I am back again to talk about narrative design, and this time (to change) I want to talk about The Walking Dead Season 2 from Telltale.
I waited a bit to talk about it but now is a good time for several reasons :
- As a sequel, the creators have gathered lessons from the previous one
- There has been other game released by Telltale since, in which we can see or not what they learned from this one.
I will try to be as fair as I can be in my analysis/critic and you can disagree with what I say. And although I am about to say the game has issues, it doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it. This article is mostly me trying to identify what could have been "better", not a critic of the game.
And of course, there will be a lot of SPOILERS so beware. So here is what I want to talk about:
How picking your character/hero can narratively hinder the others one in a videogame
Before I start, I want to define something: What is a main character in a story .
There are a lot of theory regarding characters. The basic one is that the main characters is the one through which we experience the story, often the narrator. The second one is that the main character is the one enabling the story to progress, the actor/hero. Finally, (I will stop here else it is going to be too complicated), the main character is the one that change the most during the story.
Not every theory can be used for every story, and some stories are so complicated with so many characters that classifying them is quite hard. Who is the main character in The lord of the ring ? Who is the main character in A song of ice and fire? Who is the main character in Flowers for Algernon?
My answer would be Sam, Jaime and Charlie but these are my answers based on what I consider is a main character. Defining a main character is necessary because then, you can decide the importance of others characters. The more important a character is, the more you are supposed to care about him, in a good or a bad way. If you don't care for a character, either it means this character is not important, either the writer failed to make you care for him. «Oh no, Grunt #789463 died by a blaster blast in scene 98, I am SOOOOOO sad" said no one ever.
Still following? Good! I can now dive into our subject.
The Walking dead season 2 made the choice to select Clementine as our main character. We play as her, not her guardian anymore. We cannot make choices she wouldn't make such as making comment about the sex life of Luke and Jane. But was choosing Clementine the best choice?
To make the player feel engaged in the game, Telltale had to make some weird decisions. First, they had to create gameplay situation for Clementine to accomplish, this mean they had to create some stuff that a 10-year-old could do. Situation such as a tiny hole in a whole that only a small child could fit into.
Then, they had to create the relationship she would have with the other characters but keep in mind, we are dealing with a 10-year-old. They can't just follow her aimlessly, but for the player to feel his choices matter since it is the premise of Telltale's game, they still have to listen to her. This is kinda hard to juggle. Yes, it is a zombie apocalypse and children grow up faster. But would a group of adult really listen the input of a 10 years old ? Might depend on the situation...
This is where there is a dichotomy:
- The player has to feel important, so Clementine must do lots of stuff.
- The other characters have to rely on a child for the player to feel important.
Anyone seeing the incoming issue?
This situation is taken from the first chapter.
To sum it up, Clementine has been bitten by a dog, not a zombie. She encounters this group of people who wisely lock her in a shed because they believe she is lying about the dog and want to see if she will turn, discarding the knowledge that the bite doesn't turn you, it just makes you sick. An no, they won't just let her go away (sequestration, very nice).
Being badass, she escapes the shed, steals some medical supplies,comes back to the shed, fix her bitten arm with stitches in a gut wrenching scene. Then a zombie breaks into the shed, and she manages to kill it but makes a whole lot of noise doing so. The group rush to the shed, open the door, only to see Clementine and the dead zombie.
This will be Clementine daily bread. She will show she is cool, can take care of herself, can kill zombies from her 3 feet tall but the others won't do very much ... And that's where the problem is.
How can you care for character that are so useless and heartless? You don’t! Are at least, I didn't.
There are plenty of situation like this. Another one is during the chapter 3 where Clementine and the group are prisoners. They want to escape, but they can't do it so easily so they need SOMEONE to climb on the roof, infiltrate the office of the villain, steal 2 radios, avoid the guards, and finally return before the next inspection. I wonder who could that be? The strong black guy? The nimble mysterious woman? The little girl? YES, that's it. Let's send the little girl while we stay here doing nothing.
