As I noted in my article about morality in games, choice is an inherently flawed thing in games. Even if we discount the rather stupid thing of binary moral choice systems, we’re still left with the feeling that, at the end of the day, our choices don’t really matter. Now, The Walking Dead would have us believe otherwise, telling us that all our choices matter, but I wasn’t entirely convinced of this. Never have I seen a game shut itself off and refuse to let you play because you made a bad decision (unless we’re talking Alpha Protocol and the ‘stupid decision’ was putting all your XP into stealth). But there was quite a lot I liked about choice in The Walking Dead, so we’ll talk about that first.
I said earlier that binary moral choice is a ridiculous concept, mostly because it only gives you the choice between Really Good and Really Bad, and rarely are real-life decisions so clear-cut. There’s a lot of moral grey area out there, and by doing away with a binary choice system, The Walking Dead avoids most of what I find annoying about choice in games. It presents you with the kind of decisions you’d expect to be presented with in that situation, and it presents those choices as equally valid. There is no morality in this world, only consequence, which is exactly what you’d expect from a post-apocalyptic world.
The other thing I really liked was the gravity of the decisions you had to make; deciding whether people live or die is always going to elicit strong emotion, and some times I felt like inaction was simply easier because I did not feel qualified to make the choice between who lives and who dies (but, of course, you have to act to save someone). I would say it’s a little overused, this whole life-and-death thing, but what other choices can you make the in the zombie apocalypse?
Your choices “matter”
But to get back to what I was saying earlier, that feeling that your choices matter to the storyline depends on there being some consequence to your actions. The Walking Dead generally does quite well with consequence – your actions cause ripple effects which affect your relationship with other characters, and that effect is something beyond a morality bar going up or down. But it never really gives you consequence. When writing this article, I checked out the walkthroughs to see what the alternate choices would have led me to do, and almost always the answer was “character X will do thing Y for you no matter what”. So… what was the point in making me make the decision again?
By acting as if our choices matter, but by programming in these fallbacks for the times you do make a wrong or stupid decision, allows us to complete the game anyway. Never did I find myself reloading to make a choice again, to see what I could have done differently when everything went disastrously wrong. And I think that’s my main problem with the choice system in The Walking Dead – it gives the illusion of depth whilst we’re standing in a puddle. It left me feeling inconsequential and a little bit powerless. Although I suppose that’s how a zombie apocalypse is supposed to make you feel.
- Talk to Hershel and Kenny. Kenny will still offer a ride to Macon no matter what you say.
The very definition of ‘pointless’
If the game shut off the more obvious routes and forced us to find alternatives off the beaten track, then I would probably have rated it more highly. But it’s not just a problem with The Walking Dead, it’s inherent in any game with choice; too many choices and too many paths make the game cumbersome to build and run, so why would you bother when most players are just going to take the easiest choice on their way to the game’s completion? Why bother programming in so many choices if they’re not going to have real consequence? I feel developers would be better positioned to have fewer choices in the game, but make those choices actually count. Maybe Season Two holds more for me in the way of choice. All I know is I’m definitely going to play it to find out.