Imagine knowing someone who has a reputation for being really, really good at one specific thing. Juggling. Limericks. Kayaking. Anything at all, but whatever it is, and whatever their faults in other fields, this is the one thing that they are an absolute master of. Someone who may not be especially talented – or even competent – at anything else, but they are really just the undisputed champions of one exact skill. Like, imagine someone really good at picking locks, but with with terrible BO and a misspelt tattoo on their face and they keep kidnapping other people’s dogs and saying that it’s their dog when it’s obviously not their dog… but they are great at picking locks.
Now imagine watching this person try to pick a lock, and they fail. They fail hard. They somehow break both of their legs and unintentionally set the door on fire, resulting in the entire building (except the door) collapsing, which incidentally results in thousands of kidnapped dogs running free from the building, and the final dog to escape takes a moment to insultingly urinate on the failed lockpicker, who is crying on the ground.
That’s kind of how I feel about Telltale Games.
Okay, I should probably point out two things; a) I am exaggerating a lot and I did get some level of enjoyment out of every Telltale Games game… Games game? Eurgh. I did get some level of enjoyment out of every Telltale Games production that I have played, including Puzzle Agent, all three seasons of Sam & Max, Telltale’s Game of Thrones, Poker Night 1 + 2, and The Walking Dead: Seasons 1, 2, and Michonne.
b) My actual point, in case my metaphor was needlessly stupid, is that the one thing I constantly hear about Telltale Games – especially regarding The Walking Dead – is that they make some of the most emotionally turbulent games packed with heart-wrenching moments and difficult choices – choices tailor-made to alter the story around you so that you personally experience the game in a method of your own choosing, walking a path not everyone will see, fraught with its own survivors and victims that other players might not see – and, above all, delivering one of the greatest stories told in the medium of video games.
To put it succinctly, if you had to pick one thing Telltale Games were really good at, it would be crafting a story.
I think Telltale Games are shit at writing stories and ‘The Walking Dead: Season 2’ would probably get a 2/10 from me for this exact reason. It’s not just bad writing, it’s terrible. And it’s not just limited to that game either; Telltale’s Game of Thrones and even Season One of The Walking Dead are plagued with hideous issues with the plot that have really marred my enjoyment of a franchise I was genuinely excited to get into to. So with that out of the way, let’s discuss exactly why Telltale Games need some serious help crafting a good story.
Obviously I have little respect for the plots of these games, but since I will be primarily talking about these three games (The Walking Dead, The Walking Dead: Season Two, and Telltale’s Game of Thrones) then there will be spoilers. Character deaths and the results of branching storylines will be revealed, so please be warned.
… Get it? Do you get the name of the blog? Telltale-Roading. Because it’s railroading. Telltale Games have a massive problem with railroading – in games, an act of offering the illusion of choice while all paths are progressing in the same direction and end up in exactly the same place anyway. I understand that Telltale Games have to resort to railroading to an extent – there has to be an overarching storyline to stick to, or the work involved and the scenarios created would overwhelm the developer. What kind of video game could possibly exist in which every single alternate path was fully-fleshed out with an individual story, setting and theme? What kind of impossible-
… Okay, but let’s be serious, that barely counts. The whole point of that game is to have different pathways that branch off into entirely unique storylines as an exploration and interactive discussion on the very concept of choices in video games, the purpose of a narrator, and a mixture of existential angst and a flawlessly comedic lambasting of video game tropes. But it’s not really comparable to The Walking Dead. The Walking Dead begins with a story that it has to stick to, to a certain extent, for its entire length. If they had to give you meaningful choice regarding how to handle every single situation, and the choices at no point converged back into one, leaving the world permanently changed as a result of your actions, how hard would it be to code that? Unthinkable, I imagine-
… Okay, but… damn. I’m not being entirely serious here – these are entirely different genres of game – but their existence is a decent counter to the garbage-trash railroading that exists in just about every production by Telltale Games that involves a choice system. Let’s go over some!
