Have you ever played a game that was so engaging that you forgot you even existed and drooled over it, not even noticing that they were telling you a story? Have you watched a movie, or read a book, so appealing that the hours passed by without you even noticing?
Telltale's The Walking Dead is nothing like that. It is a futile attempt of both. I believe that The Walking Dead is an interesting experience that provides extensive evidence of everything that is wrong with narrative in videogames.
In The Walking Dead the player has a limited range of exploration, giving the character the power to choose between specific pre-set dialogs with characters, this will make the player feel like he has a control of the outcome of the game, when in reality all that the player can control is the character's emotions toward other characters and minor story twists, leaving the stoty linear with the begging, climax and closure of each chapter the same no matter what choices were made by the player.
Playing this game, for me, felt much like watching a very good episode of The Walking Dead, having annoying pauses where I was supposed to press buttons for the story to go on.
When I was a child, I loved R.L. Stine's Goosebumps book series and my parents would go to any extent in buying me whatever special, weird collection there was of Goosebumps. There was one of these Special collections that I particularly loved which was called Give yourself Goosebumps.
In Give Yourself Goosebumps, the reader would read a few chapters and then be faced with a choice that would affect the story. If, for instance the character (which was intended to be the reader himself) was locked in a medieval castle with a madman who had an axe (Return to Terror Tower), the reader could choose if he wanted to go through a door or pick up a sword, the story and outcome would change with each reader choice, and there was one (or a few) combination(s) that could save the reader's character and get him out of the tower. The rest would end up killing him, slaving him, transforming him, turning him into a living dead, in other words: Game Over.
In many ways, the Give Yourself Goosebumps series is more than a game to me than The Walking Dead Game Series will ever hope to be. And I will explain why.
Even though games are considered to have non-linear stories (meaning that the events will not happen at the exact same time, the exact same way every time the player plays), the narrative itself can be linear. A game that has a story that never changes, no matter how many times we play it, has a linear narrative. The Last of Us, Super Mario Bros, Dead Space are examples of games that have linear narrative, no matter what the player does or how he does it, every time that the player talks about the story of the game he will do it in exactly the same way, because it remains exactly the same.
For games with linear narrative to be succesful they need to have a compelling gameplay. Monkey Island is a narrative based point and click adventure game with a linear narrative but an enganginly challenging gameplay.
If the gameplay is not as interesting and the Game Designer feels the need to add a compelling story, it would be best is the narrative is non linear, meaning that no matters how the game can be played, it can be "won" or "lost" by having different endings, even having a few fun or crazy ones would be cool. The Stanley Parable explores this concept marvelously, having so many different endings (and only one that can be considered as a win for the character) makes the player forget the dullness hidden behind the game mechanics and creates a completely engaging experience (more on The Stanley Parable in an upcoming post).
In The Walking Dead game, the gameplay is mindless and dull, and the narrative is enjoyable, but slow and linear, the choices of the player don't seem to matter much when looking at the main narrative, so the player has a narrow control over every aspect of the game, including the fate of his character.
In Give Yourself Goosebumps, the gameplay is also mindless and dull (challenge-wise speaking of course, I love reading) the reader / player just has to read and make choices, however the narrative is interesting and completely engaging, taking the reader's choice into account in the story's events and having only one "winning" ending. The player is in complete control over what happens to his character.
According to Raph Koster in his book A theory of fun for game design: "Playing a game is the act of solving statistically varied challenge situations presented by an opponent who may or may not be algorithmic within a framework that is a defined systemic model" This not only means that there are seemingly un-gamey things that aren't games, it also means that there are seemingly gamey things that aren't!
In The Walking Dead the Player:
Solves statistically challenge situations: however they aren't really varied, all important game challenges are moral ones, the player gets used to this and dismisses the "challenge-factor" quickly without a goal that can change depending on his challenge solving abilities. This means that it is fairly obvious to the player that whichever events he thinks that he can change when making decisions won't change, so that the player has no control over the main events of the game, which are narrative driven,
The challenges are presented by an opponent: The opponents are the story enhanced moral values (of the kind: Will you save a child or your grandfather? Will you shoot your loved friend or will you let her kill you all with her decisions?) and this is done wonderfully.
Is playing in a semi-systemic model: Let's understand first what a Systemic Model is. A Systemic Model is a fictional universe in which upon affecting its main components, the rest of the components are also affected, as a goup, as opposed to individually affecting each element without relating to the others. Considering that in The Walking Dead the main feature is the story, and considering that the choices the player makes won't affect the story outcome at all, but they will affect minor narratives inside the main storyline, it can be interpreted as if The Walking Dead is a semi-systemic model.
In Give Yourself Goosebumps, the reader:
Solves statistically varied challenge situatons: In this case the challenges affect the outcome of the story and the winning condition (non existent in The Walking Dead), and the reader has to analyze what possible outcomes may his decisions trigger.
The challenges are presented by an opponent: The opponent being the adverse environment in which the reader's character lives.
Plays a systemic model: Being the character's fate the main element of the book, the character has complete control over said fate. The choices that the reader makes are completely related to the story's consequences. The complete story reacts as a group when each choice is made.
Games will be games
After this analysis and according to my perception of gaming, there is a jaw dropping conclusion:
Players who play The Walking Dead are not really playing a game, they are witnessing a story (like what we do when we watch a movie), and they aren't players, they are witnesses.
Readers who read Give Yourself Goosebumps are also players who play a game.