I’m late to the party on this, I know, but I’ve finally finished Telltale’s The Walking Dead series.
Though I generally dislike the gun porn and grotesquery typical of zombie fiction, I got so many recommendations of this series that I had to play it. I thought very highly of it, and I thought the later episodes were significantly better than the first couple.
There has already been a ton written about the series, so this isn’t really a review or an attempt to summarize its content, as both of those purposes have been amply served already; what follows is more of an essay about the mechanics, choice mechanisms, and writing. It is fairly full of spoilers, because it’s pretty much impossible to talk significantly about this game without getting into the details. Consider yourself warned.
Writing and Representation
The Walking Dead is character-driven interactive story, executed with a number of cinematic techniques, but unlike Heavy Rain it doesn’t rely on ludicrous plot devices and hackneyed serial killer nonsense; unlike L.A. Noire, it isn’t compromised by dodgy mechanics and confusion about what the game’s core game-ness is about.
The first episode is wild, not always cleanly paced, and focused on the horrific aspects of your situation. The main antagonists in episode 2 are gothic in conception, horrific but hard to take entirely seriously; the early choices sometimes strained and hysterical, or apparently contrived. It’s decent writing and enjoyable game fare, but it felt contrived at times.
As the episodes go on, though, the player gets to know the characters more deeply and the characters become themselves more plausible and substantive. It’s not necessary to pull out as many stops to invoke sympathy. The characterization becomes more assured, and some of the less successful pacing elements drop away. By Episode 4, I cared more about threats to the emotional stability of characters I’d been with this whole time — not just for Clementine, an innocent young girl who was put there as an obvious object of empathy, but also for Kenny, who had been by turns companion and antagonist — than I had cared about life-or-death calls back in Episode 1.
And I cared a lot about Lee. The protagonist of all five episodes is Lee Everett, a former history professor on his way to prison for killing the man who had been sleeping with Lee’s wife. We don’t get any initial information even about whether Lee really committed the crime, let alone why or under what circumstances. He’s been estranged from his family: his parents and brother ran a pharmacy in Macon, but he hasn’t seen them for a while. Early in the game, he pairs up with the 8-year-old Clementine, whose parents are almost certainly dead. He’s not her father, but their love for one another illumines the whole game. Not in a schlocky, over-earnest way; in a way that feels like a connection between two human beings who need one another for a whole complex of reasons. By the end of the game I felt a weird sort of affection for the most trivial details, down to the zipper on the back of Clementine’s dress, because their time together is the source of almost the only tenderness in the game world.
But about the prison thing. The player doesn’t get to know all of the backstory immediately, because the player knows what Lee is willing to tell people. That leaves the persona of Lee a bit of a mystery. Would it be out of character for him to shoot someone in cold blood, or not? How easy is it for him to kill, how much experience does he have with violence, and how deeply does he feel for others? Almost any decision the player can make is given plausible cover by the ambiguous nature of Lee’s personal history.
That’s not to say that Lee isn’t a particular person. He’s smart, witty, empathetic. He’s able to take the lead, but he doesn’t have to. Dave Fennoy’s superb voice acting does a lot for him as well, changing timbre and style in different social situations and under different amounts of duress, with understated touches of code-switching.
Lee is also not the identical 25-year-old chisel-faced white guy I have played a billion times before. I really appreciated that. While I’m on the topic: I appreciated playing in a world where not all the women were 18 and barely-dressed; where, when women had power, it might be because of their skills or authority, not just because of their sexuality; where I was allowed to get to know and sympathize with a scruffy older doctor, or a cancer-survivor who was a bit overweight and maybe not conventionally beautiful, but who didn’t matter the less for that reason. Where the people I met seemed to have their own perspectives and histories and desires and humanity, to be subjects rather than objects. It was so damned refreshing.
In one of my favorite moments, Kenny asks Lee to pick a lock on the door. Lee asks something like, “what makes you think I know how to do that?” to which Kenny responds roughly, “…because you’re, uh, urban?” It’s racism the way racism often tends to happen in the real world: coded, not always fully recognized by the perpetrator, not necessarily intentionally hateful but damaging all the same. Likewise, Kenny’s accent and clothing fulfill some stereotypes about “redneck” culture, but the player’s first assumptions aren’t necessarily right there either. Kenny too is a complicated guy, at once tough and brittle, hotheaded without being stupid, married to a European woman you would not necessarily have expected to see as the wife of such a man. Kenny is a far bigger and richer character than you think when you first set eyes on him. He seemed abashed when I had Lee call out his racist stereotyping. Lee doesn’t make more of it than a short comment in the moment, but two or three episodes later he thinks of the incident again in passing.
Throughout the series, I was invited to empathize with people who might not resemble myself, but the script wasn’t preachy or ham-handed. It was observant. “Here’s what I see in the world, as truthfully as I can describe it.” Yeah, there were zombies, and zombies are a fantasy element, but the people were real.