In Telltale’s Game of Thrones, you are Ethan Forrester, young inheritor of the throne ruling seat place of your family. There is trouble brewing, and your mother asks if your uncle Malcolm can travel to Essos and retrieve your much older, battle-hardened brother, Asher. If Asher returns, he will likely become the head of the house, and he is an easy-going brawler, but not very well cut out for leadership. Also, it would deprive you of your uncle, a reliable warrior in his own right. But Asher would be an invaluable help to you in the wars to come. Do you send for Asher or not?
In Episode 2, no matter what you choose, your uncle turns up in Essos and says “Hey Asher, what’cha playing? Whatever it is, forget about it and come home. Your mother asked me to come get you anyway.” Nice.
Also in Episode 1, you’re visited by Ramsay Bolton, a name viewers of the show will recognize as a guarantee that this scene is not going to end well at all. Ramsay says “Forresters make valuable Ironwood. But I don’t like you. I’m giving your Ironwood trees to your sitcom arch-nemesis family, the Whitehills!” And you have the option to say “Hey Ramsay. Forresters. FOREST. Whitehills. WHITE HILL. Who do you think breeds a better lumberjack?” And with a few helpful dialogue options, you can persuade him to leave you with half of your trees, so that you still have a chance to survive, and so that in a few months, he can judge who makes the better product.
In Episode 2, Forgettable Asshole Whitehill Man says he’s taking over your territory anyway. One line of dialogue. Oopsy-doopsy.
But these are just small choices compared to The Walking Dead, and also to later, more spoiler-y moments of Game of Thrones. What really sucks the fun out of the game for me is when the railroading is so severe that it kills people off. This isn’t a spoiler for any singular situation, but it’s a point I need to make when talking about how incredibly bad the writing is in The Walking Dead. If you ever – ever – have the chance to save a character’s life… that character will die. 100% guarantee. Every time.
See, if there’s a chance that a character will die, then that means that the writers have to come up with two future-paths, one in which they are alive, and one in which they are not. And writing two paths is really hard (very quickly and in a quiet voice) if you’re terrible at writing, which, if you are employed as a writer, makes you also terrible at your job (normal pace resumes) so they have no choice but to force those two paths back into one!
And the problem isn’t just that this happens so frequently, but it happens so… pathetically. With no modicum of effort put into it. In Season 2 of The Walking Dead, there’s a guy named Nick! He’s the trademark ‘Bumbling idiot who nonetheless probably doesn’t deserve to die’ and you can save him from a Walker in Episode 2. Wow! You saved a character’s life! Isn’t that the kind of powerful choice that makes you happy to play a game like this?
In Episode 3, Nick plays no role and gets about 4 lines.
In Episode 4, Nick dies off-screen and is mourned by two characters for about five seconds.
I don’t want to go on because I will be writing a lot, but just know that I could give you twenty other examples of this exact same thing happening, purely from The Walking Dead Season 1, Season 2, and Telltale’s Game of Thrones. It’s meaningless, it’s drivel, and it happens so frequently that you just stop caring completely. Which, for a game with a powerful story written with gut-wrenching emotional scenes, is a complete failure.
Most Telltale Games productions have a ‘The game is tailored by your choices’ warning, and that word sums it up very well. Tailored. You visit a tailor and ask them for a blue pinstriped suit, and they take a few inches in here and there, adjust the collar a bit, give you some nice cufflinks, and serenade you with ‘Shake It Off’ and ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ – I have never been to a tailor. But later, another person will visit a tailor, and they will also buy a blue pinstriped suit because I just watched ‘The Nice Guys’ so I have a blue pinstriped suit in my head. And their measurements will be different, they might customize things a little different. But you both bought almost identical suits.
The Walking Dead is tailored by your choices in the same way that a car is tailored by a bumper sticker.
One interesting element that isn’t always considered when it comes to making big choices in video games is that they allow you to see different sides of the same person. A lot of the major choices in The Walking Dead games seem to be ‘Save X or Save Y’, as if you’re choosing a Pokémon game instead of determining who lives or dies, so you don’t really see another side to anyone in this scenario, but those choices are out there, and they are interesting.
