I think we can all agree that video games have developed significantly over the past decade, not just in regards to graphics, gameplay, and re-playability but also in another way, a way we didn’t quite expect. When video games first began they were made simply for fun. During a game of Pong, for example, players never wondered about why the ball was bouncing across the screen, or how this situation would fit into the context of a story; you just played it to kill time and to see the highest score you could get. Over the years, however, games have developed from a simplistic form of entertainment into sometimes tear-jerking and mind-bending cinematic masterpieces.
A lot of development nowadays seems to focus on topics relating to increasing player interactivity. While many may think I’m referring to a first-person perspective or extra immersion using virtual reality with the Oculus Rift, what I’m actually referring to is the inclusion of morality and choice within games. This is done not only by adding in different paths that a player can go down (depending on the choices they make), but also by blurring the lines of those paths. In the indie game Undertale, there are three paths a player can take: Pacifist, Mixed, and Genocide. In Genocide, you actively hunt down and kill every NPC in order to become stronger, while with Mixed, you leave at least one other NPC alive. In Pacifist, you instead find creative alternate solutions to work around battles and befriend the characters as opposed to just ruthlessly killing them. This is a unique mechanic, as the game’s characters will remember your previous choices and will hold you accountable for them, even if you’re starting a new game. By using this tactic, the player feels a little less like they’re playing a game and more as if they are stepping into an actual world. As a result, this creates a certain magic to the game, and strengthens the player’s immersion into the game’s world.
Now, while Undertale is an incredible game, I do have to point out the ease of knowing which path is the good path to take. The design will constantly discourage the player from killing other characters, and will actually urge you to never dispatch anyone. While that is a lovely idea, it is easier said than done. Upon your first encounter, other characters will fight you, and some enemies will do everything in their power to make you snap. In games such as Telltale’s The Walking Dead, however, most of the conflict seen within the game doesn’t arise from characters battling walkers (aka zombies) but rather from the issues that arise among the group. These issues are relating to a more ambiguous morality, and how much of your humanity you’re willing to abandon for the sake of survival.
When you and your team find a stranger who tried to raid your food supply, what do you do? If you let him go, will he run away or come back with reinforcements to steal your wares, or leave your group in peace? If you kill him, will it protect your team, or provoke his group into attacking yours in an act of vengeance? It’s difficult to know the right answer, as the game won’t hold your hand and tell you. In fact, there’s hardly ever a right choice. A limitation of multiple choice games is that too many varying choices make it difficult for the game to work. Every different split leads to a new ending, and if you constantly have new branching paths, it will become too much for the developers. For a standalone game such as Until Dawn, there can be multiple endings where you can save or let everyone die depending on what you do. Every choice there matters. However, a game developing into a series or an episodic game series may not be able to do this.
While this may be due to budget limitations for the developers, it could also be considered a limitation that is turned into an advantage. A similar technique was used by the developers of Silent Hill. The game’s developers discovered that the PlayStation couldn’t handle the number of polygons and frames to show things far off in the distance without them awkwardly clipping in and out. To solve this, the developers added a thick mist to the game, so as to hide these flaws. Although this was done as a simple cover-up job, the addition of the mist made the game all the more terrifying, since players never knew what lurked in the thick fog until it was coming straight for them. This is a key example as to how the designers used the game’s limitations to their advantage. Now, how does this apply to The Walking Dead you ask? Well, in regards to the choices you make, the outcomes are usually quite narrow, tending to lead to almost the exact same ending.
Some people may see this as a cheap trick done by lazy developers so that they don’t have to do any extra work, but as a game design student, I can’t agree. If every choice you make veers off into new choices, then the game would become too large to make. The idea that the people for whom you go to extreme lengths to protect will die regardless as to how much you suffer to save them is a tragic and genius element. Despite your best efforts to protect your team, you can never go through the game and keep everyone alive. A part of you feels helpless, as your comrades are picked off one by one, taken either by an enemy, an accident, or some sort of gruesome untimely death. A part of you wants to just do what you can to survive, but if it means forcing you to betray or leave behind your friends, can you really bear to do so?
What surprised me most of all is the discourse among fans that follows. It seems that every time a new episode of the The Walking Dead game is released, the fans erupt into arguing over which character the player should have sided with, writing long, detailed posts about who chose what option on their play-through, and why. It isn’t even so much the gameplay or cracking zombies skulls open with makeshift weapons that we enjoy in these types of games — it’s the quarrels and moral dilemmas that emerge and make us really think. These sort of reactions don’t only stem from games such as The Walking Dead, but also titles like Dishonoured, The Last of Us, and Bioshock.
The development of morality and choice is a significant one in regards to gaming, especially when you look back and remember that the medium was started as a simple gimmick to kill time. For a while now, the growth of morality within games has had a profound impact on the games industry and in the world-building of games themselves. I look forward to seeing how developers will use this mechanic in the future, and where this new trend will lead both gamers and game designers alike.