Making tough decisions like a human

Lee, the conflicted player-controlled character from The Walking Dead

Lee, the conflicted player-controlled character from The Walking Dead

"I know it’s comfortable riding that fence, but at some point you’re going to have to make a choice."

Those are the words Kenny—father, husband and survivor—said to Lee, the player controlled character, in the early moments of The Walking Dead episode two. It wasn’t just a warning to Lee though; it was a warning to me, the player, as well.

I’m typically a fence rider when it comes to story decisions in games. It’s not that I’m an indecisive person. I just want to see how both sides play out when presented with a narrative fork, and I know with most games, it’s unlikely that I’ll play the entire thing again to see everything both ways. And so I ride the middle as long as possible.

I also like to ride the fence to find that point where a game forces you to decide, or decides for you. In many games with narrative choice, there’s no middle ground. You’re good or evil, you kill that guy or spare him, you support the family man or his opponent. And in most cases, you never know when that decision point is coming. You think, oh I’ll pursue this path for a bit and see what happens—OH NO I KILLED THAT GUY!

I was listening to a recent Idle Thumbs podcast—a wonderful podcast that focuses more on the development side of video games—and Jake (who, along with co-host Sean, is a developer on The Walking Dead) said he likes games that acknowledge the fact that there’s a human being on the other side holding the controller. That’s exactly what The Walking Dead does. It acknowledges the human tendency to sit back and ride out a decision, and then tells you to suck it up, because there are zombies out there and we don’t have enough food for all these people.

Back in 2009, when I was a newspaper reporter, our corporate overlords sent a writing coach in to give us some tips. This guy was a seasoned pro, and I learned a ton about writing and interviewing from him. One of the things he said that stuck with me was:

“Good interview questions should make both you and the person on the other end squirm. You should feel a little nervous, a little uneasy about the question you’re about to ask. They should feel the same about answering it.”

I didn’t like the advice at the time. I’m not a huge fan of conflict, and those kinds of questions were sure to cause it. But he was right. After weeks of being the only person sitting in the back of boring open-to-the-public city planning meetings, I started asking questions that made me uncomfortable. It wasn’t long before members of the council started to acknowledge me in those meetings. I ended up writing some great stories, and gained the respect of some influential people.

And that’s the success of The Walking Dead. It makes you squirm. It sticks you in uncomfortable situations, and sometimes even lets you choose inaction or silence. But even that won’t go unnoticed.

If you haven’t tried that game yet, I highly recommend it. It’s just five bucks an episode (they’re about three hours long each) and it’s available on PC*, Xbox, PS3 and iPad. You don't need to have any familiarity with The Walking Dead TV show or comic, this game exists as its own stand alone story. Just be warned, there are some tough decisions to make, and many times, you don’t have the time to think them over.

* FYI – I have the PC version and it’s fundamentally broken. I have to jump through several hoops to make my saves carry over between episodes—a crucial hook of this game’s branching narrative. That’s part of the reason why I’ve only played the first two episodes when there are four out. Despite these infuriating issues, I still love the game; just go with another platform if you can. Or maybe you’ll be a lucky PC user and not have those problems.