on Jan 10, 2013
So now I think we’ve gotten far enough into the game that I’m ready to talk about choice. As we discussed, Episode 3 is pretty much a snapshot of the entire game. For the record, here is the splash screen for Episode 3:
Sure, it shows Lee in the driver’s seat. But when you play the episode it’s actually Kenny driving the train and all you can do is choose when to stop and start. This is The Walking Dead.
(Also, I love how these splash screens contain deliberate misinformation, like Duck leaning out the window.)
I liken the choice in TWD to playing Half-Life 2 for the first time. It might feel like you’re choosing a direction. You’re left with the impression that perhaps there are other side-paths that you haven’t taken or details that you missed. Then on a second play-through you discover that the path you chose freely was the only path available, and suddenly the gameworld seems smaller.
Of course, most shooters are like this, but Valve is very good at hiding the rails. In a lot of shooters, I find myself bumping into the chest-high walls, impassable doors, and invisible barriers that make up the player’s playpen. But in Valve games the designers are usually pretty good at using lighting, coloring, and audio cues to draw the eye towards the intended path and away from the walls of contrivance.
In TWD, Kenny serves this purpose. If you side with Kenny then you’ve made a choice to side with Kenny and you feel like you’ve accomplished something. If you disagree with Kenny then Kenny overrules you and you bump into the metaphorical chest-high wall. Hey! Why can’t I go this way? This looks like it should be a valid direction!
This is a big reason why we’re seeing so much disagreement over whether or not the choice in this game is real or if it means anything. Yes, making a choice makes something more engaging. Valve could just turn Half-Life 2 into a literal rail shooter, where the camera glades through the intended path and you click on dudes to kill them. You’d never bump into the walls, but you’d lose the perceived freedom that makes the world feel like a place and not a series of shooting galleries.
Simply offering the player the opportunity to press forward or examine things in greater detail can feel like a choice, even if they’re only choosing when to move on.
You can argue over whether or not this is “real” choice, but the fact is that for people who can’t see the rails, it feels like they’re making a choice. This gives their actions weight and creates an emotional impact, because they feel like they’ve shaped to situation around them, for good or for ill.
The downside is that this type of thing can’t work forever. Like Half-Life 2, TWD left me with the impression that there were alternate paths and roads not taken. Once I compared notes with other players, the waveform of possibilities collapsed and the spell was broken. In the next game, instead of asking, “Which decision is best?” I’ll end up asking, “How will they nullify this choice in the next half hour?”
I realize that we cant have infinite choice, but I think TWD would have been stronger and led to a bigger payoff if just a couple of the big decisions were allowed to stick.
When the game asks “Do you want to kill Larry?” the player thinks they’re being asked if they’re choosing whether Larry will live or die. In reality, Larry dies either way, you’re just choosing if you want his blood on your hands. If you choose to kill him, you’re left with the impression there was another outcome.
In a situation like this, expectations are everything. Just as with the end of Mass Effect 3, it doesn’t matter what the author intended, what matters is what the player thought they were getting. If people feel cheated instead of fulfilled, then something has either gone wrong with the expressed intent or the execution.
This game was very experimental. We saw them messing with mechanics, tone, and character types throughout the whole thing, and I doubt the formula is set in stone. While I loved this game, my loyalty to the series as a whole will probably hinge on how they handle choice and consequence in the future installments.
Also, Rutskarn mentioned Hobospy, his diceless tabletop RPG. You can read more about that here.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.