Walking Dead: Episode 1
The Walking Dead is the latest adventure game/interactive movie by Telltale Games. Based on the graphic novels and the TV series of the same name, the player steps in to the shoes of Lee Everett, a convicted felon caught in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Talk about jumping from off the frying pan and falling face first into the flame!
The objective of the game: survival is introduced and clarified to the player at the very start of the game in a very interesting manner. We are introduced to Lee as a man in handcuffs being transported in a squad car by a police officer. This seemingly end-of-the-road journey is suddenly given a rude awakening when the officer accidentally runs over the side of the road in a bid to avoid hitting a pedestrian. Gun shots and screams are heard as Lee slips in and out of consciousness. A few moments later, when he does actually come to, he finds himself fending off the same police officer who has now turned into a zombie.
It is in these first few moments that the player realizes that he is in fact in a zombie survival game but the even more interesting thing is that even someone as safe, strong and symbolic as an officer of the law can become a mindless monster. It makes the player understand that no one can be trusted and no one is safe.
The secondary goal of the game is introduced in the very next scene as Clementine. A girl of 8 who as the player soon figures out has just lost her parents. In the very first instance when the character calls out to the player, she calls him Daddy, which is very smart. As a character, we at this point know that Lee was involved in the death of his wife. It’s obvious that this would strike a chord with the character, as it reminds him of family. As a player you know at this point that she needs a father figure. As both the player and the character, you know you will go the extra mile just to protect this girl.
It is subtle and interesting elements such as these that make The Walking Dead a memorable experience. The interactive narrative elements have been so well thought out and executed that you really have to sit back in awe.
Adaptive story telling is a means of creating a story that adapts to the reader/player’s choices in a game. This is very similar to the “Make your own adventure” genre of storybooks and is also used in games like Fable. This same method is used in The Walking Dead, where every choice the player makes changes character behaviors and story twists within each episode and these same choices have resounding butterfly effects of the later episodes as well.
The interactions in the game are broken down into movement, communication and action events. Action events can be further broken down into combat and when the player has to interact with inanimate objects like doors or radios in the game.
The controls in the game are quite sluggish, which works especially well, after the player has just survived the car crash. It makes the game believable since a normal human being’s reactive speeds would be lesser than normal while they are in shock or after suffering an injury.
The player character feels human and prone to human error: This is revealed when the player tries to pick up the keys but drops them by accident while trying to unlock his handcuffs. This happens again when the player tries to load the shotgun but accidentally drops the bullet. This element is especially believable since in moments when you’re racing against time; your mind tends to move a lot faster than your body.
This makes you understand that as a human and as a character in the game, you are prone to making more mistakes if you rush into things. It creates this sense of urgency in the player such that if they were not able to think and react fast enough they would die. However, the amount of time given to the player to react is initially set at an amount to allow the player to think that they could move faster. Enemies are spawned at a certain safe distance as well. This time and distance is however progressively decreased forcing the player to improve their dexterity.
Every interactive item has a list of options available for the player depending on the context and the items the player has in his inventory. Initially, the rear view mirror is shown as an interactive object with the option to look at it. This introduces the concept of interactive objects and the ability to view something. After this, the same mechanic is used to introduce the player to destructible objects, like the window. The basic interaction is still the same; however, the ability of an interactive object to have multiple interactions is introduced by the use of the numerical buttons 1, 2, 3 and so forth. This new skill prepares the player when he finds the shot gun and the bullet. He knows that both items can be picked up and used.
Communication using dialogues:
The player has two ways to communicate with NPCs. One is active and the other is passive.
The active communication is usually a choice which the player has to make. Each choice determines the NPCs response as well as elements about your personality that the NPC will remember. These elements will determine NPC behavior later in the game and also how the events in the game play out. These conversations are timed and silence is usually a valid option.
Passive communication is similar in every way to active communication, except for the removal of a timed limit and the introduction of an exit option. This gives the player the option to leave the conversation at any time and come back to it.
While all the points mentioned above make The Walking Dead, an excellent interactive narrative. It falls short as a game.
In the strictest sense, the game is not entirely an adventure game as there are elements of action involved. While this is not a problem and I don’t want to bicker about genres, the narrative structure allows the player a certain sense of freedom in choosing his dialogues. This same philosophy is not followed in the design of the game elements.
The player has no option but to follow an aggressive style of playing by making sure the player has to kill all the zombies that can be killed in the game. This in itself breaks the illusion of freedom as the player understands from get go that he will have to fight his way through the game.
Let us consider the first part of the game, where the player has to fend off the police officer and in the process shoot him. The impact this scene has on the player as a narrative mechanic on a whole is brilliant however it would be equally interesting if the player were to given a brief window of time when he can escape the clutches of the mutated officer. The scene would have the same impact with regard to not trusting anyone and that anyone can turn into a zombie however, it will also tell the player that while killing is an option, it is not a necessity. The second scene will serve the purpose of telling the player that sometimes, he may have no other option other than to kill the zombie to save his own life and such choices are difficult.
A player who wishes only to kill zombies will definitely go for the shot gun as the first option as opposed to a non violently inclined gamer who might just look for a way out of there and wonder why Lee does not just get up and walk out instead of watching a half dead zombie drag itself towards the player.
