On “The Walking Dead” and interactive storytelling

The conclusion of Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season 2 begs the question for everyone who hasn’t had the excruciating pleasure yet: is it worth playing at all? In a grand finale, Telltale Games wrapped up what was a questionable season at first, leaving us stunned.

walking-dead-s02The Walking Dead remains Telltale’s most powerful game series to date. In a world where zombies are everywhere and good people die for no reason other than bad luck, plot twists are much harder to stomach, and characters tend to stay just long enough for you to let your guard down and care. And that’s what they do so brilliantly: they make you care. But it’s not about the zombies, in spite of the title. Zombies are easy, zombies are complicated, and you know exactly what zombies want. People, though? People are different, and in this season much more than the first, they’re simply pushed over the edge of reason. Even the smallest seed of distrust can grow a horrifyingly poisonous, broken tree. Loyalty or friendship? They’re not getting you anywhere.

A masterpiece of storytelling

In terms of storyworld and concept, Telltale truly are on the forefront. Admittedly, the action that you can have in such a world is limited, but precisely that makes it so powerful – the focus on all the little things. In a world where a torn blanket can call for a celebration because at least it’s a torn blanket, people aren’t picky anymore. They’re surviving – but are they living? Telltale explores this and so much more. It shows people in their most vulnerable states, and that always calls for some heartbreaking trouble. Still, I’ve had a lot of arguments with people about the game’s value, and while I am very much in favour of them, I’ve constantly been attacked with “Oh, so you just want to press a few buttons and nothing changes at all.”

Yes, I do, and why shouldn’t I? True, The Walking Dead (or The Wolf Among Us, for that matter) are certainly low when it comes to agency – when it comes to the gamer’s decisions actually having a massive impact on the story. But do we really need agency, or do we just need to feel agency? I suggest that more often than not, it’s the latter, and to let out the academic in me, Connie Veugen explains that too in Computer Games as a Narrative Medium (2011):

For a story-structured game to work, the balance between gameplay and narrative has to work. This means that the gamer has to be able to make choices, i.e. to exert agency. This is what makes storytelling in games different from other media. Gamers want to have the idea that their actions are meaningful and influence what happens next, even though the overall outcome of the game stays the same.

Locking the academic in me back into her cage, this is essentially how I feel about this, and what I try to explain over and over again when faced with the “Oh, so you don’t really play because pressing some buttons isn’t really playing” attitude. Sure, there are more active things out there, and there are games that give you a lot more actual agency, tons of different endings, and so forth. I recently played Heavy Rain, and while it was an absolutely brilliant experience, not all games can (or should) be like that. In The Walking Dead series, your choices do matter – if not too much on a narrative level, then certainly on a personal level. Don’t we all have that gut-wrenching feeling when the game informs you: “Bonnie will remember this”? No matter what we have just done or said, we feel like we’ve changed this character’s life, and most of the times we immediately want to take it back: guilt is a feeling that sits on your shoulder all the time. Because no matter how much you try, everything goes wrong anyway – and maybe that’s the narrative point of this ‘lack of action.’ It’s this direct interaction between game and gamer on a formal level that makes this game so effective, besides the most obvious things. There’s a reason why Telltale Games call this an interactive narrative, because that is essentially what it is: it’s a narrative that you need to walk through. But just walking through is hard enough. If you’re looking for a lot of action and a lot of freedom, you’re simply looking at the wrong game, but it doesn’t make it a bad game. On the contrary; it’s as excellent as they get.

Mastery of tearjerking

If there are three things that can be said about the characters, it’s this: they’re beautifully simple, they’re amazingly complicated, and they’re – well, probably about to die. Or are they? Even during the first season, you immediately started to distance yourself from the characters because you knew their chances of survival weren’t exactly the greatest – come on, it’s a zombie apocalypse. And yet, you try. The game always manages to trick you into thinking, “Oh, I’m sure not this time” – and that’s the disaster’s cue.

The second season puts you right in the shoes of little Clementine, who isn’t as little anymore as she used to be, and that’s both a good and a bad thing. Good, because everyone loves Clementine, and if you don’t, I’m not sure how you got through Season 1, where your main motivation for pretty much everything was to keep the little girl safe and raise her right, and keep her from harm as much as possible. It was what made you feel guilty primarily, because never mind the others, this girl shouldn’t have to witness the things she’ll inevitably witness. The first season had me in tears so many times – the second season not so much. Maybe that’s because of actually playing Clementine – she doesn’t appear as innocent and fragile anymore when you’re the one controlling her, and also, why is it that a little girl has to be the reasonable one because the grown-ups can’t keep their shit together? – or maybe it’s because all the worst things have already happened. Maybe it’s because you realise that all grown-ups are stupid sometimes, and you’re frustrated because they don’t really listen to you, putting you into that teenage mindset. Maybe it’s because you know what’s waiting for you in one way or another. Still, especially the last few episodes were quite hard to stomach, and when I wasn’t generally shocked or horrified or scared, I was actually – yes, I have to admit – crying again during the last episode. Some decisions are just hard to make, even if they’re the right ones, especially if you’re really just a fragile little girl who lives in a world that can’t be understood anymore. In this season finale, there is indeed ‘No Going Back’.

A light at the end of a tunnel

Although the season finale left me in tears, the story has been set in motion for something ominous to come; Telltale have indeed confirmed that there will be a third season. I was sceptical about having a second season, admittedly, and although my concerns were not justified I am sceptical again about having a third season. Knowing their mastery of just crushing you wherever you are, no matter what you do, though, I’m assuming Telltale will think of something brilliant – it remains to be seen. Will it feature Clementine again? I’m not sure if it should; as a player-character, at least, I’d say she’s had her screentime. On the other hand, would it be as effective if it didn’t have her? And wouldn’t we want to just keep going with her, hoping that one day we’ll just get it right, everything turns back to normal, and she can go have a good childhood? We can dream. And where will they take the story after the ending that they had? We’ll just have to wait and see – and hope our brains don’t get eaten in the meantime.

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