The Walking Dead is superbly written, well-voiced and complex. Its characters all have hidden sides. Its sombre music adds a quiet but persistent sense to the horror of its setting. It is beautifully animated, soulful and occasionally very sad. And it uses the fact that it is episodic well, foreshadowing events that might happen and taking account of different branches in the story that you may have chosen.
It’s really great. Until, that is, I play it for a little while.
Wide Eyes and Narrow Frames
What I actually do in the game is walk from place to place fetching objects and triggering conversations which unlock more things to fetch. Every once in a while I have a fight, which involves some rapid quick-time-event key pressing. I also regularly “solve” puzzles by screen-scanning with a mouse to find all of the clickable objects, and then selecting each in turn until I hit the correct one.
What’s interesting about this (and this is true of most games) is that the depth of interaction only becomes important over time. At first it’s the sense of discovery and the world that proves attractive as I learn both the who and the how. The first time I have to make a hard choice of life-and-death for a character is affecting, as is the first dawning sensation of doom.
However this wide-eyed phase recedes. After a while, I know the ground rules and the types of choice that I am likely to make. I see the frame of the game, understand its resources and actions and the limits of its environment. The key question then becomes whether that frame is strong enough to stay fascinating, and in the case of The Walking Dead the answer is no (and this is pretty much the case with all adventure games).
For me it started when I realised what was happening at the Dairy Farm, before Lee (my avatar in the game) had. This placed me in a position of waiting for Lee’s choices to get to the point where I could take proper action, and by that time the game was railroading me in certain directions. Similar breaks appear all over the third chapter, such as a character death that I felt I should have been able to prevent.
While the game talks about choice and consequence, it actually feels narrower than most games. In the third chapter I drove into town with another character. He climbed a ladder and I went to follow, but it broke. He told me to look around. Then I spent 20 minutes walking back and forth clicking on a variety of objects that looked like they could help, but they were not “correct”.
That moment was, for me, a loss point.
A loss point happens when you believe that you can’t win. Loss points are a big problem in game design because they are the moments when players stop engaging. In turn-based games, for example, they often result in lots of orphaned (half-finished) games. In real-time multiplayer games they are the moments when players log out mid-game, screwing the balance for everyone else. And in narrativist games, they are the moments when the player sees that he’s not really doing anything meaningful in the game, just following instructions.
It’s very difficult to convince a player to keep playing beyond a loss point. They have no real incentive to continue, and sense that their time would be best spent doing something else. That is why games are bad at storytelling, irrespective of the quality of their writing. It’s why LA Noire and Heavy Rain are both initially impactful, but pretty boring to play. They’re easily mastered, their frames are not particularly fascinating, and the sensation of being a rat in a maze (the loss point) only grows. At some point I simply forget to pick up the joypad.
The major factor that prevents loss points is a sense of dynamism. Fans and players often prefer sports where late goals can make all the difference, the Hail Mary pass or the comeback from nowhere. It’s more exciting to sense that there is always a chance of success, particularly success born of actions and agency and actively playing well. This is something that non-story games often do well because they are trying to create an environment of dynamic states. Anything could (within the boundaries of the game) happen.
The problem that many story-game makers have boils down to not wanting to create a dynamic environment. They want everything to be just-so, like a movie or an audiobook, and for the player to come along for the ride. They will for a while, but only for a while. Narrative-led games frequently have completion rates in the low 20th percentile because of loss points, or because the player attained their maximum mastery and drifted away.
This is also why the type of narrative game which is most immune to loss points is the roleplaying game. Unlike the adventure game, roleplaying games usually have a fascinating game engine of levels, powers and resources to keep the play brain occupied. While the mid-game of The Walking Dead might involve searching a train carriage for a bottle of whiskey, the mid-game of Diablo is hitting things and using spells. It’s simply more active.
Players want to play, not to be played. Once they get the modality of the game and have grokked the ground rules, they want to be able to win (either through victory or achiveemnt). They want to stop both of those characters getting killed by making an intelligent tactical choice that saves both. They want to be able to overcome, to be empowered and to be an agent of change. They don’t want to feel as though they’re inevitably going to lose, or just follow a pre-determined sequence. Otherwise there is no fun.
With The Walking Dead I feel I should play on. But if I really have to spend another 4-5 hours hunting for pink chalk, quizzing characters robotically or wandering back and forth to get hairbrushes or whiskey, I sense that I’ll pass.
I see the frame of the game now, and it’s just not that interesting.
The Case for Nodalism
The Walking Dead is a game that wants to tell a story framed by significant choices of life-and-death and exploratory dialogue. So why not just do that?
Adventure gameplay often feels as though added out of necessity or tradition, to make sure that the experience is lengthened. If that’s so then I want to make the case that such “games” should go beyond puzzle/fetch entirely. They should instead be like visual novels or gamebooks. They should be nodal.
“Nodal” design essentially means an environment punctuated by specific points, with no functional space between those points. A Chess board is nodal: There is no space between a white square or a black square. A Poker table is also nodal: There are only player positions and the pot in the middle. The ground between them is meaningless to the game.
“Choose Your Own Adventure” gamebooks are nodal. They consist of paragraphs of text that fork along specific lines of choice. How much choice is entirely in the control of the author. The attraction of those choices comes from wanting to make the correct ones, or the ones that self-express best. The narrative usually avoids the tedious parts of interaction by simply skipping ahead, as all stories can, and often has two or more distinct paths through the adventure.
However digital adventure games are different. Rather than being nodal, they are usually contiguous. The geography between point A and point B must be walked, and there are other possible interactions to have between the two. You might talk to other people in the room, find interesting objects, pick up side quests and so on.
In theory this is supposed to add depth, but in practice most of it is junk queries that return no useful data. The frame is not strong enough because the actions, rules and so on don’t engender dynamism. In roleplaying games like Diablo they do, filling in with lots of combat and looting. In others like Mass Effect they don’t, leading to the sensation that wide open environments like the Citadel are devoid of life.
In playing The Walking Dead, I want the experience to be nodal. I don’t particularly care about finding a spark plug to shatter a window, or having lots of checking-in conversations with characters that go nowhere. I don’t want to have to solve the puzzle of getting Kenny to leave his chair so that I can get at a map. That’s just noise. I want the experience to only be about the big choices, and for those choices to make sense. I want to feel as though there is a way to find the true course, and for every conversation to be important.
Even if that makes it shorter, it would be a far better experience. I feel that the next phase of interactive fiction needs to go this way.