The puzzles in the first season have a pre-defined solution pattern which I believe will be shared by all the puzzles in the game.
For example, there is a scene where the player finds an ice pick inside a locked truck. This ice pick can be used to kill a couple of zombies silently however to get to the ice pick, the player will have to break the truck’s door’s glass. In the first try, a team mate warns the player of the noise made while trying to crack the glass. After some exploration, the player finds a pillow. The player also finds another car, which if pushed, could be used to impale another zombie. This car however is guarded by a zombie. The current solution requires the player to use the pillow to stifle the zombie next to the car and shoot it with a gun. Apparently, the sound of the gun would be muffled by the pillow. This seems highly unlikely and breaks the suspension of disbelief about how “real” the game is.
Now another probable solution would be to break the truck’s glass by muffling the sound with the pillow. The problem with this solution is that at any given point, the player can only perform only one interaction with one interactive object. In this case, the car’s window can only be either: covered with the pillow or punched with a fist. While this is understandable, the pillow could just be shown attached to the window and then the player can be given the option to punch the glass through the pillow.
Similarly, later on the player finds himself holding the fort inside a dispensary. There is a puzzle where the player has to find the keys to a dispensary’s store room. Eventually, it dawns on the player that the keys are on the body of another half dead zombie who is on the other side of the street.
The problem is, the front gates to the store are locked and no one knows the combination to the lock. The player is forced to break the lock by collecting an item in a side quest, which takes him outside the store, though a back door. The obvious question is why couldn’t the player use this back door and try to get the keys that way? Why does he have to endanger the other survivors when he knows breaking the lock will leave them prone to danger?
This side mission could prove quite interesting as the player can use the sneak mechanics which he learns a little later in the side quest, to steal the keys from the half dead zombie while making sure that the zombie horde does not become aware of the player’s presence.
After completing the first season once, I chose to replay the level. This lead to a startling discovery that irrespective of what my actions may be, the story in the first season will play out in almost the very same way. This choice in design makes the player feel like freedom to choose a story is cosmetic and in the end, choice in itself is an illusion. It is unsure to me at this moment if that was a design philosophy.
Movement and Camera Angles:
The game uses a perspective that is used in television and films to display the main character. The movement of the main character is shown using a tracking shot. The set however has various elements which can hinder the player character’s movements. This breaks the flow of the camera as the character is seen trying to slide along a box or a wall and trying to re-align the character using the WASD controls is difficult in such a situation.
The main problem with this situation is that it removes the player from the game and places him into the problem of recreating his mental model of the controls. The correlation between the w button and moving forward can sometimes require a remapping to w and moving back.
Each object that the player character might come into contact with has a collision map around it that can be tracked. If an object is seen in the immediate path of a character, the character should re-align itself to avoid it by walking forward by in a diagonal path. Alternatively all paths should be optimized so that it is only in the rarest of occasions that a player will collide against a set piece.
Strangling and Pushing:
In the game, there are situations where the player has to push or keep a zombie at bay. In such a situation, a large Q button appears on the screen and the player is asked to repeatedly press this button.
This situation again recreates this gap between the game and the interaction the player has to perform. It removes the player into looking for the Q button and then trying to tap it as many times as possible. To be fair, the interaction between the player and the interactive inanimate objects also follow the same design pattern. The player has to figure out where the buttons 1 to 4 are and then recreate mental maps for what they mean. This is especially because each interactive object has a different list of interactions. The game in this regard, attempts to emulate the control schemes of Role Playing games but perhaps what the designers forgot is that the game is marketed as an adventure game, which generally caters to casual gamers and this control scheme is made for serious or hardcore gamers. This is a big design no-no.
A possible solution to this is to stick all player controls to the left and right mouse button clicks. This control scheme is one that is used by most adventure games and is a lot easier to learn and remember. The Q button can be replaced by the right click button which has to be as before clicked on furiously. On clicking the button a sufficient amount of times, the push or E button click can be replaced by a left button click.
Scrolling through an inventory can be done through the use of the mouse wheel. While this functionality is already there, it will replace the old control scheme as the primary method. Another possible solution is to use the right mouse click to scroll through items and use the left mouse click as a selection click.
There is an instance in the game where the player gets into a verbal argument. During the course of the argument the player watches a little girl, who he’s in charge of looking after, walking towards a bathroom in the back. The player knows that something bad is going to happen, however, he does not have any option other than to keep having the argument, even though all he wants to do is prevent the girl from going in the room. This situation could be averted by allowing the player to leave a conversation when they please. This of course will have inverse effects on everyone else in the conversation, who will think that the player is untrustworthy and tends to avoid conversations/confrontations. The player can choose to over-ride a conversation by simple using the movement controls to walk away.
The Walking Dead is an excellent and ground breaking interactive movie with some well designed interaction elements. The dialogues and story have been beautifully written which is matched just as well with extraordinary voice acting for the main characters Lee and Clementine. As a game however it falls flat as the puzzles are very linear and at times unimaginative. The game also tries to emulate a myriad of game genres which leaves the player at times confused and annoyed. The story of the game will definitely take me to the end but this is not a game that I would replay any time soon.