I Can’t Break ‘The Walking Dead’

As I wrote in my post about Journey, I love the contradictory nature of video games, their use of cold hard programming logic to create an emotional reaction that’s not logical at all. It’s a wonderful contradiction, and I’m always amazed when a game gets it right. As such, I love breaking games down into their mechanics. I love tinkering with their systems in order to better understand how this process works.

I couldn’t do this with Telltale’s The Walking Dead. I’ve tried playing the game again. I’ve tried breaking it down to its core components. I’ve tried to analyze it from a distance to figure out how it’s able to so effectively hook my emotions, but I can’t break it. Every time I try to replay an episode, I am drawn to the same choices that I made before. They felt so right, both morally and logically, that to make another choice was to betray myself.

Ironically, that’s when I started to understand how this game works. Whereas Journey effectively mimics real emotions through its mechanics and BioWare keeps making ever more complex dialogue wheels to better mimic the complexity of everyday conversation, The Walking Dead became the most emotionally resonant game that I’ve ever played because it stripped away all those extra mechanics.

There’s no morality system, no friendship system, no meters of any kind, and no metadata of any kind that tells us how we’re playing. It’s just us and the other characters. This means that there are no distractions from the story. When we pick a response or action, we can’t use any game system logic to justify our decisions. We’re forced to use our real world logic.

Which is not to say that we can’t game the system, but any gaming of the system is done within the context of the narrative and characters. I can side with Kenny in an argument purely because I want to earn brownie points with him. This is a valid choice to make. However, those brownie points don’t come in the form of actual points. They’re a literal concept, not an abstract one. This means there’s no mechanical benefit or drawback to siding with Kenny, which frees me to respond in a way that I actually see fit and not how I think is best according to the weird logic of a game system.

In this moment when I choose how to respond to Kenny, I’m embracing the ludic nature of this conversation mechanic, but I’m also participating in the kind of real life politicking that is normal to conversation and to negotiation. I’m thinking about people, not points. And that’s the only kind of thinking that this game allows for, since there are no points to begin with.

Because of this, I have put more of myself into the character of Lee than I have in other characters in games of this ilk. I respond more honestly to the problems at hand because there’s no obvious game system in place to help me stay emotionally distant. You don’t play The Walking Dead like you play other games. You don’t approach it as a game. It doesn’t allow for that kind of thinking. Instead, it demands that you approach its conflicts as your would approach any problem in life.

Which is why I can’t break the game. I can’t manipulate the logical systems of the game because there aren’t any logical systems to manipulate. The only logic guiding the conversation trees and the branching narrative paths is my personal problem solving and emotional logic. The game doesn’t assign benefits or drawbacks to a choice, I do that myself when I make a decision. Therefore, if I go back and make the opposite decision, it feels inherently wrong because it goes against my own logical thought process.

The Walking Dead is designed in such a way that your initial decisions always feel like the right ones. We spend so much mental energy justifying that first decision that to go back and do something different is to betray ourselves. That’s what makes The Walking Dead work. It doesn’t use its mechanics to mimic emotional connections. It uses its mechanics to facilitate an emotional connection.