The opening message that begins each episode of Telltale Games’ adaptation of The Walking Dead comic book series reminds players: “This game series adapts to the choices you make. The story is tailored by how you play.” Right off the bat, players are given a certain expectation of agency and ownership over the game’s development, an expectation that’s stirred up some controversy with the November 20 release of No Time Left, the aptly titled fifth and final episode of the game’s first season. Many players arrived at the single, pre-scripted conclusion with the feeling of being cheated. Some had hoped for several different endings along the same lines as Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain. Others derided The Walking Dead for a lack of what they believed to be meaningful gameplay, deeming it an interactive film dominated by cutscenes rather than a fully realized game. At the same time,The Walking Dead has received substantial praise from critics for some of the most advanced psychological realism and character development accomplished in a videogame to date. Greg Miller at IGN boldly stated that “people will reference the series over and over as the benchmark for story-telling in games. And historically, it will stand as the game that reinvented or at least repopularized adventure games.” And he’s not the only critic expressing such high opinions. Most recently, The Walking Dead took home the “game of the year” award at the 2012 VGAs. So why such great disparity? And what does it mean when a mechanically simple point-and-click adventure game–which gives a player almost no room for exploration or alternate gameplay–purports to “tailor” a “story” to each individual player’s choices?
The first season of Telltale’s Walking Dead series was released in five installments between April and November of 2012. Decisions made in each episode carry over to later episodes, as the player develops along with protagonist Lee Everrett, a convicted murderer fighting to protect the eight-year-old girl in his care during the zombie apocalypse. What immediately sets The Walking Dead apart from most other zombie games on the market today is that it isn’t a first-person shooter. The most threatening monsters in this game are not the zombie hordes, but the other survivors Lee encounters on the journey to Savannah. The player does get the chance to inflict some serious damage, especially in the later episodes, but true to the franchise on which it was built, The Walking Dead is all about character relationships, group dynamics, moral decisions, and personal consequences. Where you might be more inclined to look out for your own interests in any other zombie apocalypse scenario, your strategy will inevitably fall apart when you stand to hurt Clementine’s feelings. The child at your side acts as a constant morality meter, always urging you to do what benefits the whole group, and she is easily hurt when you play the tough guy. More important than your kill stats in The Walking Dead is the way in which you treat your rotating band of fellow survivors, how you interact with strangers, and how you mediate various points of tension within your group. Whether you always side with the otherwise insufferable Kenny, whether you lie about your past, or whether you choose to leave behind an annoyingly useless but loyal group member to save your own ass, the cumulative weight of your actions can shape “your” Lee into a heroic leader or a self-serving risk-taker, but in the most intense scenes, there’s rarely a clear right or wrong answer.
Gameplay in The Walking Dead largely takes the form of quick time events and tightly timed dialogue trees which lead to snap judgements that can come back to haunt you later on. As I learned quickly, choosing to stay silent is never a good idea. Furthermore, if you choose to play with the onscreen prompts (which I highly recommend), you’ll receive reminders that “______ will remember that.” And they often do remember . . . unless, of course, they happen to die in the next scene. To reinforce the weight of your decisions, Telltale reveals stats at the end of every episode, giving you an idea of where you stand in relation to the rest of the players based on who you choose to save and when you choose to lie. On my first play-through, I started out trying to play the peacekeeper and model father figure for Clementine, but I often found myself going with gut reactions I later regretted. After consistently getting myself into trouble with one or another of my group members, I eventually gave up the moral high ground. During a replay of the first two episodes this week, I went with the “asshole Lee” approach, making all the obviously wrong and reckless choices in order to see just how different the outcome would be. I can admit a certain amount of satisfaction in calling Larry a “racist bastard” and throwing a punch at Kenny when the opportunities arose on my second play-through, but aside from my personal standing with the group, my second play-through wasn’t all that different from my more honest first run.
No matter how you choose to play the game, Telltale steers the narrative from one climactic event to the next in the exact same story arc every time. As many players have been quick to point out, it doesn’t matter whether you choose to save Carley or Doug because they’re both going to die anyway. Nor does it matter whether you steal supplies from the abandoned car in episode two, because others in your group will do so if you don’t. You are punished in the final episode for your worst actions either way, because at some point you will make a poor decision over the course of five episodes. Even if you, as a player, manage to keep a clean slate, your character still has that pesky history of murder to account for. No version of Lee is entirely innocent, and that fact is going to get you into trouble in the end, regardless of your intentions.
Returning to the game’s opening statement, Telltale promises us that “[t]he story is tailored by how you play.” I find the wording here quite deliberate. The central narrative of the game doesn’t change, but that was never really insinuated. This isn’t a “choose-your-own-adventure” game. Like the comic and television series, The Walking Dead is about character. It’s a bleak world, and no one individual has enough power to really change anything about his or her situation; they can only make the best of it by looking out for the people they care about. Telltale manipulates the narrative development to bring all players to the same emotionally crippling conclusion; the more control they exercise over the gameplay, the more devastating the payoff for the player who has followed Lee and Clementine from beginning to end. There is no question that Telltale controls the narrative at every turn of events, but your personal relationship with Lee and Clementine is your own personal play-through, your own story.