Why Video Games: Telltale's The Walking Dead Season One and Two - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Why Video Games: Telltale’s The Walking Dead Season One and Two

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Earlier video game writing was under the banner Why Video Games, now Pixels In Praxis.  For a FAQ on Pixels In Praxis and explanation of spoiler policy, click here.

The threatI was wondering when we would get to Telltale's take on the media juggernaut that is The Walking Dead.  It was one of the series I wrote about glowingly in our first article, and considering the way adventure games have found a breath of new life in this current generation of Steam and touch pads it seems necessary to examine just what it is that made The Walking Dead so special for me.  But, more importantly, I'm curious about what design and storytelling observations you made during your first run through of the game, as you suggested this after we finished up Octodad.  Not only was it a game series you had not yet touched, but also in a fictional universe you'd not partaken of in other forms of media.

In preparation for this piece, we played both Season 1, the 100 Days side-story that bookends Season 1, and Season 2.  It makes sense for us to speak of these things as a whole, but to do so I'm going to have to deal with my emotional ties to Season 1, the curiosity generated by the chopped up storytelling of 100 Days, and then the immense dislike bordering on hatred of Season 2.  For this first time, we're going to be dealing with something in our thoughtful fashion that I did not enjoy, for reasons I want to share and hopefully elaborate with you over the course of this conversation.

As a long-time adventure gamer weaned in the Sierra mold, the player / avatar framework which drives the two Seasons was incredible.  So as much as I do strongly dislike Season 2, there's still a freshness to adventure gaming which I haven't felt since they died a temporary death at the birth of 3D gaming.  Telltale's Walking Dead games are a stirring example of how far we've come, but still how far we can go, and potential regressions to avoid along the way.  Since this was your first walk among the dead, how did you react?Brief warmthHaving played two seasons worth of The Walking Dead, there are a number of fascinations about this experience I hope will unfold as we go, but there is one thing at the top of my list as an obstacle and an open question for us and the gaming world. It's something I began asking myself from the beginning of my play through, and only stopped asking myself to eliminate the distraction. And the question is "Is The Walking Dead even a game?". I never felt like I had control over the story. So far as I could tell, the puzzles had an extremely limited set of options, and some only had one solution (a matter of finding a particular key to open a door, etc). I felt an unusual lack of agency as a player, and that troubled me and gave me pause for a while. Now I'm going to skip straight to my conclusion on the matter and then we can go back through and examine the why and wherefores as they seem relevant. The conclusion I drew was that yes, it is a game. But not based on any criteria I had previously.

In our series introduction, we made a statement about exploring the idea of games as the approximation of some experience. And by that definition, The Walking Dead knocks it out of the park. There is no doubt about what experience is being had, and though there are some narrative forks in the road, the depth of the apocalyptic experience and the emotional investment that were awakened within me as a player are unprecedented.

I still have this nagging question about how to dig down into this experience analytically. Genre tags like "adventure" and "interactive fiction" all share bits and pieces of similarity to my observations about The Walking Dead, but none of them quite hit the nail on the head.

With adventure games, The Walking Dead shares the generally linear story progression to a singular ending, where the focus is on the cleverness and richness of the journey through the content. With interactive fiction it shares a focus on the value of the writing and the characterization of the world and its inhabitants. I thought for a while this might be an appropriate genre assignment, with voice acting and animation substituted for a text display. But in some interactive fiction titles I've explored, there are various and sundry endings and turns of the story that I didn't feel were present on the steadfast hand of the writers of The Walking Dead. As both a player and a developer, I felt that no matter what choices I made, the experience was steering me with unsettling inevitability toward one conclusion.

With that, however, I'd like to champion the fact that inevitability and desperation are integral to the story and emotional tone, so it works. REALLY well. As a player, no matter how strange it seemed as a game, it felt right for the story. As a developer, I just kept wondering about that sense of agency, which in many games is crucial. This is only game I've ever played where your own emotional fortitude is the primary gate of access to the next segment of content.Always miserableCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayThat is a damn fascinating dilemma, and I wonder how much of your issue with the "locked in" style has to do with our different views on adventure games.  Maybe it's from me coming from more of a cinematic framework, but I never really felt like I was playing adventure games in the same sense I play Super Mario Bros. or Civilization.  Adventure games always felt like you were trying to fit the right key into the right lock to proceed to the next cut scene or development in the story line.  Since adventure games got their start as primarily text-based experiences of the ZORK variety, they had to be evocative in text to get the players attention and as they grew along with graphics they had to become similarly evocative in image.

