Friday, 11 January 2013

Making choices in The Walking Dead

I sat there in the dark, slack-mouthed, staring into space and trying to make sense of what I had just done.  At the time it had seemed to make perfect sense, in fact it had seemed to be the only option.  What's more it had, in a small way, been heroic.  I had voluntarily taken a burden from somebody else onto myself.  I had taken the load from a friend, possibly the only person I could really trust, and saved him from unimaginable heartache.  So why did I feel so empty?  And confused?  And shocked?

The Walking Dead is an adventure game which tells the story of Lee Everett, a recently convicted killer, and a disparate group of other survivors of a zombie outbreak.  It is presented in 5 linked episodes much like the TV series or the comic book on which it is based, but it is a computer game and this means that it differs from those in many important ways.  The very fact that it is a game imposes certain restrictions and requirements upon it, and sometimes these can make it appear a little awkward, but it also allows it to soar far above other media in many really, really important aspects.

So, firstly let's talk about the stuff which is less than stellar.  The Walking Dead is an adventure and, as such, it contains plenty of puzzles.  It uses puzzle solving to move you through the (excellent) story and it signposts how to do this in extremely clear ways.  You will often be placed in a situation where you need to, for example, fix a piece of machinery or reach a certain place.  Your movement will be limited to a small area and objects of interest will be clearly marked on the screen (although this can be turned off), just waiting for your click to select them.  Puzzles are solved by inspecting every item, talking to every character and working out the correct sequence of actions.  Sometimes the game will impose a time limit in order to hurry you up a bit, but more often that not you can run about to your heart's content trying out different combinations and chatting to the other people present.  These puzzles are sometimes quite varied, and the solutions can be tricky to find, but it is usually just a case of searching the environment until you discover the correct item to use.  Once you've done this then they aren't difficult but it can be frustrating until you do, and sometimes the puzzles can appear to be there just to break things up a bit.

And combat is another area which is often the central focus of a game, but which appears a little out of place here.  This usually takes the form of a quick time event (e.g. press the button that appears at the bottom of the screen repeatedly), or it uses the mouse to aim a weapon, or a kick or whatever at the attacking zombie.  This is pretty basic stuff (although there are a couple of well done set pieces) and it can get frustrating when you die because you're not ready, but I'm not sure how else it could have been handled.  In much the same way as the puzzles, it appears to be there in order to provide a change of pace and, in the case of the combat, to give the player an adrenaline rush in between all the talking and problem solving.  It does its job I suppose, but I wouldn't play this game if you're expecting some kind of CoD clone, or a high-octane arcade experience.

Quick!  Click on that circle! Quick!
However, these things have to be present precisely because the Walking Dead is a game. It differs from the TV show or the comics because the person playing it (you) is directly involved in the action. TV and comics are not interactive, you are a spectator, but in a game you are a participant and you drive events to a greater or lesser extent. This means that it is necessary for the game to involve you in things like combat, or solving problems. Sometimes this can appear clunky and a bit forced, as it does here, but if the game resolved these situations automatically then the player could feel sidelined, or that they weren't playing a game at all but having an experience more akin to reading one of those "choose your own adventure" novels. The puzzle solving and combat, as said above, serve to pace the game but they also draw the player into the whole thing and involve them in every aspect of it. The player feels that they are in control of everything that happens and this is important because it is this sense of involvement which enables games to do things that other forms of media can't.

The Walking Dead is actually really about making choices.  You are asked to do this throughout the game, and they have a direct effect on how the story unfolds.  For example, if you choose to save one person instead of somebody else then that person may die, and be gone forever.  If you argue with somebody then they may refuse to help you in the future when you need them and so on.  Most of the game is spent within a group of survivors, made up of different characters with their own motivations and priorities, and you have to bear all of these in mind while you wend your way through the game attempting to keep you and yours safe.  The zombies themselves are pretty unimportant.  That may seem a strange thing to say in a game where most of your time is spent avoiding bitey, shambling, rending death, but ultimately they are merely a device in order to put characters in difficult interpersonal situations and the choices you make are almost always about how to deal with other human beings who are responding to an overwhelmingly hopeless situation.  Right at the beginning of the game a character tells you that "people go crazy when they lose everything" and that is a theme which runs throughout.  What's more, as the game progresses, and society breaks down further and further, the (time restricted) moral choices you are asked to make become more and more difficult.  You will find yourself starting to do things that on the face of it are utterly morally abhorrent but that, in the situation you find yourself in, make perfect sense.
I would die for these people.  Genuinely.
And this is all very well written.  The way that things gradually slide and the way that your decisions become more and more influenced by the desolation around you is extremely well done.  You find yourself assessing the other people in your group to see who will be most helpful if things go badly, or sacrificing less favourite companions in order to secure the safety of your friends.  It shows you things about yourself that you probably didn't know before, and possibly wouldn't want to know now.  It takes you in, you can't avoid it, and it confronts you with that in a way that I'm not sure I have ever experienced before.  This is a game with extremely adult themes, and subjects which may be taboo in the rest of the gaming world are not forbidden here.  What's more, it makes you confront the consequences of your actions in all their protracted and realistic glory.  It doesn't give you any easy rides, it doesn't spare your feelings and it is certainly not interested in making your life comfortable.

In fact it is one of the game's greatest achievements that it takes the player with it as it makes its descent into chaos and destruction.  It can be a shocking and horrific experience (and it can also throw up moments of real beauty and emotion), precisely because the player is a direct participant in the action.  You're not watching somebody on screen do something awful, YOU are doing it.  You're pulling the trigger, you're leaving somebody to die in order to save yourself, you've become a part of this awful, desperate existence - and that can take some getting used to.  No other medium is able to do that and it's why games can be so effective and affecting.  It's completely different to being a passive observer of something, you are much more emotionally involved than you would be if it was a TV show, and that only happens because this is a game and you are allowed (and expected) to influence its events.  The triumph of The Walking Dead is that it grabs this chance with both hands and exploits it fully.  It's probably the most emotionally engaging game I have ever played.  When it finished I wanted it to carry on so that I could find out what happened to all its characters in the future and there were times when I didn't want to believe what it was showing me.  I made connections within it that lasted well after the game ended and it made me spend time in a dark room coming to terms with the choices I had made.

The Walking Dead is not a perfect thing, by any means, but it is something quite unique.  It uses the attributes of its medium to conjure up emotions in the player like nothing else I have ever played and if you are interested in something different, something genuine and something quite, quite brilliant then I would urge you to give it a go.

The Walking Dead is available on PC, Xbox 360, PS3 and Apple products.  Consult your relevant marketplace.

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