Eight Steps Forward: The Walking Dead

The inaugural Eight Steps Forward piece features a title that innovated by coupling a deep morality system with episodic releases.

By: Rich Shivener

Filed Under: Eight Steps Forward Feature Horror Reflections Review Story-driven

Welcome to Eight Steps Forward, our unique Year in Review series that looks at specific games from 2012 that were touchstone moments of growth within the medium. The eight games featured in this series are progressive in genre, design, gameplay, and narrative. Spoilers will abound.

The Walking Dead is revered as Telltale Games’ best offering yet, and it’s easy to see why.  The company not only designed an adventure game with a moral-swaying narrative that adapts with every choice the player makes; it also released the game in five episodes, offering plenty of time for playthroughs, subsequent introspections, replays and hype. That symbiotic relationship is a testament of great storytelling surviving in this age of digital downloads and subscriptions. It’s something to model after.

Largely underpinned by a point-and-click system, each episode of The Walking Dead takes shape as the player navigates lead character Lee Everett through increasingly complex situations in an undead world, showing the oft-dreaded implications of his actions. In Episode 1, “A New Day,” there’s an instance where Lee is forced to save either a woman or a man from invading zombies. The woman, a reporter, has some sensitive information about Lee’s past life as a convict, while the man is a sort of innocuous survivor with IT skills. Who does Lee save? That decision is the player’s. It has to be made fast, though, perhaps faster than a gut reaction. Saving the reporter could change her outlook on Lee; ditching her could keep his secrets safe. Either way, the player’s decision will kill someone, and Lee will carry that burden.

What to do?

Episode 3, “Long Road Ahead,” takes the question of death and morality a few miles further when Lee is tasked with deciding who puts down an ill-fated boy named Duck. Will it be Lee? Duck’s father, Kenny? Duck’s mother, Katjaa? (A few months back, I noted this instance as one of the most emotionally potent in the game. Tears were involved.) There isn’t a right answer. There isn’t a wrong answer. There are answers to reflect on.

The question of death and morality rings even louder in Episode 4, “Around Every Corner.” Near the end, while in a belltower, Lee can drop a teenager named Ben to his death or save him. Dropping him would distract an oncoming horde, and it would serve as an act of revenge for various reasons, while the latter option would perhaps offer a moral high ground and satisfy Lee’s fellow survivors, including an impressionable little girl named Clementine. Again, neither answer is perfect.

Still, the player’s answer in that situation, like others before this one, has a lasting ripple effect on the game’s narrative. The ripples culminate by the end of Episode 4, when Lee asks Kenny for help when Clementine, the little girl in question, goes missing. Kenny either joins the search party without question or tells Lee off, depending how he was treated earlier.

Telltale’s episodic delivery bolstered these moments and more. While waiting for the next episode, players reflected on their actions in said episode, and they confessed their moral stances on such sites as The Walking Dead Game Confessions and related forums. Those outlets offered new ways of thinking about the game, and coupled with rave reviews by the critics far and wide, they built hype for every new episode, including Episode 5, “No Time Left.”

But the season’s epilogue is the strongest means of moral introspection, recapping what “you” did in five episodes, or roughly 10 hours of gameplay. My record was harrowing. Why does it say about me?

“You asked him to kill his son.”

“You pushed him off the bridge to escape the herd.”

“You left her on the side of the road.”

For years now, games have been testing our morals, with the advent of sandbox games like Saints Row the Third and role-playing epics like The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings and the Mass Effect franchise. Whether we’re selling off sex slaves or betraying allies, the choices we make have in-game implications that can transcend the screen and reveal something interesting about our ethics and our selves. The Walking Dead differs from the aforementioned because it doesn’t give you hundreds of possibilities and seemingly unconstrained environments. Rather, it offers a linear narrative that adapts to the player’s choices, which are limited yet impactful. Every choice is memorable. Damning. Enlightening. Morally something, somewhere between right and wrong.

It didn’t take us five episodes to realize that.

Related readings from Bit Creature:
Ryan Winslett: Stop Me if You’ve Heard This One
Drew Dixon: The Blessed Illusion of Choice
Rich Shivener: A Walking Dead Complex

Filed Under: Eight Steps Forward Feature Horror Reflections Review Story-driven

About the Author:
Rich Shivener is the Lead Editor of Bit Creature. He is also a writer, instructor and iPad whisperer from the shores of Northern Kentucky. You can find him in Publishers Weekly and Writer's Digest, among other places.

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