This is actually why I was never able to cotton to LucasArts-styled adventure games the same way I did Sierra.  LucasArts felt more like a playground with a specific set of toys with questionable mechanics whose functions you had to figure out intuitively.  Sierra was more locked-in and had a bit more clarity on what goes where, but was much more punishing in forcing the player into a no-win scenario if they didn't use the toys exactly how they intended (the brutal meat versus pie dilemma of King's Quest V comes to mind).

The Walking Dead is bringing both to their natural conclusion.  The player drives the adventure portions for a bit of item collection but there's never much of a doubt as to what you have to do while at the same time not deliberately spelling it out.  Dialogue is much more crucial to the experience, much like with many LucasArts games, and your interactions are as much an important part of the experience as making sure the keys go into the right spot.  But where The Walking Dead's structure becomes brilliant is in the way it makes the players emotions central to the game instead of getting the right item.

I tell you, I was gobsmacked when I finished the first chapter of Season 1 and got the list of actions I could have taken.  The Walking Dead is one of the first games where it is morally judging you right from the outset.  No one comes out and says, "You chose poorly," but it invites the comparison within the structure by even making those statistics known to the player at all.  So from that point on, all of your interactions with the game become part of this implicit judgment of your actions, even if it's in a numerical sense.  We're denied the traditional "victory" of many video games and instead our metric of success is how we feel about what we did.  This is why the nuanced storytelling of Season 1 was one of the best video gaming experiences of my life, and the out-and-out brutality of the second was one of the most banal.

CSTVIcon_SethGordenSo: victory condition(s). I'm going to have to agree here that players are denied a formal victory condition. This is something else that rides against the grain of conventional game development. I'm pretty sure, without thinking about it, if you asked a player of The Walking Dead about their progress through the content, those who have completed a season would more readily say they had "finished Season 1", for instance, than "beat Season 1". There's nothing to beat. No way of turning this apocalypse into not-an-apocalypse. The mass of risen corpses prevents us from being able to identify any particular villain against whom we are to set ourselves. There are plenty of adversarial characters, but even the Stranger and Carver who participate in the climactic moments of each season are not the kind of villains that can perpetuate a whole story. So they are either short-lived or presented in other ways. Obstinate persons in the player's traveling group, neighbors with highly questionable means of surviving, or armed groups of nameless bandits that tie together segments of a chapter with the fear of impending violence.

The other interesting thing about conditions of success being tied to the players own emotions, is that in Season 1- at no point did I feel like I was Lee. I don't think the game is meant to generate that sense of identification-as-avatar. I identified in a general way and I sympathized, but it was definitely in the way one does with compelling books, television programs or cinema productions. This story was about Lee, the stuff that happens to Lee, and his choices. All those things, and it was about how unforgiving is the world around him. And for some reason, The Walking Dead doesn't require that I feel myself-as-Lee to get invested. I suppose this might also be true of Guybrush Threepwood as the hero of the Monkey Island franchise. I know I'm not as foolish or funny as Guybrush, but the point might be more that I'm constantly aware of how distant I feel from the world that is being presented in The Walking Dead. That sense of distance is exaggerated in Season 2. I've some guesses about why I feel that way, but I'd like to give you first crack at it. Did you all feel a sense of distance in either Season and if so- how do you figure that came about?StatsCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayThat's something we'll wrestle with when we get out into different types of video games.  We're guiding Lee, much like the way we were guiding Octodad, but not in the same way we could "be" the stranger on Myst Island.  To answer your question about where Season 1 excelled, and where Season 2 failed, is to what purpose guiding the character of Lee then Clementine served.

Before we proceed, I have to make it clear that I'm an absolute sucker for "found family" narratives - a kind of story where the characters have become distanced or completely severed from their existing family structure and put into a position where they can form a new one.  Season 1, with Lee and Clementine's relationship, fits this first in the structure of the way Telltale built the game.  Almost all the decisions you make as Lee are how the player frames his role in the new "family", because as her hero Clementine has bound herself to you in this way even if you, the player, might not choose it.

So that implicit moral judgment which was once just a number becomes a demonstrable reality in Season 1, and all of your choices lead up to what lessons Clementine does or doesn't take into Season 2.  What Season 1 does is force you to become a parent, whether you like it or not, and the added moral weight Clementine brings to the game becomes further expounded in the brilliant final chapter.  The Stranger who haunts Lee and kidnaps Clementine is a direct result of the players actions - sure, the broad strokes of encountering him will be the same no matter the play through - but he questions you, as Lee, and the moral choices you make throughout the game.