In the first episode of the first season of The Walking Dead, you and your makeshift group will be fleeing your shelter following a break-in by Johnny Rotting and his pals, and Larry, grade-A asshole and everyone’s least-favourite party member, will smack you in the face and leave you to be eaten by the not-zombies. Kenny, your new best friend in the apocalypse, will run back through the door and help you up. If you’ve been nice to him, he’ll say “No one else gets eaten… especially a good friend.” If you’ve been a jerk to him, he’ll say “No one else gets eaten… even if he is an asshole.”
This is… I’m not saying I think it’s good or bad, but it’s acceptable, and it’s a change that happens depending on your behaviour without raising any inconsistencies. The story has to continue with you alive, and Kenny is therefore obligated to save you, but at least they didn’t have him say the exact same thing twice. There is a very slight difference in the way the game is played, and it is dependent on the player’s actions. It could’ve been better – imagine if you could be such an asshole that Kenny looks back, then shakes his head and runs away while you’re eating by Walkers, and the game outright tells you ‘Game Over. You Died. Maybe don’t be such a massive cock next time!’ – but the most important thing I’m trying to say is that it doesn’t make Kenny’s character inconsistent. We’ve talked about the railroading, and how no matter what you choose, you’ll end up doing exactly the same thing and facing the same obstacles in the same story, but at least in this scenario, there is one Kenny. Kenny is a guy who takes care of his friends and would not leave a jerk behind to get eaten by zombies.
Then, there’s this asshole.
This guy’s name is Arvo and I fucking hate him. I hate everything he stands for, I hate the writing behind him, and I just really hate him. Probably my least favourite character in Season Two of The Walking Dead, and that is no short list. Arvo is probably the worst-written character in the game.
You first encounter Arvo when you’re hanging around the observation deck of a building, and he shows up to… actually, I still don’t really understand what he was doing. He just walks up and you get the drop on him and he’s meek and scrawny but he has a gun and a huge bag of medicine. He says it’s for his sister, and she really needs it, but you have the option to steal it from him because in your party there’s a pregnant woman and a lot of people with general aches and pains. If you steal it from him, he leaves, dejected.
But about 3 days later, you’re travelling through a snowy woodland path, and look who wanders up to you! It’s Arvo! And this time he’s backed by two armed Russian thugs, and his sister, who it turns out existed after all! And they furiously say they’re going to rob you of everything you have as revenge for what you did to him! Uh oh! What an unexpected consequence of your actions that was actually completely expected because why would they put him in the game and give you the option of robbing him if it wouldn’t come back to bite you? Wow, I bet you regret robbing him now!
Well, I am a very good game player man, so I didn’t rob Arvo the first time, which means I didn’t see the above turn of events, because – no, wait, they still happen in exactly the same manner and the only difference is that Arvo makes very slightly different facial expressions when he tries to shoot you later! That’s… that’s… y’know, I’ve just realised that describing this problem as ‘Inconsistent Characters’ isn’t as accurate as I would like; I think the general problem is just the number of characters who suck.
And Arvo is genuinely a huge problem for me. The game only has three types of character – four if you count ‘innocent young ‘un’. The straight-edge good guys, the morally complex, and the complete and utter bastards. And the game tries to make Arvo a morally complex character even though he shows up with a gang of tattooed Russian crooks and holds you up whether or not you even robbed him in the first place! Sure, you take his gun after all, but you let him leave with shitloads of rare and expensive medicine.
What bugs me about this isn’t that the character is, I suppose, ‘inconsistent’, but that the character at least doesn’t appear to be consistent in both possible storylines. I still regrettably go to TVTropes a lot, and Arvo is listed as a (Fan)Base-Breaking Character, because how you react to him depends on whether you robbed him or not. But… he’s supposed to be the same character! He’s supposed to still be Arvo, just the way Kenny is Kenny in Episode 1 of Season 1 whether you’re a dickhead or not. Arvo is either a poor boy whose sister dies in that attempted ambush he starts and oh it’s so sad that his sister who had no lines is dead, so so sad that she died in an attempt to hold up my gang at gunpoint and then opened fire on us, so sad. Or Arvo is a dickhead who would’ve robbed you anyway. I really wish there was a better way to put this than ‘inconsistent’ but the good (or bad, if you want to be over more quickly) news is that I have a much better example from Telltale’s Game of Thrones.
Fucking. Duncan and Royland. Fucking fuck these fuckers.