The later episodes show restraint with their emotional content as well as their themes. There’s a great moment in (IIRC) Episode 5 in which someone offers a bottle of liquor to a pregnant woman. No one in my playthrough ever explicitly mentioned the pregnancy, but there have been strong hints. In the moment, the woman hesitates, then grabs the bottle and takes a big swig. It’s a powerful signal of her fatalism and loss of hope. But it works without anyone commenting on what’s going on, what it means, why it matters, even without any explicit set-up. It’s the kind of writing that trusts the audience. It would have been very easy, and perhaps tempting, to have someone comment at the time about what she was doing. But no one does. It is so much more powerful that way.
The Walking Dead is spent talking to people, exploring environments, and fighting off zombies: dialogue, puzzles, combat.
At their best, the puzzles in The Walking Dead structure exploration of the environment, encouraging the player to look around and piece together what must have happened in a particular scene. They’re mostly very easy. The handful of more ornate and overt puzzles felt out of place, focusing the player on things that weren’t the point of the story. Figuring out to restart a train engine was a many-stage puzzle including a hackneyed repeat of the pencil-shading-a-used-pad-of-paper puzzle that has been showing up in games since Deadline and possibly before. This reminded me, pointlessly and aggressively, of the gamehood of the thing I was doing at that moment. That was unfortunate, because it came just after something terrible, surprising, moving, and sad. Mercifully, there weren’t a huge number of those moments.
Combat is controlled by quick time event, which ratchets up the tension. I don’t like quick time event combat, but it works here because it simulates high pressure, out of control situations where things can easily go wrong. Fighting in The Walking Dead is never presented as comfortable. You wind up having to do it a lot, but never become skilled and confident at it. It’s not normal. It’s always life-or-death stuff, and the death part seems very very likely. In fact, you never really become good at anything in The Walking Dead. There’s no mastery here. On the contrary, violence in The Walking Dead reflects realities that games typically ignore: there’s enough luck involved that no one is ever really invulnerable; most physical altercations are very brief; striking first, fastest, or by surprise can matter more than strength or experience. The outcomes of violence are often awfully arbitrary as well as awful in so many other ways.
The closest thing to a triumphal moment in The Walking Dead comes when you have nothing left to defend and can afford to attack with abandon. You’re not a badass with +1000 armor. You’re a guy so deep in pain that you no longer feel more.
Choice and Agency
The Walking Dead bills itself heavily as a piece about choice, a piece in which your decisions shape the story and the outcomes. From feedback I’ve seen (here’s a typical example), I think the way the series was advertised may have misled some players about what to expect. It’s not “about choices” in the sense that you can get to a million different outcomes via massive branching.
I don’t think choices without consequences are that important. When I play a game, I often think of it as an act of creation. I go through and create my character. Then, at the end, I can look at my character and enjoy what I’ve created. Or, if I’m playing SimCity or Dwarf Fortress, I can look at the city I’ve built and take pleasure in it.
So, from that perspective, reflective choices are kind of pointless. I’m not saying they’re worthless, I mean, I do understand your point about “being in the player’s head”. However, if I make a whole bunch of choices, then I find out that my game state is exactly the same as someone who made opposite choices… I would be very disappointed in that game.
I don’t know whether he played The Walking Dead, but if he was looking for that kind of experience, then possibly he was disappointed. It’s possible to affect who the protagonist is somewhat, and there are things you do that affect gameplay later on, or open up particular scenes that otherwise wouldn’t be there. But it is not the case that every move you make is pruning your own bonsai creation out of the great Possibility Bush. The Walking Dead is about choice in a different way.
First, not every decision you make branches the narrative significantly. Some do: sometimes you can give up a major resource or do something really important that saves or doesn’t save another character. There are scenes that might happen in one person’s playthrough but not in another. But there are also other decisions where a given choice doesn’t have big longterm repercussions, because another character makes a choice that renders your choice moot. Some players dislike this and feel that they’ve been cheated by it.
To me, the narrative recombination wasn’t problematic. In one or two cases I felt like the way the story branches recombined was a little bit obvious and contrived, but for the most part I thought it was deftly handled, and, indeed, purposeful. One of the points of the story is about the limitations of control. We all muddle along doing the best we can and trying to decide things that are going to work out for the best, but sometimes the set of options we thought we had turns out not to matter. At some point, a character points out that the zombie apocalypse has made Lee’s past crimes and intended imprisonment pretty irrelevant. There was a choice, there was going to be a consequence… but then something unforeseen happened, and the consequence went away. This is a theme, not an accident.
A game made up entirely of choices that didn’t matter would feel arbitrary or nihilistic. The Walking Dead doesn’t go that far, but it also doesn’t indulge the player with the fantasy of total control either.
