Telltale’s The Walking Dead is Absolutely a Videogame


(This is another edition of /RANT, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)

Telltale’s The Walking Dead was a shoe-in for many end-of-year awards in 2012, but I don’t think anybody could have predicted it sweeping quite so many trophies and accolades. Hot off its big win at the Spike TV Video Game Awards, Telltale’s zombie adventure would pick up too many “Best of the Year” triumphs to name (including Game Front’s), with almost every website and magazine declaring it the standout moment of 2012′s interactive entertainment. Of course, no victory would be complete without at least some detraction, and The Walking Dead was no exception.

It’s received criticism among the compliments, some suggesting it wasn’t as engaging as others have declared, or decrying it as being too buggy. There are legitimate complaints to be had, and I’d be hard pressed to dispute them. However, there’s been one recurring argument I’ve seen in the weeks following the conclusion of The Walking Dead’s first “season,” and I feel I must call its validity into question. The argument that, for all its achievements, The Walking Dead is “not a game.”

If you’re somehow unaware of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, it’s a point-and-click adventure in the same vein as the studio’s previous episodic titles, including Jurassic Park and Sam & Max Save the World. However, the game is not so much about solving puzzles and trying to find items as it is about simply existing in the game’s stark, unforgiving world. Those action sequences that exist consist mostly of quick-time-events, with players needing to mash buttons or click on targets within a very strict time limit. It bears many similarities to Heavy Rain, save for the fact it’s actually written well, and while most have enjoyed that, others find the lack of puzzling or combat precludes it from the “honor” of being deemed a videogame. A vast majority of the experience is spent simply talking, the story can often proceed without you having to make a choice, and a fair few of the choices don’t even really impact the story. This is true, and it’s perfectly fine to consider these negative aspects. However, to say it’s “not a videogame” because it doesn’t contain the requisite amount of puzzles, combat, or meaningful choices? I think you have to suffer from a very blinkered and restricted definition of the term to believe that.

Film critic and videogame ignoramus Roger Ebert is famous for saying videogames can never be art, and his reason for this declaration stems from arbitrary decision making on his part. He decided that, because you can earn points, because you can fail while playing, a videogame cannot be art. There isn’t actually an iron-clad rule, decided by the President of Art, that says art must not reward its audience with points, and can never let them fail. These are just things Roger Ebert decided, opinions that he passed off as fact with absolutely no authority on the subject and no right to decide what can be art. He applied his own restricted definition of the term to videogames and found them wanting.

Gamers typically laugh or rage at Ebert for his opinion on videogames and art, but when people claim The Walking Dead isn’t a game, I really see them doing the same thing as Ebert. Nobody said a game could not do what The Walking Dead does. There is no President of Videogames that says a videogame must include a minimum amount of combat, puzzles, or challenge. A videogame is, at its most basic definition, is a form of entertainment that generates visual feedback based on human interaction. That’s all a videogame really is, and from there you can make it into all sorts of fantastic experiences. Some videogames “punish” their players, providing incredible amounts of challenge that require quick reflexes and aggression. Others encourage lateral thinking , providing puzzles that must be solved creatively. Some just throw you into a virtual sandbox and tell you to have a good time. The Walking Dead uses player interaction to directly drive a compelling narrative. Like any good videogame, that narrative won’t unfold with player agency. And yes, while much of that agency is predetermined and linear, it still does an amazing job of making the player feel involved.

Homefront’s solo campaign might be considered “more of a game” than The Walking Dead, but if I had to choose which game was less inclusive to the player, and felt more like a story was being crammed down my throat than inviting me into it, I’d pick on Homefront every single time — a game where the player is little more than a cameraman, filming the real protagonists getting involved with the real plot. NPCs get to open all the doors, they get to decide where the action is, they get to do all the cool stuff. The player just stands and watches during the exposition, then silently guns down opponents the rest of the time. However, because of that gunning, nobody has ever accused Homefront of not being a videogame, despite it doing its best effort to shut the player out. The Walking Dead, for all its linearity, at least draws the user into its environments, and gives them a lot to think about and decide, even if many of the decisions are an illusion. It doesn’t really even matter that the choices are an illusion, not if they’re presented so damn well they make the player feel absorbed.

