Spoiler Alert: I’ll do my best to refrain from spoiling plot details, but as the gameplay and the plot are wound tightly together it will be difficult. You have been warned.
You can usually tell how excited I am for a game based on how I prepare before sitting down to play. When I sat down to play the first episode of The Walking Dead I kind of just plopped down one morning; the windows were open, the TV was on, and my phone was buzzing on the desk in front of me. For episode two I closed the blinds and turned off the TV. This time around I waited until dark, turned off all the lights, left my phone in the other room, and closed my door. I didn’t even bother to take any notes.
My excitement came not from wanting to kill zombies, that isn’t what the game is about, but from a genuine curiosity as to what would happen next. Episode 2 ended on a rather grim note, and I wasn’t sure if the once hopeful group would be able pull themselves together or just simply fall apart. Everyone’s saying how this episode is darker, but I’m not sure that’s true. While it sure is dark the other episodes have been as well. Hopeless is the word I would use to describe Long Road Ahead, because despite all of the group’s physical and mental anguish, they’re really no better off than they were three months earlier.
I should just let this one end it all.
Saying that I wanted to see what happens next is really only half of an explanation. I’ve played lots of games in which I cared what happened next, but with The Walking Dead not only do I care about what happens, I also care about what the characters think of me as a character. It’s a subtle distinction, but one that makes all the difference when giving players the chance to make moral choices.
There are lots of games that promise players the opportunity to make moral decisions, but usually they’re nothing more than gameplay choices wrapped in dialogue. Make a good choice and get a sword with a white hilt, make evil one and get a black hilt; those aren’t moral choices. True moral choices are ones that affect the player on an emotional level, and that can only happen when the player cares about what the game’s characters think of them.
When given the option to tell the group about my character’s sketchy past I struggled more with telling those whom I liked and struggled less with telling those I didn’t. When it came time to tell Clementine, I really struggled with the decision, I wanted her to continue looking to me as her white knight. Gameplay wise I knew she wasn’t going anywhere and that at worst I would receive a scowl or slight berating, but when it came down to it I really didn’t want to push the button. Like Lee, I had a need for Clem to like me; I relied on her as much as she did me. That’s a moral choice, one that affects the player and not the character.
Nothing more bonding like a casual stroll through an apocalypse.
This was what episode three was all about, the moral choices I had made in the previous two episodes were coming back to haunt me. Intent almost doesn’t matter, sometimes you save someone’s life and they hate you for it, reminding you of that fact through their dialogue and their actions. Usually there isn’t even a good or bad choice, only varying levels of bad ones. While sometimes it’s clear which choice is the “right” one, it doesn’t make it any easier when your character is the only one who sees it. Choices like shooting someone to put them out of their misery or letting them get eaten alive by a pack of walkers; shooting them may be the logical “right” thing to do, but boy does everyone make you feel crappy about it.
Hope is in short supply this episode. For a while there in episode two it looked as if the St. John’s Dairy could have been a place to call home, and I really did my part to get everyone on board with the idea. But things didn’t work out so well and we were forced to return to the motel, shadows of our former selves. In any other game I would feel like an innocent bystander in all of this, watching events unfold while waiting for a chance to solve a puzzle or kill something. But seeing as I was the one responsible for giving the group false hope and crushing their last bit of humanity, every tense moment since then feels like my fault. If things had progressed steadily downward then maybe the group would have been able to adapt, but losing a sanctuary that seemed within reach has made everyone give up on some level.
You’re the only one that feels that way Duck.
My part in generating false hope within the group in episode two has translated into me doing exactly the opposite in episode three. When given a chance to be optimistic or hopeful I remind everyone in the group how crappy we’re doing and how we shouldn’t be getting excited about anything. When it became clear that someone has been stealing from the group’s supplies I didn’t miss the opportunity to say I wasn’t surprised, and that we should straight-up murder whoever did it.
At one point we meet a few new people, including a homeless guy (as Lee points out everyone is homeless now) named Chuck who seems too good to be true. He’s realistic, down-to-earth, and willing to share whatever he has with the group, so of course I treated him like dirt. Who shares their supplies with strangers in an apocalypse? Right or wrong, it’s clear that my behavior towards Chuck says more about me as a player than Chuck as a character.
Who the hell does this guy think he is, with his hopeful music and old man charm?
This is really the key difference between this episode and the previous ones. Most of the first episode and parts of the second were designed to have me react to horrible situations or sometimes simply watch Lee’s reaction in a cinematic. Although it lead to some tough decisions on my part, I could take solace in the fact that I was simply trying to make the best of a bad situation or simply watching it all play out in a cinematic. But when something horrible happens in a cinematic, even if my character is the one who does it, there’s still some comfort in knowing that I, as a player, didn’t have to make the decision. In this episode however, all of the tough decisions are made by the player without having the luxury of hiding behind a cinematic.
Episode three only took a few hours to complete, but every second was filled with tension. Although the motel is long behind us, the events that took place there will affect the characters, the story, and I for the rest of the game. I couldn’t tell you what’s going to happen next, but damned if I’m not really excited to find out.