It is perfectly understandable that the writers/directors wanted to make Clementine important and they did. Clementine is the best character in the game and although she might not be as "complicated" as Lee, she is incredible for her age and realistic. But it really hurt the other character as they appear as cowards, lazy, dead weight, and frankly not that useful in the story/narration. I only had 2 conversations with Alvin before he "sacrificed" himself to hold the bad guys. How am I supposed to care for a character that did nothing, didn't interact with me except for asking me to hide the food from others so his wife can eat it? You feel "forced" to do stuff. And you shouldn't, you should want to help them because you like them.
In the first season, here are the reasons why you can care about other character:
- Lee, convicted after killing someone, your character, pretty resourceful and kind.
- Clementine, little girl you have to protect who becomes more independent, learning how to shoot despite her young age.
- Kenny, always fixing stuff, loses his wife and son.
- Ben, deeply flawed, coward and knows he fucked up.
- Carley, shoots stuff, voice of reason.
- Lily, try to be a good leader but has trouble bearing the pressure.
These characters all have moment where you get to learn about them, about their "feelings" and character archetypes. And although you are doing as Lee a lot of stuff, you don't mind. You see Kenny repairing a RV, Lily doing inventory, people working on repairing a fence. But here, we don't have any opportunity to know the characters due to the pacing of the plot.
The first season felt like a road trip, you made stops, talk with people while solving a "puzzle". And then, there was trouble. And so on, press repeat until you run out of characters.
The second season on the other hand has way less "quiet" moment, there is always something happening and no "free" exploration. Nothing like the moment in the first season where you were at the dinner, speaking with everyone, learning that Duck was "challenged" or that Carley liked Doug. Here, you have to wait until the chapter 5 before you actually get to know a little bit the characters that are still alive. I know you shouldn't always compare stuff but in this case, it helps to identify why this one didn't feel as great as it could have. The plot unfolds so fast and you get caught up in it without having a moment to think about the people in it. Who’s Carver? Where are we headed? What did these guys do before the outbreak?
Now, the good thing is that this game was released in 2013 and Telltale has been able to release other games since. We have had A game of Throne, Batman, The Walking Dead season 3 .... So many to look at and see what the studio is currently doing.
So, let's look at A Game of Thrones, and be careful, many spoilers incoming.
Another issue with The Walking Dead Season 2 has is that the only character you care about (your character) is safe. You have played the others Telltale's game before and you know that except at the end, you have nothing to fear for Clementine just like for Lee or Bigby previously. It is not bothersome in the previous game as in the season 1, you cared about at least one other character who was Clementine. So, although you knew you would play as Lee until Chapter 5, you wanted to see if you could keep Clementine, Carley, Kenny alive.
Now, you start playing A Game of throne. Stuff happens, you play as a Squire, red wedding massacre, lots of dead... It is Game of throne. Introduction over, Fade to black. New scene, more playing the squire, arriving at his lord's castle, discussion, discussion. Loading.
BAM! You can't find you character and you are now playing as a teen lord. This has not been done before in the recent Telltale game. Okay, maybe it was just for the introduction, I guess I will be this guy now.
Decision, decision, QTE, decision. Now you swap to the lord sister; okay, okay, several points of view. More stuff happening, back to the lord. You are now closing toward the end of the chapter since you have been playing for around 1 hour and by experience, you know it will not last much longer. And then, Ramsay Bolton arrives. Discussion, threat, decision, more threats, creepy comment about your sister, threatening your sister. Enough, stop grabbing my sister!
Knife to throat. Your character dies... F****k.
But this is great, as this will teach you something: Even your character can die in this game! You are not only scared for the other, but also for your avatars. Alike the series (books/TV), the game will focus on characters but you better learn that Death comes to all.
In the end, I wonder if Telltale chose to do this because:
- They saw that people recognized their pattern and weren't feeling as invested as they did
- They really wanted to mimic the effect of the book were characters as narrated with a first person point of view.
But it felt great, and having to choose between 2 characters you have played is very different than choosing between to NPC.
As a conclusion, I would like to advise anyone interested in narrative design to play/study these games. And I want again to remind Telltale that I love these games. I am juts nitpicking and using them to express some conclusion I came up to.