Thursday, June 6, 2013

Walking (Dead) With My Girlfriend Part 2: Less Choices, More Dying

The Girlfriend and I finished the second episode of Telltale's The Walking Dead last night, with the general agreement that, while still quite enjoyable, it was a step down from the first one. Elaborating on why would probably involve spoilers, which I'm striving to avoid with these posts, but I think there's a few points I can make before grousing at a bit more length about a fundamental problem I have with the games.

The biggest problem we had with TWD Episode 2 was that it made the illusion of choice that powers these games more obviously illusory, ironically by offering us more ostensible freedom. The first episode, which was focused on small locations and clear-cut dangers, constrained my possible 'safe' behaviors - the ones that wouldn't obviously get us eaten by zombies - and let us pick a few choices from what was left. The second episode asks much more general questions about which paths could or would be safer, but there's clearly no escape from the general flow of the narrative. Lee (the player character) makes several decisions that neither I or Shanna would, causing several moments where we were like people watching a movie, shouting "Don't go in there!" at the idiot protagonists. The episode clearly had a story it wanted to tell, but in telling it, it robbed us of a sense of agency. There are still plenty of choices to make in Episode Two, but the biggest ones (ie. 'Should we trust these people?') are taken out of our hands, and it makes the experience feel a lot more hollow.

Another problem we had (Shanna, especially), was a sense of being let down by the dialogue options in a way we hadn't been with the first episode. "Starved For Help" gets kind of dualistic, as you're pulled between factions in your group, and there (unsurprisingly) came a time when we were forced to choose sides. Afterward, during a conversation reflecting on that event, EVERY conversational choice said essentially the same thing - three different ways of denouncing the character we didn't side with. I guess you could see it as the game locking us in to supporting the decision we had made, but the fact is that none of those things were what we WANTED to say in that moment. It's another one of those times when the game failed to put us in Lee's shoes, and it breaks the sense of "What WOULD I do in these situations?" that makes the games so compelling.

That's not to say we disliked Episode Two. The plot was pleasantly twisty (if a little predictable), and most of the problems fell away as a climax pushed everything back into the tense, exciting "You have three seconds to choose or everyone dies, what do you do, WHAT DO YOU DO" sensation that we loved in Episode One. We'll definitely be back for the third.

I do have a complaint, though, about how the games handle something that game designers have struggling with for years - player death. It's probably not surprising that, in a game about a zombie apocalypse, the main character can die. I've died once in each episode (which, I'm not gonna lie, is a little embarrassing in front of your girlfriend), and each time the only thing that really gets killed is my sense of immersion in the game.

Hypothetically, death should be the worst thing that can happen in a game. You know, because it's... death. But in The Walking Dead, the moments where Lee passed away were some of the LEAST tense, because the consequences of it were so quickly reversed. You get a "YOU DIED" screen, and then time is rewound slightly and you get another chance. If I say something wrong in a conversation, it's a mis-step I might never recover from; if my throat is torn out, it's three button presses to get back on the right track.

But what's the alternative? Death erases your save file, Steel Battalion style? Unacceptable - nobody likes to have progress stolen from them. As gamers, we've always had to deal with the fact that, in life, death is the end, but in games, it can only be a setback, because we want to keep playing. Push a player too far, rob them of too much progress, and they'll just abuse savegames (if you let them) to avoid negative consequences completely. Take that away, and most of them will quit (the ones who don't are probably weirdos who play roguelikes, ugh).

If there's a solution to this, it's in exploiting the player's attachment to the other characters in the game. Instead of painlessly killing Lee, maybe every time he fails to extricate himself from mortal peril, one of the other characters is hurt saving him. Not killed - that would alter the story too much for the designers to keep the narrative under control - just hurt. Make them look more tired in cutscenes. Hell, maybe even build a sense of obligation between them and the player - "You're siding with HER after I was damn near murdered saving your ass?!" - that opens up new story possibilities or emotional connections.

If you're going to insist on having failable action sequences in your adventure game (and that's a debate, I think, for another time), they need to be invested with consequences that work WITH the adventure portions, not just alongside them. Make them part of the story, not just a quickly reverted sideshow.

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