After I wrote yesterday about some of the ludonarrative problems inherent in a game like The Walking Dead, I kept thinking about why the finale of Season Two didn’t work nearly as well for me as the first game. The conclusion at which I arrived wasn’t simply that Season Two’s penultimate choice couldn’t carry the narrative weight it was supposed to, but that the first game actually gives you no choice at all.
Season Two’s finale climaxes in your choice of whether Kenny or Jane will die, which not only determines who you’re with (if anyone) for the epilogue of the game but in fact works backwards, affecting your interpretation of every choice you’ve made before. This is what really good fiction has the potential to do, and in fact what narrative of any kind does: events in the present can affect how you make sense of everything that’s happened previously, regardless of the fact that those events undergo no material change. The choices you make in the game are the choices you make, but each successive choice requires that you reexamine all your previous choices, finding ways to incorporate them into the narrative coherence that you’ve had a hand (albeit a limited one) in constructing thus far.
But what makes the choices in The Walking Dead so powerful isn’t only the nature of the choices themselves, but what happens when the choices ultimately change nothing about the outcome, and/or when there is no choice at all.
Because when the game is really firing on all cylinders, neither of those things make the choices less meaningful.
One of the things the game – in both seasons – does well is to use choice as a way to emphasize essential helplessness: there are people you just can’t help, no matter what you do and no matter how hard you try. To the extent that The Walking Dead presents a realistic picture of how one might emotionally experience utter disaster, it’s in this respect. As humans with agency, one of the most difficult things we ever have to confront is how to make sense of our actions when it doesn’t appear that our actions have any effect on outcomes. What gives meaning and significance to actions? Is it our ability to effect change in events? Or are our actions meaningful in and of themselves, because they affect who we are as people regardless of what actually happens or doesn’t happen as a result?
During the game’s most painful moments, this was the kind of thing on which I spent a great deal of time meditating. How did my choices affect my understanding of Lee and Clementine, and of me as Lee and Clementine? How could I make sense of my actions in the context of events over which I had no meaningful control? This is one way in which the game calls into question not only the meaning of agency in general but the unbalanced relationship between designer/developer and player. Mainstream games have come to present “choice” as some kind of ultimate, absolute good, a selling point in and of itself (I’ve written about that before and have been wanting to do so again), but that’s an assumption that needs to be questioned, and hard. Games like Bioshock have done some rather clumsy fumbling in that direction, and games like Spec Ops: The Line and The Stanley Parable have done a better job [ETA: Anna Anthropy’s Queers in Love at the End of the World does an extremely good job dealing with this in a tight, minimalist way], but it still needs more doing.
You as the player aren’t making choices in a world where no one entity or individual is in total control of everything. You’re making choices within a written story, where your options are tightly constrained and all possible consequences have been pre-planned. As I said yesterday, that’s kind of important.
But this is indeed one respect wherein the choices in the game bear close resemblance to choices outside it: lack of choice is just as important.
At the end of the first season of The Walking Dead, you have no choice about whether or not Lee – the player character, which is additionally important – dies. All you can affect is what you say and do during your final moments. In other words, your choices do not meaningfully affect the outcome, but you can affect the outcome’s meaning.
And how Lee/you go out is both the culmination of every choice made before, of what Lee’s character has come to mean and to be, and the moment that makes sense of all of those choices. It’s the penultimate moment of the story not only in terms of emotion but of narrative coherence. What works so well there is that Telltale was smart enough to structure things in such a way that narrative dissonance was unlikely. You might have any number of emotional reactions to Lee’s death – I had a bunch of different ones all at once that resulted in some major ugly-crying – but the meaning-structure of the story itself holds together, and is all the more powerful for that.
I think the fact that Season Two allowed you that final choice is actually a problem. I think the game gives the player too much agency in that moment, and therefore robs the final events of the emotional resonance they might otherwise have. Yes, either way someone dies and you have no control over that, but the end of the finale is lacking in the kind of terrible, beautiful inevitability that made the first season’s finale work so well.
This is what I was getting at yesterday: choice is a great mechanic, but it’s also a dangerous mechanic, and there are lots of ways to get it wrong. It can be powerful not only for the ways in which it appears but for all the ways in which it doesn’t. Telltale clearly knows that, and for the most part they’ve done a great job of applying it intelligently and effectively. But in the finale, I don’t think they stuck the landing, and that’s a bit unfortunate.
But it’s also a great lesson in how all of this stuff works.