And this is not even to say that The Walking Dead isn’t challenging. It really does test the player — it just doesn’t do so in terms of quick-fire skill or problem solving. It tests one’s resolve, one’s rationality, and one’s empathy. Sure, you can’t “lose” the game when you’re given three bits of food to share between a camp full of characters. You can’t really “win” it either. You have to make your decision and the game will move on. However, it was still incredibly taxing to anybody who let themselves be drawn into the game’s worlds. Sure, if you don’t care, you can just hand the food off to the nearest three people and carry on — in the same way that you could just play through Skyrim’s one main quest and be done in a handful of hours. However, you’d be missing out on what the game has to offer. In the same way that you’d miss most of Skyrim by only going through the mandatory motions, you’ll lose sight of everything The Walking Dead has to offer if you choose to just blast through it and not give a shit. You’d be missing the real heart, and the actual challenge, of the game.

To say The Walking Dead isn’t a game is to disrespect videogames as an art form. In the same way I feel Ebert disrespects art itself by slapping his own small-minded rules all over it, so too do the “not a game” detractors dismiss the flexibility and variety on offer. If a game like Passage, where the player just walks from left to right while the user feels emotions, is considered a game, then so too must The Walking Dead. I don’t even like Passage, but I’m not going to say it can’t be considered a game, just because it doesn’t fit my personal tastes. The moment I do that, I start trying to arrogantly tell an entire industry what it can and cannot be.

I may not agree with all of the criticisms people might have for The Walking Dead, but I will agree that all of them have merit. All except this one. It’s an argument steeped in ignorance of the diversity of the videogame industry, a stagnant idea that posits all videogames must subscribe to arbitrary rules and regulations. It is Roger Ebert saying games can’t be art for the most contrived and unauthorized of justifications. The Walking Dead might not be for you, you might find it not as compelling as others, but it’s a videogame. To say otherwise is to expose the atomity of your vision.

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7 Comments on Telltale’s The Walking Dead is Absolutely a Videogame

Aedelric

On January 11, 2013 at 11:34 am

Never heard anyone saying The Walking Dead was not a video game before. I think those that would say it is not do not know the definition, an electronic game that uses images displayed on a screen, sure seems like that describes the game to me.

Games like Zork are not video games, because it uses text, not pictures. But even then it is still a computer game.

As for art, games do not need permission to be art. It is an expression of creative skill, a form of self-expression. Really it is up to the creator to decide what they do is art or not. Also there is no real singular narrow definition of art, the art of conversation, the art of war it apply’s to a wide variety of things.

Games like Dear Esther skirt the definitions a little, minimal gameplay so hard to call it an actual game, definitely beautiful and artistic, at the end of the day it was more an interactive story. Compared, The Walking Dead plays like an action shooter.

Alterego 9

On January 11, 2013 at 4:02 pm

A videogame is, at its most basic definition, such a wide concept, that it’s barely worth talking about as a single medium. We have so many interactive digital entertainment forms, that talking about it as if it would be a single type of thing, is futile.

It’s like lumping together blog posts, poems, novels, fanfics, and encyclopedias in the medium of “writing”.

Or lumping together superhero comic books, graphic novels, webcomics, newspaper comic strips, and manga series in the medium of “sequential art”.

Or lumping together cinema films, TV series, anime series, CGI cartoons, reality shows, and news programs, in the medium of “motion picture”.

Yes, there is a basic formal connection between them. Also, they have ENTIRELY different goals, audiences, toolsets, and channels to present themselves.

I see where people are coming from, for wanting to talk about some games as separate tangentially related mediums. The only thing that I disagree with them, is that they shouldn’t monopolize the term “video game”. It’s very narrowminded, to think that that all the games until now had such an obvious connection between them that TWG broke.

