The Illusion of Choice in Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead
With Telltale Games releasing the first episode of The Walking Dead: Season Two last month, let’s take a look back at the mysterious past of the year 2012 (or early 2013 if you were as late to the game as I was): You had just finished the first season – (or, if not, you should, because there are major spoilers waiting for you just ahead.) Lee, the player avatar, is dead, Clementine is safe (well, safer), and you’re thinking: “Wow, that was a hell of an ending! Beautiful, profound, and really, really sad. I wonder if there’s a happy ending if you make the right choices.” So you start up the first episode again, and, by god, this time, you will decide the shit out of these decisions, until Lee and Clementine get the happy ending they deserve!
But there’s something odd: Your decisions don’t seem to influence the plot at all. Your actions change some details, but the game is quick to implement them into the planned-out story. For example: If you choose to rescue Carley, tough journalist and potential love-interest, in Episode One, she plays a minor role in Episode Two and then dies in Episode Three, trying to defend Ben from accusations of theft. If you instead choose to rescue Doug, huge nerd and all-around nice guy, he plays a minor role in Episode Two and then dies in Episode Three, trying to defend Ben. Your power over the plot seems to be really limited.
There is a lot to say about The Walking Dead, and a lot has already been said. There’s the heart-wrenching storyline, maybe the best one in the cross-media Walking Dead franchise. There are great characters, more complex and likeable than in any game I have played. Clementine may well be the best-written child character the medium has to offer. But one major complaint comes up again and again: Fast-paced choices and moral quandaries are the most prominent feature of The Walking Dead, but they seem to have no real consequences. Why did this game receive approximately all of the awards in 2012 if its main selling point is used so inconsequentially? I suggest that the most important aspect about this game is not the many difficult choices it offers the player – it’s the illusion of choice the game constructs.
Every episode begins with the same disclaimer: “This game series adapts to the choices you make. The story is tailored by how you play.” Deception! Imposture! Fraud of the century! “The story doesn’t adapt to shit,” you’re thinking, dear reader, and you should apologize to little Clementine for your language. You see, there is a huge downside to those branching storylines and multiple endings that are all the rage in videogames nowadays: All this content has to be produced and, most importantly, paid for, no matter if an individual player ever gets to see it. A huge amount of animations, voice acting and so on is lost on a lot of players based on the choices they make in the game. And let’s face it: Not every possible branch or ending can possibly be of the same quality. To avoid this problem, The Walking Dead uses a videogame storytelling method which has been called “parallel paths” or “beads on a string.”
When the player reaches a certain point in the story, he is presented with two or three options that change the content he experiences for the next part of the story. Then, something important happens – a game-changer, if you will, (ha!) – and you’re back on the central storyline. Further down the road there are some nods to the original decision, for example differing lines of dialogue, and that’s it: The amount of different content that needs to be produced is limited to a minimum while, ideally, still giving you a feeling of agency. For example: If Ben survives Episode Four, he dies in Episode Five, and Kenny stays behind to help the poor kid, but, alas!, gets munched by zombies. Later, you come across a hole full of zombies that seems to serve no purpose whatsoever. But if Ben is already dead, Christa falls into said hole, and Kenny rescues her, dying in the process. (Apparently, though I’m pretty sure he’s the mysterious person Clementine tells “I thought you were dead,” in the trailer for the next episode.)
David Cage calls this principle “Bending Stories”, and because he’s David Cage, he pretends he invented it. But I have to admit: “Bending” is a really good metaphor to describe this process. Because there actually aren’t two entirely separate branches; they twist and turn and overlap, especially if you consider the aforementioned nods to the original decision. Most of the time, the story stays on a fixed path, but occasionally jumps to different moments. In many cases, the exact outcome of a scene doesn’t depend on a single decision, but is a combination of different lines of dialogue and actions that react to decisions you made during the course of the game. So, you don’t have to imagine the story as a series of solid branches, but as a single, more flexible branch that, at certain points, bends into a different shapes every time you play the game.
The gameplay of The Walking Dead is all about decisions. (There is no real combat, and the adventure-game puzzles are, at best, laughably easy and obviously not the main selling point.) So, what’s the point of decisions in an interactive story if they don’t have any impact, especially in a game that doesn’t really offer all that much interactivity to begin with? That line of thinking is a little too simple. The decisions you make in The Walking Dead don’t change what happens, they change how it happens.
Your actions determine what kind of person Lee is, how he reacts to certain situations, and how the other characters see him. You could almost say The Walking Dead is an RPG: Is Lee a failed family-man who sees Clementine as his second chance? Is he short-tempered and violent? Or does he keep a clear head and talks his way out of hairy situations? Does he regret what he did? Is he a cynic or a wide-eyed idealist? Will the other characters be his friends, or just his companions? Is there even any coherence between what he does and what he says? Maybe he doesn’t talk at all, which is really stupid but really funny. It doesn’t change the overarching story, but all of this and much more is up to you.
The interface makes sure you don’t forget that, by displaying messages such as, “Clementine will remember that.” At first, I hated Duck, because he was the loud, obnoxious and the annoying kind of kid I just loathe. But when he started helping Lee, I got to know him and began to like him. When I high-fived him, the interface said, “Duck thinks you’re incredibly awesome.” Then he died, because Telltale Games is cruel like that. That was harsh, but just because I chose to allow it to be harsh. He would have died either way, but through my choices, especially during the dialogues, I got to know and like Duck, even though I didn’t have to. The whole atmosphere of the experience that is The Walking Dead changed according to my will.
