The Walking Dead: A Lesson in Game Choice

Thanks to my PlayStation Plus membership, I finally got around to playing the first two episodes of The Walking Dead. And quite frankly, I am blown away. This game (taken as a set) has rocketed into my top five games of the year so far, possibly even my top three. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about why it blew me away so much. I hesitate to pin it down to just one thing — the puzzles are smartly designed to create thought without ever feeling like you’re stymied, the voice acting is pitch-perfect, the characterization is varied and complements itself well, the art style is appropriately gruesome without ever overstepping. But more than any one factor, the choices have made the difference.

To point out why, I’ll compare it to another series famous for its choices.

I’m on-record loving Mass Effect, to the point that I didn’t even hate the ending of the third installment. I think it’s a great AAA series and its choices carry some serious impact. But Walking Dead is equally impressive, in an entirely different way. I’ll call it breadth instead of depth. The Walking Dead seems to have less variation in the story based on your choices. The Trophies, for example, are just chapter markers and they remain the same no matter what choices you make. You clearly can’t impact the direction of the plot in any serious way. It will hit its beats one way or the other. But what it lacks in in that quality, it makes up for by having each and every choice totally ambiguous, with no wrong answer.

Mass Effect, and BioWare games in general, present a lot of choices — but one is usually the moral one. We’re presented with a nice option, and a mean option, and we roleplay according to how which side of the likability spectrum we want our Shepard to fall on. Even the choices that are meant to be a little more ambiguous fall into very clear lines between the perspectives. Everything is clear-cut, and choices that dip more into the ethically gray are still ethically gray for very different reasons. We always understand exactly where the line is.

The Walking Dead doesn’t do that. It constantly presents you with impossible situations that have no right answer, and then it brilliantly places a time limit on those choices so you can’t over-think it. It’s all gut instinct based on your moral values. To illustrate what I mean, I’ll dip into very minor, very vague spoiler territory regarding the end of second episode.

At the end of the second episode, you’re presented with a choice to commit what would ordinarily be a moral wrong — a crime, so to speak, even if crime doesn’t really exist in this world anymore. Clementine, the little girl that serves as the major emotional center of the game, doesn’t want you to do it. Everyone else is in favor of it.

I chose to take a moral stand, because I had recently justified another moral wrong by explaining that I had done it to protect us from bad people. In my mind, Clem needed to see a clear line between committing a crime because we needed to protect ourselves, and committing one simply because it would be convenient or helpful to us.

When I talked to my friend Bryan, he had gone against her wishes and done it. In his mind, protecting Clementine is his first and only priority, and if that means committing a crime to make sure she’s healthy, then so be it. The game even presented him a dialogue option to reassure her afterwards.

Neither of these answers are wrong or right. They’re both purely instinctive and morally defensible. It led to an amazing conversation in which we talked about our motivations for prioritizing the emotional or physical health of a little girl who does not actually exist. And this choice is just one of a myriad that are equally complex. How many video games can you say that about?

Absolutely amazing. Bring on episode three.

  • I can’t say online co-op excites me, but I’m up for more Dragon Age. The second game was maligned a bit too much, and people still remember it as worse than it actually was.
  • The comparison between the PSP and Vita is admittedly a little unfair, but it’s one way of highlighting how much the device is struggling. Which is a shame, because as a Vita owner it really is a fantastic device with some great games. I love mine.
  • I don’t particularly see the problem with a video game ending, but inasmuch as Diablo 3 ends, this patch seems like it should sort out that problem nicely.
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