An hour or so ago, I finished The Walking Dead. I played it over the course of two weeks in five sessions in which I played through each episode start to finish; it took me about 10 hours. I have a lot of good things to say about it, but I'm also ready and - as it turns out - able to nitpick about the game's story and question why it wasn't as triumphant and awe inspiring an experience to me as it was to so many others.
First though, my choices for Ep. 5.
- I didn't chop my arm off; I was dead anyway, so since I'm the only one in the group capable of getting shit done, I decided that Lee had a better chance of getting to Clem with two working limbs.
- Got pissed at Kenny; dunno exactly what happened in that sequence, and how things could've gone differently, so...
- Gave up my weapons; I wanted to play along, see how far this guy was willing to go. I went in not intending to kill him, but I would if I had to - I just wanted to get Clem out.
- Clem shot him; I screwed up a QTE I guess, because he had me pinned down on the floor and Clem shot him in the head.
- I had Clem shoot Lee; she needed to do it. She needed to have closure. It was important to her that I not become a walker. And besides, I wanted to show her that she could do anything, no matter how hard it was, no matter how much it hurt. She had to be strong going forward, because that's the only way she'll survive.
I lost Ben in Episode Four, and Kenny died on the rooftop incident, so I only had Omid and Crista at the end. My epilogue was Clem in the countryside seeing two figures in the distance.
I didn't cry at the end, or at any point during the experience. I don't cry. If the film Incendies didn't make me cry, then a video game, no matter how was devastating, sure as hell wasn't going to. It's not because I'm a super macho guy who's not in touch with his feelings. It's not because I have no heart. It's probably because I have Asperger's syndrome. My feelings at the conclusion at the episode were definitely sorrow, but not devastation. I would describe it more as an...emptiness. But I was always in control; there was never a case where I physically didn't want to press a button to do something - even when I shot Duck, I did it quickly and decisively (he wasn't a innocent kid any more. He was one of them) - and I never had a situation where I ran out of time to choose a dialogue option. I'm not even sure what happens if you don't get there in time; does the game choose one for you, or do you just say nothing if that's an option?
I have to laud the ambition of this series, even if some of it's storytelling is a little uneven and some of its characters less than engaging. The core principles of TWD - the relationship between the two central characters, the dialogue, and the atmosphere - were absolutely marvellous. The issues I had were with certain beats of the story, and with a certain disconnect that arose when certain options were made that didn't reflect how I actually wanted them to go (thinking of a very specific moment in Ep. 5 where I made a dialogue choice and Lee's reaction was very different to the one I had intended).
I'm going to judge the game based on how it presents itself and what it was intended to be; I have no interest in complaining about what it isn't. There is one major problem with the game - and I'm only being negative here as a reaction to all the people flipping their fucking lids over this game, and the fact that it is gaining momentum on the GOTY circuit. The story is good, but not great. Sure, maybe it's one of the best examples of storytelling in games history, and it's ambition is incredible. But it feels inherently cinematic, and many of the examples of the game giving the player agency in the story are actually superficial. Even aside from that, if this was a film or TV series, it would be a good one, but probably not a great one. It's too predictable and formulaic. I haven't really gotten into the TV series of The Walking Dead - watched the first three episodes of series one, liked them, but didn't end up watching more of it. And I take issue with some of the characters. Yes, TWD does more to characterise its cast of NPCs more than any other game I've played, giving them arcs and meaningful moments, but that alone isn't enough; characterisation by itself doesn't make good characters, you need to fit all the pieces together. And the sad truth is that many of the side characters felt inessential or even detrimental to the experience, and many of them argued over stuff that was too petty and made decisions that were too arbitrary.
My best example of this is Episode Four (maybe me favourite episode), and having to decide to save Ben or let him die. This was a pretty easy decision for me. And it's a massive disconnect with the game, that it gives you this hideous oppressive horrific story where characters are seeing and doing some of the worst shit imaginable, and where a small mistake could cost you your life - and then I'm supposed to weep over having to let a stupid fucking kid, who put all of our lives in danger on multiple fucking occasions, drop to his death, when he specifically tells me to drop him for the good of the group. Ben had his heroic moment, which in some ways made up for everything that had happened before, but then the game's attempts to try and make me feel bad about it were annoying as hell. I played Lee to be as much of a nice guy and a team player as possible, but that was too much.
And then there's Kenny. Was he really supposed to be my buddy throughout the game, the guy that I related to and trusted with my life, with whom I would see this thing through all the way. Because when Kenny died, I didn't miss a breath. My heart rate didn't speed up. I didn't feel any significant loss or pain. I just shrugged my shoulders, thought to myself something along the lines of "well, there goes another one", and then I decided it would amuse me to say out loud "Oh my God! They killed Kenny!", "You bastards!"
The Walking Dead is inherently exploitative. Telltale made an engine that feeds on the tears of gamers everywhere, and they did a bloody brilliant job of doing that..to a certain extent. For me though, their attempts to paint everything so bleak were hit-and-miss. By Episode Two, the game had conditioned you to expect the worse, to not expect anything good to come of almost any decision you make. And in Episode Three, when Lilly shoots Carley for no good goddamn reason, you also know that everybody in the group except for you and Clementine is fucking worthless, at least as far as surviving an apocalypse goes. Maybe this is realistic to how a zombie apocalypse would actually go. But there were plenty of occasions where I just wanted to throw my hands up and say "fuck all y'all, Clemetine and I are gonna go hide in a shed somewhere." And that's the opposite of what good game design is supposed to do.
