The Walking Dead and the Illusion of Player Choice

Posted by benjaebe (2783 posts) -

The following may contain spoilers from the Mass Effect series and Walking Dead Episodes 1-3.

Choice systems, generally found in games as the "moral" variety, are a tricky beast. Their inclusion in a series can add to the narrative and make the player feel involved or important within the game universe, giving a sense that their actions have meaning and their story is personalized to them. It's undoubtedly the reason behind the success of the Mass Effect series, which otherwise would've been considered a fairly standard third person shooter with relatively high production values.

Rachni Queen in ME3

There is an inherent risk with investing in such a mechanic though. The more variables that are added and tracked, the more difficult it becomes to give them the weight they deserve. One needs to look no further than the Mass Effect 3 debacle to see what happens when things don't go according to plan. Rather than shaping the narrative, choices imported from previous games became little more than an extra paragraph in your codex or a flighty one-liner while walking down a hall. Even more egregious is when weighty, complex decisions are glossed over or completely ignored in favor of streamlining the story. In Mass Effect 1, the player was tasked with deciding the fate of an entire race. Were the player to spare the last remaining Rachni, the queen would show up in ME2 to remind players that she won't forget how they saved her. In Mass Effect 3 you discover that even if you killed the last queen, there's still another one that takes her place, essentially allowing Bioware to change one or two lines of dialog and get away with accounting for both possible outcomes. Naturally, this upset players who thought their choices had real meaning.

But wasn't this about the Walking Dead?

You're right, which brings me to the Walking Dead. The 5-episode series from Telltale has been an absolute joy to play. Essentially a third-person adventure game in the vein of Heavy Rain or any of Telltale's other titles, The Walking Dead has been quite adamant that your choices have meaning and your interactions with characters have weight. As former history professor and convicted murderer Lee Everett, you're tasked with surviving the zombie apocalypse while ensuring the survival of your own Short Round, Clementine. The story is engaging, the writing and pacing is wonderfully intense and the art style is gorgeous. Few games have kept me on the edge of my seat like The Walking Dead has.

The way you interact with characters and the decisions you make have both immediate consequences, i.e. choosing to save the life of battery-challenged reporter Carley or everyone's favorite self-insert Doug, as well as long-reaching implications of how you interact with your merry band of misfits. Throw your lot in with the wrong people and you might find yourself lacking an ally when you really need it.

Unfortunately, I've seen a lot of people look at the first few episodes of the Walking Dead and say, "wait, our decisions mean nothing! No matter what we do there's no way to stop Lily from shooting the only survivor who has our back." And they're right - there's no path through the game that allows you to save Doug or Carley. You can't completely control the story and no matter what there are elements beyond your control that will always happen. And that's okay.

The importance of the illusion of player choice, i.e. what the Walking Dead does right.

What the Walking Dead does so well is it makes the player feel as if every choice, every conversation and every decision has the potential to be meaningful. It consistently throws in references of your prior actions. Tell Clementine in the first episode that the farm barn smells like shit, and she'll repeat you later on, generally making you feel awful for being a somewhat poor role model. Kenny will remember all the times that you helped him (or didn't) and isn't averse to bringing it up. Kill someone instead of showing them mercy in front of Clementine and the game lets you know she will remember that. Though these examples are really nothing more than small references and have seemingly little meaning in the overall game, they give the impression of a game world that reacts to the player and accounts for the individual. Could some of these innocuous choices come back to haunt you? With the game series still

going on, it's hard to say, but the possibility of every action possibly having a consequence weighs heavily on you as the game progresses. It makes you second guess yourself and wonder if you made the right decision, if perhaps you had said something differently then Lily wouldn't have shot your friend or Larry wouldn't have died in the freezer.

And therein lies the importance of the illusion of player choice. There's no way Telltale (or any company) would have the resources to make a game that fully accounts for every player decision and branches the story accordingly while still hitting the same story beats and keeping within budget and time constraints. It goes back to something David Cage said prior to the release of Heavy Rain, and also in the ramp up to his newest game Beyond: Two Souls: "I would like people to play it once … because that’s life. Life you can only play once … I would like people to have this experience that way. I’m fine with [people reloading saves to avoid bad endings], but the right way to enjoy Heavy Rain is really to make one thing because it’s going to be your story. It’s going to be unique to you. It’s really the story you decided to write … I think playing it several times is also a way to kill the magic of it."

