The first PC games I ever played were the Sierra Online adventure games. They were puzzle-grinding perfection. Pick up piece of bread. Feed piece of bread to troll. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand that request.” Feed the piece of bread to troll. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand that request.” Argh. Give bread to troll? “He gobbles it up with delight!” That was before Sierra revolutionized the playing field by distilling the SCUMM commands down to a mere five icons for King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder!: walk, do, talk, look, and item. In Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers, they added in “taste” and “smell”.
The Walking Dead by Telltale Games manages to pare it down further. Now it’s just walk, talk, item, and shoot. It’s even contextual, so you won’t have the option to do anything unless it can be used within the context of the scene. As Lee Everett, a man on his way to prison in the first days of the zombie apocalypse, you must sneak, shoot, and speak your way to survival. Even more disconcerting as a “traditional adventure gamer” is the presence of many timed events.
Lee is given 4 options when trying to discuss what the group should do with a boy who has been allegedly bitten. Paranoia and hunger is high in the zombie apocalypse, and the developer’s put the pressure on by not allowing any leisurely decision-making, leading to some haphazard choices on my part. Worse yet are the parts where you must choose between saving two characters. Do you go for the brunette hottie with the gun but no bullets, or the techie being dragged out the window?
Of course, a year and half after the initial release of this game, there has been plenty written about the procedural nature of the game, its world, and its stories. These moments and the way they’re designed to put the pressure on mimic the very way any of us might feel in the zombie apocalypse. One might even say that it parallels many of the decisions we have to make in our everyday, zombie-less lives. It’s a tense gaming experience, one so emotionally fulfilling that it starts to rival the catharsis of high theatrical tragedy.
Now, I wasn’t the biggest the fan of the show. The writing got a bit hokey, and I realized by the end of the first season that I didn’t know 90% of the main character’s names. It just didn’t do it for me. Then I played this game. This was how the fictional zombie apocalypse was meant to be experienced. Making choice after choice, you feel loyalties get made and then break. Combining the narrative and the interactive decision-making gave this cartoon game much more authenticity and realism.
I actually felt for characters when I disappointed them. There were no easy decisions, not even any “right” decisions. If you wanted to see the end of the game, you just had to take a deep breath, muster up your courage and leap. Of course, there were a few moments where the developers mercifully gave me more time to make a decision, both such moments involving Clementine, the young girl in your care. It’s moments like these that make me glad to be a gamer. They’re moment that I will remember as long as I remember the feeling I had at the end of The Sixth Sense or the completion of East of Eden.
The first moment I’d like to relay comes in Episode 4: Around Every Corner. You are going to lead your group into a dangerous human encampment to gather supplies in order to escape by boat. The moment comes where you have to make a decision about leaving Clementine, a 9 year old girl in your care, in the house or to take her with you. I really had to think about this; where would she be safe? I decided in the end that I had to take her with me rather than leave here with Omid, a member of my group on the mend.
The other decision point comes in Episode 3: Long Road Ahead, when Carly encourages me, that is Lee Everett, to open up to the group about my past as a convicted killer. Many of the speech decisions in the game come down to telling the truth. Or not telling the truth. There is no timer during this part, but I did have to decide who to tell. I had an easy time telling all…okay, most of the
adults about my past. I had already proven myself to them as a leader who could be trusted.
When it came time to talk to Clementine, though, I sat frozen at my computer. I might have even whimpered a little. I did not want to tell her. How could I tell this little girl that I was a convicted killer? What would be the point? Would she even understand or would it just upset her needlessly? This wasn’t necessarily the moment in the game where the developers hooked me, but it certainly did put this game into the territory of the brilliant. I was so engaged completely on an emotional level, and I had agency.
I finally did come around to telling her that I was going to jail, but as a small, merciful, caveat, I didn’t have to reveal the full truth to her. What would be the point in telling her that I was a killer? I thought it was enough to let her know that I’d made a mistake in my past, and I was being punished for it.
I’m not going to come out and say that every game needs to hit these heights of tragedy, but when games like this come along, it is important that we acknowledge how video games are starting to hit literary heights. There’s value in these games. It allows for reflection and examination on the same level as the best movies and books. There’s soul searching here, and there’s a feeling of intimacy, the same one gets from reading or seeing a particularly good book or movie.
Why do we put ourselves through experiences like this? So many friends and family members who go to movies talk about avoiding movies that make them sad or depressed. They talk about going to the movies to escape, not to experience the same feelings they feel in their everyday lives. I’d argue that these stories are actually nothing like our everyday lives. They’re much more heightened and extreme, and in many ways make our lives feel that much more commonplace. I’d also argue that to avoid these stories is like walking through the zombie apocalypse with a gun and no bullets. Tragedy and all the feelings it produces, when done right, is an important facet of our humanity. I’m happy that I was able to experience this particular story, happier still that it was done through the unique experience of a video game. Loss, death, sadness, hunger, longing, despair – we all have to go through it at some point in our lives. What better way to prepare ourselves than to go through it in the safe territory of a book, game, or movie?
Again, not every game needs to do this. I appreciate the myriad of tones, stories, atmospheres, and emotions I get to experience in a game. But isn’t it something when a game can make the player invest so much into the characters and the story to reduce (at least) this many men to tears?
(Spoilers! This gives away the end of the game! Be warned…the end will be ruined but it is also hilarious)