I’ll spare you a soliloquy on the merits of videogames as a valid–in some cases exceptional–medium for fiction, as much as film and even many books (though if you want one, this article on the history of video game storytelling is pretty interesting). Instead, I’ll just say that since I was a kid both games and books have served a similar purpose for me. The older I get, the more I realize that both mediums provide an escape that is vital for my mental health.
Anyway, I figured since most of the games I enjoy have qualities similar to the books I like, I ought to take advantage of the platform C4 allows me and share some of the more literary-tinged game experiences I come across. My aim is to do one of these every 2-3 months, but it could be a lot more or less often. It will be entirely dependant on what games I have time to play, and if any of those fit the bill.
So with that, here’s the first installment of Sidequests:
The Walking Dead
2012, Telltale Games
Available for: XBox, PS3, Steam, iOS
The primary distinction between book fiction and game fiction is agency. I’ve always thought of a book as a conversation between an author and myself, and indeed I write constantly in my books. But (with a select few exceptions) it’s still a largely one-sided affair.
Games, on the other hand, are all about choice. Since the early days of text adventures, there’s always been a niche for storytelling and even a modicum of narrative input (anyone reach the end of the old NES game Dragon Warrior and remember getting the choice to pull a Darth Vader and swear fealty to the final boss rather than fight him?). It’s true, too many games merely use story as a backdrop for action. But increasingly studios are taking the player agency inherent in their games and incorporating real choice into how the story plays out.
The Walking Dead takes this a step forward, largely cutting out the game part, and instead focusing on story and choice. Sure, you have to walk around at times and there are a few (rather terrible) shooting sections; those parts are few and forgettable, but they are still there. Despite those, this game is brilliant, one of the best I played last year.
What The Walking Dead does so well is give you the illusion that you have total control over the outcome of the game, when really you don’t. The game is split up into 5 episodes–initially released about a month apart, now you can get them all as a bundle–each takes about 2 hours to play through, and each contains only 5 or 6 choices to make. It’s an expertly crafted bit of interactive storytelling.
Anyone who’s been in a high school English class knows the general triangular plot structure for most fiction (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement). As games have ventured further and further away from having a more typical plot spliced between levels and towards a more interactive, non-linear experience on a narrative level (there’s a nice little article on game story structure here if you’re interested), more of a diamond shape emerges.
Players begin the story in more or less the same place, and different decisions and actions branch the story you are playing into a number of different paths. The more intricate and numerous the options, the wider the scope of potential outcomes. Sometimes (as yet rarely) this is further extended across multiple titles. However, programming as many endings as choice permutations will prove nearly impossible. The options for developers are to keep the game plot very carefully structured, with distinct endings for distinct paths, or to find a way to rein it back in somehow. So as the game story approaches its conclusion, it’s often necessary for the studios to funnel the story or stories into a more unified, controllable trajectory.
Earlier this year, Mass Effect 3 (the culmination one of the strongest series of this hardware generation) did just this, and ran into a wall of angry (and overzealous) fanboy outrage. Over the course of three games, Mass Effect had let players build their own unique stories; there were characters on my team in the third game that had died way back in the first game for some of my friends in their play-throughs. The developers handled the logistical nightmare of trying to end all these possible outcomes by funneling the final act through one single decision which forced every possible outcome of the game’s plot (keep in mind we’re talking well over 100 hours worth of play time over the course of three games and six years) into three possible-and very, very similar–finales. Draw a shape around that plot and you’ve got a diamond.
The choices you’re presented are never morally clear-cut.
Walking Dead is a great game because it’s a choice-centric experience that makes the diamond look like a triangle, and yet is completely transparent about its structure at the same time. The game continually requires you to make split-second decisions that lack a right answer. Sometimes it’s seemingly banal: at one point point there are 3 pieces of food and 8 mouths to feed, and you are left to decide who eats. Those who don’t will take it personally and remind you of your choice later.
At other times it can be downright harrowing: will you allow a parent to mercy-kill his child? Would you kill a backbiter in your group if you think it will further your survival odds? Will you put an injured woman out of her misery, or allow her to suffer so your group can use her screams of agony to cover their escape? You’ve got about 5 seconds to decide, or else something even worse will probably happen.
Each choice impacts how your own game plays out. But if you look a little closer you’ll see that–while your decisions influence how things happen, and to an extent which characters are alive and which aren’t–what happens is largely fixed. Walking Dead addresses this head on, though. At the end of each chapter, it gives you a breakdown off all the major choices, then shows you what percentage of other players sided with you. It’s fascinating, especially when you see you’re in the minority on what you thought was a fairly straightforward decision. And by laying out the skeleton before the player to examine, the developers manage to completely sidestep the difficulties Mass Effect encountered: the player can see the structure of the story and instead of being deceived by the illusion of endless choice, we can see how our experiences differ, and to what degree, from the experiences of others put through the same ordeal. There’s still an illusion of greater agency, but as it gives the players a sense of ownership over the story we just experienced, it’s wholly satisfying in ways that experiences like Mass Effect 3 are not.
This evinces an exciting form of interactive storytelling that I hope we’ll see a lot more of, not only in video games but perhaps in movies and even fiction as well. Telltale Games managed to create a deep and engaging story, one that is carefully plotted and paced, and one that leverages player agency to give the illusion that they are complicit in the direction the plot takes. Imagine if an ebook novel ever pulls something like that off.
All that and I haven’t even mentioned how great the game looks; how satisfying the short, episodic structure is; and what a remarkable job they did (really) of creating a cast of believable, affecting characters that outshine the characters in both the television show and graphic novels. This lowly downloadable title was named by numeroussites as the best game of 2012, ahead of a lot of AAA blockbuster releases. There’s plenty room for storytelling in video games of all ilks, and as they mature into an increasingly expressive medium, it’s games like The Walking Dead that really highlight the potential of games to be something more than juvenile diversions.