Walking Dead Proves Gamers Want Deep, Adult Stories
Warning! This post includes MASSIVE spoilers for Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead. DO NOT READ IT IF YOU HAVEN’T PLAYED IT. I don’t want to be responsible for ruining that game for you.
You know what doesn’t happen in The Walking Dead?
You don’t need to save the world.
You’re not the last hope of humanity.
You’re not battling some ultimate evil.
You don’t play a rugged but plucky hero who spouts one-liners.
In fact, Telltale’s adventure title pretty much defies every gaming stereotype available. Even its zombie “combat” is minimal, and I imagine the number of zombies I’ve killed through the course of playing the game could be counted on both hands (certainly on both hands and feet). And it was the most rewarding, reverberating, emotional video game experience of the year — easily, and by far.
The Walking Dead illustrates a lot of things about game stories, characterization, and interactive entertainment that many bigger games, developers and publishers seem to be missing. Namely, and to sum up: Tell stories adults want to see, and players will respond.
Obviously, that’s not to say that, after the success of Telltale’s title, I want to shut down production on Call of Duty One Million, Mass Effect 4, Tomb Raider, Dead Space, any number of shooters in which I kill whole countries’ worth of enemies, any number of action-adventure titles that are could have been big-budget films from the 1990s, or anything else, for that matter. I want my gaming universe as big and diverse as possible. And that’s what this is all about: diversity. Games like The Walking Dead are criminally underrepresented.
It can be tough to avoid the discussion that video games remain mired in the adolescent power fantasies of young men, even given the forward strides that the medium has made in recent years and continues to make every day. The fact is that hulking, ‘roided-out space marines outnumber thoughtful, realistic protagonists 100 to one. Of course, there’s partially a reason for that — video games have the opportunity to make players feel like bad asses, and players respond to the ability to feel bad ass. But I think The Walking Dead proves that lugging around a huge gun that’s also a chainsaw is not the only way to feel like a bad ass.
Through the course of The Walking Dead, I was often forced to make tough decisions, and I always had to live with my failures. But I also lived with my successes. Protagonist Lee’s devotion and dedication to caring for Clementine, a child character I felt a real connection with — that was a success. In Lee and Clementine’s final moments together, in which Lee basically teaches Clem how to go on without him, I felt like an entirely different, altogether underrepresented kind of bad ass. I felt like a genuinely good guy, and not because I had bravely faced down alien hordes or shot a lot of guys who looked different than me in the face. I felt like a good guy because I made choices for Clementine’s benefit, not my own.
There’s a moment at the end of The Walking Dead in which Lee’s death is imminent, and not only is he facing down death, he’s stuck, alone with a fearful Clementine, and he’s most definitely about to become a zombie. Once the immediate danger to Clementine has passed through the course of the scene, the player has a very basic choice: Ask Clementine to put Lee down, or don’t.
This may well be The Walking Dead’s defining moment. Here we have the two characters with whom we, the player, have identified with most and been around the longest. Most players, I’d imagine, share Lee’s commitment to Clementine, but that’s to say nothing of the player’s commitment to Lee, who has been not only our proxy in The Walking Dead’s world but also a character with whom we relate most and shape most through our actions. I, for one, had no desire to see Lee suffer. If it were me (and to a degree, it was), I’d never want to return as a shambling, soulless monster.