You Create the Story - Telltale's "The Walking Dead" - hist Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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You Create the Story - Telltale's "The Walking Dead"

When you break it down to the extreme basics, video games are nothing but an illusion, the game presenting things on screen that our minds process and put into order so that we can understand them. Games are also constrained by their programming and can only contain so much within their code. No matter how expansive the game seems, it cannot adapt intelligently to the player. That's why there are always barriers from doing what you really want to do.

See a car and wall to hide behind on the other side of that roadblock on the Call of Duty map? Nope, sorry. You can't go there. You have to go down the alleyway instead.

Lately, some games have been bragged about how their stories adapt according to what the player does within the game. The biggest example is the Mass Effect series, where galaxy-spanning events occur and some of them can be shaped by your actions.

More intimately, you have something like Telltale's phenomenal episodic adventure, The Walking Dead. Episode five has been released and I finally played it last night. It's a heart-wrenching, yet vaguely unsatisfying final episode to the first season of the game. There's nothing wrong as far as the story goes. Instead, it's just way too linear and far too short. Puzzles are very limited, story-changing decisions are almost non-existent, as it races toward the conclusion that made this hardened soul cry. Don't get me wrong. It's only unsatisfying because of it's length and lack of puzzles. It's still a fitting conclusion to the story and doesn't detract from the previous episodes at all. The story is worth the price. The ending could just have been so much better as a game.

After completion, the game gives you a run-down on all of the characters you've met throughout the five episodes and reminds you what happened to them. The choices you made involving them, things like that. And it got me to thinking about the interactivity of the game.

It also made me reflect back on a conversation Mojomonkey12 and I (and Daniel chimed in too, I think) had on the last episode of their podcast that I appeared on (maybe two months ago?).

As I said at the beginning of this post, games are limited in how broad of a scope they can go, as the story the developers want to tell has to end in a certain way and it has to go through a series of forks in the road that all inevitably end up at that point. The details may be different. The people who are with you may not match your friend who also played the game. But it will end in the same place. When you think about it, it does feel very limited, like your choices don't matter *that* much. That was the conceit of Mass Effect and why a number of people were upset at the end of it (I don't mean *by* the ending, which is a whole other kettle of fish). They had gone through three games making choices all over the place, and it didn't always feel at the end that those choices really mattered that much.

For example, say there's a point in an episode of a game where you have to choose whether to save me or Empty Chair (Empty Chair: Hey! Why are you using me there? Don't inflict your sick fantasies on your readers). If you save me and Empty Chair dies, later on I end up getting killed by something else (Empty Chair: Good riddance!). If you had saved Empty Chair in the first place, would he have died at the same point later in the story? Most likely, but who knows? That would be one way for the game to basically make your choice not mean anything. It didn't matter who you saved. They both died in the same place later in the game anyway. The interactions would be different in getting to that point, but ultimately it would make no difference.

So what's so attractive about these games where you do "create the story?" You're not really "creating" it, as the developers are. But you get to feel like you are.

And that's the point. Again as I said at the beginning, games are illusions that our minds process so that they make sense to us. When you're in the middle of one of these games, you're living the story. The subtle ins and outs of the narrative that you *can* change (who lives, who dies, who loves you, who hates you) immerse you in the story and make you feel like you are living it. Creating it. You enjoy it because you have that feeling of ownership. You can go to your friend who's been playing the same game and say "Kenny ditched me because I never supported him (I don't know if he does, as that's not how I played it, so no spoilers) while my friend can say "oh, Kenny felt really indebted to me because I supported him at every turn!" and you see that you're both living a different narrative. The same ultimate story, but a different narrative.

It's for this reason that I will probably never go back and re-play the entire Mass Effect series (that and because it's fricking huge!), and why I hate it when you "re-do" conversations in Mass Effect. When different conversation options ultimately take you to the same place, it does throw you out of the narrative. I plan on re-playing The Walking Dead to see how different decisions affect the outcome, but part of me is reluctant for this very reason. My The Walking Dead story turned out the way it did through my choices. It is basically my story. Do I really want to re-tell it differently?

Maybe that's a good way to look at it to make re-playability an option. You're not changing things through the mechanics of the game. You're just re-interpreting and re-telling the story. 

Either way, until games develop true intelligence and adaptability (Empty Chair: in which case, they'll take over the world!), "tell your own story" games will always be limited. Instead, they will present the illusion of you creating the story.

That's good enough for me.

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