With the success and popularity of franchises such as Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and The Walking Dead, player choice has become the new golden standard by which many players have begun to judge games. Its inclusion is not enough, rather if it subsequently offers branching narratives to elaborate on the different choices offered and if those developments meet the expectations of the same players.
It’s a tricky slope given it often involves a bit of guesswork, prediction, and a larger budget to adequately address the exponential increase in content and writing required. This is probably why the story of Mass Effect‘s successes and failures shouldn’t be all that surprising. In the first entry, a high number of player choices and inputs were available that had wide reaching effects in both narrative branches and in the central storyline. The game was both critically and player acclaimed. The second entry continued this trend although pulling back to centralize its focus to the same amount of acclaim. The third and last entry offered little to no player choice, at least none that were meaningful to the game’s conclusion and overarching narrative. Instead it focused on wrapping up threads from the previous two titles into simplified binary situations and an ending that was largely unincidental to the wide array of possible choices players could have made. Unsurprisingly, fans of the franchise were largely upset feeling cheated out of a feature that was expected and informally promised by both a heavy advertising campaign and developer interviews.
In this manner, player choice can both make and break a game. When done to the satisfaction of a playerbase, it can be immensely rewarding but at the same time it creates an expectation that increasingly becomes difficult to deliver on especially when the inclusion of choice is continued not as a mechanical device to move the narrative forward, rather a selling point or feature to be simply monetized like sandbox gameplay, rpg mechanics, or visually stunning graphics.
TellTale’s The Walking Dead Series provides an interesting contrast to the turbulent story of Mass Effect. A game built upon the notion of choices and consequences, but having none of the latter at least within the written narrative. Regardless it achieved an incredible level of commercial and critical success while also racking up countless GOTY awards which would have normally gone to games with budgets that would have completely dwarfed that of TellTale’s production.
This brings to mind the question of what Mass Effect did wrong, and TellTale seemingly did right. While the comparison is a bit unfair as they are very different works, it does present an interesting speculation on how TellTale was able to overcome the expectations of player choice with their lack of any consequences or differentiated branches.
Mass Effect and others of its kind utilized player choice as mainly a tool of immersive storytelling. It was never about actually handing the reins over to the player, rather getting the player invested in the narrative to a degree that film, text or other mediums could not. The inclusion of a choice makes the player more likely to become immersed in the events taking place as it attempts to remove the sense of being a spectator to the story unfolding, to actually being a participant in it. That said, while it can work to great effect it does provide the already mentioned issue that with every proposed choice, the need to write more material and develop more content multiplies.
Whether or not TellTale chose to largely do away with differentiated outcomes because of real world budget concerns is unknown but what is apparent is that they tackled the usage of player choice as a mechanic in a largely different manner. Not as a narrative device, rather as a method to create certain motivations and attitudes in the player. Largely to create the culpability for our actions and a sense of helplessness where sometimes we in fact cannot control the outcome. Ultimately The Walking Dead isn’t a game about player choice, it’s one about player responsibility. Where choices drive us to feel guilt, remorse and have us second-guessing ourselves. But at the same time, using these very instilled attitudes to covertly and expertly guide the player along its pre-written narrative track.
I remember early on in Season one when as Lee, I met up with Kenny’s family and was enjoying the hospitality offered by Hershel on his farm. Everything seemed to be going alright in comparison to the chaos that had ensued earlier with the outbreak of zombies. I was even forming a bond with Kenny who seemed like a good person and his son Duck while a bit naive offered a age-appropriate friend to Clementine, my “sort of” surrogate daughter.
Then Duck being the kid that he is decides to hop on a tractor accidentally pinning Hershel’s stepson Shawn to the ground. The panic and noise attracts a horde of walkers on them and I only have time to attempt to save one. To make matters worse time is of the essence with literally just seconds on the clock. I make a snap decision and go for Duck. He’s just a kid and it feels like the right call at the time.
I’m successful but Shawn is torn apart by the walkers and quite gruesomely at that. Hershel is unsurprisngly upset and tells us to leave. My actions not only cost me the trust of a good man Hershel, but possibly put both myself, Clem, and Kenny’s family in more danger as we lost a place of respite. Guilt floods me and I feel responsible and culpable for the situation we are now in.
Despite this, these actions are entirely scripted. A different player could have chosen to save Shawn instead but the outcome would have been similar. Because of the more precarious situation Shawn was in, the player would still have been unsuccessful. This would have resulted in the death of Shawn, ill will from Kenny and his family, and still being asked to leave. While Hershel may no longer have blamed Lee directly, fault would still have fallen to Duck and Kenny for not paying attention to his son. By association, Lee and Clem would still be forced out along with Kenny’s family.
