The final episode of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, “No Time Left” has been released, and having played through it, it seems appropriate to revisit the game as a whole and share some thoughts on what worked (and what didn’t). [I’ll try to keep this as spoiler-free as possible]
A rare thing for a video game to leave me with this feeling. It happens a lot after reading an especially good book, or perhaps a multi-part movie. I feel I’ve gotten to know the characters, shared in their stories and now it’s all over, like the last day at school. Games normally leave me with a feeling of success (or apathy in some cases) at their conclusion, but this is more melancholic.
Part of that is the subject matter; it’s been about the end of the world, and the tale told has been one of misery, tragedy and despair. This is a good thing. Many people complained about the controversial Mass Effect 3 ending, not because it was sad, but because it it was unsatisfying. The ending for The Walking Dead could easily have gone a similar route, but fortunately it doesn’t. As is the case with the best stories, the ending is surprising and inevitable. It’s humanity at its absolute worst, fighting for survival, self-centered and over-protective. It’s a story of redemption too though, perhaps more than anything else. Ultimately, it’s entirely character-driven, and Telltale’s writers have done a spectacular job of making them mean something to the player.
I wonder if the fact that so much that happens to the characters is because of (or at least, the impression of) choices made by the player. I found that with characters I didn’t particular care for, I was treating them differently by the choices I made, and in doing so felt more satisfied with the outcome. Similarly, with the characters I cared more for, I actively tried to seek out solutions that would benefit them, leaving me utterly devastated when it just wasn’t enough.
But as much as a wonderful piece of narrative this was, how was it as a game? The mechanics were simplistic. As an adventure game it didn’t work very well, because none of the puzzles required much thinking, even with the hint system turned off. As Tim Schafer pointed out in a behind-the-scenes DFA documentary, you need to have multiple verbs in an adventure game to make it interesting. Hovering over a door and having two options: “look” and “use crowbar” is the game telling you what you can do, and is much less satisfying than having to decide “I want to try and open this door with a crowbar”. What Telltale’s system does is removes a lot of that sense of discovery.
However, it arguably speeds the game up, and I wonder if maybe that was more important to the game as a whole. Between the abundance of quick-time events (some of which seemed needlessly frustrating) and timed conversation choices, the game hurries you along, and it could be said that this makes you much more invested (and attentive to) the storyline. I do think that perhaps if I’d have been able to go through it at a slower pace I’d have felt less invested in the storyline. But maybe that’s just me.
The burning question then, is do the player’s choices matter? Having replayed some key sections, it does appear that whilst certain portions of the game do change in response to what you do, the broad strokes remain the same. This is more Telltale’s story than yours, with the only real impact you have as a player is to progress or have your character Lee die and call it a day. But actually it doesn’t matter. There’s just enough illusion of meaningful choices that it works. This is a game where you want to be told a story more than create your own, and as I mentioned, the end result is that you feel much more emotionally invested in the story, perhaps more than you could ever be with a movie. I think this is something which other developers could build upon, as it seems this is something which could help games as a medium to define itself a bit better, by doing something other mediums can’t.
As a game in the purest sense, it seems that most, if not all, of the core gaming mechanics of The Walking Dead are weak at best. But ultimately, it ends up being greater than the sum of its parts.