Telltale’s Walking Dead: Consequences and Relationships

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Spoilers ahoy!

I’m about a year late to the Walking Dead party. My expectations were somewhat mixed going into it, since the majority of the press and blogging world considered it a Game of the Year contender, and I had to balance that against my own intimate knowledge of Telltale’s back catalogue. They make good adventure games, and I’ve played and enjoyed many of them over the years, but I had always found them to be slightly limited by their poor graphics, their focus on hit-or-miss PG-rated humour over any real story, and their reluctance to further the traditional adventure game delivery. I was also skeptical that this wasn’t just an overcompensation for the critical shellacking Telltale’s most recent game before The Walking Dead, Jurassic Park: The Game, received after a highly publicized delay in 2011.

Once I finally got around to buying it in a Steam Sale, I could actually see for myself that it was indeed Telltale’s most advanced game to date. A lot of the innovation comes from the “panic events” that require you to perform a certain action before you run out of time and meet a gruesome end, as well as the timed dialogue choices. The graphics were fine, being a surprisingly comfortable cross between Telltale’s signature cartoony style and the source comic’s own barebones character designs. The awkward shift to console-style controls that began with 2010’s Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse remains intact here, rendering the game nigh unplayable without a gamepad (seriously, how do you fuck up point-and-click controls in an adventure game?) but fortunately, there are few gameplay segments that require precision control.

You can almost ignore a lot of The Walking Dead‘s mechanics and solely focus on the interactive story, which is pretty much all people talk about anyway. This is probably Telltale’s greatest achievement to date; previous titles like Sam & Max and Tales of Monkey Island also had dialogue choices, but conversations usually followed the formula of picking all the weird answers to hear all the jokes, then picking the correct option to progress the story. There was no stress, since your choices weren’t timed, and there was no unpredictability, since no matter what you did, the story would be the exact same all the way through every single time. All the characters were completely braindead and wouldn’t remember something you had just asked them moments before. With their Walking Dead system, Telltale achieved what Bioware often struggled with: a continuous story where your choices in one episode have a drastic effect on the next installment. The original Mass Effect featured a very difficult choice where you could only save one of two people, with the other becoming absent for the remainder of the trilogy. It would be the toughest decision you would ever have to face across all three games, as the two sequels featured similar situations where characters’ lives were at stake, but lost a lot of their emotional impact when you could easily save everyone and thereby still achieve a perfect ending. There are no perfect endings in The Walking Dead; it takes that difficult decision from Mass Effect 1 and runs with it. There’s no having your cake and eating it too here.

What I  really like about the game is how unpredictable the results of your dialogue choices can often be. I’ve always felt that storytelling (in every medium, not just games) is far too honest sometimes; writers often drop clumsy hints that are rarely red herrings, and it takes a lot of the surprise out of the story. In Bioware games especially, you can easily tell which options are the “good” options and which options will result in your psychotic Jedi/Spectre/Grey Warden gleefully killing everyone in the room. In The Walking Dead, you’re often given the option to lie or offer a partial truth, and if you decide to go down that path, you’d better keep up appearances. In the first episode, you’re given the option to lie to Herschel’s son and tell him you’re Clementine’s “babysitter,” and if you accidentally tell Herschel himself that you’re someone else, you can make him incredibly suspicious of you. What I like even better than that mechanic is the fact that telling the truth isn’t necessarily always the best choice. Lee is a guy with a lot to hide, both before and during the game’s events, and depending on who you spill the beans to, you could have incredibly mixed results. At the beginning of the third episode, Carley pressures Lee to reveal his past as a convicted murder to select members of the group. If you tell innocent little Clementine, she’s visibly disturbed, although she bravely claims to understand your reasons for telling her. She’s mature for her age, but she’s still a little girl; you have to wonder whether she truly understands your motivations or if she’s simply speaking out of fear. If you don’t tell her, she finds out later, and claims she wouldn’t have cared if you had told her yourself, but, again, she’s eight. Telling your BFF Kenny leads to the predictable reaction of him reaffirming his faith in Lee (after first making sure that he’s not a child molester with Duck in his sights), while telling his wife completely horrifies her. You would think telling Lilly would enrage her, since she is already generally pissed at the beginning of the episode and is holding a grudge against Lee for his complicity in her father’s death, but she simply says that Larry already told her Lee’s tale. Telling Ben makes him incredibly nervous, and you later discover it’s because he’s fearful of what might happen if someone in the camp discovers he’s been pilfering supplies. Later, during a heated argument, Lilly drops the bomb on the group to gain leverage, and Kenny completely erodes said leverage by telling her Lee already confessed to him, and he doesn’t care. However, if you hadn’t already told Kenny about your past, he feels quite shocked and betrayed.