The moment you take a look behind the curtain, you can see all the moving parts. You can see which decisions make a difference, which don't, and can see all possible outcomes. But by doing that, you're robbing yourself of that illusion. These games require not only Telltale to account for your decisions and do a good job of making them feel important, but also ask the player to demonstrate a sufficient suspension of disbelief. It's true that who lives and who dies might not matter in the overall grand scheme of plot points in the game because eventually you end up at the same destination, but in your own story and world, all these events do matter. Because they shape the decisions you make in the future, no matter how big or how small. It's that sort of role-playing aspect that really appeals to me and many others, especially in a game as emotionally impactful as The Walking Dead.

So what do you think? Do you think Telltale is doing a good job accounting for player choice? Is the illusion as important as I think it is?

Thanks for reading.

#1 Posted by benjaebe (2783 posts) -

The following may contain spoilers from the Mass Effect series and Walking Dead Episodes 1-3.

Choice systems, generally found in games as the "moral" variety, are a tricky beast. Their inclusion in a series can add to the narrative and make the player feel involved or important within the game universe, giving a sense that their actions have meaning and their story is personalized to them. It's undoubtedly the reason behind the success of the Mass Effect series, which otherwise would've been considered a fairly standard third person shooter with relatively high production values.

Rachni Queen in ME3

There is an inherent risk with investing in such a mechanic though. The more variables that are added and tracked, the more difficult it becomes to give them the weight they deserve. One needs to look no further than the Mass Effect 3 debacle to see what happens when things don't go according to plan. Rather than shaping the narrative, choices imported from previous games became little more than an extra paragraph in your codex or a flighty one-liner while walking down a hall. Even more egregious is when weighty, complex decisions are glossed over or completely ignored in favor of streamlining the story. In Mass Effect 1, the player was tasked with deciding the fate of an entire race. Were the player to spare the last remaining Rachni, the queen would show up in ME2 to remind players that she won't forget how they saved her. In Mass Effect 3 you discover that even if you killed the last queen, there's still another one that takes her place, essentially allowing Bioware to change one or two lines of dialog and get away with accounting for both possible outcomes. Naturally, this upset players who thought their choices had real meaning.

But wasn't this about the Walking Dead?

You're right, which brings me to the Walking Dead. The 5-episode series from Telltale has been an absolute joy to play. Essentially a third-person adventure game in the vein of Heavy Rain or any of Telltale's other titles, The Walking Dead has been quite adamant that your choices have meaning and your interactions with characters have weight. As former history professor and convicted murderer Lee Everett, you're tasked with surviving the zombie apocalypse while ensuring the survival of your own Short Round, Clementine. The story is engaging, the writing and pacing is wonderfully intense and the art style is gorgeous. Few games have kept me on the edge of my seat like The Walking Dead has.

The way you interact with characters and the decisions you make have both immediate consequences, i.e. choosing to save the life of battery-challenged reporter Carley or everyone's favorite self-insert Doug, as well as long-reaching implications of how you interact with your merry band of misfits. Throw your lot in with the wrong people and you might find yourself lacking an ally when you really need it.

Unfortunately, I've seen a lot of people look at the first few episodes of the Walking Dead and say, "wait, our decisions mean nothing! No matter what we do there's no way to stop Lily from shooting the only survivor who has our back." And they're right - there's no path through the game that allows you to save Doug or Carley. You can't completely control the story and no matter what there are elements beyond your control that will always happen. And that's okay.

The importance of the illusion of player choice, i.e. what the Walking Dead does right.

What the Walking Dead does so well is it makes the player feel as if every choice, every conversation and every decision has the potential to be meaningful. It consistently throws in references of your prior actions. Tell Clementine in the first episode that the farm barn smells like shit, and she'll repeat you later on, generally making you feel awful for being a somewhat poor role model. Kenny will remember all the times that you helped him (or didn't) and isn't averse to bringing it up. Kill someone instead of showing them mercy in front of Clementine and the game lets you know she will remember that. Though these examples are really nothing more than small references and have seemingly little meaning in the overall game, they give the impression of a game world that reacts to the player and accounts for the individual. Could some of these innocuous choices come back to haunt you? With the game series still

going on, it's hard to say, but the possibility of every action possibly having a consequence weighs heavily on you as the game progresses. It makes you second guess yourself and wonder if you made the right decision, if perhaps you had said something differently then Lily wouldn't have shot your friend or Larry wouldn't have died in the freezer.

