Telltale’s The Walking Dead is Absolutely a Videogame

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Published by Jim Sterling 9 years ago , last updated 3 years ago

(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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