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The Engaging Dead


For the past few months I've been working on the various parts of my video analysis for season one of Telltale's The Walking Dead. I always come away from these experiences with a number of lessons learned and things to look out for next time, but one of the lessons this time around was completely unexpected. I have resolved to never do a video review of a game I've played only once through.

There are many reasons I came to this conclusion, one of which being that I'm not merely seeking to do a consumer review. An in-depth analysis requires a much closer look and understanding of what ties a game together thematically and mechanically, and you typically won't have as good an understanding of that if you've only gone through the game a single time.

What I will be focusing on today, however, is a slightly different experience you get revisiting a previously played title. Upon playing a game a second time, with no surprises in store and an idea of what to expect, the game's highlights and flaws become notably stronger or weaker. In the case of The Walking Dead, a game that was only bested by Dishonored in my choice for Game of the Year in 2012, I realized that this "excellent" experience was nowhere near as good as I had once thought it was.

Before I explain why, I need to first explain what I consider the most crucial aspect not only in video games, but in all of entertainment; engagement. A lot of simple terms like "fun" are used to describe a good game, but such phrases are extremely limiting. Can you truly describe every game that you've ever enjoyed as "fun"? Are horror games, for example, "fun" even if the sheer feeling of terror and shock is anything but?

It is much more accurate to refer to these experiences as being engaging. A game doesn't need to be designed for fun, nor does it need to be designed for joy, in order to effectively engage the player. When you are solving a puzzle in The Legend of Zelda, you are engaged. When you're low on ammunition and outnumbered by Covenant forces in Halo, you are engaged. When you're hurrying to harvest all the tomatoes in time to go into town and see your preferred love interest in <em>Harvest Moon</em>, you are engaged.

The most important part of entertainment is to make sure the audience's brains are still operating. Even the most basic, simple piece of entertainment requires the audience's brains to be working in some fashion. From more conscious efforts as following the plot to subconscious ones that translate that quick cut into a scene change, the brain is always working. So a good video game is one that has the player engaged at all times.

Perhaps another day I'll go into how and why this can create a huge rift in more "gaming literate" players than new or "casual" players, but let's keep this on topic with The Walking Dead.

It's not easy to craft an interactive experience that keeps a player invested in its story. Most action-oriented games are broken up into long segments of combat arenas followed by brief, rushed moments of story. It's hard for a player to become invested in characters and the world in this manner because very little time is being spent with them, or at least outside of combat. Western role-playing games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect try to make up for this by allowing the player to speak with and get to know their comrades, but each character has a limited set of actions as they go on long monologues detailing the universe as much as their history. It becomes too easy to just tune out during this exposition because very little effort is made to pull the player into the moment.

The Walking Dead has these moments as well, but what Telltale excels at in this series is providing the player options and, most importantly, conflict during many of these sequences. Hershel pries deeply into Lee's business, and is frequently trying to catch him in a lie. Lee has to decide to be honest about the death of Clementine's parents or to try and hide the information from her. Every interaction with Kenny, no matter how civil, is like a battle to be for or against him.

Conversation becomes engaging in The Walking Dead because you have to manage your relationships with a variety of characters, all while under a time limit for each option. The more heated a discussion becomes, the more distractions present, and the more intense the experience becomes. This makes every interaction with the other characters of The Walking Dead more interesting than interacting with nearly any other character in a video game, all of which feel so, well, video gamey. Relationships aren't measured by some "likability" bar, but instead through notifications of what a character will remember and how they felt about it.

Even on a second playthrough, even when I knew what course the game's story would take, these moments had me on the edge of my seat, eyes darting from one corner of the monitor to the other, mulling over my choices. Equally thrilling were the brief moments of combat, where the game placed a gun in my hand and expected me to start shooting zombies. The less calm things became, the more interested in the game I was.

Then there were the moments of calm, and this is where The Walking Dead fails spectacularly. While many games have two states of being, action and cut-scene, The Walking Dead tries to provide a variety of different moments throughout. Intense action, dramatic dialog, calm discussion, and slow-paced puzzle solving. The problem is that the slow-paced puzzle solving isn't, well, very puzzling.

Most of the time spent "solving puzzles" in The Walking Dead will simply be steering Lee from one end of an environment to the other, then back and forth again. Telltale was no doubt trying to avoid another "Cat Hair Mustache" fiasco of poor puzzle design, but they ended up falling in the exact opposite hole. It's all way too easy, and when you're playing through the game a second time, walking from one end of a yard to another becomes boring and tiresome.

Yet every episode but the fifth is filled with such filler. The only time the game manages to break away are in the first and fourth episodes, where Lee is forced to try and manipulate the environment to avoid or kill zombies. These are, perhaps, the best puzzle solving moments in the entire game. Everything else is just making sure the episode doesn't end too quickly.

Oddly enough, many of these moments feel like they eat up the most time of the game, even if that's not quite true. Yet they are bad enough, especially when you already know what to do, that it drags the entire experience down. Episodes I used to speed through in a single night were now split into two because I would grow bored.

A well designed game doesn't need the player to be ignorant of its systems or solutions in order to have fun. Even a game like Harvest Moon or Phoenix Wright are entertaining throughout their repetition (though for the latter, much of that is simply due to how much evidence you must burn through in order to complete the game, much of it becoming jumbled in one's memory). Yet the puzzles in The Walking Dead require no skill or thought at all. They fail to effectively engage the player.

This has actually caused me to be hesitant about playing The Wolf Among Us, despite getting the entire season for free, and The Walking Dead season two. I'm afraid that I will not enjoy either now that I've realized how terrible much of the design in The Walking Dead season one is, that I'll be looking at both with the same critical eye.

I really enjoyed playing The Walking Dead and I feel it does a lot of great things that other games can learn from. However, it is no longer as beloved by me as it once was, and I am more sure than ever that the massive praise it and other Telltale games have received are in large part due to the widespread desire for games to "grow up".

Yet, for me, a game that fails to keep me engaged at all times is a heavily flawed experience. This process of making a video for The Walking Dead has forever tarnished my once wonderful view of it. Honestly, I prefer it that way, too.
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About ccesaranoone of us since 1:39 PM on 07.08.2009

After a little over a year's hiatus I have returned to the Destructoid Blog fold. Despite how thinly-spread my writing efforts have become, I still sometimes feel the need for a canvas in which I can sloppily splash the paint of my thoughts upon in hopes to have something resembling a thing.

So who am I? Right now I'm a writer over at GamersWithJobs, a blogger, a YouTuber and a Podcaster. I specialize in games analysis and criticism, and would like to use the Destructoid blog to share in some of my experiences working on these projects.

Note that I will be linking things I've been working on, but I will do so with the intent of embellishing on thoughts unsaid or detailing some of the work for any interested in also being content providers. Perhaps some of my experiences can help you out along the way.
Xbox LIVE:ccesarano
PSN ID:ccesarano


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