Guest Thoughts : The Nature of Art, The Nature of Gaming, and The Walking Dead

Greg Jahn, from the Jumpcast, takes off his manga hat for a moment to talk about The Walking Dead.

Spoiler Warning: This article discusses plot details of The Walking Dead, including the ending, in detail


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It somehow seems appropriate that I should tackle my first gaming article on the topic of a game which was greatly lauded in the past year, yet seemingly beaten to death for barely being a “game,” but rather a form of interactive fiction. This argument bothered me, not so much from the elitist perspective which often arises in arguments about what constitutes a “real” game - typically in reference to the latest Nintendo non-game creation, which they want to use to justify their arguments for how Nintendo is destroying the industry as we know it, but I digress. It bothers me because it’s undermining the very arguments for legitimacy which our industry and its consumers have been arguing for in recent history, by backing away from the very aspect of this game which best exemplifies what games are capable of from the perspective of art. Let us take a step back a moment.

Not too long ago, the Internet gaming community as a whole banded together to confront a respected movie reviewer, when he asserted that games were not truly art. While the definition of a core concept such as Art can prove to be rather fluid, when it comes to these sort of discussions, it’s necessary to establish a baseline - what is the unifying thread behind the visual arts, literary arts, performing arts, and other such fragments of the Arts as a whole? My personal (completely arbitrary) definition is that each of these different disciplines - painting, music, theater, film, dance, etc - seeks to evoke a reaction or emotion from either the artist themselves, or from the subject which is experiencing the art. The line between gaming and these other disciplines is that gaming is interactive - the medium which is the artform is reacting to our own actions in the process of experiencing the artform, and to those who are immersed in the concept of observing and distilling the essence of an otherwise “fixed” artform, this interactivity causes gaming to be defined as some Other. Furthermore, there is such a wide spectrum of interactivity which gaming is capable of (from a rather minimal amount on one end, such as The Walking Dead, to a much more immersive and continual amount of reaction in other genres such as bullet hell games or other twitch-games such as Audiosurf), which can make gaming as a whole hard to define when it comes to these experiences. I would seek to draw a parallel between these ends of spectrum with the existing, accepted Arts, with painting or film at one end of the interactive spectrum, and dance at the other.

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However, this is all a mental exercise, and what is more important is how gamers, as a whole, reacted to Ebert’s assertion, which was to argue that games are art not despite of this interactivity, but in large part BECAUSE of it. By playing the game, we are each able to derive a unique experience in our playthrough which may be greatly similar to all other playthroughs, but ultimately is completely distinct from every other playthrough, and allows for its own pure emotional experience. I, obviously, agree with this perspective, although I don’t think it makes gaming superior to any other form of art - rather, it’s what properly differentiates it from other forms of art - the unique experience which every individual undergoes is what allows gaming to reach its full potential as art.

Which, in turn, brings us to The Walking Dead. (Last warning: spoilers ahoy). In many of the Game of the Year arguments, a not insignificant subset of the gaming population railed against the choice of The Walking Dead due to its relatively limited interface by which the interactivity takes place - aside from a few, simple, puzzles, it primarily took place through branching conversation trees which (ultimately) had no impact on the final story. At the end of the game, the same people are dead, and Lee gets bitten and Clem is left alone. And to a certain degree, they do have a point - ultimately the path, and the end result is the same. But that is the same criticism which can be levelled at MOST games. While some games have choices of different endings (insert Mass Effect 3 color joke here), a large majority of them have a set story which carries out - it’s only minor deviations from this path which the player is able to carry out. The Walking Dead follows this pattern, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. However, because it did not live up to the potential which some players saw after the first chapter or two when it came to branching paths, they levied this criticism against The Walking Dead as a reason as to why it’s not an actual “game.” The difficulty is that its method of gameplay, and its difficulties, are not quantifiable in the manner in which most other games are.

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If we were to take the typical first-person shooter, the obstacles which the player is to overcome, which will result in his or her own unique playthrough, are typically enemies who are attacking the player. Some may utilize some rudimentary AI, ducking behind cover or working in tandem to create a specific scenario for the player, and they result in their unique playthrough through the sequence of events which results from how they react to the enemies’ approach. The Walking Dead, on the other hand, does not have any free-form battles in this form. The challenges which are posed are much more difficult to quantify in an explicit manner, where you can easily consider an area “cleared.” How does one adequately describe the difficulty of feeding a group of people with insufficient rations? Sure, the end result in progressing in the game is the same - no one dies of starvation. But the end result of progressing in the first person shooter is the same, too - the player is alive and able to move on to the next area. The only aspect which changes in the FPS is that the player may have expended some ammunition or health in the process of making it on to the next area. In The Walking Dead, the player expends - for lack of a better term - political capital with the NPCs in his or her group, which alters the way the story plays out from there. Does it ultimately change the destination? No. But it does subtly change the path by which the player arrives at that point.

