I guess I'm a bit late to the whole finishing The Walking Dead thing. I bought the game in a Christmas Steam sale, and spent the next three months very, very slowly working my way through the roughly 9-hour first season.
That's quite rare for me; if a game grips me, then it tends to monopolise my free time. I've blasted through far longer games in a couple of weeks.
It's not that The Walking Dead isn't gripping. It's just that I found it quite tough to play. I'd play for an hour and come away feeling kind of drained, and then I'd have to mentally psyche myself up for the next session. It was kind of exhausting.
The Walking Dead would stay on the shelf (if you choose to consider my Steam library a shelf) not because I didn't enjoy it as much as I did other games, but because I got a different sort of enjoyment out of it, a much more challenging sort of enjoyment.
Not challenging in the mechanical sense; challenging in an emotional sense. Most games give a lot of emotional gratification for very little emotional input; you do the gameplay thing, and you come away either feeling elated that you beat a certain section/player/boss, or frustrated by the game's challenge and determined to try again until you beat it, and receive that delayed gratification.
In short, play a game successfully and you tend to come away feeling happy with yourself and pleased with your efforts. But The Walking Dead isn't like that. There's no way to play itsuccessfully; you just play it, and you experience stuff, and quite often the stuff you experience isn't very nice. I didn't often leave a play session feeling happy or pleased with myself.
A lot of games claim to be about 'choices', but they rarely actually are; these games are usually about choosing between binary 'good' and 'evil' states and little else. And even then, these moral branches tend to boil down to little more than an 'act like a normal human being' option and an 'act like a psychopath' option.
The 'good' player might save a group of stranded villagers; the 'evil' player might set them on fire. Perhaps there's an extra gold reward for burning peasants, I don't know, but the point I'm making is that those are not choices that a rational human being would even think about making.
So you can either play such a game seriously, which means you'll mostly be picking the 'good' options, or you can deliberately fuck with it and pick the 'evil' option for shits and giggles. Mass Effect's paragon/renegade system springs to mind (especially in the first two games); anyone seriously inhabiting the role of Commander Shepard is going to end up playing a paragon or at least neutral character, because renegade Shepard is a complete asshole who makes no sense in the game's fiction.
You can pretty much default to the blue option every time and come away happy that you've 'won' the game; your party members all love you, the game's fictional governing bodies all love you, and you feel like the game is giving you a hearty congratulation for just acting like an actual person.
The Walking Dead isn't like that. There aren't very many 'good' options. You can't default to 'nice guy' mode and come out of the game feeling satisfied that the game's fiction approves of you. You can act like a complete asshole, and I doubt the course of the game changes very much. I imagine it's a lot less happy a place to spend time, though, and it's not like it isn't fairly harrowing when you're trying to be nice.
Because The Walking Dead is constantly asking you to choose between people. Sometimes very literally, with some blunt 'choose who lives and who dies' decisions, but usually more subtly. You'll have to choose sides in arguments that threaten to boil over into violence. You'll have to choose which of your crew get the last of your meagre rations, and who goes hungry.
There's no way to 'win.' There's no way to feed everyone; no matter what you choose, some of them are going to hate you for it. And you can't just sit out the arguments - I tried, and you usually end up pissing off everybody.
I found many of these situations quite stressful. It's not because any of the characters are profoundly deep, though they are all very well realised. They're all excellently cast and in their own ways sympathetic - and they all behave like people. No one is an irredeemable asshole, and neither is any of them a morally flawless paragon.
There aren't very many obvious choices when they disagree with one another; you just have to go with what you feel is right, whether that's personally or in the context of the game, and that usually means someone is either going to be pissed off with you, or dead.
I found it quite difficult to play through some of these sections. Not fingernail-biting-hysterics sort of difficult, but I'd just find myself wishing I had more options than the game provided me. And the fact that it didn't provide me with these options, with an easy out, is why the game has such a powerful effect.
I'd find myself weighing up my options, trying to rationalise based on what I'd do in real life…and regularly finding that I couldn't. In real life I hate conflict. I'd do just about anything to avoid being put in the kind of situations The Walking Dead regularly put me in, and if that sort of conflict was actually forced on me then I don't doubt my arse would be firmly planted on the fence.
But the game's fiction doesn't allow for fence-sitting. It also doesn't allow you time to make peace with the difficult decisions it forces on you - most of the toughest decisions have to be made under a strict time limit or be taken out of your hands, something it's almost always best to avoid.
So it's a difficult game. Not 'whoops you died, now try again and do a better job' difficult; emotionally difficult. You can't win. And having finally played to the end, without spoiling anything, you definitely can't win. It's a rare game that will leave the majority of players feeling so resolutely miserable as The Walking Dead must do.
It's worth pointing out that the game isn't entirely depressing; it's pretty bleak throughout, but there are happy moments too, and funny moments - and you begin to really appreciate the little sparks of cheer when they're set against a backdrop of such oppressive dread.
Sitting down with the ending behind me, I realise we don't have very many, if any, difficultgames, in the way we have difficult books or difficult films. Most games follow the Hollywood blockbuster model of emotional highs and lows - there will be challenges for their characters along the way, some pretty horrible things might happen to them, but in the end, through perseverance on behalf of both protagonist and player, they win.
The world is saved. The bad guy is defeated. Civil liberties are upheld. And the player walks away with a feeling of satisfaction, they're pleased with themselves, because they won, they beat the thing. There may even be fist-pumps.
And isn't that the point of games? As an entertainment medium, isn't their purpose to leave us feeling good about ourselves? Shouldn't we come away entertained? Happy? Is there really a place for difficult games, games that challenge us psychologically, emotionally, and leave us actually feeling worse than when we picked up the controller?
The success of The Walking Dead, both critically and commercially, would suggest that there is a place for such games. And this a great thing for the medium, because it broadens the scope of the different experiences games can deliver, offering deeper alternatives to the popcorn thrills of your usual AAA blockbusters.
In the same way that I couldn't enjoy cinema if all I ever watched were Michael Haneke movies, I'm not suggesting all games need to run players through a complex emotional gamut. There's plenty of room for the popcorn games, the kind you beat, the kind you fist-pump the air to.
But there isn't only room for those types of games. And while it may have been a sometimes harrowing experience making it through the first season, I'll definitely be picking up the second season of The Walking Dead when it arrives. And it'll probably be another three months after that before I can bring myself to finish it.