Duncan and Royland are two supporting characters in Telltale’s Game of Thrones who are just abysmal in how inconsistent they are – and I’m using that word correctly this time – due to one of the most stupid plot points I’ve ever seen in a video game.
First off, Duncan and Royland’s character in general aren’t bad, but they are incredibly clichéd. Duncan is the calm and wise man, a loyal advisor to your family, and the kind of guy who would always choose diplomacy over a fight. Royland is a brash, hot-headed, impatient individual who insists on projecting strength at all times – even when it’s blindingly obvious that your family really doesn’t have any – but he is an exceptional Master-At-Arms and an even more exceptional warrior. Duncan is less likely to steer you into a fight, but in Game of Thrones, you will always have to fight sooner or later, and you’d be much safer with Royland leading the charge.
As Ethan Forrester, 10 year old boy and unexpected leader of the Forresters, a family with just a strong enough political standing that other people want to kill them, you have to decide whether to make Duncan or Royland your Sentinel. The Sentinel is basically… um, you know how in the show, they make a big deal of whoever is the ‘Hand of the King’, a position that basically means you are the special advisor of the ruler of the Seven Kingdoms? Well, they wanted to do that, so they made something up. Thus, you have to pick a ‘Sentinel’, and surprise surprise, it’s down to Duncan or Royland. Duncan is smart, but the people you’re dealing with might be too stupid or stubborn to reason with him. Royland is tough, but his impatience and insistence on pretending that you have a position of power even when it’s undeniable that you don’t would make Theresa May proud.
Whoever you pick, the other is obviously disappointed. Fast-forward to Episode 5 of 6, and one branch of the plotline is uncovered. See, there’s a mole in your Small Council (again, they wanted to copy stuff from the big leagues in Game of Thrones without using any big league characters) and in Episode 5, you discover who it is. Now, I’ve just described a scenario in which one of your two advisors feels slighted and hurt by you not choosing them to be your right-hand man. Can you possibly guess who betrays you? Can you? Can you guess?
This is undoubtedly the worst thing about Telltale’s Game of Thrones. The absolute worst. Two of the most important supporting characters are ruined in an instant, because whoever you didn’t pick turns into a traitor. And that means, if both characters are truly consistent, then they would both sell you out at the drop of hat to one of the most repugnant and irredeemable villains in the game, just because a 10 year old boy didn’t choose them to be their chief advisor! Even the person you choose to be Sentinel comes off as a petty, unlikeable dickhead, because you know full well that if you hadn’t picked them, they’d have betrayed you anyway! It’s terribly-written, it’s terribly obvious, and it’s a huge low point in a game that wasn’t bad, but had no shortage of low points. Ugh.
One of the joys of playing games that have branching storylines is that you truly get a feel for characters who you can see from multiple perspectives. On multiple playthroughs, you can see how they respond to kindness, rudeness, or apathy. But in anything from Telltale Games, more likely than not, you’ll either see how railroaded their actions are, or how inconsistently they’re written; to the point where a character who is willing to die protecting you in one situation will eagerly side with the incompetent psychopaths who want to murder your whole family if you hurt their feelings one time.
No Overarching Storyline
Spoilers: I am currently working on a ‘Elmo’s Hour On: The Walking Dead: Michonne’ blog that will cover exactly why this smaller mini-adventure with a character from the comics/TV show is actually much, much better than the fully-fleshed out seasons. There are a few reasons that I don’t want to get into because if I get into them now then there wouldn’t really be a point to writing the full blog later, but one of the biggest pros is that, at 3 episodes long, it manages to have a story that, outside of a brief prologue and epilogue, is pretty self-contained and focussed on one source of conflict, one group of good(-ish) characters, and one group of bad(-ish) characters. It’s not fantastic, but it’s good; it’s honestly good and I probably enjoyed it more than I enjoyed the previous two seasons.
This is also a rare chance for me to say something positive about Telltale’s Game of Thrones! See, you play as five different characters over the course of the game, each with a strong connection to House Forrester, the family that four of the characters belong to and that one of the characters is a squire in. And despite all being completely different characters, they all have a common goal regarding helping their family in a time where it is difficult to guarantee their safety.
