Is The Walking Dead Game a Game?

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.

  • 1 http://penny-arcade.com/report/editorial-article/the-walking-deads-gary-whitta-talks-gender-bias-clementines-role-and-hints-

44 Comments
45 Comments
Posted by m3ds334

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.

  • 1 http://penny-arcade.com/report/editorial-article/the-walking-deads-gary-whitta-talks-gender-bias-clementines-role-and-hints-

Posted by Brodehouse

You enter input and receive feedback. Game it is.

Posted by Marz

game

Posted by jasonefmonk

It's interactive, to me that's a game.

Posted by ImmortalSaiyan

Without a doubt. Just not one that relays on complex or frequent button inputs but that is okay.

Posted by Extreme_Popcorn

Does it matter?

Edited by Hunter5024

In my game design class one of the first things we did was try to define a game. I'm still not sure I understand what definition we came up with, but it was something along the lines of an interactive experience with an objective. So yes? Either way I think even if it's just an interactive story that the term Video Game has simply evolved to encompass that. There's really no reason to draw a line in the sand and break those kinds of things off into distinct categories.

Posted by Jayzilla

semantics. it's an interactive entertainment experience. in other words: it's a game. oh, and welcome to giantbomb OP.

Posted by FancySoapsMan

it's game enough for me

Posted by Baal_Sagoth

The Walking Dead can easily and without stretching the concept thin be perceived as a game. In my opinion that just leads to the conclusion that it is a pretty poor one though. The QTEs are, well, Quick time events. Love 'em, hate 'em - they are as generic as they come. The few and far in between adventure moments are about as engaging as other Telltale adventures tend to be. The action/ shooting moments are terrible and frustrating even when one passes them in one go. The choices are mostly founded in giving you the illusion of agency. None of the major motifs of the narrative are influenced by the player's interaction. The game basically uses trained gaming behavior ("I'm making a difference") to shove its plot down your throat and try to make you feel responsible when the plot is primarily scripted and out of your hands.

I'm getting the feeling many of TWD'S most ardent advocates are gamers unfamiliar with Fallout, Planescape: Torment, Vampire: Bloodlines, Alpha Protocol, The Witcher and the like. These give you extremely hard decisions and actually follow through with making you feel the consequences of your particular interaction. Faking true agency isn't actually a bad thing at all, many good games do it, but when the interactive story is all your game really has to go on and the story ends up not being very interactive at all I'm kind of done with the concept personally. Maybe there's something I fail to get but the excitement about this one has me quite confused.

Posted by tourgen

Sure you can call it a game if you want. It's just not a very good game. It's a great interactive motion comic though, probably the best. That's not even a slam. I can't wait to see more like it.

Posted by Brodehouse

@Baal_Sagoth: It is not a 'poor' game, it is merely a shallow one.

Posted by Ares42

@Hunter5024 said:

In my game design class one of the first things we did was try to define a game. I'm still not sure I understand what definition we came up with, but it was something along the lines of an interactive experience with an objective. So yes? Either way I think even if it's just an interactive story that the term Video Game has simply evolved to encompass that. There's really no reason to draw a line in the sand and break those kinds of things off into distinct categories.

The definition of game is actually pretty simple if you ask me. It's a set of rules and goals created to create an enjoyable experience (this is the important part, as without enjoyment it's just work). The enjoyment can come in many different forms, like fun, engaging, meaningful etc etc. While this definition certainly allows TWD to be defined as a game it's set of rules and goals are extremely simplistic. It makes the game extremely reliant on doing what it does well, as it's barely just standing on one leg. The question is really if it's a well-made game or not, and because of it's sole focus it becomes a very hit or miss question depending on who you ask.

Posted by Subject2Change

interactive motion comic, is a game. Farmville is a game. SimCity is a game. Games come in all different shapes and forms, just because it doesn't stick to the traditional means doesn't make it any less of a game. Same arguments were made with Heavy Rain. It's a game.

Posted by Baal_Sagoth

@Brodehouse: Fair enough. You're quite right in that the shallowness clearly doesn't make it 'poor' on any sort of general level. I just don't like that very much. Bad choice of words.

Posted by StarvingGamer

Yes

Posted by Blastroid

I died...game.

Posted by SethPhotopoulos

I think trying to say that The Walking Dead isn't a game or is a bad game kind of does more harm to the medium than good. It kind of narrows people's perception of what games should be. I think it should be more open than that.

Posted by frankfartmouth

It's a game, for sure. I read a lot, comics included, and watch a lot of movies, and I don't think a story has ever affected me like this one has. I'm not saying it's the best story I've ever imbibed, I'm saying it affected me in a way that was somewhat different than anything I've ever gotten from a book, film, or comic. Because it's a game. Plain and simple. I get why some people are saying otherwise, but I don't agree. Game. All day.

Posted by TheKramer89

Whatever it is, it's excellent.

Posted by bwheeeler

uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuugh

Posted by JasonR86

I hate the 'is it a game or not' discussion. Who cares. It's entertainment. Fuck what it's called.

Posted by neoepoch

Was Secret of Monkey Island a game? Was Sam and Max Hit the Road a game? Was Grim Fandango a game? This falls into that realm of game, and how you feel about adventure games will probably color your perception of if Walking Dead is a game or not.

Posted by JZ

It's like the 1st ever western visual novel.

Posted by Bumpton

@neoepoch said:

Was Secret of Monkey Island a game? Was Sam and Max Hit the Road a game? Was Grim Fandango a game? This falls into that realm of game, and how you feel about adventure games will probably color your perception of if Walking Dead is a game or not.

