Candied, crushed sago't gulaman
In the first part of this essay, I explained how the choices made throughout the Mass Effect series had no effect on the direction of the main plot. I also found it noteworthy that The Walking Dead worked with similar restrictions but still garnered widespread praise.
To be fair, Telltale had the convenience of having been able to plan for all five episodes they released only months apart to come up with a strong cohesive plot. Bioware had to tie up every single story thread in three complete massive games years apart each other without even the guarantee that they’d get to tell the whole story when they came out with the then brand new IP in ’07.
Then again, they did have all that time and the backing of EA, one of the biggest publishers in the business.
I believe the issue lies in how the player journeys with the heroes.
[Spoilers for the Mass Effect series and The Walking Dead here on out.]
In the Mass Effect series, the player begins his decision making before the game even starts in the character customization screens. You can choose what gender Commander Shepard will be, what Shepard will look like, what biographical background Shepard will have, and what class Shepard gets to play as. In the context of the plot, none of these decisions really matter aside from bits of altered flavor text.
However, this process helps establish the player’s connection to the character. For a lot of people, character creation allows them to begin projecting onto Commander Shepard.
Throughout each game, the player is given situation after situation where they have a direct impact on its immediate outcome. Slowly but surely, Shepard is built as a character that they identify with– whether he’s a paragon of virtue that reasons out every conflict or she’s a renegade badass who shoots first and asks questions later, or something in between.
Over time, the player is thrown against nigh-insurmountable odds with little to no help from the rest of the galaxy. He/she perseveres and rises above the occasion through the combat scenarios as well as the dialogue, inspiring others to band together to defeat an unstoppable opponent.
Throughout the series, the player has been conditioned to the idea that he/she is in control through victory in battle and successful diplomacy, even when each of those wins don’t amount to anything that truly transforms the main plot. So when Bioware assumes direct control at the very end with the literal deus ex machina that presents choices that don’t have the player standing tall in total triumph, it feels like a slap in the face to a lot of people. Never mind that the game repeatedly told them that the Reaper war would never be won conventionally and without sacrifice.
A slap that actually wakes them up to the fact that all this time, they’ve been strung along to play a role in Bioware’s story.
In TWD, the player has no say in how Lee Everett came to be. He is an African-American history professor in a university in Georgia. His parents own a pharmacy in Macon. He is convicted of murdering a senator after finding out the man was having an affair with his wife.
However, his set biography doesn’t keep players from identifying themselves as Lee. His entire personality is molded by the players, through the choices they make whenever he is faced with a situation that demands their input.
Such situations, unlike in the Mass Effect games, don’t give players an avenue for coming out triumphant. The zombie-infested post-apocalyptic world of TWD has no room for big victories, only survival. By putting players into trying circumstances that only chip away at whatever hope they have, presenting characters vulnerable to the dangers of the world as well as the players’ irrational actions, and denying them of any opportunity for fist-pumping moments (save a couple), the players aren’t ever lulled into the feeling that they actually have control over the characters’ destinies.
Sure, there are instances where players feel like they are totally responsible for what happened, torturing them by the fact that they could have done something to prevent the tragedy. The strong personalities of the entire cast and the compelling relationships you foster with each one can’t help but evoke such powerful reactions for every small victory and catastrophic fate that befalls these people.
But as the game goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that there is no end to the agony. Each time Kenny and Lilly bicker, each time Ben endangers the group, each time a life is extinguished, the game hammers home the points that your decisions are merely futile attempts at surviving from one moment to the next, and that there is only one way for it to resolve. What choices you do get to make only serve to color how the plot proceeds to its ultimate destination.
Whether you choose to help out Duck or Shawn when both are in the clutches of the undead, Shawn gets a good chunk of his neck chewed off.
Try to revive Larry despite how bad he treated you? He still gets a face full of salt lick courtesy of Kenny.
Leave Lilly on the road on your second playthrough so you avoid having the RV stolen like what happened when you brought her? No big deal since you’ll abandon the RV in favor of the train.
Pull up the exasperatingly syscrew-up that is Ben in your escape from Crawford? He falls to his death in Episode 5 anyway. Let him go when he asks you to? Kenny still sacrifices himself to save Christa instead of Ben in a similar scene in Episode 5.
Even the seemingly crucial point where you’re presented with the option to have your zombie-bitten arm amputated as a last bid to keep the main character Lee Everett from turning has no bearing on how the game ends. Whether it’s from the resulting blood loss in having the arm sawed off haphazardly and without proper sanitation or from the virus left in the system to spread, Lee also dies in the end.
The moment Lee gets bitten is simply a formality for the observant.
When the time comes for Lee to say goodbye, it’s embraced as inevitable.
The choices in The Walking Dead aren’t about deciding fate. They’re about developing the player’s morality, and how that affects the relationships made throughout the game. Is it really so bad if I took supplies in a recently abandoned car especially when families with kids are starving? What will dear little Clementine think of me? What kind of person do I want her to grow up to be in this fucked up world?
In the Mass Effect series, the choices tries playing both sides. How will the Quarian-Geth conflict figure into the war with the Reapers? How will people remember me when I let innocent hostages die to capture a terrorist and I sentenced an entire solar system to annihilation to keep the rest of the galaxy safe?
The Walking Dead lets players carry those decisions for the rest of the game, and even makes them confront them all at the very end. Mass Effect forces the player to move on to the next big cinematic set piece, and disregards past choices for conclusions that befit the authors’ goals.
The reception to both games came about from how they structured the choices to fit their stories. In the end, people would rather have a linear story with a definitive ending reinforced by the limited choices that burden their hearts and minds than a more open narrative that leads them on, making them believe they have the power to make their own destiny. When fate has already been set in stone by the powers-that-be, people need to be able to see the writing on the wall.