This was originally going to be part 3 of my series on plot holes, but it kind of got away from me and we’re no longer talking about plot holes per se. Better to make a clean break. Also, I’m going to be talking about The Walking Dead comic / TV series / Game in this post, but there aren’t any serious spoilers here. This is more a discussion of how passive and engaged audiences relate differently to the characters.
First, some clarification. I’ve been dumping on The Walking Dead as a world / setting quite a bit, and in our own show you’ll hear me say mean things about it. To be clear: I’ve never read the Robert Kirkman comics. I watched just a few episodes of the TV series and really disliked it. When I complained about it, people said it was just staying true to the form of the source material, so I’ve been assuming I wouldn’t like the comic either. But I haven’t read it. So understand that when I say “the source material”, keep in mind I’m not talking about, you know, the actual source material, but only the stuff I’ve experienced. I’ll try to be more precise in referring to things if you’ll agree to not give me a hard time about it when I mess up because I’m old and I forget things quickly.
I think the biggest surprise for me was just how much I liked The Walking Dead Game, even though I don’t care for the source material. (That one was just a test to see if you were still paying attention.) I attribute this to the fact that by turning one of the characters into a player character, they cured one of the big problems I had with the show. It’s not that playing a character makes me like him more, it’s that putting a character into the hands of the audience limits what the writers can do with him.
TV Tropes talks about the idiot ball – a plot that is advanced or sustained through the sheer power of one person’s (usually willful and uncharacteristic) stupidity. The Walking Dead TV seemed to have a variant of this where the characters would pass around a Total Jackass Ball from one episode to the next. Hm. Who will create drama and tension by being unreasonable, aggressive, paranoid, and confrontational this week? The end result is that sooner or later I hate everyone and want to see them all die, which sort of drains the tension out of the setting unless I want to turn around and start rooting for the zombies.
Telltale wisely understood that players wouldn’t accept playing as a character who deliberately creates problems and conflict. The Walking Dead TV drama is mostly driven by the tension between the audience and the characters: We want the cast to get along, cooperate, and survive, and the writers make them bicker to sustain the conflict. But in a videogame the audience is also one of the characters, and games don’t usually survive an adversarial relationship between a player and their character. Remember how much hate everyone poured on Commander Shepard when he started waving a pistol around and forgot his super powers in cutscenes? Remember how we got angry at Alan Wake when he kept dropping all his weapons and bullets? And that’s just your character being incompetent. Imagine how much more hate we would feel if Alan Wake threw his weapons away on purpose and kept getting rid of his flashlight batteries because they were “heavy”.
I’m sure you can make a game where the player is in conflict with their own avatar, but it would probably be some indie thought experiment game, or some deconstruction like Spec Ops. If you’re just trying to tell a story, then the player and the protagonist need to be in some kind of harmony.
An interesting example of this sort of thing is at the end of Prince of Persia 2008, the protagonist formerly known as Prince used the
world-destroying magic to bring Elika back from the dead, thus re-releasing the evil magic the player had just spent the ENTIRE GAME fighting to contain. Worse, this plan worked, and all of the player’s gameplay was basically rendered pointless. In a book or a movie this would work just fine, and this was pretty understandable from a character perspective. But this was a videogame and people didn’t like to “lose” the game by writer fiat, especially due to the actions of the main character. I won the game, then my avatar un-won it. At the end, you had to guide your character around and make him do the thing you didn’t want to do and he did. Looking back, I see it as delightfully subversive. (If he wants to do this and I don’t, but I’m the one holding the controller, then who is really driving, here?) But at the time I remember feeling kind of miffed that it all sort of seemed to be for nothing.
I can’t blame people who rejected the ending. It’s one thing to lose. Its another when your lose because your avatar turns on you.
Getting back the The Walking Dead:
By making Lee the player character and giving us Clementine, the writers effectively created two characters who were off-limits for the Jackass Ball. No matter how much you may hate Kenny, or Larry, or Lily, you’ll always have Lee and Clem to root for. These two grounded characters then give us a lifeline to the others. Yes, Kenny is annoying and abrasive in a perfectly realistic and believable way. But he’s the first real friend you make in the zombie apocalypse and so you can kind of understand if Lee doesn’t hate him. If Lee was also abrasive and unreasonable, then they would fight more and I would come to hate them both.
That said, a couple of the characters do seem to come from the TV show and are insufferably awful people. Yes, I realize that this is part of the point of the setting: The apocalypse makes monsters of us all. Perhaps it’s my latent optimism showing, but I like to think that adversity tends to amplify our existing personalities and good people can shine in those circumstances. Also, adversity ought to drive people together on some level. Find six guys who have shared a foxhole together and insult one of them. Before they pummel you unconscious, take special note how their common hardship has not caused them to turn on one another over petty bullshit.
