If you’ve spent any decent amount of time playing video games, you’ve been frustrated at some point. You may not swear and throw your controller (as good as that might feel), but games can be tough sometimes, so you’re likely to have at least been ticked off by one. Maybe you couldn’t hit all of the checkpoints in a Grand Theft Auto boat within the time limit, or perhaps Mario just kept missing that stupid jump. Whether it’s the programming or user error, games can be frustrating… but that’s not the type of upsetting I’m talking about.
Some games, like my great love Red Dead Redemption, can get very emotional. I actually cried during the end credits of that game, but there were a number of other moments throughout the entire story that were heart-breaking, uplifting, and satisfying. That’s not the type of upsetting I’m talking about, either.
Telltale Games created an episodic game set in the zombie-filled world of The Walking Dead, and like the show, the game deals with the humanity of surviving. It’s not filled with difficult action or grand emotion (yet, at least), but I just finish playing through the first episode… and I’m upset.
This isn’t a review, so I’m not dealing with spoilers, but this game is based on one very important idea – player choices. I haven’t yet gotten to a point where I can seriously see the fruit of the story choices that I’m making in this game, as that will come about in later episodes from what I hear, but I have already been forced to make a number of impossible choices. I’ll start with the frustrating.
During conversations with characters, dialogue response has a time-limit.. where I need to decide which of the given responses to choose before a small meter runs out, otherwise my character will say nothing – which is also an option and, in turn, a choice. That’s a great angle, but it can be frustrating, in a way, because it offers the illusion of choice. Often times, there have been no “good” answers, or even worse I can’t tell exactly HOW the character is going to say it (aggressively, sarcastically, etc.), so I just go with my best shot. The problem with that, though, is that it affects the story. I’m forced to use specific reactions to situations, and that’s fine, but then I’m made to feel like I messed up by how others respond later on. There is a “Standard” setting in the game options, which alerts the player to which decisions are important and explains how characters might later react, but I’m playing on “Minimal” – which does none of those things. Playing this way leaves me wondering if I screwed up on a certain part or didn’t do something that I could have, and the other characters consistently reinforce that feeling by talking about my actions – or lack thereof, as it were. Case in point: during one segment, a zombie surprises my companion and I trip as I rush to her. I tried moving quicker while on the ground, but someone else stepped in and saved the day. This creates a ripple… but what goes over and over in my head, is whether or not this was scripted or whether I failed. Was this fate or my choice?
This idea of player decisions comes to a head with the aforementioned “impossible choices.” What makes a choice impossible? When you’re staring at two people, each on the brink of being eaten alive, and you can only save one. That’s just not fair. The first time, I saved a kid over an adult, and that choice was met with hostility from one party but solemn gratefulness from another. The second time I made a choice in the opposite direction I normally would – but the person I’d normally save “first” had a weapon, so I went with the other person. These are impossible choices because there is no way around them, though it feels as if there should be, and there are no do-overs for a better score. The game, itself, even on the minimal settings displays “Choose who to save”. That’s rough, because I want to be able to save both. If I could just play through this part a couple of times, I could learn to react quick enough and then it’ll be okay! No.. that’s not how this game works, because that’s not really how life works.
And that’s why this game is wonderful.
I’m only 1/5 of the way through, and already I’m upset by the choices I’ve been forced to make. I couldn’t play better or avoid these decisions, and that’s the point of it all. The Walking Dead is upsetting, because it has placed me in my character’s shoes in ways I’ve yet to experience from a game (as every rave review has mentioned or alluded to). Like him, I’m constantly second-guessing my decisions, wishing I’d done things differently, and trying my best but regularly failing. The flipside to all of this, though, is that when things go well.. it’s so much more satisfying. This game is amazingly upsetting, yes… except that when it’s not, it’s elating :).