Thoughts on ludonarrative difficulties and The Walking Dead: Season Two

Note: This is all my interpretation of a game and a story that allows for a multiplicity of interpretations; that’s one of its strengths. So when I say “the game is doing X” or “the game meant Y” that’s not meant to be a conclusive statement of fact. These are things I think, results of my experience as a player and as someone who constructs narratives professionally. Take them for what they are.

HUGE SPOILERS, NATURALLY

So I just finished the season. Overall… Meh. Great in parts, but overall formless in a way the first game was not, and after some discussion with a friend on Twitter, I think it’s in significant because there was just no real emotional center or narrative anchor point:

Which is also at the core of the problem: Kenny. The game spends a tremendous amount of time trying very hard – in my opinion – to get you to form an emotional attachment, via Clem, to Kenny.

And it just doesn’t work.

What Telltale seems to be trying to do with Kenny is rather ambitious, and a clear departure from Season One: Lee was entirely likeable and essentially level-headed – and personally I felt that you were being encouraged to consistently play him that way. Which is an important factor regarding the ludonarrative elements of TWD: you’re presented with choices that allow you some control over the character development of Lee and Clementine, but the game’s writers clearly have their own take, and the story of the game – and its accompanying choice mechanic – are biased toward the maintenance of that take. You can do some things to diverge from it, but given that you’re being presented with a finite number of choices selected by the writers, the player’s control of the game via “choice” is naturally going to be severely limited, and limited in particular ways.

Which is why Kenny is such a problem, and why Sarah is such a problem also: they were both characters wherein the biases and nudges of the game’s writers became – at least for me – far less comfortable and subtle and stepped over the line into coercion.

By the time the writers kill Sarah* the game has spent the last two episodes hammering home the idea that Sarah is a liability and you should want her gone, or at least you should be accepting of and relatively comfortable with the idea that she’ll be gone. In an interview with IGN, the game’s writers said as much, or at least agreed with the interviewer’s take: Sarah’s (lack of) survival was never in question; she was never meant to survive, and you aren’t meant to expect her to do so. Her disability – her difficulty in engaging with the full reality of what’s going on around her and the choices required of her – is her death sentence. It’s unavoidable, and this is made pretty clear pretty early on, usually through the mouth of Jane, who’s set up almost immediately as the Tough Survivor character to whom you’re supposed to listen. The game isn’t necessarily shoving you into agreeing with everything she says without question or skepticism, because her individualist approach is generally presented as unacceptably extreme, but she’s still set up as the voice of reason in most respects, and when she says, repeatedly, that people who are a liability need to be left behind, it wasn’t difficult for me to draw some conclusions regarding who and what she meant.

The entire game sets up its second half to be about Hard Decisions. This isn’t a new feature of TWD; it’s a core mechanic and a core narrative element both at once. The choices you have to make, first as Lee and then as Clementine, are meant to be difficult, even agonizing, and when the game does this successfully it’s at its strongest. The conversation with Carver in his office has a ring of truth: Clementine is the one making the truly hard decisions, ultimately deciding who lives and who dies (though obviously not in all cases). The ludic structure of the game means that she has to be; she’s the player character, so her actions ultimately have to drive the game’s story. Carver is – of course – not only inviting Clem to reflect on her own potential ruthlessness in the pursuit of survival; through him the game is extending the same invitation to the player themselves. Except, again, the choice isn’t fully yours. You’re constrained by the narrow selection of options the writers have chosen to present.

So Sarah’s death is presented as unavoidable, inevitable – because she has a disability, mind – and in the end she dies regardless of all the efforts you might make to save her. Your choices have no effect at that point; she will die, she does die, and by that point you’re meant to expect her to die. This would still manage to be emotionally powerful – albeit still grossly ableist – if that inevitability were drenched in pathos, but it’s not. Sarah dies. She was always going to; you know that because the game told you so at every opportunity. Now you don’t have to drag her around anymore. Yay.

Here’s where we get back to Kenny.

Kenny isn’t meant to be a replacement for Lee, in terms of characterization, and not just because you’re not playing as him. Kenny is volatile, dangerous, and makes immensely stupid decisions. By the end of the game, I regarded Kenny as far more of a liability than Sarah; I was looking forward to a chance to leave him, or even to kill him, not only because I found him essentially unlikeable but because he was a clear and present danger in a way that Sarah never was. I took no enjoyment in the prospect – I did still sort of feel an attachment to Kenny through the eyes of Clem – but that was the only thing maintaining my desire for his continued presence. Alexis agreed:

Kenny is Clem’s last connection to that lost past, the weeks wherein she experienced the death of her childhood. So naturally the writers expect you to feel that connection, and the choices they offer reflect that expectation as part of how the game’s core mechanic functions.