What made Season 2 dissatisfy in this regard was it took place in a more typical post-apocalyptic world and made just about everyone a raving lunatic.  Is this "realistic"?  You could make that argument, but with the family dynamic gone all you're doing is forcing a child into adult scenarios where she is tortured and nearly murdered.  There's no pause for reflection like the end of Season 1, no point where the game asks the player to take stock of what they've done, you just get to the end, get the ending you "deserve" and go along your way.

CSTVIcon_SethGordenSeason 2 is definitely brutal. I was experimenting with ideas the whole way through Season 2, trying to find to a perspective from which I could grapple with the content being presented. The closest I could come to one that make things 'click' in some small way is that it was attempting to make you feel like a child in this horrible world, among adults who have their own goals are likely to dismiss and underestimate the value of a young person. From that perspective, I started to act out like a child and say confident-feeling things against the in "I told you so" vein of things.

Moreover, I was quick to cast doubt on those whose actions differed from any agreed plan among the group, and I had a zero-tolerance policy for lying and covering for people. The best I ever felt about Clementine was after the first ordeal with the group, that of being locked in a shed, breaking out, taking care of her own immediate crisis, and then taking on a walker by herself. Capped off by a rather satisfying stick-it-to-the-man conversation when the adults finally show up and stand there dumbfounded about the thing. But that was the beginning, and it mostly was downhill from here on the spectrum of satisfying choices. The one perspective I had found to guide me through this experience with Clementine failed me because no one else in the game ever cared.

Lots of characters we setup to care, but the developers decided on brutality all the way through this one. At no point did the adults reflect or give us the sense that there was anything lasting.

In Season 1, Lee provided us with the through-line, the points of reflection, and the opportunity to make the most of his guardianship over Clementine. The adults in Season 2 would sooner burn down the world than not have their way, and in the end the choice Clementine faced was not about what little shred of family she might consider more worthy. For me, it was about which betrayal was least unforgivable. And those are carefully chosen words. I felt betrayed by Every. Single. Character. In season two. When I reached the end, I hated the world and all adults in it. If that was the goal, than I can call it a success. I felt all those emotions sincerely. But it's not a very well-rounded experience, and that lack of opportunity to look back and weigh ones choices turned into estrangement from the narrative, even as I was gripped by the intensity of it. I never second-guessed my decisions (except maybe the very last one, which is still arbitrary between two evils for me), and there was no replay value for me because I never paused to wonder what would have happened had I made a difference choice.SurgeryCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayIt's really telling that one of the last statistics you get going into the final chapter of Season 1 is who survives to go into the conclusion with you, and the end of Season 2 is - as you say - who you feel betrayed you less.  The other issue is the scenario presented throughout Season 2 is one common in video games, that being you are a character alone against a harsh world.  This makes some of the decisions troubling, especially when we start considering the mechanics of the two Walking Dead Seasons.

For example, Chapter 2 of Season 1 ends with the event which begins the Stranger's quest to destroy Lee.  You raid a station wagon which is momentarily unguarded, and the mechanics challenge you to collect as much as you can in a short amount of time.  There are real stakes, because after the horror of the cannibal farm you, the player, know that the opportunities to feed Lee and Clementine properly are going to be far apart.  So there are built in stakes to the game play, even if we're not aware (at the time) that this ends up mattering little in the long run.

A similar moment occurs at the beginning of Season 2 after Clementine takes out the zombie and has to stitch herself up.  Aside from the pain she's obviously in, the stakes are less dire.  Yes, she needs to get stitched up, but the mechanics guide you through every stitch in the arm and it just becomes a boring slog to get Clementine put back together.  You can't fail this moment and, to be fair, you can't really fail the station wagon raid in Season 1.  But with the leisurely pace of the self-surgery, we're invited to pay attention solely to Clementine's suffering and "suffer" along with her.  She doesn't grow as a character from this, and since she wasn't going to turn anyway the stragglers would have let her into the group regardless of if she was wounded in this way or not.

To make it simpler, there are consequences to your actions in Season 1, which is a satisfying result of any game.  The actions of Season 2 are a result of the consequences of others, and that just makes you pawn getting jerked around.  Again, this could be a valid point of storytelling, except you go from one disaster to the next with no insight either as a child (as you tried to do) or as a player.

