SPOILERS AHEAD FOR TELLTALE’S THE WALKING DEAD, CONSIDER YOURSELF WARNED
A lot is said about the defining moment where video games became a medium deemed worthy of being considered art. The topic has been discussed since all the way back in the late 1980s, as first- and second-generation games were beginning to find themselves displayed in museums, a seeming recognition of games as works worth preserving as pieces with artistic merit. Of course, the argument supporting games as art wasn’t helped by the fact that video games, during their early years, were heavily marketed towards children, considered toys before anything else. This meant the medium had to first overcome the unfortunate hurdle of violent works being a controversy before the stigma surrounding games would lift to include adults as well as children in the overall demographic of video game enthusiasts. Finally, in 2011, the United States Supreme Court ruled that video games were to be protected by the 1st Amendment by considering the medium a form of artistic expression. The reason they gave was that while games feature many other forms of artistic expression – such as music, writing or art – they still manage to offer an experience that is distinct to its medium alone, capable of eliciting a particular feeling unlike any other work of art.
Of course, there were many who championed games as art well before this law was set in stone, but this event in 2011 finally legitimised the medium, and all of a sudden games media became obsessed with proving that video games were capable of exceptional things. The Last Of Us was the first time I really saw this occur with a very mainstream release, the game infamously referred to as “the Citizen Kane of games” by one particularly enthusiastic reviewer. It’s easy to point and laugh at the comparison, noting how it seems to exude insecurity stemming from the writer’s need to prove games are just as worthy of artistic analysis as films. While one could argue a direct comparison like that is somewhat reductive to the unique impact of games as a medium, the more pressing concern amongst gamers appeared to be games moving toward this philosophy as well. Many games during the seventh generation of consoles were obsessed with being ‘cinematic’, with the most popular of this kind, Uncharted 3, priding itself on its bombastic, exciting (and heavily scripted) set pieces. The Last Of Us does this to a lesser extent but admittedly many of that game’s defining moments are relegated to cutscenes, which many passionate fans of the medium took issue with. The phrase “playable movie” was, and in some cases still is, thrown around a lot, but no other game exemplified this idea more than Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead.
Telltale weren’t a particularly significant voice in the games industry pre-2012, having released a number of semi-successful movie tie-in games like Wallace and Gromit and Back to the Future. Their take on The Walking Dead, however, was not intended to tie in with the recent premiere of the highly successful TV show of the same name, but rather simply an attempt to utilise the material found in the comic book series. The commercial success of the game that would follow was undoubtedly related to the concurrent popularity of the show, but what set Telltale’s The Walking Dead apart from other narrative experiences in the games industry was its distinct approach to game design and writing. This game, unlike any before it in the mainstream eye, had an explicit focus on player choice. Of course, games are defined by the element of choice they provide, the best games offering a number of gameplay options to choose from, allowing the player to express themselves in any way they preferred. The Walking Dead took a significantly different approach to the concept of choice in games by adopting the mechanics of choose-your-own-adventure books. Your choices wouldn’t affect whether or not you reach the next area or suffer a game over screen. Rather, your decisions would impact the trajectory of the narrative. Characters would live and die based on your judgements, and your reputation amongst your struggling group of survivors would be affected by this as well.
The only games that would dabble in such mechanics before TWD were RPGs, and your relationships with other characters would normally be tied to some kind of impact on the gameplay. Choosing to perform a fetch quest would result in some kind of reward that would make fighting people easier somehow. This is a different kind of choice to a Doom or Resident Evil, but it all still revolved around making the experience of overcoming the game’s roadblocks as smooth as possible. The Walking Dead, on the other hand, has no real combat system outside of quick-time events and action-packed mouse pointing. The game constantly offers you small, seemingly insignificant opportunities to do good by your companions. Perhaps you’ll find an energy bar lying on the ground, and you have the choice to hold onto it or give it to someone, perhaps lifting their spirits. It’s possible you’re simply doing these nice things to make the arbitrary reputation value with Character X go up by 1 in order to reap potential future rewards, and I could understand that approach since this decision only occurs in the first of the game’s five episodes.