Ethan Forrester, the young master of the house, watches over his family home of Ironrath, making the difficult decisions that affect the townsfolk in the small but sturdy village around him. Mira Forrester, handmaiden to the future Queen, Margaery Tyrell, tries to use her status in King’s Landing to land a lucrative trade deal with the Master of Coin, while sending information back to her family about their potential political allies and confirmed political enemies. Asher Forrester, the wild card of the family, previously exiled for being a bit too young a brash and hotheaded, is return home from across the Narrow Sea, and he hopes to bring with him an army, however big or small he can manage, to assist in the upcoming war. Gared Tuttle, the one non-Forrester, is exiled early on to the Night’s Watch so that he can avoid the retribution that would come for killing some soldiers who attacked his family. While at The Wall, he tries to make sense of the last words of Gregor Forrester (the father of the house who was killed at the Red Wedding, along with eldest son Rodrik), “The North Grove must never be lost.” Fifth character is Rodrik Forrester, who turns out to be alive, and it’s a bit complicated.
But do you see what’s good about this? Gared is working on deciphering the last words of the previous ruler of House Forrester. Ethan is actually ruling over House Forrester’s land. Mira is trying to get the funds necessary for them to survive, and Asher is trying to get an army to do the same thing. All four characters are doing incredibly different things, but there’s an underlying goal that they are each trying to achieve. A shared aim to see House Forrester survive and succeed. And it’s really great that all characters are trying to do this, because it means that if you’re invested in the plot in Episode One, it’s the same plot that you’re going to be invested in when things start wrapping up in Episode Six.
Now, compare to The Walking Dead, Season One. The only overarching goal you have is ‘Stay Alive’ and all other goals are only temporary. So when you meet a group of survivors in a pharmacy, that doesn’t contribute towards the overall story, not really. In Episode Two, you’re investigating a ranch because you’ve been invited over by some suspiciously friendly locals. In Episode Three, you’re trying to fix a train by using a blowtorch on a lorry. In Episode Four, you’re exploring an abandoned… I actually don’t know. It’s a building. You explore a big building, much like every other big building in the game, and there are zombies, and… um… you’re there because… there’s a boat, but that’s a different thing, and…
Don’t get me wrong, in Telltale’s Game of Thrones, you do a crazy amount of stuff. Asher is in a cave with a dragon. Asher is infiltrating a city. Asher is fighting in a gladiator pit. But there’s a reason! Asher just met his uncle, bringing him up to speed on the situation back home, and they fled some approaching enemies into a cave. Later, he meets with Daenerys, because she’s a main character so of course he has to meet Daenerys, and she promises to pay him handsomely (he’s already pretty handsome) if he helps her overthrow the slave-owners in a city; he could use this money to hire mercenaries to help him when he gets home. He fights in a gladiator pit to gain the respect of the experienced fighters who he plans to ask to join him on the voyage back home. There’s a reason!
But in The Walking Dead, the reason seems to be ‘We got bored and the plot somehow ended up here’. My interest between episodes dropped gigantically because the things I cared about in Episode One and Two were casually dropped and never revisited in Episodes Three and Four. There is no overall plot aside from ‘This is a video game. There are zombies. Try not to die.’ Which is fine for your average zombie game, but it’s not an emotional, driving storyline. It’s Resident Evil 6.
And I do not have a high opinion of Resident Evil 6.
Do You Ever Really Have A Choice?
Despite referencing Fallout near the beginning of this, the closest I’ve ever come to playing a Fallout game is watching HBomberguy’s 90 minute video ‘Fallout 3 is Garbage, and here’s why’ video on YouTube, a video purposefully named to be a little bit clickbait-y that nonetheless raises several excellent points about the game that in no way am I unqualified to say are excellent points even though I haven’t played the game so literally my only exposure to it is this one guy I like on YouTube telling me it has problems.
Harold/Hoffman/Henry Bomberguy makes the point that despite Fallout 3 giving you the option to make important moral choices, these choices don’t actually leave much, well, choice up to the player. In Megaton, you’re faced with an interesting moral dilemma that will leave you weighing up your options for hours before you decide on the outcome. Do you make the bomb that the town is based around safer, or do you… blow up the town and everyone in it for no reason other than because some guy asked you to? Someone go back to the mid-2000s and get Sum 41 on the phone, because we are in danger of getting In Too Deep.