There isn’t a simple morality mechanic where there is a clear good and bad choice. There is no Paragon/Renegade or Sith/Jedi dichotomy to speak of as real world decisions are hardly ever easily so binary. The lack of any sort of redo or quicksave system does away with any easy way to step back or make changes to one’s choice as most other modern games seem to come with as standard these days. The choices one makes are largely there to stay whether as the player you are comfortable with them or not.
The complexity of choices in the Walking Dead are also at times not fully understood in the short term like the situation already detailed at Hershel’s farm. Quite possibly the most significant thread of player interaction and choice-making is with how to deal with Clementine. As Lee, I was constantly questioning my every action with her. Whether my initial dishonesty could hurt her, or my eventual opening up about my relatively dark criminal past would foster distrust. My interactions with others with Clem always watching had me second-guessing every call I made. To the point that my decision-making process started to shift. While my own morality and code of survival played into this process at the beginning of the game, by the time I formed a bond with Clementine, I was making choices more as a parent or guardian. Choices that would sometimes hinder my own survival or even go against logic, in fear of how a child would or simply couldn’t perceive.
There is a moment in the Walking Dead where after our group had grown to a significantly larger size, we ran into issues of limited supplies, food, and other resources. We were worn thin, and both physically and mentally exhausted. Tensions were rising and things were looking dire. When it was looking like hope was lost, Clem and I discovered a seemingly abandoned station wagon in the woods brimming with supplies. While I was suspicious of the situation I was honestly relieved. Real world me would have jumped on this opportunity and I was ready to do so as Lee. But then Clementine turns up to me and gives me this concerned look as if to ask me whether this is “right”.
The vehicle is abandoned with no sign of life in sight. The logical choice is obvious especially since it doesn’t seem like we have much of a choice from a survival standpoint. Despite this I find myself changing my mind and telling Clem that it’s not right.
Her face relaxes and she seems instantly relieved. My feelings are still mixed however out of both a concern for Clementine having proper supplies and care, and having to shift my decision to accommodate the simplified worldview of a little girl. But shortly after, as the game often does, it prompts me that Clementine will remember this, letting me know that despite all this, I was able to retain an aspect of her own morals and ethics, something that is quickly deteriorating in this zombie apocalypse. I rest a bit easier with the call I made and we stand back with stomachs grumbling, and simply watch the rest of our group tear through the supplies with no heed to right or wrongness of the situation.
Often times the lack of player influence can deliver as brutal a blow emotionally as when we are made to feel culpable. Sometimes situations happen regardless of what we input into the screen and no combination of words, choices, or actions can even hope to influence that.
Tensions within the group do eventually reach a boiling point and what started as a small rivalry ends with tragic consequences. Carly and our defacto leader Lily come to heads over accusations of stolen supplies. As Lee, I know Carly well and know she isn’t capable of this but I also trust Lily’s judgement. She was the natural leader among our group having had solid skills that she had brought from her military experience. Despite this her recent loss of her father by Kenny’s hands has left her changed and bitter. We still share a strong bond but it is clear that the rest of the group is losing trust in her fast. The argument between Carly and Lily becomes hysterical and I frantically attempt to calm both down by saying whatever I can say in hopes of preventing the situation from escalating.
That said, what occurs next comes completely as a shock to both myself as the player, Lee, and the rest of the party. As Carly has begun to get personal with her verbal attacks she seems to have had enough and turns to walk away. There is a moment where I’m about to sigh a breath of relief then seemingly out of the blue Lily pulls out her gun and shoots Carly dead in front of all of us.
Lee slams Lily up against the RV demanding she turn over her gun. She doesn’t put up a fight and it’s clear that she is in both a state of shock herself and not even convinced at her own words, that surely Carly was the traitor stealing supplies, verbally attempting to justify her actions. The group then turns to me to fill a now vacant void and I am left with how to deal with Lily.
Carly’s death is probably the first big shock that The Walking Dead delivers and does so well. In retrospect when the player is running through events in their head frantically trying to see how this could have been avoided, it becomes clear that there were things that the player could have noticed but didn’t. Lily’s tenuous mental state, her isolation from the rest of the group, and hints to the identity of the real culprit behind the thefts. There was plenty of evidence to foreshadow this boiling point but also none that were readily apparent. Things only came into focus after Carly’s murder occurred.
It’s also important to note that the game doesn’t actually offer any way to act on this information even if a player suspects it or just simply knows about it from a metagaming standpoint. And once things boil over, no matter what dialogue choices are made, there is no changing the outcome. Largely this was a conflict that was outside of Lee’s hands and thus could do nothing to prevent it despite it involving two people he cared about.