And therein lies the importance of the illusion of player choice. There's no way Telltale (or any company) would have the resources to make a game that fully accounts for every player decision and branches the story accordingly while still hitting the same story beats and keeping within budget and time constraints. It goes back to something David Cage said prior to the release of Heavy Rain, and also in the ramp up to his newest game Beyond: Two Souls: "I would like people to play it once … because that’s life. Life you can only play once … I would like people to have this experience that way. I’m fine with [people reloading saves to avoid bad endings], but the right way to enjoy Heavy Rain is really to make one thing because it’s going to be your story. It’s going to be unique to you. It’s really the story you decided to write … I think playing it several times is also a way to kill the magic of it."

The moment you take a look behind the curtain, you can see all the moving parts. You can see which decisions make a difference, which don't, and can see all possible outcomes. But by doing that, you're robbing yourself of that illusion. These games require not only Telltale to account for your decisions and do a good job of making them feel important, but also ask the player to demonstrate a sufficient suspension of disbelief. It's true that who lives and who dies might not matter in the overall grand scheme of plot points in the game because eventually you end up at the same destination, but in your own story and world, all these events do matter. Because they shape the decisions you make in the future, no matter how big or how small. It's that sort of role-playing aspect that really appeals to me and many others, especially in a game as emotionally impactful as The Walking Dead.

So what do you think? Do you think Telltale is doing a good job accounting for player choice? Is the illusion as important as I think it is?

Thanks for reading.

#2 Posted by Boobtank (29 posts) -

This is easily the best thing I have ever read on an internet forum. Currently working/thinking about replying

#3 Posted by ManMadeGod (1552 posts) -

Eposide 3 really killed some of the player choice stuff in the walking dead for me. Will you leave Lily on the side of the road or keep her? Doesn't matter, she steals the RV later and is effectively written out of the story no matter what. Walking Dead tends to hide this stuff better than Mass Effect: my god did the last two suck. I was so upset when I found out my choice to let the council die had ZERO meaning.

#4 Edited by Doctorchimp (4067 posts) -

I don't really care that Mass Effect 3 shattered the illusion of player choice, it sucks because the one story line they went with was hot garbage.

And they couldn't come up with 3 or 4 wildly different end game scenarios? Like really? That can't be anymore work than making another level. Yeah tough shit, you're cutting stuff you poured hours of work into from people that won't see it, that's sort of the point.

#5 Posted by benjaebe (2783 posts) -

@Boobtank said:

This is easily the best thing I have ever read on an internet forum. Currently working/thinking about replying

Thanks, I'm glad you liked reading it. I hope I was able to explain my position in a way that made sense, I felt a bit rambly at parts.

@ManMadeGod said:

Eposide 3 really killed some of the player choice stuff in the walking dead for me. Will you leave Lily on the side of the road or keep her? Doesn't matter, she steals the RV later and is effectively written out of the story no matter what. Walking Dead tends to hide this stuff better than Mass Effect: my god did the last two suck. I was so upset when I found out my choice to let the council die had ZERO meaning.

The council choice was one of the more egregious things that Mass Effect ignored, especially given how important it seemed overall. Telltale definitely had a problem in what to do with Lily, since she's a comic book character and HAS to end up in Woodbury no matter what the player decides to do. That character arc and what she ends up doing to Carley or Doug seems to be a lot of people's main complaint with Episode 3.

@Doctorchimp said:

I don't really care that Mass Effect 3 shattered the illusion of player choice, it sucks because the one story line they went with was hot garbage.

And they couldn't come up with 3 or 4 wildly different end game scenarios? Like really? That can't be anymore work than making another level. Yeah tough shit, you're cutting stuff you poured hours of work into from people that won't see it, that's sort of the point.

