I’ve recently been reading through Ralph Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Game Design (which is definitely worth buying/reading) and one of the concepts he talks about made me think about Telltale’s The Walking Dead. The Walking Dead was one of the most critically acclaimed games of 2012 and managed to pack a lot of thoughts about morals, games, storytelling, and many other topics. The most intriguing part about The Walking Dead was the way it went beyond trying to teach the player to learn a new skill and instead encouraged the player to think beyond a skill within the game and into what they personally would do.
This is where I get back to A Theory of Fun which is now slightly dated, written before many influential and groundbreaking games such as Bioshock, Braid, and before important talks such as Jesse Schell’s ‘Design Outside the Box.’ In 2005, when the book was written, the potential was seen by Koster, but he did not see it acted upon within the industry. The density of thought provoking and intellectually designed games has increased greatly in the 7 years between the book being published and where we are today, but many of the points he brings up stand true.
Koster’s basic argument is that games serve to teach the player something (usually within games it is learning a memory or how to aim and shoot at something) and the “skin” of the game is what makes up the aesthetics. This “skin” entices us to play and it is a mixture of this “skin” and learning that engages the player and makes a game “fun.” He goes on to state that good game design relies upon several factors (if you want to learn more read his book) one factor being that there should not be any single choice within a game that provides the player an indisputable easy way to succeed. In my opinion, this is where The Walking Dead succeeds the most.
I’m going to go ahead and say THERE WILL BE SPOILERS AHEAD. On that note, the Walking Dead succeeds through its minimizing of any optimal strategies. The mechanics of the game are almost non-existent and I would argue that it is one of the most accessible games due to this, alongside Dear Esther. Rather than, as Koster argues, teaching the player some sort of gameplay strategy, it teaches the player to make decisions based upon what they think is best. There is no optimal way to progress through the game in the sense of “winning” because of the way the ultimate goal of the game is left to be extremely ambiguous. The only static goal in the game is to protect Clementine, a little girl you find in the first episode and becomes the moral pillar of the main character, Lee. However, if you progress through the story only choosing what is best for Clementine, Lee sacrifices many relationships with the people they seek refuge with. So what is the correct strategy in this kind of situation? Should the player sacrifice his relationship with his colleagues, a relationship that is necessary for both the player and Clementine’s survival; or should the player make choices that allow for a little girl to think (s)he is a good person.
Regardless of what choice the player makes, they ultimately succeed in progressing the story, but the memory of the what the player did stays in the minds of other characters in the game. More importantly, the way the characters reacted to the player’s discussion remain in the player’s memory too. The game even continues to remind the player of when another character will remember what is chosen to be said. There is a moment in the fifth and final episode of the game where the player has the choice to cut of the player’s/Lee’s arm in order to potentially stop the spreading of the zombie virus to the rest of your body. There is no right answer to this, because no matter what Lee dies and no matter what the animation and use of the lower right arm of the player is disabled. I personally chose to keep my arm, a decision that very few people made, because of what Clementine would think about me not having an arm anymore. The Walking Dead provides a relatively linear experience in terms of story and mechanics, but creates an incredibly large number of ways for the game to be viewed and experienced based upon the thoughts and beliefs of the player. At a basic level, The Walking Dead isn’t a game about winning or losing, it is a game about learning what we would do when placed in the situation that Lee is placed in.
In the last couple pages of Ralph Koster’s A Theory of Fun, he states that in order to reach the full potential of the medium of video games, we are going to have to push boundaries just like every other medium. Telltale’s The Walking Dead pushes boundaries of video games, showing its capabilities as a medium that can provide a way to teach players how to do more than to just shoot a moving target. The Walking Dead dares to teach its player to consider the mental and physical effects of choice, while keeping any bias towards those decisions within the player. The death of Lee at the end of the fifth episode marks the conclusion of the first season of the game. This deeply moving scene between Clementine and Lee reveals the ultimate purpose of the game: though the outcome of the game is determined, the way that the player interacts with the system is incredibly meaningful beyond the game. The strategy of The Walking Dead is not to win, but to instead emerge a better person due to the circumstances the player has been put through.
(this was originally published on my tumblr http://gohmawakens.tumblr.com/ in January)