Nov 292012

World War Z and The Walking Dead take a similar conceptual approach to the zombie apocalypse, but have fundamentally different views on human society. The basically optimistic World War Z suggests that social problems are a surface malady that the zombie apocalypse would strip away, letting the moral strength of mankind ultimately show through triumphantly. The Walking Dead, on the other hand, sees social order and altruism as artifice, a contortion of natural human behavior that falls apart once the zombies consume the social mass that held it in place.

This dichotomy predates Robert Kirkman and Max Brooks. The political philosophies of Rousseau and Hobbes were part of a similar debate centuries ago. Kirkman takes Hobbes’ side, and this is evident in The Walking Dead’s series of would-be hegemons. That’s most obvious in antagonistic groups like the Woodbury colony (and by implication in Crawford), but it’s also characteristic of the survivor groups the reader is expected to root for. Rick Grimes, Lee Everett, and even Hershel Greene are strongmen too.

Mostly, they fail at it. Hobbes promises a state of nature in which people’s lives are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The strongmen of The Walking Dead usually manage to stave off “solitary”, but the rest comes true. The world of The Walking Dead is not fighting its way back towards a bright new dawn for humanity. Rather, humankind is clinging to its last few moments of life. Grimes makes that point explicitly in the comic:

You people don’t know what we are. We’re surrounded by the dead. We’re among them — and when we finally give up we become them! We’re living on borrowed time here. Every minute of our life is a minute we steal from them! You see them out there. You know that when we die — we become them. You think we hide behind walls to protect us from the walking dead!

Don’t you get it?

We ARE the walking dead!

We are the walking dead.

That’s why it doesn’t bother me that the player’s choices in The Walking Dead don’t really matter. Or, at least, they don’t matter in they way that they appear to. The game seems to offer Lee a choice of helping Duck or Shawn, but the reality is that Lee can’t save anyone. Shawn dies, and Duck survives for a while, no matter what the player chooses to do. Choosing between Carley and Doug is similarly futile. One dies, and the other lives, but for how long?

Lee’s choices don’t change the world, or alter the fundamental flow of the story. He can do nothing to keep the drugstore safe, preserve the motel stronghold, or prevent the treacheries in Savannah. If those are the kinds of choices that “matter”, then Lee’s decisions don’t. But decisions that mattered in that way wouldn’t really fit the themes of The Walking Dead. It’s not a world where a man ultimately has any real power to save anyone.

But the choices in The Walking Dead aren’t really about changing the world, they’re about changing Lee. The player’s choices define who Lee is, whose company he values, what principles he chooses to uphold. The world reacts to those decisions, in subtle ways that either reinforce those decisions (for instance, in the developing friendship with Kenny) or play off them (as in the case of Duck’s fate). The player’s choices matter because they establish a context for his emotional connection, through Lee, to the game world.

This connection reaches its highest point in the final moments of “No Time Left”. As he sits dying in a jewelry shop, Lee talks Clementine through the process of retrieving keys and a weapon from a trapped zombie. He tells her to grab certain tools, to interact with certain objects. What Lee is doing with Clementine is what we, as players, have been doing with Lee. In this moment, he is us.

In the end, Lee chooses whether Clementine leaves him to become a zombie, or shoots him in the head. Clementine’s choice doesn’t “really” matter either. She can’t choose for him to live, to leave that room at her side. All she can choose, all Lee can choose, all we can choose, is who she will be when she walks.

  7 Responses to “Your choices don’t matter”

  1. […] critic Sparky Clarkson has effectively encapsulated why player choice mattered in a post over at his blog. The choices matter, he says, but “they don’t matter in the […]

  2. So, in conclusion, choice made in the game doesn’t change anything at all…

    “All she can choose, all Lee can choose, all we can choose, is who she will be when she walks.”

    No, whatever you choose, Clementine end up the same. You can be immature, bad, d**chbag with her or with whoever you want. It’s always end the same.

    ” He tells her to grab certain tools, to interact with certain objects. What Lee is doing with Clementine is what we, as players, have been doing with Lee.”

    No. What Lee is doing with Clementine is what the script want us to do… Nothing more… At the end of the day, will all end up telling Clementine to broke the glass, to grab the baseball bat. To run away from zombie. Then we push the baseball bat to her, then she beat the zombie to (real) death.

    And tadam! You just did what the storyline want you to do… Otherwise ? Gameover…Or nothing happen, until you do what the script want you to do…

    “The player’s choices matter because they establish a context for his emotional connection, through Lee, to the game world.”
    Yes. That’s the only, but really the ONLY things the so-said “choice matters” does. All the rest is a cynic joke hiding the fact that TellTales didn’t want to bother giving us real impact more effective than 2 lines of dialog that will differs…

    That’s all you got. And then, no mystery why many players are pissed when they understand their choices they thought to be really important aren’t. And even more when TellTales claim everywhere and at every episode it does matter !