The Walking Dead doesn’t quite have the same problem, but it does have a similar one. Even without taking into consideration the godawful railroading problems the game has, it doesn’t offer you the choices that it should. In dialogue and in combat, every time a choice comes up, you get three choices. They are most often “I agree with Character A!” or “I agree with Character B!” or “Both sides have a point!” This is boring.
When the game gets really serious, you only get two options! Let’s go back to Arvo for a second, because I just can’t complain about him enough. Arvo shows up with a shitload of medicine and you can steal it or you can not. If you steal it, he robs you later, and if you don’t steal it, he robs you later, and this is garbage but we’ve covered it already.
Quick question – why can’t I kill him?
I have a gun. He does not have a gun. I’m not just saying this because I hate him, but because it makes sense for this to be a choice. A very suspicious man has just wandered into me with suspicious goods and I have a gun and he’s disarmed. Why can’t I kill him? Or, if that’s too harsh, why can’t I knock him out?
Or – here’s a good one – why can’t I take some of the medicine, but not all of it? He has loads of the stuff, but the game says ‘Either you take the whole bag, or you take nothing. Because that’s how choice works.’ I’ve got a pregnant lady in my party and also an injured guy. Why can’t I take two syringes and let him keep the rest? And as a sidenote, be like “Hey, I know you’re mad, but I could’ve fucking killed you and taken the lot, so be grateful you irritating little soon to be Judas.”
Another thing; the very final choice in The Walking Dead, Season Two. It’s not a very interesting choice because two characters are fighting to the death and you have to intervene. One of the few things I sort-of liked is that in the build-up to this fight, you get dialogue choices that once again give you the option of siding with either character or telling them both to calm down, and they completely ignore you. It’s nice that the game takes away the one thing that you had (or at least, gave you the illusion of having) to show how badly the situation is deteriorating.
So, it’s the final fight, and nothing you say will stop them. But one character is aiming to kill, and the other is just antagonising them. So, you have the gun in your hand, palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy, and the game asks you ‘Do you want to kill this character? Or that character? Or wait for one of them to kill the other?’
Why can’t I just shoot the ‘aiming to kill’ guy in the leg? Or the gut? Or in any place that would neutralize them without killing them? Or I could just shoot barely above them to try and grab their attention? Why am I being forced to take the most dramatic path possible when there’s a much more obvious solution? Most people playing the game won’t even care, but that’s not because the writing is really good or they don’t realise that there could be more options. It’s because they’re used to Telltale Games forcing them into a series of incredibly limited choices.
And as a bonus screw you, the final confrontation was clearly supposed to be between the returning character from Season One (the emotional bond!) and your longest companion from Season Two (the emotional bond!) but it turns out that due to one character being way more likeable than the other, they killed off the Season Two character in an anti-climactic QTE and their part in the fight is taken by another Season Two character who shows up in Episode Three and barely has ten lines in that episode.
Shocking Twists Only Work Once
Despite the fact that The Walking Dead only really has one arrow in its quiver, and it uses that arrow to break a lock on a door that keeps out a zombie who immediately wanders in and kills a seemingly main character, their plots do have the potential to be interesting and subvert expectations; admittedly, the only thing Telltale Games could do at this point that would subvert my expectations would be to have an episode of The Walking Dead where no characters die.
But there are a few twists based on things that the audience doesn’t expect. Not things that you wouldn’t expect to happen in the universe of The Walking Dead, but things that wouldn’t make sense in a video game. For example, Episode One is the first time you get the chance to save one character or another. Near the end, you can choose to save Carley or Doug, and whoever you don’t save in time dies. Right in front of you. Wow. They’d be alive if it wasn’t for you. Clearly, this will have a big impact on – just kidding, the survivor dies in Episode Three.
But I’ve already complained enough about that. What really subverts expectation is that one of the supporting characters is Duck, the hyperactive child of your new best friend Kenny. And he’s just a child! He’s like… ten or something. They wouldn’t kill a ten year old in a video game. That would be mean and harsh and very unexpected and exactly the kind of thing a writer would do if they wanted to show the audience that nobody was safe in their scary evil world. And then Duck dies.