But this is nitpicking. “War makes monsters of us all” is a totally valid theme for a story to explore and if the TV show presents a world where everyone turns into jerks and can’t get along, then that’s how things go in that world. It just makes me feel lousy inside and so I don’t watch it. The point is: There are a couple of characters who really tested my patience in the game, and if my character had responded in kind then I wouldn’t have wanted to play, even if that was more true to the setting and the message.
But this brings me within brick-throwing distance of the plot hole problem again. One thing I’ve noticed is that I’m much more sensitive to plot holes when I’m playing a videogame. One of the reasons is that when I find myself in the driver’s seat of a story, I will insist that my own actions make some kind of sense. Why didn’t Jack Hero pick up the gun from that bad guy he killed? In a movie you can say, “In the confusion, he just didn’t think of it.” But that doesn’t work in a videogame because I’m piloting Jack and I’m thinking about it right now! It’s right over there! Let me pick it up!
We accept that sometimes movie characters make mistakes. We’re less accepting of games that force us to do obviously stupid, pointless, or counter-intuitive things in order to proceed. For me, this is probably the leading cause of losing trust in the author. In Fable 2, the game presented you with a clear goal (kill the bad guy) and then never, ever let you pursue that goal until the last ten seconds of the game. It presented you with an obvious truth (Theresa is sketchy, untrustworthy, and not on your side) and then never let you act on that knowledge. The gulf between “what is the smart thing to do” and “what you are forced to do” is so vast that I spent the entire game in constant agitation, waiting for the writer to get his act together and explain why I was doing any of this.
This is something that the videogames-as-movies developers really need to work on. In a movie, you can assign any motivations you like or any personality you like, and you can have characters pick up an Idiot Ball, or a Jerk Ball, or a I Am Suddenly A Coward Ball, but you can’t give those things to the player character without putting the entire story in peril. You can do those if you’re writing a character study, but most games aren’t anything approaching a character study and I wouldn’t trust your typical AAA game writer to attempt one. They have enough trouble pulling off a boilerplate Hero’s Journey without blundering into plot holes and lazy contrivances.
The last thing that kind of stretches the typical game story is the pacing. When Alan Wake arrives somewhere we have a clear goal. Forty-five minutes of murder and easy-but-time-consuming puzzles later, and we’ve lost all sense of purpose. Imagine watching a movie like this, where every car chase was half an hour and every gunfight was an hour. It would be exhausting and eventually you’d just lose the emotional thrust of the whole thing. It would all blend together in a big blurry conflagration of noise and shouting. (And because it’s a videogame, shouting the same three phrases over and over.) Sooner or later you start thinking, “Okay, why am I murdering these dudes again? And who are they?”
Worse, that long interval gives you a lot of time to ponder what you’re doing. Why am I doing this again? Is this REALLY the easiest way to get into the enemy base? Because this is a pain in the ass. Now that’ I’m thinking about it, can’t that one character teleport people? Why isn’t she just teleporting us past these guys? We couldn’t go over that electric fence, so we’re blasting our way through the barracks? Heck, we could have run to Home Depot and bought ourselves some ladders and insulation and gone right over that fence. And now that I’m thinking about it, if disabling the generator cut power to the turrets, then didn’t it also disable the fence? And if so, why are we fighting our way through Mook Central?
Things that wouldn’t be plot-holes in a movie will become plot holes when imposed on a combat-driven videogame world. In a movie you can say, “There was probably an explanation that the main character knew about that the audience didn’t. But in a game, that explanation needs to be given to me (or at least acknowledged) because I’m driving. As the hours of combat pile up, the emotional thrust is slowly eroded, the preposterous level of danger is driven home (multiple Game Over moments) and the player has lots of time for little nagging questions to take root and blossom into resentment and contempt towards the writer.
It often takes a few days to get through a videogame, and those days are sometimes far apart. I’ve put a game down on Sunday night and not looked at it again until the following Friday. By that time I’d forgotten the important bits of plot and sort of lost my place in the story. In a movie or book you can skip back a scene to get your bearings, but in a game that usually means starting the game over.
I can’t escape the conclusion that writing game stories is just that much harder than movies. Or if not harder, then a very different sort of challenge. The player can aim the camera wherever they like, so you can’t hide contrivances and geographic cheating with editing and cuts. It’s not enough to give the main character a sense of duty and call it a day, you need to make the audience care about the conflict to the point where they are willing to get involved themselves. (Play the game.) You’ve got huge blocks of combat between your plot points, so you need to have “reassurance points” scattered throughout the combat, giving the player low-key reminders of their goals and the stakes, just in case they’ve lost their way. All of this is on top of the need to avoid problems like ludonarrative dissonance, where the gameplay can undercut the plot or theme. (Such as a story where the player has to shoot 100 mooks to bring a single accused murderer to justice.)
These are challenges you don’t face when you’re writing a 90-minute movie with no gameplay, full directorial control of the camera, and a protagonist with a mind and will of his own.
Movies aren’t books and games aren’t movies, even though they all tell stories. You have to know how to use the medium.