Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Narrative Crutches in The Walking Dead

Did I mentioned I love the The Walking Dead? Because I do, very much. I was thrilled to play Episode 3 of the five-part episodic series which just released this week. Before I did however, I turned the "Story Notifications" features in settings. This option defaults to on and controls if players are notified of certain story conditions. Generally, they tell players if a character will remember a something. Without Story Notifications, players make decisions blind to their long-term outcomes.

Now I was hesitant to turn off Story Notifications, but heard from friends and acquaintanceship that it was the "real" way to play. The logic is sound. Lee, the series' protagonist, lacks prescience, so why should players be given some sort of sixth-sense that alerts them to the internal feelings of others? Knowing that Clementine will remember Lee failing to save her or seeing that Kenny will remember specific details about a conversation. might change how you interpret certain scenes and the entire game. Players might be more on edge with Kenny if they know he is chewing on something Lee said earlier in the game. Naturally, I turned it off.

I gave this plenty of thought: turning off Story Notifications was a terrible decision. I need these narrative crutches.

It might just be me, but the history of games has taught me filter out information. I have been trained to ignore anything that is not immediately useful or important, especially tangential information. The result is that I have started taking stories at face value. Put simply, I don't know when to care. Playing through Episode 3, I found I missed the notices that Clementine would remember something I said. Am making an impression on her? Does she understand the severity of the situation? Without helpful cues, I started seeing her as less mutable, less affected by my decisions and by the story as a whole, the game seemed a little more vapid than I remember.

Story Notifications actually help the experience, at least my own. Yes, if Lee were a real person, he would never know if and how decisions shaped Clementines view of him. However, if he were a real person, he would also have facial cues and hours and hours of down-time to watch her behavior and reactions. In the abbreviated and heavily stylized world of The Walking Dead, it can be hard to read another person's response to actions and decisions. Story Notifications are simply short-hand for information that, theoretically, Lee could know. Also, these notifications are not particular clear. They provide no great insight into a person's reaction other than they appear particular responsive to an event. Clementine will remember certain actions, but I have no idea how she will remember it.

With the notices in the top left, I feel comfortable again. Maybe I have been enfeebled by years of video game training. Maybe The Walking Dead will help me stretch my "narrative legs" without the crutches of story notifications. I will not know until I play the game a second time. For now, I am committed to playing on default. I would rather enjoy the excellent game with some assistance than hobble around on my own.


  1. I'm really enjoying the series too, I didn't know Episode 3 was out. I think you're right about the story conditions, I can't imagine playing without them.

  2. It's just a question of how the game provides feedback to the player. I have only played the demo but I thought the story notifications were effective. They're a little leading, but so what? Other media does that too. For instance, the camera in a film focusing on something that no character is actually looking at, but that is dramatically interesting for the viewer.

    Having text pop up on the screen might seem comparatively silly to a leading camera focus but this is a video game: text and other interface elements pop up on the screen all the time! A text notification feels totally natural in this context. But, compare this to LA Noire, which *is* built around reading facial gestures. Text pop ups in that game would defeat the purpose.

    This seems to me like a film having the option of disabling dramatic musical cues. Maybe the cues are a little too hamfisted, maybe not, that's a judgment call. But there's nothing inherently wrong with musical cues.

  3. Well said. Other games, something like Journey, would also feel off with visual cues. I might feel the same way about those in The Walking Dead, but they are subtle enough to be non-intrusive.