The Walking Dead Game's (Almost) Fatal Flaw

I'm not a fan of the Walking Dead TV show. In my search for games to play on my iPad, however, I gave the Walking Dead game a shot—and ended up liking it, with one big caveat.

Spoilers ahead (sort of). I'm not going to discuss any major plot points, but I am going to discuss my one big issue with the game's mechanic—which in and of itself spoils the game, in my opinion. So if you haven't played the game, skip on down to the conclusion. Also, don't read any walkthroughs or strategy guides—they'll ruin the game for you too.

I don't feel the need to do a full "review" of this game, since other people have done it before—and for the most part, I have very little to add. Yes, it's a pretty good game—for gamers and non-gamers alike. It's a gut-wrenching story that really draws you in and makes you care, even if you aren't a fan of the Walking Dead TV show (seriously!). I played it on the iPad, and it actually played quite nicely. My sister, who isn't a big gamer, also enjoyed it.

So instead of going over what's already been said, I want to focus on the one thing I feel some reviewers ignored, or at the very least glossed over: the "illusion of choice" problem.

IGN touched on it, Polygon sort of mentioned it, and Gamasutra linked to another article on the subject from the Ontological Geek—though none of them seemed to be as annoyed by it as I was. Most, like VentureBeat, actually defended it. I'd like to take a few points from this VentureBeat post (not to bash VentureBeat, but just because it was the easiest way for me to outline my thoughts on the matter).

First, let's look at how the Mass Effect 3 debacle demonstrates what happens when things don't go according to plan. Rather than shaping the narrative, choices imported from previous games became little more than an extra paragraph in your codex or a flighty one-liner while walking down a hall.

As much as people like to shit on the ending of Mass Effect (which I'll get to in a moment), your choices were far more than a "footnote." Heck, just look at how many variables transfer from game to game. Entire characters will follow you through multiple games, you may start romances with some of them, certain characters will treat you different, and certain parts of the game may be harder.

Was it perfect? No, but it was probably the best version of that we'd seen any game. The only game that's done it as well—and arguably better—is The Witcher. The Witcher's decisions were subtle, so you didn't feel like you were gaming the system, and it showed you how your decisions affected the story as you went through with periodic flashbacks—sometimes long after you'd forgotten making those decisions.

The Walking Dead does very little of this. Your choices don't affect much of the plot beyond that very moment, and they don't change the course of anything that happens (with a few bland exceptions, like whether one generic character dies before another one). If you actually look at a walkthrough of the game, you'll find that your choices make almost no difference in the plot—which kind of ruins the entire illusion.

The Walking Dead Game's (Almost) Fatal Flaw

I know what most of you are about to say: but the feelings! As VentureBeat says:

What the Walking Dead does so well is to make the player feel as if every choice, every conversation, and every decision has the potential to be meaningful. It consistently throws in references to your prior actions.

Basically, while the plot may not change, but you still feel the weight of your decisions in this cold, harsh world they've created. And that's true. I've even talked about a similar thing concerning the end of Mass Effect.

The problem is that Mass Effect (and the Witcher, and other games) had other stuff going on beyond that whole "choice" thing. They had fun combat, a more interesting plot, more developed character relationships, and so on—on top of their better choice system. The Walking Dead had a plot that drew you in, but it really had nothing else. Choice was the main focus of the gameplay. And, while it helped draw you in, it overpromised way too much. Hell, the damn thing had a message before each episode bragging about how much your choices matter. But they don't. Sometimes, Clementine doesn't "remember that." Clementine barely remembers shit.

The Walking Dead was a great story, and a fun game that I'd argue is probably still worth playing. I just really dislike how it was executed. If I'm basically going to be watching a mildly interactive TV show, don't tell me it's something more. Perhaps I'm just bitter because the mechanic was ruined for me, and if I'd played the entire game without knowing it was a farce, I'd have enjoyed it more. But a farce you don't know about is still a farce, and it left a bad taste in my mouth when I was done.


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