Narrative risk-taking is something that most games seem to shy away from. We’re talking hard, conflicting, emotional choices here—the kind of decisions that resonate with gamers, and that are ultimately tough to walk away from. Since Telltale’s adventure game adaptation of “Game of Thrones” has been generating some buzz for its most recent episodes, and because “The Walking Dead” prequel “Fear The Walking Dead” (well, sort of prequel) is set to premiere this summer, I thought I’d take a moment to talk about Telltale’s “The Walking Dead” adaptation, and why it’s still one of the better examples of video game storytelling and narrative risk-taking that I’ve seen in a while.
Spoilers: I’m going to chat about the game’s first two seasons (side note—season three of Telltale’s game is definitely coming, but we still don’t know when exactly), so if you haven’t played the game yet—spoiler alert!
Think of a big, flashy, Michael Bay-style title like “Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.” Sure, it’s a fun game, but was there ever a point during the game where you made a decision that affected you emotionally? One that engaged you on a level that went beyond bang-bang-die? One that stuck with you for more than a few minutes? Maybe. But the more recent “Call of Duty” titles aren’t about storytelling or conveying emotion—they’re more about showcasing unique locations, showy gadgets and blockbuster-style action pieces. And that’s fine. There’s always a time and a place for that sort of thing (I’m a pretty big fan of terrible B-action movies, so I’m not exactly criticizing games that are purely about having fun).
But since Telltale’s “The Walking Dead” is an adventure game with a heavy emphasis on point-and-click play and dialogue—well, that’s pretty much all you can do in the game—storytelling is placed front and center. And when that happens, the story needs to stick with players—it needs to be something that they’ll remember once they step away from their computers or consoles.
For instance, though this sounds a little odd to say, I was almost glad to see that Telltale was willing to let the main character from the first season, Lee Everett, die during the final episode. Lee was a flawed, but genuinely likable character, and losing him actually hurt—it told me that no one, not a single character, not even the one you’re supposed to root for and care about, was truly safe in this world. And since Telltale had placed such an emphasis on Lee and Clementine forming a loving connection with one another, I felt Lee’s need to rescue Clementine at the end as being crucial and timely. And when a dying Lee charged through a mess of zombies to rescue Clementine? I was rooting for him every step of the way—I honestly cared what happened to him, and I couldn’t put the game down for a single minute.
Telltale is well known for putting players on the spot, forcing them to make tough decisions that aren’t clear-cut in the slightest. During the game’s second season, when Clementine had the option to feed Sam, the starving feral dog, was a hard one, and the end result was both gruesome and unsettling. Whether you, as the player, decided to put a dying Sam out of his misery or leave him in agony was a difficult decision. Was it right to have a little girl kill a dying animal? Or should an innocent animal be left to suffer? But that choice, while hard, carried some emotional heft—it reminded players that the game’s world is unfair, and that Clementine was losing her innocence rapidly. Most games would have been content with letting Sam live—just as most games would have avoided telling a story from a young girl’s perspective, or ensured that Lee somehow survived his mortal wound during the first season.
When a game takes risks with its story—or, in other words, when a game forces a player to make a decision that carries plenty of emotional weight—then the game itself is better in the end. Playing it safe ensures that any sense of real emotion will be lost. Without emotion, without a need to relate to the game’s character, all you have are overdone gimmicks and showy graphics—and those never stand the test of time.