To be fair, this is a little bit shocking, and ‘shocking’ isn’t entirely bad. It’s not automatically good, but it’s alright. The problem is that from now on, every single child that appears in an episode of any Telltale Games production… well, you could just kill them off and it’s not a surprise any more. We already know that it could happen.
But even if they kill off supporting characters, and they kill off supporting characters that you’ve already chosen to save, and they kill off children, then that just leaves the main character themselves! And there’s no way a writer would kill off the main character. What kind of psychotic madman would try create a story around-
I am really overusing the ‘sarcastically interrupt yourself with a picture’ thing, but there you go. Also, yes, sorry for spoilers, but The Walking Dead: Season One concludes with Lee, the main character, dying. Not too big a spoiler as he’s bitten by a Walker in Episode Four, so it’s not as if it’s specific to the season finale, but… let’s add this all up.
It is not surprising if the following characters are killed off in The Walking Dead. Important Supporting Characters. Side Characters. Side Characters You’ve Already Saved. Children. Player Characters. So… what would be surprising in Telltale Games’ ‘The Walking Dead’ at this point? As I said, the only thing that would really surprise me is if they went a whole episode without killing anyone.
But that would require making the game interesting based on the interactions of well-written characters in original scenarios, so… obviously that’s not possible. And I’ll end there before I get the urge to sarcastically interrupt myself again with the cover of Life is Strange.
Killing Characters Doesn’t Automatically Make a Story Dramatic
Let’s talk about Game of Thrones. Not the Telltale Games tie-in, but the TV show. In fact, the game actually starts off during one of the most shocking moments of the TV show; the Red Wedding. Robb Stark – the character who, if you boiled things down, was probably the closest thing the show had to a hero at this point – and his wife, his mother, and most of his army, were completely wiped out in a shocking betrayal by two houses that were thought to be loyal to them but we’re headed by these two guys.
I know, I know – they look like the pinnacle of loyalty and trustworthiness, but there you go.
Now, this was incredibly shocking when it aired on TV, and presumably quite shocking for all those much-more-cultured-than-I people who read the books, but there are two reasons in particular why it was so shocking. Firstly, Robb’s father, Ned Stark, was the previous holder of the title ‘closest thing the show had to a hero’, and he died at the end of Season 1 to prove that the show wasn’t messing around, and anyone really could die. But everyone expected, to an extent, that his eldest son, Robb, would take up the mantle and continue where his father had failed, and… he fails too. George R.R Martin said he wanted to show people that this wasn’t going to be a simple ‘Dad dies, child avenges him’ story, so he wrote one of the most brutal events to take place in modern literature.
The other reason it was so shocking is that Robb Stark had been a main character from Season 1: Episode 1. He was never not a main character. Obviously, Game of Thrones has tons of characters, but Robb was always very important; there was no point at which he faded away or wasn’t doing anything. Robb Stark was a big player in the Game of Thrones from Day 1. These two points – Game of Thrones having mountains of characters (literally, in Gregor Clegane’s case) and Robb Stark being a main character from the offset of the show – explain exactly why this doesn’t work in The Walking Dead.
In The Walking Dead, especially Season Two, there are never enough characters that the game can afford to kill lots of them off, and when it does, we really don’t even care! There’s a much larger point to be made about the overwhelming sense of apathy that this results in – I have literally named the next point ‘An Overwhelming Sense of Apathy’ – but these two problems are some of the biggest in The Walking Dead. I know it sounds silly, and I can already imagine the ‘He’s complaining that they kill people off in a series about the zombie apocalypse!’ complaints that would honestly be valid, but it feels like there’s one guy on The Walking Dead’s writing team who just shouts out ‘AND THEN A ZOMBIE KILLS SOMEONE!’ about five times per episode, every episode. And he’s the nephew of someone important, so nobody can tell him ‘Just fucking go home Kevin, and stop trying to clip your toenails with the staple-remover.’