However, my favourite example of this type of decision-making came near the beginning of the second episode (titled Starved for Help), wherein you are tasked with allocating four pieces of food between ten incredibly hungry people. The primary conflict for the group during this episode is the food shortage, and where they’re going to find their next meal. Rations are running low and this is causing tension between the camp’s most assertive occupants, Lily and Kenny, who each have different ideas of how best to lead everyone. Your food-giving dilemma comes right after a significant fight between the two, clearly showing that the choices you make right now will impact your relationships with them both. You could choose to game-ify this moment by appealing to the better interests of the person with whom you wish to side – feed Larry to appease Lily, or feed the kids to please Kenny. However, despite everything the game was suggesting as the correct path to tread, I decided to give a piece of food to Ben, the teenager who we’d just rushed into the camp after freeing his teacher from a bear trap by leg-chopping means. His friend has just been devoured by walkers in front of his eyes and the teacher looked ready to die at any second. Considering all of this, I gave him the food, not to increase my friendship stats or because Ben has some secret powerful weapon that would help us later, but out of basic human empathy. I knew the decision would look bad to everyone, but it felt wrong leaving this poor boy to suffer alone. Even if this was an objective waste of food since he could be kicked out the group at any minute, it felt like the right thing to do. This moment was significant to me because it perfectly expresses what The Walking Dead is asking with its story: is it possible to remain a good person in such a terrible world?
This isn’t an original idea in the genre of apocalypse fiction. This idea of humanity in its natural state dates all the way back to the 17th century with Thomas Hobbes theory of the State of Nature, which questioned how humanity would change in the event of a world with no law or order. Hobbes argued that the world would collapse into savagery, with life becoming “nasty, brutish, and short”. Putting Hobbes’ incredible racism and witch murder apologetics aside, The Walking Dead does agree with the sentiment that, in the event of governmental collapse, the world would fall into a violent ruin. However, unlike Hobbes, the writers of this game still believe that it is possible to be good and true in this world, despite the “savagery” alternative being arguably easier. The Walking Dead is less about what you personally believe to be right or wrong, but rather if you’ll submit to the temptation of being the unfeeling murderer so many chose to become when the dead rose and the world fell. I had the option to take the last piece of food for myself, but I decided against it, perhaps as a subconscious attempt to prove to the game that I wasn’t going to fall into its trap.
The game constantly throws moral dilemmas your way, providing a different scenario for each episode. Episode Two presents you with a family of cannibals, dulled to the act of murder, convinced it’s necessary for survival, and the game allows you the opportunity to kill them all. Will you allow vengeance to take hold of your judgement, or resist the urge, refusing to stoop to their horrific level and proving there’s still some humanity left inside of you? Episode Four introduces Crawford, a society of survivors whose primary philosopher is survival of the fittest, casting out the sick, the elderly, the children, or those who simply cannot pull their weight. It turns out Crawford has, perhaps unavoidably, fallen to the zombies; undeniable proof that theirs is a system that does not work, and will inevitably lead to collapse. Still, the game allows you an opportunity to let Ben, who has proven to be more or less entirely useless thus far in your journey, fall to his death. Once again, The Walking Dead interrogates your own moral beliefs: do you let Ben die and spare yourself another potential fuck-up unintentionally caused by him in the future, or do you trust that Ben has the ability to improve himself and become a valuable member of the group? There are other choices like this that the game forces the player to make whose outcome depends not on whether a thing is entirely good or evil, but rather what you, the player, consider an appropriate action to take in an apocalyptic scenario. The writers are constantly throwing the player into unwinnable situations, and demanding that you choose what you believe to be the best option between two evils.
Unfortunately, here’s the part where I admit the truth. The Walking Dead did manage to break me on more than one occasion. The first instance happened early into Episode Three, with a moment that I have been thinking about constantly, ever since I first experienced it all the way back in 2014. At the beginning of the episode, you discover that someone in the camp has been stealing valuable supplies, like food or medical supplies. This is causing the self-appointing leader of the group, Lily, to spiral into a deeply troubling paranoia. As this is happening, a side plot begins with one of the other group members, Carly, who is the only person who knows of your pre-apocalypse status as a convicted murderer. She chooses this time to recommend you let the rest of the group know about your past. She asks you to do this, not out of fear of you at all, but simply because she’s thinking about your well-being. With Lily slowly losing her sanity, Kenny wrapped up in his own desires to leave the camp for good, and Clementine only being eight years old, Carly is really the only person you can turn to for emotional support at this point. She’s a genuinely good person trapped in a horrible situation, and you’re quickly endeared to her.