Yeah, the story line they went with for ME3 was pretty awful in general and the conclusion was very deus ex machina. It didn't make much sense in the context of the universe because it came so far out of left field. When you say they, are you referring to Bioware, or Telltale, or both? I can kind of understand Telltale's difficulty since they're a small studio on a limited budget, so having a very narrative driven game that ends up railroading players a bit can't really be avoided. I'd love to see what they could do with more money and development time given the fact that they've confirmed a season 2 already, or even just what they could do with the last two episodes.

#6 Posted by Doctorchimp (4067 posts) -

@benjaebe: Oh I'm totally just bitching about Mass Effect 3.

....I kinda haven't played Walking Dead yet. I'm waiting for the episodes to all be done and then buy it off steam at discount. Sorry watching duders piss and moan as each month rolls by doesn't instill confidence in me that I'll keep up. I've been inhumanely busy and I just want to buy Walking Dead and play through it in one night when I can spare the sleep and move on. I just did that to Mark of The Ninja last week and it was awesome.

#7 Posted by mracoon (4948 posts) -

You hit the nail on the head. Every choice seems meaningful even if it ultimately leads to the same outcome. I would definitely tell people not to look at the other choices on Youtube or play through the game again because it would ruin what makes the game so special. Also, in the Walking Dead there's no wrong choice where as in Mass Effect there clearly was (like in ME2 if you went in the middle instead of full Paragon or Renegade you couldn't save some crew members).

Moderator
#8 Edited by benjaebe (2783 posts) -

@mracoon said:

You hit the nail on the head. Every choice seems meaningful even if it ultimately leads to the same outcome. I would definitely tell people not to look at the other choices on Youtube or play through the game again because it would ruin what makes the game so special. Also, in the Walking Dead there's no wrong choice where as in Mass Effect there clearly was (like in ME2 if you went in the middle instead of full Paragon or Renegade you couldn't save some crew members).

I completely forgot to mention how Mass Effect kind of forced players through being consistently paragon or consistently renegade, but that's a great point. The game basically punished you if you didn't commit fully to one path by locking out conversation options. I much prefer how it's been done in games like the Walking Dead, Heavy Rain and Alpha Protocol.

Like you said though, I think the important thing is that every choice seems meaningful even if they really don't impact the narrative that much, an excellent example being in Episode 3 when you can choose to give Duck a high five or not and it gives you a "Duck will remember this" message.

#9 Posted by Brodehouse (9521 posts) -

There's literally no difference between them. Seriously. Wait until Season Two, then you say this exact same thing. In fact, there's actually more variance in the ME sequels than the Walking Dead.

Walking Dead is 2nd on my GOTY list, ME3 is 4th... because I like that style of game and the quality of the writing. But don't fool yourself, the rails are there in all games, and they're way tighter in WD than any of the ME games. I still really like WD but don't be crazy.

#10 Posted by Bass (692 posts) -

@Brodehouse: I think the point is that, so far, The Walking Dead does a better job of making the player think that their choices matter. It's all about illusions of freedom. Lily is probably the worst handled scenario out of all of them, but I still wouldn't know if you can keep the RV if you dump Lily if I wasn't a video game forum user.

Mass Effect certainly had some choices that made an impact, but it also screamed in your face about how meaningless many of your more important feeling choices were (the Rachni is a terrific example).

That said, it is kind of hard to say what the future holds for The Walking Dead. The longer the series, the harder it is believably make the story end up in the same places. It has been stellar so far though.

#11 Edited by benjaebe (2783 posts) -

@Brodehouse said:

There's literally no difference between them. Seriously. Wait until Season Two, then you say this exact same thing. In fact, there's actually more variance in the ME sequels than the Walking Dead. Walking Dead is 2nd on my GOTY list, ME3 is 4th... because I like that style of game and the quality of the writing. But don't fool yourself, the rails are there in all games, and they're way tighter in WD than any of the ME games. I still really like WD but don't be crazy.

I'm not really sure who or what you were responding to, but I'll assume it was my original post and respond to that. I used Mass Effect as my primary example because I felt like it was the greatest and most popular example of having a narrative influenced by the players choices, whether through actions or dialog. It's also a great example of how difficult it is for a company to maintain that level of player interaction over several games - at some point, they're going to have to start cutting corners. Just look at Mass Effect 2/3 and most references to prior games came through short emails or bits of overheard conversations rather than major events (i.e. making the Rachni queen of some importance rather than an easily palette-swapped character who is little more than some extra points.)