There are two primary examples in the course of the game which exemplify this situation: how Lee interacts with Kenny, and how each of them interact with Ben. Kenny is a fixture of the game through every chapter, and how you react to the first crisis with him (his son being attacked on the tractor), and particularly the second (when he is covered in blood which is not his own while Larry is arguing in favor of killing him just in case) completely alters how Lee and Kenny interact for the rest of the game. Over time, at certain points there is a degree of return-to-medium, but the conversations, the reactions, and the overall feel of every event involving Kenny from those points on is inextricably altered. In discussions of the game, most players would speak of “their” Kenny and how he reacted, and what his personality was like. THIS is the differentiation which arises from the interactivity, and THIS is what allows for each person to have their own unique emotional experience with the game - by playing out Lee’s actions as they would choose to in that situation (or rather, choose to have the character of Lee play out), they crafted their own personal experience which no other person will ever be able to completely relate to or understand unless they were making the exact same choices - the same as any other game.

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These personal choices become even more stark when applied to how Ben’s story plays out. Ben’s character dies, regardless of the choices of the player, but how he ends up dying - and what sort of catharsis and what sort of CHARACTER he is differs vastly depending upon what choices the player makes. Ben is the bumbling idiot of the group, and ultimately there’s not much which the player can do to craft his growth beyond a few minor choices - as far as I am aware, he doesn’t react any differently later in the game depending upon how Lee handles the revelation that he was the one paying off the raiders (and thereby causing Lilly to snap and kill one of your other members). But the final, major choice is at the end of episode 4 - you can choose to save him, or you can choose to let him die (or kill him, depending on the location where you allow it to happen). This is a pivotal choice for the player, and for the character of Lee - not because it impacts the end of the story in the slightest. But rather, because it completely changes the emotional connection which the player has with the game - you are given a choice as to whether a person lives or dies in an emotional way and there are good reasons behind both options. 

But making this choice provides a fork in the narrative which ultimately can lead to two major items: first, should he survive, Ben stands up for himself for the first time and finally allows us to see inside his shell. It shows all his misgivings, it shows what he’s lost and how he’s been trying to struggle with it without burdening anyone else, and it allows for (in my case) the catharsis of the confrontation with Kenny that Lee was unwilling to follow through with. By treating Ben like an actual person instead of the prop which he had been used as up until that point, he actually became one - which in turn leads to the other branching of the path. Ben, ultimately, dies in the fifth chapter if you did not kill him in the fourth. It is through no fault of his own (but rather structural integrity issues). As he dies, in excruciating pain, he still attempts to help the group by keeping quiet, but to no avail. So Kenny has his own moment of character growth and stays behind to put him out of his misery without being turned with the last bullet remaining, and then presumably dies to the zombie horde. If you chose to kill Ben, then a walkie-talkie is dropped into a conveniently placed hole in the roof, Khrista goes down to get it and gets mobbed, and Kenny goes down to save her, once more (presumably) dying off-screen - it’s still a heroic moment for the character, but I feel it lacks the circular arc which he and Ben undergo should you save Ben.

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And I suppose this is the point that I’m driving towards, albeit in a roundabout manner: just because the mechanics of the game are comparatively simple and easy to grasp, that in no way detracts from the interactivity which makes it a game, nor does it diminish the degree to which that interactivity drives a unique narrative for each player. While the skill involved is less, that simply means that, on the spectrum previously discussed, The Walking Dead is simply more on the passive end - closer to that of watching a film, rather than that of interpretive dance. But just as film is no less than dance, it is no lesser a “game” because of it. The Walking Dead should not be diminished for its accessibility and denied the label of game, rather it should be willingly embraced and held high for that accessibility because the starkness with which it allows for that branching narrative and differing experience is - quite possibly - the best example of what differentiates the Interactive Arts which the gaming industry has put out to date.

I normally drive games into the ground with completionism - 100%ing where available, getting as many achievements as is reasonable, endlessly replaying games that I enjoy. It’s part of the reason my backlog is as large as it currently is. However, I have no desire to replay The Walking Dead. Not because it’s not a fabulous game, but rather because it IS. I have experienced this game and made my choices and had my narrative, and I don’t want to taint that by finding out the other paths - as far as I am concerned, there is one True Path for my Lee - he saved the crack shot with a gun because he hoped she would be able to save the other person in time. He chose not to kill the brothers himself to save Clem from having to see him do it, and because the agony of how they would die otherwise would be far worse. He valued ALL human life, and as such did not leave Lilly at the side of the road, nor did he leave Ben to die. He was willing to mutilate himself if it meant any increased chance of finding Clem. And I would never have it any other way.

- Greg Jahn