The Walking Dead is a zombie survival game in a world inundated with zombie survival games. The actual level of interactivity and reactivity in the game tends to be shallow and illusionary, if convincing at first glance. It’s also one of the most profound experiences art had to offer in 2012.
It is about choice agony. Explorations of choice and with normative ethical codes in games are always very interesting, and The Walking Dead tests these concepts out in fascinating ways. It’s a masterwork when it comes to invoking responsibility.
But while it is about these things, choices and responsibilities, it’s not actually about consequences. It’s a part of what I once jokingly called the Jaded Empire. The voice actors who have to record a half-dozen variations on the same line would likely disagree that nothing changes in these games, but ultimately, the player is just pushing events into a slightly different order. The same people live and die. The dialogue and the player’s imagination appear to suggest a branching course, but the characters are rarely motivated by the player’s actions to change their own behaviors in any way that is of long-term pragmatic meaning. Though, certainly, the small changes have an impact on the experience, nonetheless.
Some of these games are wonderful. Their priority is only in making the first playthrough as engaging as possible. There are multiple paths to making a good game and lasting replay value is only one of them. The “Jaded Empire”, then, is just another valid school of thought that eschews this priority.
- Making a person “jaded” is obviously not ideal, so it’s wise to consider this school of thought to be a trade-off for short-term value, or a compromise when resources are limited but you still have a great story to tell. The difference between the Jaded Empire and games which do not pretend to let the player make decisions at all is that the choice agony is very real in them–at least unless players become cynical enough to catch on and start metagaming.
The wonderful characters and high overall writing quality are what make your responsibilities so heavy and meaningful, and your choices so pleasurably difficult. Players control Lee, a convict for whom a zombie apocalypse meant escaping from the sentence for an old-world crime. Lee must care for Clementine, a young girl apart from her parents. In another genre it might be the premise for an awful game of infuriating escort missions, but Clementine is the best part of the game. A winner of the genetic lottery, her only real flaw is her troubling naivete, something worth cherishing. Lee’s motives need not be questioned; he is you, and he simply made a mistake once. Everyone else is a potential threat to Clem’s well-being, at least perhaps until you’ve come to know them.
This is where the game’s deep appeals to responsibility ethics lie. This is unique game horror: it preys on the rational person’s fear of parenting, while excluding the sorts of parental concerns that aren’t as thrilling. It’s been opined that if children could only be born at the age of five (or six or whatever), we’d just have to worry about helping them with their neuroses, instead of agonizing about the possibility of subtly, accidentally, creating new ones. Clementine’s been raised better than anyone could realistically ask, and while trauma is perhaps unavoidable in that lawless, violent zombie world, it’s evident that a lot of the hard work’s been done. It’s a fantasy.
People who love video games often feel an impulse to share or rationalize this love to others, looking for the most convincing examples of art games for outsiders. This is a fool’s errand: the language of games is its own, and looking at “accessible” games is a step in the wrong direction. It’s natural to want “your” art form to be appreciated, but a non-trivial amount of training is required to appreciate the meaningful things in games that are subtly communicated. If a person has difficulty making a character walk in a straight line, who can they appreciate the game on “our” terms? Isn’t this like a film review from someone who goes into a seizure at the sight of a moving picture on a screen? As a result, we stick to suggesting highly cinematic and simple experiences, avoid naming any difficult sixty-plus-hour epics, and people end up telling Roger Ebert to play Flower. The fuck is Flower?
The Walking Dead is the sort of game a lot of people would nominate in those circumstances, and in a way, that makes me hesitant. The game is powerful, and good, but barely interactive, and while there may be subtle benefits of prior experience with a gamepad, players are rarely tested in terms of skill, which may be an integral part of investigating the consequences of player choice: whether they can walk the walk after talking the talk, so to speak. Something like Dark Souls, harder to express or share to those who never ran the gauntlet for themselves, is a truer exploration of what games are capable of, less reliant on the techniques of another medium like film.
But The Walking Dead is still a non-optional experience for those who like to think about the artistic paths that are open to games. Even without a high level of interactivity, it certainly manages to be one of the greatest games of 2012, a year with tough competition. Admittedly, if it had Alpha Protocol-level reactivity instead of convincingly faking it, or if the actual play experience wasn’t largely governed by awkward controls and QTEs, it would be better. But as things stand, The Walking Dead still hit me much harder, emotionally speaking, than Alpha Protocol (or most other games) ever did. It’s been a couple years and the ending is still burned into my brain. We’d be lucky to have several more games like it.