CSTVIcon_SethGordenThis gets to my summary thought about Season 2, which is that Clementine is a supporting character and it's just not that interesting to play that sort of role, even if I LOVE the character (and I do). We are invited by Season 1 to assume that we will be guided through interesting choices and that in some way we will be given the illusion of control over some part of the experience. In Season 1, as you pointed out... this was shown through changes in the characters. Sometimes you can't control whether a character is going to get injured or die. But you can control the timing or manner of that end. And this is the part gives us opportunity to reflect, because this game... this game is not about what happens, it is about HOW it happens and whether you'll accept the consequences.

If most of the content are inevitable horrors, the manner of your dealing with it (emotionally) is paramount. Most of the time I spent with Lee... I was trying to keep him cool. The in-game characters were upset that I was riding the fence on certain issues, but it was a neat opportunity to play a cool-headed guy in the midst of chaos. I was OK with disagreement, so long as there was progress for the group's prospects at survival. That's what gave it an edge, the implication that progress was being made, even if there was only ever one ending to be found.

You mention a bit about your realization of the "can't fail/doesn't matter" situation with the activities, which came to a head and continued in their irrelevance in Season 2's injury-sewing scene. As it happened, the pointlessness of the activities for me set in during the Pharmacy sequences in Season 1. As soon as there was a key that couldn't be found, I knew it was only through revealing the story that it would turn up. The only interesting ones after that were optional ones. For instance, I enjoyed the idea of gathering batteries for Carly because I felt like I was doing something optional and helpful. Gave me a bit of that sense-of-agency back.

The downfall of Season 2, therefore, is not about the pointlessness of the activity, but that last bit you mention... about there being no implied consequence or way of altering "how" the suffering occurs. It's not just that Clementine is in a shed sewing up her arm. It's that she's doing it alone. Therefore no dialog. We don't get to see her growing in self-confidence or any other aspect because no one is there to question her actions.

Nobody cares what she does the rest of the game either, unless she's taking sides in a discussion. Which again sets her firmly in a supporting role. There is nothing of consequence that definitively happens because of her presence there. Or rather, when the game implies that you can shape a relationship, it betrays that promise rather shortly when the adults get angry and an instant ParanoiaFest sets in. More dire than the anger at adults or a sense of pointlessness about the activities or the harshness of the world of The Walking Dead is that feeling of being inconsequential. It's possible some part of that may have been intended by the creators, but if so... I would criticize it as an uninteresting premise- or at least a really tough position to be in as a designer.Please rememberCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayWhich is where I want to take a step back, and acknowledge that the deep disappointment I feel in regard to Season 2 is precisely because of how invested I got in the emotional growth of Lee and Clementine in Season 1.  There's some wonderful overt symbolism of Lee being placed as the head of this new family when you have to force him to destroy his now-zombie brother to free the others.  It's simple, but evocative images in a scenario you control with real consequences are the rule in Season 1 instead of the exception.  This makes the sudden flashes of violence, like the deafening gunshot which alters the course of the family in Chapter 3, really make the player stop and consider their actions.  If you did something different with the father in Chapter 2, could this have been avoided?

But, not content to sit on those thoughts, we go on to yet another amazing conversation between Lee and Clementine where he helps her try to make sense of the world.  Season 1 is something of a miracle in the way the writers managed to make every single one of these conversations feel vital and fresh.  It owes something to the diversity of the cast, and the inherent racism of some of the characters in Season 1 give a twist to Lee's actions and again question whether the player is directing Lee the "right" way or a "vengeful" way.  Top it off with what is possibly the best video game voice-over work ever recorded, and it was easy for me to get involved.

This is also why the episodic structure worked so wonderfully.  Since there is a natural break in the game's flow, I was able to ponder my actions over the course of the day before playing the next chapter the following night.  So with each action, loaded with consequences I helped guide into being, I got heavily invested in Lee and Clementine.  I'm fighting tears a bit now just thinking about the ending, because it ultimately comes down to asking the player, "Do you think you'd be a good parent?"  There's no easy way to answer that, especially through a video game, but the lingering uncertainty of Clementine in that field while we wonder if she will wave to the figures in the distance or not speaks to those fears.  It's in this uncertainty that Season 1 became one of my top 5 gaming experiences of all time and, in a way, the disappointment I felt in Season 2 wouldn't be possible if the first didn't occupy such an important place in my heart.

CSTVIcon_SethGordenWell said. I've got lot more angles to explore on this. I think it's fair to offer up the juxtaposition that Season 1 was a story that asked questions and Season 2 was a story that tended toward making statements. One of these experiences tended to be hold more emotional variety and intrigue than the other. As a developer, I think it's worth exploring the concept of a question-asking narrative among game writers. There may be a correlation between examination of the player's humanity through these question and sense of satisfaction that makes agency-limited games possible and even wonderful.

