By m3ds334 44 Comments
Metal Gear Solid has long cutscenes and tactical espionage action, Mass Effect has player driven conversations and cover based shooting, and The Walking Dead has talking and..quick time events? A lot of people have argued that Telltale's Walking Dead game isn't a game at all because it lacks any form of a traditional mechanic. Sure there are a handful of shooting sections, quick time events, and even a couple adventure-style item hunts, but none these mechanics would ever be considered the meat of the game. Instead all of these small mechanics give way for the story and the dialogue, and ultimately, to giving the player five or so strenuous decisions. It's these deciding moments that I would argue are The Walking Dead's primary game mechanic.
Pacing, in any form of game, is incredibly important. If you have a game that's all action, that action will start to become muted as the player sees too much of this. Games like Halo will mix up the frantic combat with driving sections and cutscenes. The Walking Dead is no different in this area. Each major deciding moment in an episode will be book ended by a vary different section, both in tone and mechanically. It may have the player looking for batteries, exploring the area for a way out, or even feature an action sequence like shooting or grabbing a ledge. These tertiary mechanics all serve to provide a cool down for the player, so as not to desensitize them from the centerpiece of the game. So if the shooting, scavenger hunts, and exploration are acting as a relief for the player, what are they pointing to as the focal point of the game? Those heart wrenching decisions. As Portal 2 uses comedic sections so as not to overwhelm the players brain with puzzles, The Walking dead uses a gamete of simple game mechanics to avoid crushing the player emotionally. Telltale Games also manages to never over do these small mechanics, and in fact, uses them to further enhance the main portion of the game.
Looking at The Walking Dead with traditional game design lenses, it would be easy to argue that there isn't enough player interaction. That there isn't enough to keep the player invested in between those moments and that they need to be filled with either more adventure style mechanics (item hunting, getting a very specific set of dialogue choices) or worse, just throwing in a plethora of small quick time events and awkward inputs. Either of those options would hurt the game. The player is completely invested in the character interactions, and though they need a break as stated above, they don't want a series of actions that get in the way of their enjoyment. Instead, nearly all of the side moments within the walking dead serve to advance the main mechanic. Shooting sections are fueled by a desire to protect the characters you care about and searching for items is motivated because you want to help your fellow survivors. There's never a moment in the Walking Dead that feels like padding. So, if the primary mechanic of The Walking Dead is giving the player a difficult choice, what is a typical decision made of?
Boiled down, the Walking Dead is a dilemma between two options. This alone can't be cited as a game mechanic. Plenty of games give players choices when it comes to dialogue options, and many do it better in terms of the number of options given. The reason I consider the Walking Dead to be separate from other games, is because of two factors: the difficult choice and the timer. Telltale Game's has stated that the goal with every choice was to create a 50/50 split among players of the game. I suspect the major reason the Walking Dead's status as a game is doubted is because there is no traditional win state and no game over when it comes to these choices. In an fps, if I'm still standing at the end of a fight, I've won and if not I've failed and try it again. With the Walking Dead, having a 50/50 split means that you always advance in the story. I would argue the Walking Dead takes a very nontraditional approach to this, and provides a post-modern relative win state/game over.
Players will most often choose the path in a game that provides the best ending. Unless it requires an overly tedious requirement, the majority of players will choose ending A where everyone survives, as opposed to ending C, where the main character is the only survivor. Having that 50/50 split implies that half the players thought that a certain option was the “correct” one, while the other half thought it was the other choice that was right. This creates a personal, though relative, win state. “I think it's better for this person to live, and not having them survive, would feel like I've failed.” The challenge then comes from figuring out what is valued personally and overcoming internal doubts.
Furthering this, a timer is added. Sure, a person could just let time out, and have it select whatever option they had highlighted, but if the player feels like one option is more preferable to the other, the timer provides a sense of urgency. In a game where the choice is between helping a child and kicking them, a timer is completely neutered. The player knows what the good choice is, and doesn't have an internal battle.
The last thing I want talk about is variables that can be applied to this mechanic. Pretty much any game mechanic can have variables to separate it from the last execution of it. Maybe there's more enemies, maybe they have stronger shields, or maybe you have more ammo. There is really only one major way I can think of that The Walking Dead plays with it's dilemma mechanic, and that is the inclusion of Clementine. I unfortunately didn't think this up on my own, and probably wouldn't have realized it unless I had read an interview with Gary Whitta.“People seem so allergic to doing anything bad and they worry that Clementine might witness it, and it’s pushed them much further towards wanting to play a good guy, they’re very, very protective of Clementine.” Once again, it's a very nontraditional variable, but would it be anything else? It certainly can alter the choices a player will make. What was once the the best option because it most benefits the player, suddenly becomes the worse of two choices, because of it's effect on Clementine.
With all of this said, The Walking Dead doesn't get all of this right. Their are times where the choices presented seem incredibly one sided. Episode four comes to mind as I felt I just walked through that section of the story. I never had to weigh the options in the various choices, which left the entire episode primarily free of tension. It played like a platformer where I couldn't fall. Where the main area where I'd feel like I'd fail, was no longer there. Also, a lot the drama is stripped once the player starts looking behind the curtain, and begins to see that overall, the choices made by the player lead to the same place. This is the same problem that many games with player choice face. And certainly not every choice is smoke and mirrors (the incredible variety of your final party) there are times where the lack of player agency is rather apparent. Even with these missteps though, The Walking Dead is a truly brilliant title, and I hope, opens a space for games that don't have to be all action, but give way to character interaction in both story and design.