There are so many utterly worthless deaths in The Walking Dead. Deaths that don’t have a point – deaths that don’t even succeed in being surprising because there’s nothing surprising about supporting cast members being killed by zombies after episode 1 – that I could probably make a Top 10 of them. As mentioned in the point about the storyline changing constantly, 4 characters die (well, 3 die and 1 leaves) in Season One, Episode Three. That’s half of your entire group, and they’re all characters who have been in your group from Episode One. It’s not effective, and it’s not memorable. It just leaves me with some kind of numbing emptiness, as if my brain switches to autopilot, because I want to keep playing the game – I’m halfway through the Season after all – but I’ve stopped caring a long time ago because I cared a little bit about the characters at the start but now they’re all dead.
The worst death though – not counting the deaths of characters who you have the option of letting die earlier, because that always comes as a huge anti-surprise that makes me want to swear at Telltale Games for having such a low opinion of me that they thought I wouldn’t notice how lazy they are and how little effort they truly put into ‘branching storylines’ – has got to be Luke. Outside of Clementine, the player character in Season 2, Luke is probably the main character, at least until Kenny shows up and it turns out he survived Season 1 and all of the attention goes onto him. Luke is a kind, friendly and upbeat man with a cute accent and a group of 6 other survivors, who – spoilers – all die. Every single one of them dies. Oh, what a surprise. Fuck Telltale Games.
But at least one or two of them die with something that I guess could be called ‘purpose’, in a way that pushes the story forwards. Actually, thinking a little bit deeper, and no. No, they don’t. Literally none of the characters have a reason to die other than ‘Oh shit, we need at least 3 mandatory supporting character deaths per episode; that’s how drama works!’ but Luke’s is the worst. After surviving all the way until the last hour of the final episode, the group walks across a frozen pond. Luke falls in and drowns. The end. That’s it. Those are the closing moments of the character arc of one of the most important characters in Season Two of The Walking Dead. What does his death accomplish? What does it mean for the people around him? What does it make the audience feel? What does it tell them about the story, about the universe that The Walking Dead is set in?
The only thing it tells me is that it’s poorly-written and it would be a mistake to even pretend to care about any of the soon-to-be corpses that pass for a cast in this coughed-up phlegm of a narrative.
An Overwhelming Sense of Apathy
This is probably as good a place as any to end.
This is what happens when you play a video game that cheaply advertises itself as a deep, emotional experience, only to repeatedly uncover the following:
1) Every character you meet will disappear or die.
2) Your choices will have no impact on the overall outcome of the storyline.
3) Nothing will happen that surprises you at any moment.
4) You will probably not care about the vast majority of the characters.
5) There may not even exist a storyline
6) Again, every character you meet will disappear or die.
TVTropes calls it ‘Darkness-Induced-Audience-Apathy’. When you start asking yourself ‘What is the point of caring about this?’ There’s a reason I haven’t bought Telltale’s Batman series, or Guardians of the Galaxy, or even The Wolf Among Us. I almost certainly will at some point, but I’m in no hurry at all. Why would I be? Telltale Games have shown me, time and time again, that they’re just not very good at writing stories. And that’s the ‘overarching storyline’ of this blog, which gives it a more consistent theme and tone than anything I’ve seen Telltale Games create in the last decade.
I really do honestly enjoy these games to an extent, but it just bugs me that Telltale Games have become famous – sculpted out a hole in the market to fill – with their video games based on difficult decisions and heartbreakingly tragic situations and PLOT. So much plot. Such an incredible plot. I’m sure if you go to the Steam pages for The Walking Dead Season One, Two, Three, and Telltale’s Game of Thrones that they all have more than their fair share of ‘11/10, I cried when the guy got killed by zombies,’ reviews. But I honestly don’t think my standards are very high, and Telltale Games have not been meeting those standards. They’re not terrible, or even bad, and it’s nice that they’re at least trying to make video games that live up to these standards. But they’re not trying hard enough.
In short, Telltale Games make video games where a pop-up box will tell you how a character is feeling, or if you’ve just changed their entire worldview with a single sentence, because to them, that’s how storytelling works. And that works for a lot of people, but not me. Sorry to be a tattletale, Telltale. You’ve lost my interest.
At least until Puzzle Agent 3 comes out.
Thanks for reading!