Then there are the choices where the player might fail in the process of expressing her will to the game. This happened to me a lot in combat. Quick time events are so jarring and time-pressured that it’s easy for player intention to get lost. There are at least three times in playing The Walking Dead — as there had been many when I played Heavy Rain — when I did something during a QTE that wasn’t a conscious choice at all, just me misunderstanding the effect of pressing a button. That was especially true when I was trying to help multiple other characters at once. The save Doug vs save Carley choice the developers talked about at GDC*? I didn’t make a conscious choice about that. I mashed buttons and saved Carley without realizing that I was dooming Doug in the process.
This too was meaningful. In a real life emergency, you might not have time to come back for someone you’d been hoping to save. The dialogue choices in The Walking Dead let you explicitly frame those choices as mistake or not-mistake after the fact; more than once, a character asked me why I had done something in a previous situation and I was able to say, “That wasn’t a conscious decision. Things were crazy; what happened happened.” Hitting the wrong button translated into something meaningful in the story.
That’s not to say it’s all about how choices don’t work. Sometimes they do. Many of the decisions do allow for more thought and moral deliberation. One of the early episodes includes a moment where you have to decide whether to mercifully headshot a girl in the middle of being eaten by zombies. There’s no way to save her life. She’s been bitten. She can’t live. But she’s obviously in terrible pain in the process of being eaten. Because zombies react to noise, taking the shot would draw the zombies towards you, risking your life and the life of your companion and meaning that you might not have time to retrieve the supplies you’re there to collect. Innocent people are waiting for those supplies.
I decided not to shoot. And then I thought about that moment many times in the couple of days after playing. I can’t claim that it was about not believing in euthanasia. I had Lee mercy-kill or assist in suicides a few other times. This case was purely a calculus of numbers and elapsed time: she’d only be suffering for another few minutes before she was dead, and there was no way to keep her alive. There were more people who would potentially suffer if I compromised the supply run, for a longer period of time, and some might die. But. I’m not sure whether I’d make the same choice over again, because it’s also a choice between certainty (the woman will definitely suffer) vs possibility (the people waiting for supplies will possibly be hurt by not receiving them, but there might also be an alternate way around that problem). In most other cases where this contrast came up, I chose immediate empathy over future safety, trusting the possibility that I’d be able to make things right later.
Did that choice fail to matter just because it didn’t cause massive longterm narrative branching? No. It mattered to me, as reflective choice if for no other reason.
At one point in the game, the character Lilly puts Lee in charge of food distribution because she feels like no one understands her. “Here, you try this out and see how it feels to be the one managing the rations.” It’s a cool sequence for a bunch of reasons, one being that it’s not a simple binary. You have four articles of food and ten mouths to feed; many possible combinations and distributions are possible, and characters have preferences about how you distribute that food that don’t always boil down to “give the food to meeee!” But you have to wander around and talk to them to find that out, and think it over.
Lilly’s gesture — “You make the decisions, see how you like it!” — is what the game does throughout.
Sometimes when you give a player a choice, you’re giving it not because you want to know what they would do, not because you’re testing to see whether they’ll think of the right answer, not because there are multiple possible tactics, not because you want to let them express themselves or create a persona or role-play. Sometimes, you’re giving that choice in order to say, here’s what it feels like to choose.
The Walking Dead is about what it feels like to choose when things are really bad and really out of control. In a hurry; without enough information; because of love, or in spite of fear; with serious repercussions, or with none at all.
And all that sheds some light back on the issue with which the game opens. What kind of man is Lee Everett? We never get a replay or flashback that shows us exactly what happened to Lee before the game began, but by the end, between his comments and our experience with high-emotion violent situations, we’ve seen enough that we can imagine some possibilities. Maybe he didn’t mean to commit murder. Maybe the situation was very confusing or very emotional. Or maybe he killed deliberately and in cold blood, but that action is not the full measure of who he is.
My own model of this story is based on playing an empathetic but reserved Lee who tended to reassure other characters — especially Kenny — that sometimes the past is inexplicable; a Lee who reacted in a surprisingly muted way to seeing his romantic interest shot for no good reason; a Lee who had given up on condemning people. In my version of Lee’s past, killing his wife’s lover was an impulsive action, fueled by fury and guilt that he drove his wife away in the first place, but massively outside his concept of his own character. However much he revisits the memory, he can never crack open the moment when he made that choice and really understand why he did it. He is a historian who can’t reconstruct his own history.
There are other explanations one could invent for Lee, but the play experience would nonetheless be about what it feels like to choose, in a way that is thoughtful and observant and not possible in any other medium. The Walking Dead uses its interactivity to convey human truth, to create empathy and understanding. That puts it in very good company.
* If you have GDC Vault access, do check out the talk “Saving Doug.” It talks about a lot of interesting specifics: the challenges of putting choice in context, the importance of character design for narrative games, the design decisions surrounding race and gender, and a bunch else.