Of course the rails are tighter in WD because it doesn't have to account for being an open-world and it's heavily narrative driven. My point was less about Walking Dead vs Mass Effect, because they're both great games in their own respect, and more about how games like The Walking Dead rely heavily on players not taking a peek behind the curtain to maintain the sense that every decision has weight. It's something players have to consciously do, otherwise you lose some of the magic when you look at exactly what flags are being tracked. It's like reading every page in a choose-your-own-adventure book.

EDIT: @Bass said:

@Brodehouse: I think the point is that, so far, The Walking Dead does a better job of making the player think that their choices matter. It's all about illusions of freedom. Lily is probably the worst handled scenario out of all of them, but I still wouldn't know if you can keep the RV if you dump Lily if I wasn't a video game forum user.

Illusions of freedom was exactly my point.

#12 Edited by Maajin (1052 posts) -

First of all, I love both The Walking Dead and Mass Effect series. I've also always defended the importance of maintaining the illusion of choice, and the fact that, if you choose to break it, it shouldn't necessarily reflect poorly on your first experience.

And that said, I think you've contradicted yourself back there: you're only aware that it doesn't matter wether you decide to save or kill the rachni queen because you've seen behind the curtain, the exact same way as with most decisions in The Walking Dead.

And I agree with you: That's okay. But I would argue that both series do the illusion of choice pretty masterfully.

#13 Posted by benjaebe (2783 posts) -

@Maajin said:

First of all, I love both The Walking Dead and Mass Effect series. I've also always defended the importance of maintaining the illusion of choice, and the fact that, if you choose to break it, it shouldn't necessarily reflect poorly on your first experience. And that said, I think you've contradicted yourself back there: you're only aware that it doesn't matter wether you decide to save or kill the rachni queen because you've seen behind the curtain, the exact same way as with most decisions in The Walking Dead.

And I agree with you: That's okay. But I would argue that both series do the illusion of choice pretty masterfully.

You're completely right on the contradiction. Perhaps I should rewrite some parts of the blog to make it more clear - I'm not trying to compare Mass Effect and The Walking Dead in terms of "who does it better." My goal was to use Mass Effect as an example of the dangers of player choice and how difficult it can be for a company to maintain the idea of "every decision makes a difference" over the course of a series, especially since starting with Episode 3 I saw similar comments coming from people about TWD and how "choices don't matter" as I did with Mass Effect. Really, my argument could be applied to either game - maintaining the illusion is integral.

For the record I think The Walking Dead does a better job (for me) of making every decision feel weighty, but that's a different story.

#14 Posted by Maajin (1052 posts) -

@benjaebe said:

@Maajin said:

First of all, I love both The Walking Dead and Mass Effect series. I've also always defended the importance of maintaining the illusion of choice, and the fact that, if you choose to break it, it shouldn't necessarily reflect poorly on your first experience. And that said, I think you've contradicted yourself back there: you're only aware that it doesn't matter wether you decide to save or kill the rachni queen because you've seen behind the curtain, the exact same way as with most decisions in The Walking Dead.

And I agree with you: That's okay. But I would argue that both series do the illusion of choice pretty masterfully.

You're completely right on the contradiction. Perhaps I should rewrite some parts of the blog to make it more clear - I'm not trying to compare Mass Effect and The Walking Dead in terms of "who does it better." My goal was to use Mass Effect as an example of the dangers of player choice and how difficult it can be for a company to maintain the idea of "every decision makes a difference" over the course of a series, especially since starting with Episode 3 I saw similar comments coming from people about TWD and how "choices don't matter" as I did with Mass Effect. Really, my argument could be applied to either game - maintaining the illusion is integral.

For the record I think The Walking Dead does a better job (for me) of making every decision feel weighty, but that's a different story.

I think we'll really have to wait and see what it does when the story (or hopefully the first season?) concludes. We're only half way through, and though it is probably my game of the year so far, I remember it being all sunshine and rainbows in Mass Effect 2 as well!

