Thursday, September 13, 2012

Death and Meaning in The Walking Dead

My latest PopMatters article is now live: Death and Meaning in The Walking Dead

So I wrote about The Walking Dead, again. I am of course smitten with the game. This time around, I want to come to the defense of how the game handle's choice, specifically decisions pertaining to whether or not characters live or die.

In the first episode of the series, Lee has the opportunity to save one of two characters twice. While the first decision is ultimately meaningless in regards to who lives or who dies, the second decision does matter. Unfortunately, these two early options, couples with the trend in games of giving players control of major turning points, results in unfair expectations in players. When three characters deaths occur in the third episode, none of them preventable, it can feel jarring and unfair to some players.

This is precisely the problem Mass Effect 3 created for itself within the series' conclusion. With the right expectations, both games succeed marvelously at their machine. The real meat of Mass Effect 3 is found in the continuous denouement that occurs throughout the game. Meaning is found in the quiet moments with characters and the culmination of story arcs that have traced their way throughout the series. The best parts of Mass Effect 3 occur are not the results of single Paragon/Renegade decisions, but the fulfillment of player choices and long-term relationships established earlier in the series.

For a game set in post-apocalyptic America, the irrevocable deaths of friends hit emotional beats precisely because the represent the chaos of a crumbling system. My hope is that the third episode removes incorrect expectations from players and makes the story of the following two episodes that much more effective.

1 comment:

  1. Spoilers ahead!

    See, the game has done such a great job of convincing me that I was in charge, I didn't realize Carly had to die. I thought it was my fault for trying to insist that neither one was guilty, and I felt absolutely terrible. I sided with Kenny in episode 2, and figured this was payback. Like you, I left Lilly behind.

    I didn't think I could prevent Duck's or Katja's deaths, but that didn't bother me at all. This world doesn't revolve around Lee, and if every character's death was a binary choice, it would get a little ridiculous. Honestly, even if the rest of the game was just playing out the deterministic consequences of my actions so far, I would gladly stick with it.

    Such fantastic, powerful storytelling.