    Lee’s choices don’t change the world ? Hell, no-one ask that! We asked that TellTales did what they claimed they will do.
    There is a difference between lowering the impact of choices so that there isn’t this unrealistic hero changing the face of the world by is act and lowering the impact to near nothing at all.

    Of course, seeing the difference between this 2 lines of dialog and this 2 others is funny, for, at most, 20 second (the total duration of the differences your choice you just made before its end up and back again to the linear storyline).

    The impact of choices are a so ridiculous big lie, that choising between the sword and the bow in any RPG games have more impact in their respective game than the choice made in TWD game.

    Even more evidence of that ? A player that just click anything anytime when options are given to him in the game all end up like this :

    1 : Did the right thing that trigger the following of the story. Great ! Now you can advance further into the already set scenario.
    2 : Didn’t do what the story want you to do. Too bad ! You had probably an intelligent idea behind that, but we don’t care, just do what we want you to do. Until then, you’re blocked into a loop of “try again until case 1.”
    3 : Didn’t do what the story want you to do or you fail trying to do it and you die. Game Over. Try again until case 1.
    4 : You did one of the 2 (max 3) possibilities that actually act like case 1 but with some difference. Congratulation, you make the scenario differ for the 10 next minutes. But don’t worry, quickly enough, your derivating choice will make no difference anyway.

    And that’s all about it…
    The only choice that have a real impact (meaning : something that scenarists and developpers did really care much that “oh dude, if the player choice that, replace those 2 lines of dialog there by that”. “oh great man! An illusion of choice make difference fix in 1 minute and 20 words of coding…So great!”), and don’t just look like TellTales were lazy to think of different issues is the choice of saving Doug or Carley.
    Until act 3, where TellTales were probably annoyed to have to deal with 2 different issue, and just say “oh, whatever, just kill him/her so that we don’t have to deal with that”. Let’s just claim the “story twist thing to cover ourselves…”

    Even if the twist about this thing in act 3 was brillantly done, no doubt about that, it’s STILL how I feel it : Telltales wanted to save themselves from dealing with an anterior choice that had became to annoying for them to deal with.

    Same goes for Kenny, Ben and Molly (characters that you can, at least, delay for disappearance).
    You don’t let Ben die ? Just let kill him later anyway.
    Ben is already die so Kenny don’t have to save him, and, consequently won’t face his death trying to ? Let just kill him later.
    You saved Molly at Crawford so she’s still wandering around with you ? Just let her quit the group later.

    All the choices are tricks. And we would be okay with that if TellTales just assumed it in the first place. But they don’t, lying about how choice will matters, with this message at every beginning of episodes like a warning : “Be careful! your choice will impact the game!”. That’s so big hype that we can only think they are making fun of players when the discovers the real impact of our “choice”.

    Because, lol, seriously ? The epilogue is the same for everyone. Surviving people are the same for everyone. And the character your whole chatting and decisions that you made and could have the biggest impact on (Clementine) will always end up having the same mind about you (Lee).

    Sorry, but between not having superpower to change everything and every fate of people, and having 0 power to change absolutely nothing, not even what people think of you (Kenny don’t count, since he die anyway…) when you’re claiming everywhere that choice matter, there is a major difference ! The first is ridiculous, the second is ridiculous AND pathetic, because you even lie…


    That’s all about ‘choice matter’ thing.
    Appart of that, the game is amazing, and the only-one possible linear story is, at least, very well done. One of the best i’ve ever played after so many years of video game playing.
    People who, at least, pay interest in story in video-game should absolutely play it.
    About the big “choice matters” thing, it’s bullsh*t, big lie, more a big marketing thing to appeal customers.
    Don’t think it will have major issue, it NEVER does, not even when it would logically should, probably due on budget incompatibility or just lazy a*ss, don’t wanna know the reasons…But don’t think to much about that, or you will be surely disappointed.

    But don’t worry, the number of f*ck they give to your choices is, hopefully, inversely proportional to how much the story you will end up is amazing. :-)

    • And the award for missing the ENTIRE point of The Walking Dead franchise (hell missing the point of the entire ZOMBIE GENRE in general) goes to….

      RD!! Take a bow, take a bow!!

  3. RD, you are a gentleman and a scholar.

    P.S. Japan must be laughing at us. There multi-path visual novels with meaningful decisions are produced by amateurs and professionals almost constantly, while our attempt is meaningless choices and apologists for that fact.

  4. I disagree with RD.

    Finding out afterward that my decisions had little effect didn’t bother me. While playing, I felt immersed and that I was having an impact on the world around me. The exciting game-play and emotional connections I had with the characters & their story mattered more to me, and the “false” decisions helped establish these connections – colored the game world rather than changing it drastically, if you will.

    But if you feel cheated because you couldn’t choose the faith of the game’s characters, then that’s your….choice. Heh.

  5. […] plotline instead of making players believe that every decision was important. There are some great articles that describe how your choices for Lee define him, but I just don’t see the game that […]

  6. […] as well as the blog referenced in kotatu – The quote that really jumped out is taken directly from the comics, […]

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