#15 Posted by Brodehouse (9521 posts) -
@benjaebe I think the main difference is "What changed for you?" is the discussion for ME whereas "What did you choose?" is the discussion for Walking Dead. Mass Effect 3 is being judged for not giving divergent results for something that happened in 2007, while Walking Dead the results don't even appear to be part of the discussion. The why rather than the what.

And yeah, I completely agree about people immediately wanting to completely unfold all the results in Mass Effect, or basically any game that allows any sort of divergence. If you remember David Cage said about Heavy Rain that he hopes people only play it once, so they don't pull it apart and find the seams.

I'm a DM, and even with the advantage of being able to improvise, I only have so much content prepared. It's hard to spend two hours of my prep time creating a divergent path that never gets taken, when I'm trying to fill at least 3 hours of game time. Especially if that content is some of the better written stuff. It's a difficult problem.
#16 Posted by MegaMetaTurtle (414 posts) -

Every decision in eps 1 and 2 (haven't got round to 3 yet :( ) has seemed to boil down to do 'kill or don't kill', where if you pick don't kill they get off-ed anyway (ie, sure I'll try to save Lilly's dad... SPLAT. No, you can't have my gun suicidal lady... etc).

Once I noticed that I kinda lost interest in the series from a gameplay perspective, though I do really like the story.

#17 Posted by Brodehouse (9521 posts) -
@Bass @benjaebe And for the record, there is actually a difference in result based on the Rachni choice; if you save the Reaper-engineered Breeder queen, she turns on the scientists working on the Crucible, and lowers your galactic strength score.

It's maybe the only time in the series that it ever presents a Paragon option as being objectively bad for your efforts. Of course, it necessitates a Renegade option in the first place.
#18 Posted by Hailinel (23689 posts) -

@Brodehouse said:

@benjaebe I think the main difference is "What changed for you?" is the discussion for ME whereas "What did you choose?" is the discussion for Walking Dead. Mass Effect 3 is being judged for not giving divergent results for something that happened in 2007, while Walking Dead the results don't even appear to be part of the discussion. The why rather than the what. And yeah, I completely agree about people immediately wanting to completely unfold all the results in Mass Effect, or basically any game that allows any sort of divergence. If you remember David Cage said about Heavy Rain that he hopes people only play it once, so they don't pull it apart and find the seams. I'm a DM, and even with the advantage of being able to improvise, I only have so much content prepared. It's hard to spend two hours of my prep time creating a divergent path that never gets taken, when I'm trying to fill at least 3 hours of game time. Especially if that content is some of the better written stuff. It's a difficult problem.

Even if the event occurred in a game from 2007, if you make a decision that would theoretically make a big impact, like replacing the council, it's only natural to expect that decision to play a bigger role in what happens down the road. Mass Effect is also an original storyline not tied to anything else. In The Walking Dead, the writers are bound at least to some extent by the events of the comic and have to write around that.

#19 Posted by golguin (3833 posts) -

As you are playing the Walking Dead episodes you have no idea how much of an impact your choices will have in the current episode and future episodes so it does give a sense of infinite potential. You throw in the precedents that choices can save/kill group members and you feel that saving one of the two characters running at the train will result in the same type of thing. The same goes for the Carly/Doug and Ben situation, killing or letting the brothers go, and the Duck situation.

You may replay a few scenes or read a few comments to realize that some events will play out as the writers intended, but it is critical to remember that it all feels real at the time.

#20 Posted by PaulRevere (206 posts) -

I really enjoyed that post. I couldn't agree more that The Walking Dead has found a perfect balance. When I make a choice in that game, I constantly go back to it and wonder, what would've happened had I done (fill in the blank). Mass Effect initially hooked me with its emphasis on player choice, but ultimately that ended up being my biggest problem with ME3... my choices meant nothing. Whereas in The Walking Dead, sure I can't save Doug or Carley, but Lily's story was going to come to a head at that point no matter what, and I understand that. I guess it just comes down to good writing. The Walking Dead manages to make you feel like everything is happening for one reason or another.

I play The Walking Dead the same way I experienced Heavy Rain. One playthrough. David Cage is right when it comes to games like these... life only happens once. So if you want to fully immerse yourself in the world, you've got to live with the choices you make.

#21 Posted by Boobtank (29 posts) -

I can't begin to regret my first post, as well as I should. Player choice is, in itself, the only measure of gameplay, lol

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