Narratology and Choice in The Walking Dead, an (Ongoing) Project

About two months ago, I finally finished  The Walking Dead game, all 5 episodes. Rather than posting a review for the remaining 3 chapters (as I did with 1 and 2), I’d rather give an overview of what I learned and what I plan on doing with the research I did while playing. I know I haven’t posted in a little while, but here’s some exciting (!!!) news: In late March, a few of us at the Games Institute recorded a podcast that hits on a lot of the points I made about the game in my earlier posts. I think it turned out super well, and it’ll be available to hear on the First Person Scholar website this spring.

As for my own project under IMMERSe, I started out wanting to do something that focused on narratology in role-playing games, particularly looking at how games do (or do not) give players opportunities to embody on-screen characters through storytelling and dialogue options. Originally, I was attempting to build a text application that allowed players to type actions and/or pieces of dialogue directly in-game to change the course of the narrative. But, after doing some research on existing applications, I decided to shift the project into a case study that is more focused on a particular game that attempts to give the player control of their character through dialogue choices.

Of course, this lead me to Telltale’s The Walking Dead, the 5-episode point-and-click adventure role-playing game based off of Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel series. I chose this game because unlike many point-and-click games, it focuses on character development and storyline rather than puzzle solving. The narrative is designed in such a way that the player’s dialogue choices and actions during quick-time events are supposed to affect how the story unfolds. Sounds cool, right?

Now, here’s my beef with it: At the beginning of every episode, you (as the player) are told that the game’s story is tailored to how you play. As Lee Everett, the protagonist, you are consistently required to choose from 4 dialogue options during conversations with other NPCs, and the game gives you indications that your choices are affecting how the other characters see you on a moral scale. As you play through the game, there are many instances where as Lee, you must make tough decisions and these choices presumably change the story. However, upon playing through the game more than once and conferring with various walkthroughs, I’ve found that the game’s storyline is not as directly tailored to the player’s decisions as it makes itself out to be.

I’ve documented many instances where as the player, you have little to no control over the outcomes of certain events, no matter what you choose to do. As a game that strongly insists that the player’s actions change the course of events, there’s an element of character building and continuity that’s missing from the game’s construction; no matter what ethical choices you make throughout the game, Lee will still be forced to go through certain motions, will indirectly cause the deaths of certain characters, and will be subjected to the same fate at the game’s conclusion.

As I move forward with this project, I hope to investigate whether there have been any significant modifications to the game in terms of the order in which you can choose to run through the story. I’m also curious to see whether there can be any changes made insofar as the dialogue options, because there were several instances where the options felt inappropriate and didn’t reflect what I wanted to say in the given situation. My goal in the coming term is to try and generate a rough story-tree with possible options that allow you to bypass certain parts of the game or play through the tasks in a more customizable order that reflects more than one playing style. I’m also planning to investigate other dialogue-based role-playing games in an effort to figure out how to implement text written by the player into the story as a whole.

As always, will update more as I do more. I’m planning on playing through Michael Mateas and John Grieve’s interactive narrative game Facade, which is artificial-intelligence based. I’ve heard that it lets you, to a certain degree, control what happens in a story surrounding a married couple on the verge of a breakup. I’m excited to actually be able to type dialogue in and see how it affects the game play.

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