Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Walking (Dead) With My Girlfriend - Some Spoiler Free Thoughts on The Walking Dead Episode One

I picked up The Walking Dead last week during the Telltale Games Humble Sale. I've found their games problematic enough in the past (Sam & Max too clunky, Strong Bad too collectible-obsessed, although the Monkey Island games are quite good) that I'd never have paid full price for it, but I'd heard enough positive things about TWD to happily pay $4 for it. Having recently moved in with my girlfriend, who loves the TV series, I thought the episodic structure would make for great lay-in-bed-together-and-play sessions. Last night, we played through the first of the five episodes, and I thought I'd jot down some thoughts about it.

First of all, the controls have none of the problems of older Telltale games, which is to say, the character moves quickly across the screen (seriously, adventure game designers everywhere: I love that the genre is back! I grew up on Space Quest and Quest for Glory. But, and I mean this as politely as possible, THERE SHOULD BE LESS THAN A FUCKINGSECOND BETWEEN ME CLICKING AND A THING HAPPENING. ALWAYS.). The dialogue wheel is stolen from Alpha Protocol, but we'd all be a lot better off if all games stole from Alpha Protocol, so that's cool.

Actually, the interface is one of my favorite aspects of the game - when you start the episode, you're given an option of a "Normal" or a "Minimal" interface, and I strongly recommend Normal. Normal means, when you make a conversational choice, more often than not a little pop-up will appear on the screen that says something like "Ken will remember you said that." The first time that happened, my girlfriend had a wonderful little fit of paranoia about how a minor conversational lie could come back to bite us in the ass. And for a game that's 60% conversations, it's a wonderful way to give player choices impact. Dialogue can be ambiguous - did that character say he doesn't trust me because that's what he's scripted to say, or because I lied to him? When the interface itself calls you a liar, it makes every decision feel more important.

The timed conversation mechanic is great, too. Once the game establishes that conversational choices have real, meaningful stakes, the added pressure of time-sensitivity amps up the stress in pleasant ways. The best moments are crisis situations, where there's not enough time for me to consult with Shanna about which choice we should make. One of us simply barks out a command, the one with the controller puts it in, and the choice is sealed. And since the most-tightly-timed choices are the ones of most consequence (which is to say, who to save when the walkers start attacking, it creates moments that feel REAL in ways that they couldn't without that urgency. It stands in contrast to the more sedate conversations, where we both try to suggest the 'right' choices, gaming the system or trying to seem morally 'correct'. But there's no time for that when zombies are about to rip a kid to shreds, only blind, instinctual decision-making. I love it, and I love sharing those moments with her.

The game it put me in mind of, unsurprisingly, was Indigo Prophecy (Fahrenheit outside the US and on PC), the first game I can think of that put conversations under the time pressure they would have in real life and assign consequences to how you speak. Of course, the conversational choices in Indigo Prophecy are eventually revealed to be largely meaningless, and are eventually consumed by mindless QTE combat, so it might not be the best game to use as a model.

I'm still not sure how much of The Walking Dead's sense of consequence is real, yet. I've so far resisted the urge to pour over FAQs to figure out which of my decisions actually change things, mostly in deference to the fact that I'm discovering it alongside my girlfriend. The end-of-chapter "On The Next Walking Dead" bit, where almost every decision is reflected, almost made me feel more leery, though. It felt like a checklist, with the game saying, "Seeeeeeee? We remember! Really!" I'm looking forward to seeing how my choices carry over into Episode Two when we play it tonight.

The one real qualm I have with the game so far is that it cloaks the past of player character Lee Everett in ambiguity. Without going into spoilers, Lee begins the game in handcuffs after being accused of a crime, and the game is never clear about whether he really committed it. This would be okay if this was a situation where I could choose his past, like the flashback sequences in Knights of the Old Republic II, where choices made in conversation essentially 'select' which past occurred, but the game makes it fairly clear that there IS a true answer to Lee's guilt, and we just don't know it.

In a TV show, this kind of ambiguity is natural and can be used to ratchet up tension and suspense - the first season of Homeland is largely driven by the fact that we don't know what's going on inside one of the main character's heads, and it's riveting - but in a game, it's a flaw. You can make the argument that the gap in our knowledge of Lee represents the fact that, with society having collapsed, people's pasts don't matter. But I'm not just supposed to be watching Lee Everett, I'm supposed to be him, making the choices I think he'd make. By hiding an incredibly important aspect of his past from me, it hamstrings my ability to make those choices. It's a hole in my understanding of the character, and it leaves me feeling like I'm going to be ambushed - and not in a fun, stomp-the-zombie sort of way.

*I'm wondering if this won't turn out to be the sort of situation where Lee's eventual guilt is determined by our behavior throughout the game - a Lee played righteously will be eventually shown to be innocent, a villainous Lee guilty. I'm okay with that sort of adaptive retcon, even if it does damage the possibility of actual redemption by retroactively exonerating a 'good' Lee instead of letting his virtuous actions be a reaction to his past.

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