its moral choices like Mass Effect and the Walking Dead, through its dialogue. In contrast to Mass Effect, Heavy Rain is a singular focused narrative. There are no side missions or extraneous worlds to visit. Heavy Rain stays within the sphere of the character in a guided experience. This may take control away from the player but it exercises the pressure of each situation and reliance on instinct. The Walking Dead did take inspiration from Heavy Rain with its quick time events.
Another taut feature of Heavy Rain is how the player’s choices can kill the character for the rest of the game. Choices and mistakes can lead to extreme consequences. The player can even have all four protagonists die and the endings can vary wildly. It mirrors how real life is singular. You only get one shot, according to the writer and director of Heavy Rain, David Cage.
Spencer Hayes, community manager at Destructoid.com and philosophy major at SF State, initially felt Lee as an established character was going interfere with the immersion into the narrative.
“I came into the game detached,” says Hayes.
After more of the game, he felt his decisions as Lee became extensions of himself. It dissolved this line between him and Lee. The easiest way to get over the initial hurdle of immersion into a fictional world is for the player to make themselves, a virtual avatar. The Walking Dead has Lee’s story to tell so creating a character wouldn’t work in the game. Other games, like the Fallout series, have players create an avatar of them in the post-apocalyptic future but there is an established backstory written out for their character.
“Creating a character is an immediate way to gain player investment,” says Hayes. “Players buy into what they made.”
Though the experience may seem contained within the confines of the player’s world, at the end of each episode, the player’s choices are compared with others in the form of percentages. It’s a sociological experiment that helps the player reflect upon their own morals. When this is presented at the end of an episode, it alleviates the social pressure that would exist if the choices of others were presented throughout the initial experience. There is a sense of confidence provided when the stats are shown. It provides the player’s choice with solidarity among the community.
The Grey Area
In games like the Mass Effect series, choices are blatantly labeled good or evil. Good and evil in Mass Effect is more labeled as talking calm or brash measures in a situation. The actions of the player character are never morally evil. In the Fallout series, choices are more black and white. The situations that arise are either setting off an undetonated atomic bomb for a large sum of money, destroying a town and its inhabitants, or defusing it for good reputation among the townsfolk. These decisions have great effect later in these games like future characters referencing and judging the player on their decision.
Games like Mass Effect and Fallout are classified as role-playing games, which The Walking Dead is an adventure game. The concept of player choice works better in certain genres.
“I wouldn’t want to see a moral choice decision in Halo,” says Janca.
The Walking Dead is modern exercise in moral choice in video games. Video games have historically presented this concept back from the early days of PC gaming and onwards onto the original Nintendo. The concept isn’t new since morality is fundamental in gauging human nature but how it has been implemented in video games is a new exploration.
Nobunaga’s Ambition was the first instance of moral decisions in video games. It was originally released in 1988 for the PC. This feudal Japan strategy game used moral choices like resource management to affect troop morale and loyalty. This innovation led the series to a now 12-game franchise on multiple systems.
The difference of moral choice in Nobunaga’s Ambition and modern games is the implementation to progress a narrative. The concept leads to a greater sense of character development and player attachment.
What the Walking Dead does differently than the other modern examples of moral choice is the selfishness vs selflessness. Heavy Rain doesn’t have that group survival aspect and sociological analysis like the Walking Dead. It doesn’t pose the choice of what’s best for others. The characters’ motivations lean toward selfishness. There’s a sense of who lives or dies but it’s mostly if the player’s character lives or dies.
An Age Gate
Video games may be hard for the general public to perceive it as a serious medium due to its name. Video games have the word “games” in it, along with the association of kids’ toys and playgrounds. Hayes says there’s a movement to rename video games to “interactive entertainment.”
“It’s not the medium to be concerned about, it’s the message,” says Hayes.
Video games have barriers of entry and one is the generational gap. There is an issue of complexity of video games. Controllers can be intimidating, rules and concepts can be confusing for some and understandable for others. Hayes feels that this barrier can be broke with time.
“As the current generation gets older, technology gets less scary to them,” says Hayes.
As for other media, the act of immersion is what video games have an advantage in, but it’s still a fresh concept.
“Putting yourself in the role of another person is alien to people,” says Hayes.
The Walking Dead is also an example of modern accessibility of the medium over Mass Effect and Heavy Rain. In addition to being on every accessible video game platform, its episodic format is a comfortable length to play casually and not in long binges. The shorter experience is easier to approach and more focused. Its readiness to be downloaded directly onto the system of choice contributes to its accessibility. The barrier of entry of going to buy a physical disc is eliminated with downloadable titles.
Hayes says The Walking Dead is a good place for newcomers to start. It deals with fundamental human ideas and emotions, making the game easier to relate to than other titles like Call of Duty.
The blockbuster games like Call of Duty are still needed in the industry but the success seen by The Walking Dead, as developed by a smaller team and has reached more than one million sales, has shown that the adventure genre is still relevant.
“The player choice is still a financially viable concept in the near future and beyond,” says Hayes.
The smaller titles are accessible to a wider audience, but in The Walking Dead’s case, the content matter may turn a few away. The game is gory, like any other zombie film, television show, or game. It deals with death in a mass amount and in a personal sense. The themes of desperation in an apocalypse are usually the worst of human nature and some audiences don’t want to see that or it’s not appropriate for them.
A Human Experience
Narrative is what mostly what drives the game. It’s progressed through player choice but what keeps the player engaged is the character development. The Walking Dead isn’t particularly a difficult game. The learning curve is low and it gives the game a more accessible chance for its characters to shine.
“I love playing games for the interesting characters and settings,” says Janca. “That’s what drives me to continue with the game.”
With its small package, The Walking Dead packs in enough characters for it to be manageable, unlike other epic series like Mass Effect or Fallout. The small group of characters gives way for more player attachment and as much death as there is in the Walking Dead universe, the weight of any of the characters is immense.
The Walking Dead is an important video game. It takes risks and succeeds where previous attempts failed. It’s important to the medium. Video games still have the stigma for being as young as its audience. The Walking Dead’s exercises in the concepts of morality and choice give the title a deeper meaning other than being just a game. The Walking Dead is an experience, a human experience.