Then there is Clementine. I soon found myself basing my decisions not only on what I thought would be the smartest move to survive. I started to base them on what Clementine would think of them. I wanted Lee to be an example for her, even as she herself was an example for Lee. “Clementine will remember that,” is a sentence you’ll read again and again when playing The Walking Dead. As with most of the other characters, nearly everything you choose to do or say comes up again in dialogues with her. Your choices have an effect on the relationship between Lee and Clementine, but also on Clementine’s character, because she is still a little girl and has to learn a lot from Lee. I found myself wanting to act in a way so that Clementine would grow up knowing what was right and what was wrong. But she also knows what her parents have already told her before the zombie attacks. She doesn’t condone stealing or killing, even if it seems appropriate in some of the horrible situations the game throws its protagonists into. So, while Lee teaches Clementine to be a decent human being, Clem makes sure he is one.
In that regard, (as Jim Ralph pointed out in an article on this very site) the relationship between Lee and Clementine is a lot like the one between the Man and the Boy in The Road – a story that is equally profound and depressing, but with a distinct lack of zombies. Like the nameless protagonists of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, Clementine and Lee, too, have to “carry the fire”. What is the fire? It’s the knowledge that Prometheus gave to mankind, so that they may survive in a cold and dark world – the Man gives the Boy important survival skills, just like Lee teaches Clementine. It’s light in the dark and heat in the cold, symbolizing the hope that is desperately needed in a world that has gone to shit as drastically as the one in The Road and The Walking Dead. Both Lee and the Man try to keep the hope alive in their kids, and both Clementine and the Boy are actually the only reasons why the adults still hope. But the fire that needs to survive is also humanity and decency. The Man wants his son to always remember that they are the “good guys”, and that the people who gave up on their ideals and started robbing and cannibalizing each other are not. You know, just like Lee has to show Clementine, when they meet – at first glance, sickeningly friendly – people who gave up on basic human principles and became cannibals to survive. You could also say that “carrying on the fire” is a metaphor for continuing human history – as in that Billy Joel song that is nearly as silly as it is catchy, but let’s not get too carried away here.)
The father figures in both stories try to teach “their” children not only how to survive, they also want the next generation to carry on everything that is good about the human race and to abandon the bad. It’s so easy to lose your humanity in this cruel, post-apocalyptic world. But as long as the next generation doesn’t forget kindness, forgiveness and gratitude even in the face of starvation, there is still hope. Both men try their hardest to be examples, and while they don’t always succeed at fulfilling their own moral standards, the kids are quick to call them out – thus showing that they have learned their lessons and are much wiser than you might think. Clementine remembers Lee’s every action, like the Boy remembers the Man’s.
Both stories feature difficult decisions that don’t influence the outcome of the actual plot, but show how good or bad their protagonists are at “carrying the fire.” In The Road, the father-and-son team meets an old, starving man – one of the few human beings who doesn’t want to kill or rob them. The Man, mistrustful as ever, wants to ignore him and keep their sparse supplies to themselves, but the Boy persuades him to give the old man something to eat before they part ways. If the Man had decided not to help the old guy, the further course of action – i.e., the plot – wouldn’t have changed. But the Boy shows that he is better at keeping up the same ideals that his father wants to teach him. The same thing happens many times in The Walking Dead. But, due to the nature of the medium, you get to show how good you are at carrying the fire.
“Clementine will remember that,” shows up again at the very end, when you choose the last bits of advice Lee has to offer the little girl. From a gameplay perspective, it doesn’t seem to matter anymore. But to someone who even remotely likes Clementine – and a lot of players do, how else do you explain the popularity of the twitter hashtag #forclementine – this matters a lot. It’s important to Lee to know that “Clementine will remember that.” It was also important to me on my first and second playthrough, and it will be important to me on the third, even though I know everything already and still have very little control over what happens. And when I played the first season for the first time, I had no control at all over what happens to Clementine after Lee’s death. You may not be able to change the events of this world, but you can change how you and other people react to it. You can build up hope, or you can crush it.
And that is basically what The Walking Dead is all about: The world is a dark and scary place, but we have to rely on each other, and even though we don’t have much influence on what happens around us, we can still make the best of it. That’s where this seemingly not-very-gamelike game shines: You may think there is a huge segregation between gameplay and story, but, paradoxically, the gameplay reflects the story because of this segregation. The Walking Dead does, in fact, “adapt to the choices you make”, and its story is “tailored by how you play”. “Adapt” and “tailor” – there is no promise that your choices will actually change the story. The developers understand that interactive storytelling in video games can be much more than an animated choose-your-own-adventure book. Because, as James Portnow of Extra Credits put it:
Choice in games is about the act of choosing. […] It’s a lot like life, actually: You have control over the choices you make, you use those to influence the consequences that result, but you don’t actually have control over those consequences. Otherwise, we’d all just make the right thing happen all the time.
The Walking Dead is not about choices, it’s about decisions. It’s about making the right decision in a world where everything goes wrong. It’s about doing what you think is right, even when faced with absolute despair, even though all hope seems lost, and even though this bleak world doesn’t give a single fuck about your decision. But you have to do it. For Clementine.