The Walking Dead by Telltale Games

I played through the first 2½ episodes of The Walking Dead on Xbox. I purchased the first episode months ago and never got around to playing it, and then yesterday I got immersed and purchased the rest. I’ll probably finish the game before the semester is over. It’s quite good.

While reading Understanding Video Games, I found myself agreeing with the authors’ take on cut-scenes in video games. In fact, I can’t imagine a good game without cut-scenes. However, I have never been a fan of cut-scenes that look different from in-game graphics. But this is why I’m enjoying The Walking Dead so much. The cut-scenes introduce narrative tension, convey information, usher in pre-events and get you acquainted with the surrounding environment. More to the point, it is done in a fluid-like manner. You barely feel like the cut-scenes and the game are differentiated. This is because the main character, Lee, has dialogue options within the cut-scenes. In this sense, the game is diegetic; the entire game is immersive, and not just the playable material. I really like the cinematic direction in The Walking Dead as well. There are interesting “camera” angles (for lack of a better term) where we see the main character, Lee, viewed through the eyes of another character. When you walk closer to the foreground of the screen, a cut-scene triggers with dialogue between Lee and the character who was watching you. This offers a really neat psychological framework for viewing the game.

What is so cool about The Walking Dead is that actions in the game have consequences and mold Lee’s personality, as well as how other characters interact with Lee. Many times throughout the game, you will have to choose a dialogue option to intervene in a conflict or diffuse a potentially deadly situation. You have to do this in real time, too. In other words, you only have a few seconds to choose what to say, and depending on how you respond in a given situation will determine different narrative sequences.

There are a few plot bottlenecks in The Walking Dead. For instance, in Episode 2, Lee has to distribute four items of food rations disproportionately among the group. The game makes you distribute all items to move on to the next part of the game. I didn’t want to give food out this quickly, so I found this part of the game to drag on a little bit. But eventually, I realized I had to distribute the food in order to continue the narrative. I ultimately chose to give food to Mark and Larry (because they needed the energy to fortify the walls), and I gave food to Kenny and his boy (because I was trying to convince them to stay with the group). This is one of those gritty decision-making moments in the game which make you feel horrible as the player. Especially since the little girl, Clementine, who you are looking after, watches you with longing eyes and basically tells you she’s starving. After I made my decisions, I wanted to go back and just say, “Screw you, Kenny” and give the snackable to Clementine.

Anyways, settings and moods are important when it comes to immersing players in a game. Immersion and agency work best in games that allow the player to be an active creator in the story. In order to do this, a game has to have players get involved emotionally with other characters to try and figure out what to do. In video games, the level of immersion is higher than in other art forms because of the interactive nature of gaming.

Of Janet Murray‘s two orienteering configurations, The Walking Dead is more akin to the tangled rhizome. However, the game is not entirely boundaryless and without closure. No matter what, you’re going to wind up at the Macon pharmacy or the St. John Dairy farm. This much is given away in the episode previews. But it makes me wonder how much of the story does change depending on Lee’s decisions. All I know is that, at this point, I am damn glad I saved Carley instead of Doug.

I take issue with the post-structuralist concept of the author of the written word exerting control, or tyranny over the reader. In a way, there is more tyranny in a video game, because readers (in this case players) experience the same interpretation, which is always visual, but also textual; even if a game does exhibit a branching narrative. For instance, in a game like The Walking Dead, upon consecutive playthroughs, players will eventually uncover all the different modes in which the story unfurls. I feel like the visual and graphical elements of video games hinder the imaginative processes that would otherwise have free reign over a different medium, like literature. So I don’t exactly agree with the Understanding Video Games authors’ when they say “the language of modern video games allows for as much sophistication as that of literature and cinema.” I know this might sound crazy, but by this reasoning, I value books over video games (even though I can’t imagine my life without video games):

“Games generally use language only instrumentally. . . rather than to convey subtleties of description or to communicate complex emotions. They offer a schematized and purposely reductive vision of the world.” – Murray

Still, I feel like The Walking Dead is a very meaningful and emotional symbolic drama. Out of all the game’s I have played, this one is up there in terms of games that have made me feel uncomfortable, sad, confused, hemmed-in, etc. But feeling out the game yesterday, I was particularly drawn to Murray’s words about walking through a rhizome: “One enacts a story of wandering, of being enticed in conflicting directions, of remaining always open to surprise, of feeling helpless to orient oneself or to find an exit, but the story is also oddly reassuring.” I’m not sure what is so oddly reassuring about The Walking Dead. Perhaps the fact that Lee is enacting a story of redemption, and he’s working desperately hard to be a savior to the group; and especially to little Clementine. At least that’s what I’m trying to do, as the active creator of this story. So there are really great narrative qualities to this game, and I can’t wait to finish it.

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