The claim reeks of a limited reference pool, as if it was made by someone who only plays contemporary PS360 AAA action games, and just noticed that TWD is different from them. Which it is, but compared to many old-school genres, Visual Novels, Interactive Movies, point-and-click adventures, etc, it’s nothing special, so the speaker’s issue shouldn’t be that TWD is different from everything else, but that a large number of games are totally different from another large number of games, so they BOTH should get a precise medium label instead of calling them “video games”.

Michael

On January 11, 2013 at 10:31 pm

I for one knew that the walking dead was going to win. If you watched gaming shows like invisible walls and people like Michael Pachter talk down about this game common sense should kick in and tell you its going to win. I for one don’t consider the Walking dead a game and games to be art. Now before anyone gets mad I will like to say I love video games to death. I have been playing since the NES era in the 80′s, so I’m old school. Here are my reasons here me out.

To my knowledge you buy a game whether its cartridge or disc. It’s a full game. Correct?
Now the walking dead is an episodic DLC which is distributed in parts. So you are not paying for a full product. Correct?

So what else do you know that follows this pattern?
Let me give you a hint.
Why is the walking dead series on TV not considered a movie?
Because its a show or series or whatever you want to call it.
So the walking Dead so called game is really a DLC episodic series and not a game. So I’m done with this part.

Now I never agreed with Roger Ebert on anything until he said, “Video games is not art”.
To keep it short to the point. Videogames is a hobby or craft. You don’t hear people saying that playing sports is Art, because it’s not. The problem is that people believe that if something is drawn by someone and displayed its art. So if thats the case why dont people complain that there box of cereal is art because it has a picture of a cartoon rabbit on it or billboards of movie. Why no one complains about that? The reason is because its not art. PERIOD.

So why did Walking Dead win GOTY?
Sorry, The most important question is why didn’t Back to the Future win GOTY in 2011?
I believe Back to the Future was by far a better game than Walking Dead in my opinion.
The reason it won was because they needed something to win. All the games that were released were all HUGE letdowns. Peoples expectations were shattered from games like Mass Effect 3 and Assassins Creed 3 which endings destroyed the entire series. Then there are games that didn’t get recognition they deserved like Darksiders 2 which to me was the best game last year hands down.

The other reason it won is because its a marketing gimmick. With a new xbox and playstation on the horizon they need to justify that Episodic games can win so that we the gamer can be duped into buying these new consoles that will no longer be discs and we have to pay for games in episodic form.
So for example. You want to play Dead Space 4 you have to pay for it the same way you pay for the Walking Dead.

You might say I’m wrong but I will be here when they unveil this on E3. Guaranteed.

Kevin

On January 12, 2013 at 9:50 am

Michael,

Half-Life did episodic content as well. I actually kind of like the idea of episodic content being the game, it’s just that for far too many, they’d interpret it as a moneygrab to put out a bad product.

And actually, anything drawn is art, it just depends on what kind of art. Quite frankly, the Honey Nut Cheerios Bee is better art stuffing a crucifix in urine and calling it “art.” But if they want to call it art, that’s their thing to be a moron. It is something someone “made” and they are trying to tell something by making it. The message might be dumb, juvenile, but it is there.

Walking dead is a video game. It has graphics, it is an adventure, it emphasizes on story, and it seeks to draw you into the greater world. It manages to do so with greater ability than skill than anything else out this year.

Grigorenko

On February 5, 2014 at 2:06 pm

These “games” (Wolf Among us & Walking Dead) are full motion videos with a Who Wants to be a Millionaire four choice system. If you bought it, shame on you, unless you were actually wanting to just buy an anime movie.

Nope!

On February 5, 2014 at 2:53 pm

Come back when you know what you’re talking about, Grigorenko. Shame on you for thinking you could actually make some sort of impact with your uninformed trolling.

hardcorelogo

On June 3, 2014 at 10:59 am

I love The Walking Dead but it is not a video game. It is a very different medium than any other video game for the simple reason that it really doesnt have any game play. The most accurate description would be interactive story. I am not sure how having this opinion automatically means I think video games arent art. That is a leap of logic that needs to be explained to me.