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"Meaningful choice" and tension between character and player personalities

There's been a lot of discussion on meaningful choice lately, and one blog post in particular got me thinking about my experience with The Walking Dead and why I stopped playing it even though I loved every moment of Tales from the Borderlands.

There's been a lot of articles about meaningful choice lately. One such was called The Feeling of Meaningful Choice and was written by someone who strongly disagreed with their friend about whether or not player choices in The Walking Dead matter. It's a great read, also using an example from Dragon Age: Inquisition to touch on differences between choices that make a narrative difference versus choices the player makes that have no narrative consequences and how those choices feel to the player. The author explores a number of reasons why their friend might have felt like their choices in The Walking Dead didn't matter.

Reading that blog post kicked me into writing this one because I recently (finally) started playing The Walking Dead, but after one session decided that I'm not going to finish it. I had dredged it out from my pile of unplayed games on Steam and without even finishing the first chapter I wanted to abandon it.

I spent some time thinking over that desire to discard the game. I had just finished Tales from the Borderlands chapter one, which left me hungry for more and prompted me to finally get off my butt and play The Walking Dead, so I knew it wasn't a problem with the format of the game. I'm inherently biased against zombie anything, but the game isn't really about them; they're just the Big Bad that forces the choices, so that was fine. It wasn't any problem with the user interface or other technical stuff.

Eventually I realized that my problem with the game was that I couldn't be 100% up front honest with Clementine. If I chose to be frank with her, Lee would start to say it and then change tacks to something else. In a game that is supposed to be about the choices you make in the story, the choices about which I felt most strongly were being cancelled out by the personality of the main character. Lee is not an empty shell. He is a character with his own personality and the writer(s) decided that telling a first grader that he had killed a man was just not gonna be a thing that Lee would be able to make himself do.

That's fine, really. I don't object to that. There's a place for games that have empty player avatars, but that's not the kind of game The Walking Dead is and that's cool, too. Unfortunately, there's too much tension between Lee's personality and mine. In an apocalyptic situation, I would not let a little girl hope her parents were still alive when I knew damned good and well that that wasn't the case. But Lee couldn't make himself tell her, even though I was ostensibly being given the option to make him do so.

There were no other choices in the game that felt like they didn't matter to me, but those few that did were so frustrating that I no longer want to play The Walking Dead. I have The Wolf Among Us and will probably play it this weekend; I'm still eagerly awaiting the next chapter of Tales from the Borderlands; and I really want that Game of Thrones game, too. But Lee and I... we just don't get along.

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