The Illusion of Choice
The Walking Dead is a bona-fide hit and winning accolades everywhere, from the independent game circles to the biggest mainstream media. That it has done this without anything traditionally thought of as “gameplay” makes it all the more amazing. The bread and butter of your typical adventure game is puzzle solving, but the puzzles of The Walking Dead are relatively simplistic and short. Rather than a core mechanic, the game uses puzzles for pacing the plotline and allowing the players to explore the world. The game has instead turned to its conversation system as its core gameplay, using the strength of its narrative to justify that choice. The result is a game with a story that feels like it organically changes depending on how you play.
“The illusion of choice” is a concept that brought up often when talking about games that are nonlinear and with RPGs in particular. Many games have teased the ability to affect dramatic change within the game worlds—choosing who lives or dies, what political powers come to power, or what kind of moral compass guides the main character. Yet games are limited. Game scripters only have time to do so much. Loose ends need to be connected.
Players find that no matter what they do, the biggest moments of the game remain unchanged. When the player assumes that his dramatic choice will have a dramatic effect on the game world, they feel disappointed. At worst, the players feel lied to—as was the case with the Mass Effect 3 backlash last year. The Walking Dead has not created a game with any more freedom of choice than the games before it. In fact, it is in many ways even more restrictive than Mass Effect ever was. Nevertheless, you probably did not feel like that much while you were playing it. There is a key design choice made in The Walking Dead that allows the entire system to feel powerful and organic.
Dealing in Death
In the zombie genre and a long running story like The Walking Dead in particular (Including the TV show and comic series) the primary plot currency is character death. In that regard, when death comes up in The Walking Dead—which it does multiple times per episode—it tries to make the player feel responsible. When death is avoidable, the design and writing works around the possibility of that character no longer being around for the remainder of the story. In most cases, they either leave the plotline entirely or are relegated to a relatively minor role until they die an episode later.
How the game handles the unavoidable deaths, however, reveals the true strengths of the narrative. In an early part of the first episode, the player must choose to save only one of two characters. What the player does not know, however, is that the survivor is the same no matter what choice the player makes. What does change is how the survivor and the survivor’s friends and family view your action. Because you the player stated a particular intent—to not save a person’s life—that person may continue to resent you for the rest of the game.
This is secret of The Walking Dead’s success. When I think about my life, I rarely have a chance to make a dramatic life changing decision. It is even rarer that a choice I make works out exactly as I intend it to. What does happen when I make a choice is that others will notice something about me and it will affect their opinion of me. Can I be counted on? Am I humorless? Do I have a skill that makes me useful? My choices primarily affect how the people around me perceive me. The Walking Dead then is an incredible social simulator in the context of the most extreme circumstances imaginable. By focusing not on your action’s direct results, but the personal conflicts that arise because you made a choice, The Walking Dead is an experience that feels more true to life while not wasting resources on scripted events that won’t be seen by every player—a necessity for the midsized studio.