In stark contrast, Bioware handled situations like these quite differently. In Mass Effect 3, at the point where the Quarians and Geth are moments away from mutually assured destruction, for those that fail to achieve the best peaceful outcome are largely met with feelings of frustration towards the developers of the game rather then feeling culpable for the horrendous outcome. For those that hadn’t imported their saves from the previous two games (new players or those switching platforms) found that it was actually impossible to succeed this unless they had imported. The situation relied on a simple and quite arbitrary point check that relied on a couple specific choices in prior games, and a certain amount of “trust” points gained with certain characters. For non-imports, for reasons only known to Bioware, the default choices were always the worst for the player.
Instead of creating culpability on the part of the player, it created anger towards the developers that made an unwinnable situation and also reduced what could have been an intriguing point in the narrative, to complete metagaming concerns. With players being more worried about making the correct choices to fulfill conditions in a rigid system instead of natural decision-making.
Ultimately while TellTale didn’t offer up any sort of branching narratives off of player choices, it did succeed in making the process of making choices actually matter. To elaborate, when I made choices in Mass Effect, while I was engaged in the happenings and events of the game and also fully immersed in roleplaying my character, I never truly made that leap to choosing dialogue options as it were actually real. I couldn’t shake a sense of meta-gaming where I knew that one choice would reward me more paragon points or possibly unlock this other content I may have wanted to access. While there were surely times I chose based upon either what I thought my character would do, or simply naturally responding, more often then not I made the choice that would benefit me the most from a metagaming context, then justified it after the fact by rewriting the narrative in my head if need be.
The Walking Dead on the other hand strips most of this away and makes decision-making a very stressful but instantaneous process. Players are often give mere seconds or even less to choose and often the camera shakes, the mouse jerks making that simple click even more panic-inducing. You might even find yourself making choices you instantly regret with no quick way to remedy it. Instead you’re left to wallow in your own guilt running through situations over and over in your head trying to see where things went wrong.
With the fairly recent release of Season 2 of the Walking Dead, it both saw a shift away from our previous experiences but also constantly revisiting them. We no longer played as Lee, but started off as a now relatively abandoned Clementine.
As now a small child, spatially the game makes it more difficult to do certain actions. QTE events are more jerky and shaky, with the low camera angle and spazzy movement creating more difficulty to get situational awareness in comparison to when we played as Lee, a full grown adult. Clementine is still very capable however and despite her poor situation has the fortitude to keep on going. She sutures her own wounds, defends against walkers, and has excellent survival instincts. She is no longer the innocent naive girl that Lee had run into. As Lee, I now feel that I properly prepared her. I taught her how to shoot a gun, keep her hair short, and to not give up.
The feeling that hit me immediately upon loading up Season 2 was that despite knowing of the fairly linear nature of Season 1, I still felt as if my choices did actually impact the characters in the game. As Lee I grew to care about Clementine as my own daughter, and went out of my way to prepare her to survive in this new harsh world. The Clementine I was presented with in Season 2 mirrored that despite it in reality, being the same Clementine that I knew every other player of the game was seeing, at least initially.
Also again, I was finding that my choice-making process was being diverted and shifted by TellTale’s covert guiding hand. I wasn’t utilizing the same decision-making process I did with Lee in Season 1, nor in any other game for that matter, nor was I using my own real-world processes either.
As Lee I went from making decision’s based on my own morals and motivations, to acting more as a parent to Clementine. With Season 2 playing as Clementine, I no longer am a guardian to anyone and instead act and make choices as a small child, one with heavy baggage. As a player, I am intimately familiar with what happened between Clementine and Lee so I carry that guilt around with me.
The third episode of Season 2 arrives this month and while little can be said for sure on the future of the series, what I can say is that TellTale has continued in building upon the strengths and successes of Season 1. It’s one of the few game series out there that has been able to get players outside the mindset of looking at games as games where tasks are merely completed then rewarded. The Walking Dead, if anything is an experience.
One that while apparently set in its own unchanging pre-written narrative, still seems to accomplish one of the strongest player experiences of immersion on various levels. On the base choice-making level, as player we feel responsible for the direction of the action and narrative developments. These choices in turn with their moral and ethical complexity, instill attitudes, emotions, and ultimately guide us to both play the game in a certain way, and also perceive the world and characters in a real-world light, and not simply fictional NPCs in a limited mechanical system.
If a game like Mass Effect could be characterized as working primarily on binary choices and outcomes, The Walking Dead appears to work more on the notions of averages or means. The player may not get a sense of who they are initially but once they have invested a lengthy amount of time with the game, the types of choices they make and the nature of them, help paint the characters of Lee and Clementine more accurately then anything the writers at TellTale wrote within the written script explicitly.