One thing leads to another and your group is forced to abandon the camp in an RV. However, Lily remains entranced by her need to enact justice on the supply stealer. She starts jabbing fingers in the direction of Ben and Carly, convinced that one or both of them are to blame. A walker gets trapped under the vehicle and you’re all forced to wait by the side of the road for Kenny to solve the problem. Lily chooses this time to confront the issue once and for all. The editing in this scene is pitch perfect, cutting faster and faster between each person as tensions swell to worrying levels. She begins taunting Ben, pressuring him into ratting Carly out to absolve him of guilt. It becomes clear that this isn’t about the supplies anymore; Lily just wants to be sure that she was right to convince herself that she isn’t going crazy. Carly finally puts her foot down, calling Lily out for her abhorrent behaviour, which causes a painful silence in the group. Lily seems unable to say another word. There’s a sense that the confrontation is finally over. Kenny walks over with a mildly frustrated, “what the fuck’s the problem?” Then, out of nowhere, the unthinkable happens. Carly is shot in the head, and a hard cut shows that it’s Lily on the other end of the smoking barrel. This, to me, might be the most effective character death in the entire game. When I first experienced this moment, I saw red. Heart pounding, eyes widened, hands trembling, I was given the option to let Lily back on the RV to deal with her later, or leave her to die by the side of the road. The decent choice would be the former. Despite her horrific actions, she’s still an emotionally devastated woman that needs helps, now more than ever. Perhaps that’s a naive way to view the situation, but I know that if I were in that situation myself, the calm and collected thing decision would be to let her stay. However, in the moment, I didn’t care. Lily had murdered my friend over fucking nothing and I was left reeling. Without thinking, I chose to leave her behind. It’s an awful thing to do to a person, handing them what may as well be a death sentence. I still wonder if I made the right choice to this day. What if I’d let her on the RV again and she’d put someone else in danger? Of course, I could look up the alternate path that happens if you choose that option, but I don’t want to. This choice that I made caused me to think about the strength of my morality, and how this dumb video game with cartoon people made me break it.
And that, THAT, is why The Walking Dead is a game worth celebrating. I see a lot of people who criticising Telltale’s games for being closer to interactive movies than they are video games. However, there is no way a movie could feasibly make me feel the things I felt playing this game. The Walking Dead would not be the same experience if it were a movie, a book, or the comic books the game is based on. When you watch the TV adaptation of The Walking Dead, you’re railroaded into experiencing this very specific story with characters making very specific decisions. This can be effective in its own way, of course, hence why movies and TV shows work so well as their own forms of artistic expression. However, what makes video games such a powerful medium is its ability to interrogate the self, which is something no other work of art is capable of achieving. Video games have the ability to deliver an incredibly intimate and personal experience for the audience, and not just the artist, and that’s what makes them so special. I hope I’ve sufficiently explained why Telltale’s The Walking Dead fits this description, because I also believe this is a great game to play for those wishing to get into video games as a whole. Despite my issues with this aforementioned criticism, The Walking Dead is basically an interactive movie. It’s a game that’s very light on mechanics, with its fixed camera angles and limited potential button inputs. However, given its phenomenal ability to capture what makes video games such a special and exciting artistic medium, this could be just the right place to start if you want to introduce someone to video games. It beautifully demonstrates the power that this medium has to offer, while being accessible to anyone able to pick up a controller (or even those unable, given the amazing progress of disability-friendly gaming in the past few years).
I have deliberately decided to avoid touching on the game’s conclusion, just in case you’ve somehow made it to the end of this post without having played it yourself. So this is me pleading to you: play this game. It’s one of my favourite games of all time, and the experience of playing it will undoubtedly stick with you for the rest of your life. I know it will for me.