Of course, the big twist comes at the end of episode four, where Lee gets bitten. It’s just a tiny nick on his wrist, and you immediately wonder whether he might be all right in the end, despite knowing that a bite of any kind is a death sentence. It was a good direction for the plot to go in, and it certainly jived with the anything-goes tone of the comics and TV series, but people who aren’t familiar with Telltale’s repertoire should understand that this happens in every single one of their games. At the end of the fourth episode, something dark happens that leaves the audience with a huge cliffhanger (spoilers for Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse, Tales of Monkey Island, and Back to the Future: The Game):

  • In Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse, Max becomes a mindless eldritch monster, and his best friend realizes he has no choice but to put him down.
  • In Tales of Monkey Island, Guybrush Threepwood actually dies. He begins the next episode in hell.
  • In Back to the Future: The Game, Doc Brown coldly turns his back on Marty and becomes the active antagonist.

(Spoilers for other Telltale games end)

So Lee getting bitten is pretty much par for the course for Telltale. But that being said, I didn’t feel like Lee’s eventual death was just shock value. No one in the Walking Dead universe has much of a future; they’re just surviving until their luck runs out. All the adults, who have already lived through the peak of their lives and know everything’s gone, don’t have much of a story left to tell, and Lee’s story was never really about redemption for what was a questionable conviction in the first place; his story was always about giving Clementine a chance. Without Lee, she would have starved to death in her treehouse, but Lee taught her how to fend for herself both physically and emotionally. One of the game’s greatest strengths is the sense of pride one gets from shaping Clementine’s mindset and helping her evolve from a helpless little girl to a girl that isn’t necessarily hardened or steely, but still tangibly stronger. The Clementine in the treehouse at the beginning of episode 1 isn’t the same Clementine that shoots Lee in the head at the end of episode 5, and yet she’s still sweet, cute, and ultimately likable. Telltale could’ve easily turned her into a foulmouthed parody of herself by the end of the game, but they fortunately took the much more difficult path of changing her behaviour subtly while retaining her endearing humanity.

In the game’s final decision, Telltale allows you to choose whether Clementine puts Lee out of his misery or not, but I would’ve even taken it a step further and completely taken it out of the player’s hands. Have Lee’s fate (and really, your fate, since it’s hard not to think of yourself as Lee while playing through the game) ultimately decided by the sorts of things he decides to teach Clementine over the course of the series. Offer to shoot Duck for Kenny and Katjaa? The computer tallies a point toward Clementine’s “shoot” total, since she now thinks that mercy-killing someone, as bad as that is, is preferable to allowing them to become a zombie. Refuse to help Kenny kill Larry in the meat locker? That’s a point for “run,” since she witnessed you arguing that there’s a chance Larry might wake up (and at the end of the game, she desperately wants to believe that Lee will shake off his illness). In the actual game, this calculation of totals is exactly what happens when you let the timer run out and refuse to decide your own fate, so it’s nice to see that there’s at least an option where you can allow Clementine to decide for you. The whole game is all about your relationship with this little girl, so I feel it would be entirely fitting for the game’s final event to be something of a culmination of your efforts. Reap what you’ve sown, Lee!

The “Always Online” Debacle

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If you’re a dedicated gamer and you have a Twitter account, chances are you’ve heard about the Adam Orth controversy. For those of you just joining us now, Kotaku posted an inflammatory article about Microsoft’s plans to have their next Xbox require a constant Internet connection in order to play games (yes, even single-player ones). Given the article’s total lack of credible (or even named) sources, it seemed like the usual Gawker clickbait, but then Orth, a creative director at Microsoft, weighed in on the controversy with some inflammatory commentary of his own. He claimed he wished every device was “always on,” then told people complaining of unreliable Internet connections to “deal with it” while offering two of the most puzzling analogies I’ve ever heard. If my cell phone has a spotty connection, I don’t not buy a cell phone; I switch providers so I get the service I want. Are you picking up on that analogy, Orth?

I was actually browsing Orth’s tweets the minute his account was locked; one minute, I’m seeing misguided aggression toward a consumer base, and the next, a corporate muzzling. Sure, you’ve got guys like Cliff Bleszinski (who has a natural talent for missing the point of every major video game controversy) suggesting that Orth was a pussy for protecting his profile, but I think there’s very little doubt that one of Orth’s bosses at Microsoft told Orth, in no uncertain terms, to shut the hell up. Bleszinski has also been defending Orth by asking detractors, “Have you never said anything stupid on Twitter?” Well, sure I have, but I’m not a creative director at Microsoft spewing aggressive rhetoric regarding potential company secrets in a highly public forum. Context is everything, Cliffy B.

