The Walking Dead is kind of a big deal for the game industry. It is the culmination of years of work by Telltale Games to finally nail episodic content with a hit game and create a brand new twist on the adventure genre. Numerous blogs, magazines, award shows and individuals consider this game to be their Game of the Year for 2012.
But I hate it.
Let me stop here and say that I completely respect this game and Telltale. There is no doubt this is a pivotal game for the industry. I understand why people love it, and I think they should love it. However, this game is just not for me.
I play games for several reasons:
Don't get me wrong, the story is great, the scenes and timing are fantastic, the art and animations are well done. Academically, I understand that this is a good game. The problem I have is with the core mechanic of making dialog choices and action choices. So lets take a look at each one of these.
I play games to feel good about myself.
Some people will argue that this game is not about winning and it is structured so the player cannot feel good about himself or herself. There is no win condition here; there is just the end (or so I am told, I haven't finished it). The player cannot save everyone. The whole point is making difficult decisions that the player is personally invested in to give the feeling of true despair after the apocalypse. I can deal with that, I made tough decisions in other games--decisions I felt were lose-lose--but in those cases the decisions came with some good feedback.
I play games to feel smart.
Feeling smart is about making the correct strategic choice based on the information available. One issue I have had in The Walking Dead is that I do not have all the information I want. Some dialog choices are ambiguous as to how they will be delivered, so I have found myself frustrated when I make a choice that I assume will do one thing, but then my character says it in a way I totally did not expect. I always want to blame the game for this, because I feel betrayed about the information I was given. Other games, like the Mass Effect franchise, get around this by coloring responses to make it clear the tone and outcome. I understand why Telltale chose not to do this, but some hints could have improved this for me.
Knowing that you made a correct choice is about feedback, having the game tell you that you did something "right". Or at the very least telling you what you just did. In The Walking Dead, the feedback you get for the decisions you make is confusing and muddy. The only feedback the player gets is "Clementine will remember that." This is not good feedback. What will she remember? I can't easily tell how exactly she just took my last comment. I have no way to know the outcome of the decision I just made. This feedback could easily be more clear without giving away the story, and it would have made it easier for me to feel satisfied with the choices I made.
I play games to develop mastery of a skill, mechanic or world.
I cannot get better at this game. Over the course of my experience playing I have yet to feel like my understanding of the world, my character, or the other characters has improved. I struggle to find patterns I can follow, or strategies that seem to consistently work. The game does a great job of pushing me into new situations, but each time I feel woefully unprepared. I think this could have been fixed by giving me more feedback about my progress along the way. Let me know how I am doing on the axis of friendly vs. solitary or merciful vs. cruel or whatever scales the game is using to determine how my character is being treated. (There is some of this at the end of episodes, but that did not help me while playing)
Sadly, I will not finish this game.
Dredging up a common game design idea: Flow requires that the subject have goal, understand how to reach that goal and is given constant feedback on the progress towards that goal. This game did not provide these for me. I felt frustrated often with the choices I made, like buyer's remorse after each major decision. I do not blame the game, or Telltale.
The goal I wanted for this game was to make a certain type of character and watch a certain story play out. The character I wanted to make was honest, helpful, and unselfish, the proverbial "good guy". The story I wanted to craft involved me helping others whenever possible and sacrificing myself to reach that end. However, I had no way of knowing if the character I was building and the story I was watching were the ones I was trying to achieve. There was no way for me to know if I was making my character as virtuous as he could be, or being as chivalrous as possible towards Clementine. This made me feel like I was wasting my time, which is deadly to any game, and it is the reason why I stopped playing.
I do not think it is impossible to get a player like me to love a game like The Walking Dead, but I think there needs to be more care around establishing goals and giving clear feedback to meet my needs as a player.
Does anyone else feel this way?