Exactly what I was going to post. I grew up on Space Quest among other adventure games. If they aren't games, I don't know what the hell they are.

Posted by TheHumanDove

Game. If you don't think it is, then games will never be art.

Posted by billyhoush

Are choose your own adventure books novels or games?

Posted by adam1808

What is game?

Edited by Karkarov

Game? No. Interactive movie. Yes. When I take 2 to 2.5 hours to clear a episode and only "maybe" 30 minutes of that two hours is spent doing more than talking to people or doing QTE's there isn't a game there. By the definition the fans of "The Walking Dead" would tell you a choose your own adventure book is a video game just because you had to actually make a choice about something at some point. That isn't how it works.

For those playing the Adventure Game card.... In Grim Fandango I don't spend 80%+ of my play time in a cutscene talking to people. Also the puzzles actually require thought to solve most of the time.

Posted by Breadfan

@TheKramer89 said:

Whatever it is, it's excellent.

Edited by Encephalon

What a silly little delineation to squabble over.

Posted by Animasta

the best parts of it aren't. the puzzles are dumb, boring, not hard or interesting... it's nice but meh. Visual Novels are considered games though so this counts too, but whatevs.

Posted by Gerhabio

It has a fail state so I'd say, technically, it is.

Posted by DeathByWaffle

There are plenty different types of games, and Walking Dead is CLEARLY a game.

Edited by DeathByWaffle

@Karkarov: It's still a game, even if there are a lot of cutscenes. If you look at the definition of what a video game is, that is very clear: "A video game is an electronic game that involves human interaction with a user interface to generate visual feedback on a video device". Or, you could straight up go to a dictionary for a definition: "A game played by electronically manipulating images produced by a computer program on a television screen or other display screen". Either way, it is clearly a game.

Posted by golguin

Yes, it's a game.

Posted by Bourbon_Warrior

Game, it involves walking, QTE, decision making and even some bad FPS sections. It's a game.

Posted by Gruff182

QTE is a game mechanic.

Posted by Claude

I love watching people play this game. What game? The game of is it a game.

Posted by Ares42

@neoepoch said:

Was Secret of Monkey Island a game? Was Sam and Max Hit the Road a game? Was Grim Fandango a game? This falls into that realm of game, and how you feel about adventure games will probably color your perception of if Walking Dead is a game or not.

While I don't disagree with TWD being a game, I disagree with this argument. While it might be splitting hairs, old school adventure games are actually quite different from TWD. They relied much more on being entertaining while trying to solve puzzles rather than rewarding input with long exposition and cutscenes.

Most of those games utilized much bigger play-areas with puzzles that required some actual exploration, while TWD has pretty much cut the exploration out and just shoves the options in your face. They also had the aspect of experimentation with trying to combine/use items and making that an enjoyable experience, which TWD lacks completely. Overall I would actually say they play on completely different strings, and TWD even has a full new gameplay mechanic that didn't exist in old school adventures (with it's QTE'ish dialogue system).

Posted by John1912

Id call it a interactive narrative. Its barely a "game" imo.

Posted by sirdesmond

It's a game. That said, it doesn't really matter since it's definitely not a book or movie.

Posted by AndrewB

I'd hate to boil your lengthy post down to a response but a few words long, however, I think an interactive visual story counts as a Video Game still, and discounting The Walking Dead means you're discounting a whole other genre of classic aventure games. It may be more "adventure light" because none of the puzzles are difficult, but there's still that aspect.

On the same note, it'd be tough to argue that Virtue's Last Reward is a video game because it's pretty much a visual novel with mind puzzles interspersed (to the point where even the game calls the talking parts "novel sections").

But... why waste time classifying something when you can just sit down an enjoy it?

Posted by sirdesmond
@Gerhabio

It has a fail state so I'd say, technically, it is.

This was my thought exactly. You can't fail at a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book. There is interactive player challenge that can result in a game over screen essentially.
Edited by Karkarov

@DeathByWaffle said:

@Karkarov: It's still a game, even if there are a lot of cutscenes. If you look at the definition of what a video game is, that is very clear: "A video game is an electronic game that involves human interaction with a user interface to generate visual feedback on a video device". Or, you could straight up go to a dictionary for a definition: "A game played by electronically manipulating images produced by a computer program on a television screen or other display screen". Either way, it is clearly a game.

You realize by your description I am also playing a video game right now by making this post. After all I am pressing buttons on a keyboard and it makes these letter things appear on a video device. I am also playing a video game when I watch tv. After all I have to press buttons on my remote to get the picture to show up and so on. How is that any different from using a remote. You say I am not reacting to the game when I watch tv? Sure I am. I raised the volume because the game was too quiet, I changed the channel because I didn't like the feedback the game gave me on NBC, so on so forth.

I am not ragging on people who say The Walking Dead is a game. I don't agree but I can see where you are coming from. If people want video games to be taken seriously though they need to elevate the description to be more than "interacting with some kind of interface that causes things to happen on a video device". That could be me describing a friend making a phone call on his cell.

@sirdesmond said:

@Gerhabio

It has a fail state so I'd say, technically, it is.

This was my thought exactly. You can't fail at a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book. There is interactive player challenge that can result in a game over screen essentially.

Man you must have read some sissy choose your own adventure books as a kid. All of them I read definitely had "you lose" choices. Especially the one that had me becoming a pro wrestler and fighting this giant dude who was actually a wannabe vampire in a luchadore mask.