The more I think about it, the more I realise that The Walking Dead is the antithesis of video games. It's putting a blank canvas in a gallery and calling it art. It's impossible to approach the game with the same mindset with which you play any other game, but you're still holding a controller/using a mouse and keyboard. The game still follows video games rules to a certain extent, and then does everything it can to take agency out of the hands of the player and direct them through a path that may be entirely variable, but ends at the same path.
The Walking Dead would have not been significant worse, or different, if it was a TV series. Seriously, what would be different about it? If a video game is structured like a duck, is paced like a duck, and begins each episode with a "previously on" and ends on a credit roll like a duck, then what is it? You'd only get one path to the finish as opposed to the variables that they added, but unless you wanted to play through the experience more than once, you're only going to walk down this road once.
Is the gameplay good? Shooting guns and melee combat is functional but not particularly visceral or engaging. And going through the dialogue wheels and interacting with characters was not more rewarding than any of the other great games I've played that have this as a core feature, such as those made by Bethesda (especially Fallout 3) and BioWare (especially Dragon Age: Origins). Does the game do a good enough job of putting an avatar of the player into this world? No, because it's too limited. Because the game didn't give me the choice back at the motor inn to say to Kenny and Lilly "fuck you and your squabbling, I'm clearly the only person in this group that's able to make a sensible decision. I'll fucking be in charge!" Kenny even says in Ep. 5 that Lee was always the smartest, and Carley talks about thinking you would be the best person to lead the group. But unless I missed it, the game gave you no opportunity to actually be a leader until significantly later in the series, and certainly not while Lilly was around.
If the game was really going to give the player agency in the story, then where was the option to put a bullet in Clementine's brain at the end of Episode One and let her die as close to an innocent little girl as possible? Is that not, in some way, a valid option? I'm not sure I'd have done it, but then again the whole game is based around her, and it's obvious that she's going to be the link into the next series. But I'd have thought about the ramifications of doing it. It only becomes apparent later that she can take care of herself, but whose to know what this whole experience has done to her. There are several points along the way where the game makes it very clear that everything is fucked, and all we're doing by carrying on is delaying the inevitable and being stubborn in that inherently human way. The game even shows you people who took the choice to take the "easy" way out, but gives you no opportunity to do so yourself.
I am nitpicking. I am nitpicking about a game that I think is probably one of the best games I've played all year - top ten, maybe on the fringes of top five, but it's been a less than great year in games for me. But it's telling that I feel the need to nitpick. It suggests that something is wrong, that I wasn't absorbed enough in the world and its fiction to look past it flaws.
I have two potential thoughts about this. First, is that appreciation of good controls and effective mechanics in video games is more universal than engagement in a narrative. Of the media in our age that is narrative focused i.e. not music and visual art, books are the most divisive, followed by films and television series, and video games last. Books do less than any of those media to empower the person who is experiencing it; you even have to create your own image of the world and the characters based on descriptions. I don't need every game to be an empowerment fantasy, but the most beautiful thing about games is how their mechanics work to provide a good amount of feedback and a satisfying experience to the player. The Walking Dead doesn't do that enough. So maybe a game like Dead Space having great controls, or a game like my Game of the Year, Crusader Kings II, having great mechanical systems, is more objectively universal than a game having a good story, which is inherently more subjective. That's a loaded statement, but it's a theory.
Second, if you're going to make a game in which it being a game is "relatively incidental" - a bold and incredibly flawed statement, but you know what I mean, so roll with me on this one - if you're going to do that, then you had better fucking nail it. If story is 99% of your game, then it better be brilliant. And maybe this is just a case where The Walking Dead came close, but not close enough. The argument that it's a better narrative than a video game has ever had holds no water with me, because it cannot compare to other games that I consider to have great stories (Dragon Age Origins, Red Dead Redemption, and BioShock to name a few), because those games strike a much better balance between a story that was emotionally engaging AND gameplay that was compelling, rewarding, and added to the experience. The games that can do both will always be more inherently impressive than games that do only one, even if they do it really well - this doesn't apply to games that are purely mechanical and have no fixed narrative, like SimCity or Civilization. Those games aren't worse for not having stories.
Regardless of how I felt about it, it's a game that I would recommend to anybody who appreciates games - I'm even considering recommending it to those that don't particularly have much interest in games. As far as games in 2012 that I respect the most? The Walking Dead is top two or three. In terms of games that I felt were best, or that I had the most rewarding experience engaging in, it doesn't beat Journey, it doesn't beat XCOM, and it sure as hell doesn't beat Crusader Kings II. I think it probably does beat Dishonored though...just.
The Walking Dead is a game that is important, and probably needed to happen for the medium to thrive going forward, but I at least will remember the game as an experience that had ambition and heart that is impossible to question, but was dragged down by its limitations.