The last two blow-ups over always-online DRM were the Diablo III and SimCity incidents. I have to admit that at the time, I found the public outcry more amusing than anything else; neither game was really on my radar at launch, and to this day, I still don’t own either of them. I felt kind of bad for the fans who had bought these games out of loyalty or interest and were punished at launch because of an uncompromising authentication requirement and a melted server, but the sheer ridiculousness of the situation still tickled me. But even as I thought that the lengths to which a company would go to protect their sales were kind of hilarious, I could still recognize that, some day, this kind of draconian DRM could infect a game I’m actually interested in, especially given that all that hate over the DRM did little to slow sales. Imagine my surprise when it was suggested that Microsoft was planning to do this to an entire console that I was interested in.

Like pretty much everyone on the planet, I am vigorously opposed to an always-online console. I live in Canada, where our Internet is apparently both expensive and slow compared to the rest of the world. The way my living arrangements are set up, my bedroom (where my 360 is currently located) does not get Wi-Fi, and there is no ethernet port within range of the Xbox. Because of this, I’m pretty much forced to stay offline (no great sacrifice, since I don’t have Live Gold and I’m not a big fan of online multiplayer games). However, if I want to download some DLC, I have to physically move my Xbox and my bulky TV (always a two-person operation) into the basement so I can get a wireless connection. Keeping my setup in the basement for extended periods of time is not an option, so I have to move everything back upstairs if I actually want to play said DLC.

Before you ask, yes, my computer is continuously connected. But it’s in my den, where there is still no Wi-Fi, and my only Internet option is a single ethernet port. So the “you’re always online with your computer, so you can be always online with your console” argument is neither applicable nor feasible. And even though I’m supposed to have a “constant” Internet connection, it drops out periodically, even via ethernet. Have you ever seen me sign in and out on Steam a bunch of times in a row? Really annoying, right? That’s my Internet cutting out. And if you want a really good picture of how terrible Canadian Internet is, I’ve been getting 70 kbps download speeds lately via ethernet on the fastest available network. We’ve had countless service technicians come and go, all of them puzzled at how none of their quick fixes ever seem to patch our Internet. So I’ve done my part to fix my terrible Internet, but ultimately, I’m at the mercy of the service providers. An environment like this is not conducive to having an always-online console. Adam Orth’s suggestion of “move to the city” doesn’t fly, since I live in the damn city.

If my Internet cuts out (which it surely will from time to time), I’m suddenly unable to play my Durango games, even the single-player ones. If I lose the Internet and want to play a single-player game on Steam, I simply start it in offline mode and it works like a charm (those who put forth the incorrect notion that even Steam has always-on DRM seem to conveniently forget this little fact). But what happens when my Internet is fine and dandy, and it’s the Xbox Live servers that go down? Come on, it’s not like this has never happened before. If the authentication servers crash, no one will be able to play any of their Durango games. That would be a public relations disaster of the highest caliber. And the best Internet connection in the world couldn’t save you from this travesty, since the issue is on Microsoft’s end.

As someone rightly pointed out on Twitter, we should be asking why Microsoft wants us to be continuously connected to the Internet. They can hide behind fluffy smoke and mirrors like cloud computing (???), helpful push notifications, and silent, automatic updates, but I don’t think there’s a person alive that doesn’t believe this is really about DRM and putting the kibosh on the hordes of modded, pirate-commandeered consoles out there. If your console is not online and connected to Microsoft’s official servers, your game will not be authenticated, and you will be unable to play it. Gamers were already vehemently opposed to DRM even before 2012, but Diablo III and SimCity have whipped them into a frenzy. I’m not at all shocked that Twitter blew up the way it did in the wake of the Kotaku article; a decision like this, if it turns out to be true, could easily be a console-killer. I think it’s even worse than the Diablo and SimCity situations because it affects every single game released on the console, not just a select few titles (read: Ubisoft games in previous years) that can be safely ignored if you don’t want to deal with the DRM. If you want to buy any game for Durango, you will have to deal with its always-online DRM every single time. Historically, many games released on Microsoft’s consoles have also been ported to Sony’s; I can imagine tons of people picking up the PS4 version instead of the Durango version simply because it means no wacky DRM.

I’m not a boycott kind of guy, mainly because I know that I’ll eventually cave and buy something if I want it enough, despite the fact that some things about it might piss me off. However, if Microsoft goes through with this always-online plan for Durango, I will not buy it. I can’t! With my Internet environment, it would be like buying a $400 brick that sits on my bedroom counter, taunting me with error codes about not being able to find a Wi-Fi signal. I was already thinking about the PS4 after the fantastic specs dropped, but now I’m strongly considering making the switch next generation.