Along with what seems like half of the gamers I know, I’ve been playing through Telltale Games’ excellent Walking Dead as of late. I’ve had it for a while, just didn’t give it a try. Once I did, it became like a gripping novel I couldn’t put down. Daresay, I think I enjoy it better than the TV show (I shouldn’t be that surprised, as the Back to the Future game from Telltale was also pretty awesome).
Apart from great voice acting and a terrific story, the element that’s capturing the attention of gamers is that the game is rife with difficult — and often snappy — choices that must be made. It’s all about choice and consequence, and you never know what consequences that your decisions, even your dialogue, will cause. Some of it’s somewhat superficial, as the game will proceed more or less the same no matter what you do, but a lot of it is substantial (or at least feels that way). I’m almost always left wondering what would’ve happened if I had done something different, if things might’ve turned out better.
It’s the kind of choice-and-consequence dance that I think we were hoping for in SWTOR (and perhaps saw come to life from time to time). It works because the game goes to great lengths to have you get to know the characters as actual people — and then it puts you in near-impossible situations that could have a dire impact on them. The choices are painful as they are delicious, because you honestly feel like what you do matters.
As an MMO gamer, I think that’s what I’ve craved. I want my actions, my choices, to matter. In LOTRO yesterday, a quest gave me a choice to tell the truth to a dad who had his daughter run off with a farmhand or to lie to him so that the newlywed couple could get a fresh start. That could’ve been a tough call, except that I’m pretty sure that there will be no real consequences from that choice. So it becomes cosmetic.
The Secret World isn’t big on offering those kind of A or B choices, although it has happened a couple of times. Yet I feel a kinship between TSW and The Walking Dead for a couple reasons (beyond zombies, the apocalypse, and a general horror setting). In TSW, we really are getting to know a much smaller cast more intimately, which makes my feelings toward them more significant since I could be seeing them again. Really getting to know their motivations and stories provides motivation for me to do the quests for something other than the material rewards. Last night I was talking with a kindly bartender in Transylvania who could feel the pain of those who died in the area — including her parents — and I genuinely wanted to do the quest that would help give her some small measure of peace.
Both games have really made me think about who my character is and what kind of person they are. I’m willing to bet that most people in The Walking Dead play Lee as nice and honorable as possible, but you don’t have to. He could be a complete jerk, a pragmatic leader, a crafty soul, or what have you. But I’ve gotten to know my Lee to the point where I know what he — not I — would decide in any given situation.
Likewise, Yeti in TSW has developed her own quiet personality that’s seen perhaps only by me. She feels a bit naive yet hopeful, a little put out at being played as a puppet by forces beyond her control, and stubborn (with a shotgun!) against the evil that’s leaking out everywhere. The world and its characters are so rich that it’s encouraged me to imprint an equally rich personality onto her, which might have been one of the reasons why Funcom made it so that your character doesn’t ever talk. It’s an intentional gap to let your imagination create something better.
Anyway, back to choice, I know it’s a lot more difficult to have the kind of deep impact choices from The Walking Dead in an MMO for many reasons… but I can’t help but be wistful that we don’t see a studio go all-out with that. BioWare really had to hobble itself when it came to the consequences of player actions, especially when it came to companions (such as no companion death). Maybe there was no way around that in SWTOR, but I do wonder what it could’ve been.
I’ve got a little over an episode to go for The Walking Dead, and while I’m curious how things might have gone differently, I don’t think I’ll be replaying it. I want this one story to be my story, and when it’s done, it’s done.