But the other problem is that I got the distinct sense that the writers wanted me to like Kenny, and they wanted the decision to kill him (or not) to be difficult.

It was not.

Kenny is presented throughout as a character you’re supposed to find at least somewhat sympathetic. His grief over his lost family, his gentler moments with Clem, his emotional agony, his physical injuries – these things are offered as inducements to feel pity and sympathy for and with him, despite his extremely unlovely sides. His attachment to AJ came off to me as an even more ham-handed way of doing this: he loves a baby, look, he wants to take care of a BABY, FEEL SOMETHING, FEEL IT.

The game’s penultimate choice is the decision to kill Kenny or to spare him and kill Jane. You have no other options aside from those two; someone is going to die, and the only control you have is over who goes. The fact that the game makes choice its core mechanic – and the center of its narrative structure and flow – means that this stark binary decision is the ludonarrative climax. The entire game, all your choices and every aspect of the story’s development, has led to this moment. The decision must be fraught in order to be powerful. You may not be meant to regard choosing to kill Kenny as a bad decision, but it should be a difficult decision if it’s going to be able to carry the emotional weight of everything that’s gone before.

And for me, it didn’t. It was not a difficult decision. Killing Kenny was easy. It was all that made rational sense, and 99% of what I felt afterward was relief. I felt, in other words, what the game seemed to want me to feel when Sarah died. The writers’ biases – at least to me – seemed clear in that moment, and they did not line up with what I felt. The game was proceeding in a particular direction, emotionally, and I wasn’t with it.

In other words, at the most crucial narrative moment in the game, I became excruciatingly aware of the fact that I was playing a game.

That’s bad.

It’s bad because the most emotionally powerful stories are the ones that immerse you so completely that they (literally) place you in a trance state, a state of such intense hyperfocus that you forget you’re reading at all. The medium – the page (physical or digital) and the words – disappears, and all that remains is the story. If, at the climax of a game like TWD, I become aware that I’m playing a game, the game has failed.

It wasn’t a lethal level of failure. I still enjoyed the season, overall, and I think in a lot of ways Telltale was able to replicate the strengths of the first game. But even at its best moments, that’s all I felt it was: replication, powerful in part because of what it reminded me of, and not entirely on its own terms.

Ultimately, I think TWD: S2 does what a lot of narratively ambitious games do: it provided a clear picture not only of what’s possible in video games as a storytelling medium but of all the ways in which we’re still failing to reach the medium’s true potential. Some of the problem lies in design itself – Tom Bissell writes excellently on this in his book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter – but some of the problem is simply in the writing and in where writers are willing to go and what they’re willing to do, and how they make use of mechanics and design as doors to admit a player into those places.

Earlier this afternoon Nathan Jurgenson called my attention to a superb essay on Gone Home by Ian Bogost that I had previously missed. It levies a number of excellent criticisms – with which I’m in total agreement – at a game that I genuinely loved. Bogost’s overall point is that we need to look closely at why games like Gone Home – and The Walking Dead – are met with such overwhelming praise if, narratively, they essentially match B and C level quality storytelling in other media (though I do think TWD hits a bit higher than that at its best moments):

There is an idea among the game playing and development communities that games can be stories with interactivity, and that such new types of stories are going to “broaden the audience” for games. But this is a flawed idea, because a broadened audience would mean an audience amenable to such new material in the context of their existing tastes. If that gap is not acknowledged and addressed, then we end up with games as bad television shows and novels—bad television shows and novels with button pressing.

I’ve written before on how we need to understand choice and empathy and their accompanying immersive effects as we evaluate the quality of a game’s narrative, but in TWD we can also see the ways in which choice as a mechanic creates some very thin ice on which writers tread. Interaction as a component of story is not necessarily a strength, and we shouldn’t regard it as such. I thought the The Walking Dead was a glimpse of how well this could work if we pushed a long-existing game genre (point-and-click adventure) into new places. Season Two ultimately just showed me how far we still have to go.

Expect more. Constantly. Otherwise we never get there.

*Let’s please abandon all silly pretense of stories somehow being entities unto themselves in which things just sort of happen; writers make editorial decisions that affect plots and characters. The writer is never not in actual control of a story, whatever they say and whatever they feel. The Telltale writers made a controlled, calculated decision with Sarah: They killed her, just as much as I kill my own characters whenever they die in my stories. That editorial decision needs to be examined and interpreted in its own context.

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