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The Walking Dead: Let Gameplay Support the Story

TWD is still one of the more powerful and moving games out there. But as much as I love it, the series seems to have left the 'game' aspect behind.

When Telltale's game series The Walking Dead began in 2012, I was very excited about it. Here was a game that, while ostensibly taking place in a world consumed with violence, promised a more cerebral focus on the human costs of survival. Violence may be ever-present, but committing violence is not your purpose, as it tends to be in a great majority of games.

TWD is still one of the more powerful and moving games out there. But as much as I love it, the series seems to have left the 'game' aspect behind. The episodes are, in fact, interactive stories. This isn't a bad thing at all - their success is something to be noted and admired. Still, by the end of season two, it's clear that something is missing, and that something is gameplay.

Sure, occasionally, you need to shoot some zombies, complete some quick-time events or sneak, evade, even climb. But for the most part, there's no doubt that you will complete these actions without difficulty, because the story demands it. Well, this is an interactive story after all, and there is indeed a lot of interacting with the story going on. Isn't that a form of gameplay? Choosing what to say, under time pressure, never quite sure which words will be of comfort and which will undermine the stability of the group? Narrative participation in The Walking Dead is certainly game-like and compelling, but it isn't enough on its own to be considered 'the game'.

For example, the interaction is centered on having conversations. You can get better at having one, but you can't really count on a particular outcome - it changes depending on the environment, current situation, and who's involved. In addition, players who actually play as Clementine, instead of choosing what they themselves would say, are taking an approach that removes some of their agency. It's a fun way to help tell the story, that at the same time highlights the idea that narrative interaction is more participation than outright play.

In addition, when we play a game we have an expectation that our interactions will affect the game state. One of the ways the game tries to make the narrative meaningful is by occasionally notifying the player that a character 'will remember' something they said or did. Only, it's easy to miss when or if a character is calling back to something. The narrative might have been more like a game if it included more feedback about whether a character is thinking about something you said, or if there was a way to check on your 'batting average' - that is to say, some way to check what your responses continually mean to the world (an example being the reputation systems in Bioware games). I ended up feeling that it largely didn't matter what responses I chose, which is the opposite reaction the game is hoping to foster.

In the early episodes of the series, the overall experience was better fleshed out with opportunities to solve puzzles, explore, and speak to other characters in relative depth. By the time you get to season two, you can take items that go in to your inventory but are never used or referenced; inspect objects, which only gets a sullen glance from Clementine; or talk to other characters only to have them tell you to speak to someone else, to not bother them, or otherwise focus you on exactly what you need to do next. When there's really only one thing to do next, you find yourself on rails. It becomes obvious that it's not your hand on the wheel, but Telltale's.

It's clear that Telltale has a specific story they want to tell in these episodes. In fact, they're very good at this. I can't think of another game that has made me feel so genuinely distraught, or made me tear up with either hope or despair, or made me feel like a total jerk. But by not using gameplay to support the story, the plot feels increasingly contrived. Stuff just happens because the plot needs it to happen to create dramatic tension - not because of something the player did or didn't do. Oddly, the final episode, unlike the ones preceding it, is jam-packed with important moral choices that have noticeable impacts on the ending. It's like they saved up all the actually impactful narrative interactions for the last episode. It makes sense, in a way - to fill the whole season with that intensity would have been a mistake, and exhausting for players. At the same time, the fullness of the last episode only exacerbates the emptiness of the rest of the season, which is made even more conspicuous by the absence of gameplay opportunities.

But even an explosive final episode can't help what I see as a major plotting problem, not only for the game, but for the entire Walking Dead franchise. I'm referring to the fact that our protagonists are stuck moving in circles. The only thing to do is keep running into other humans. They'll be either bad guys or good guys, but even if things seem OK for a bit, they will eventually decay into chaos. The world of The Walking Dead is characterized by decay; it makes sense that the characters are dragged in that direction. But if they succumb, the story ends. Even if they succeed - via means of a cure, or simply by surviving - the story ends. You can see how this entrapment lends itself to forced plot contrivances in an attempt to keep things interesting. But you can only become broken, come close to death, or experience false hope so many times before it all becomes tiresome. If Telltale can find a way to break the cycle in season three, that would be something really special.

I'm really glad that Telltale is making this kind of interactive experience. The story, and a number of the characters, really stick with you. However, I really miss the added agency that interacting with the game world provides. By not including gameplay as a way to support the story, the game world starts to feel empty and compromises the power and longevity of the plot. I'd love to see them find the balance in season three.

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