As a brief aside, I'd like to offer up a few curiosities that occurred to me during Season 2. And to be sure, this is outside the realm of criticism. But there were a few might-have-beens I found myself pondering about Clementine. What if her experiences in Season 1 had distinguished her as a helpful, capable survivor in Season 2? What if her initially ignored input during group discussion eventually confirmed her as a good decision maker? What if she became a lucky charm among adults that vied for her allegiance or fought over her? Even in a harsh world, that might have given resonance the question of parenting skills that was left hanging at the end of Season 1. And as a parent, these are real questions that can keep one up a night. That questions of "Did I do enough? Did I do my best? Will my influence help my kids do well in the adventures ahead of them?".

I found myself smiling at any mention of Lee during the trying circumstances of Season 2. It would have been interesting to deal with Season 1's questions in some way, and even invite the possibility of Clementine carrying on Lee's example (cool-headedness or vengeance), and see whether it made any difference. We may never know, but I think a little of these what-ifs are worthy discussion in the realm of narrative design for games. Not as a want list (for all fan-service is a rabbit hole. 'Nuff said). But gamers, whether they write articles about it or not, are all paying attention to details and nuances. And given the interactivity of the medium (be it open world or linear narrative, or anything else) there's a kind of involvement that can determine whether or not a player feels welcome to participate in the next adventure.

To be sure, Telltale Games is setting the bar high when comes to human drama and emotional investment - a fact that speaks to their experience with this style of content delivery. (Also, yeah.. the voice acting... props to that whole group of people, in front and behind the microphones). The accomplishment of Season 1 is outstanding. And Season 2 is not without merit. I've said this before, a game doesn't have to be a perfect execution of an idea to be valuable. I love the kind of experimentation with young character stories that is going on. And I think what's happening in the development Season 2 is that they're continuing to hunt out new ground for games, and I love seeing that happen, even if there's some wild swinging for the fences involves and some unpredictable results. Despite the narrative critique, the whole experience of The Walking Dead is one I'll be rolling over in my mind for a while, both as player and developer. I suspect there's meat on those bones I have yet to discover.

What we're gaming this week:

CSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayAs a long-time RPG player, I sometimes get the urge to find a game I can just zone out and grind through levels while watching a movie or listen to podcasts.  So I've been paying attention to some of the neglected games of my collection and am simultaneously playing through Arc the Lad 2 and Breath of Fire 4.  The former has been excellent so far, and isn't the deepest map-based tactical RPG but serves my needs nicely.  I'm still on the fence on Breath of Fire 4, they've always been relatively generic fantasy RPGs and only really struck gold creatively on their most maligned installment (the excellent Dragon Quarter).  The animation is excellent, but the combat and plot are developing so slowly.  When I need a break from those, I've been heading back into the world of Terraria with the 1.3 installment and am loving the quality of life and difficulty changes so far.

CSTVIcon_SethGordenGaming this week: QuakeLive. So QuakeCon happened. A sense of excitement was in the air (and also rockets). Lots of talk about multiplayer in the new DOOM. But for those who must wait for the official release... QuakeLive is still carrying the torch for fast paced, colorful, rocket arena action. Some of the talk about DOOM is bringing back the old-school, but you might be fascinated to find that it hasn't disappeared. Indeed, there are number of thriving niches for this kind of play, including the numerous ports for the original DOOM, such as skulltag, that offers many of the same game modes offered in QuakeLive and (hopefully) in the new DOOM as well. Being a niche, QuakeLive is full of well-practiced players of extreme skill and it's tough going. I'm not sure how approachable this nice is for new players, but I've always had a soft spot for id games, having played a significant part in my early gaming years. Slowly, I've been building up my skills and watching how the veterans work their way around the game. As it turns out, it's somewhat a knowledge game and somewhat a muscle memory game. Being able to predict player movements is key in every game mode. And one of the ways to accomplish this is being intimately familiar with the level layouts and how players tend to move around them. With hundreds of maps available, this can take a while. Most servers have a short list of favorites that see regular play. But despite the mountain of knowledge, there are number of distinctly sweet moments of accomplishment in moving from beginner to adept. First time fragging with the railgun during a jump. First time blind-fragging somebody coming around a corner. First time holding top spot for individual score in a game. Or finally getting the hang of the rocket jump (still working on that myself). Loads of good competitive feels to be had. Thanks to the QuakeLive community for showing me a good time! [My QL handle is Rhoq if you care to frag me later.]

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