While choice-based narratives can be found sparsely placed throughout the history of games, the addition of dedicated choice systems was one of the biggest hallmarks of the last generation of video games. Games would often incorporate what were touted as “branching” and “dynamic” stories, with varying degrees of success.
This has led players to have to assume a number of increasingly realistic and sometimes troubling roles, which asks the question: Considering this melding of identities, how do players respond in the face of choice?
In my analysis, I’ll be focusing on the choices of players in the Telltale Games’ video game series, The Walking Dead. In the ocean of games which incorporate choice, The Walking Dead series stands unique among games in the opportunities it provides players to immerse themselves in its story. Despite only having pre-defined characters to play as, it stills allows people to express their decisions in the story, with the narrative outcome the only thing players need to be basing decisions on.
What is The Walking Dead?
Taking place in the same universe as the Walking Dead comic book series, Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead video game is currently in its third season. The game is released episodically, with the players’ decisions carrying over across each episode. Choice plays a major part – in fact, some might say choice is all there is. There’s not really any actual gameplay in The Walking Dead, save for a few walking sections and quick-time events. The bulk of the player’s time is spent in dialogue, and making snap life-and-death decisions.
In Season 1, the story follows Lee Everett, a convict who escapes from custody following The Walking Dead series’ zombie outbreak. Shortly after breaking free he encounters a young girl named Clementine whose babysitter has turned. She’s waiting for her parents to return home from their vacation when Lee finds her hiding in her treehouse. He takes the young Clementine under his wing, and he attempts to prepare her for all the horrors the outside world has for her. How the player chooses to raise Clementine is up to them; she’s always watching the example Lee sets for her, so his actions can transform the person she ultimately becomes.
In Season 2, the player controls Clementine, who takes the lessons she’s learned from Lee to become more independent. She has to survive in a new group without Lee to guide her, and now must make the hard decisions she watched Lee struggle with herself. By the end, she learns enough difficult lessons to become entirely self-sufficient, namely abandoning longtime allies who’ve lost their way.
The third season (also known as The Walking Dead: A New Frontier) is currently in production and has two leads: Clementine, who has now evolved into a formidable, independent survivor, and Javier “Javi” García. Javi runs into Clementine while searching for his family, who were captured by a hostile group of survivors. The player makes decisions as both characters, as their perspectives can swap mid-episode.
Since the narrative is essentially the only component the games offer, it means that players’ choices aren’t restricted by how their choices will impact gameplay. Some games, like Mass Effect and Fallout 3, will lock certain weapons or abilities depending on choices that players make, meaning the story isn’t always at the forefront when decisions are made. Since The Walking Dead is all story, it makes it the perfect game to examine how players express themselves narratively in gaming.
For my study, I took to The Walking Dead developer Telltale Games’ active community forums and posed the question: Do people make choices based on how they’d personally make them, or do they make decisions on behalf of how they think the character would act?
As part of the question I offered up my own experience. I used to play games purely acting out as myself. But I eventually realized that like many people, I view myself as a good person, and therefore almost always chose the most charitable option. After a while this became boring, and some of Telltale’s games including The Walking Dead made me rethink this notion. The decisions in their games are often grey and not purely good or evil, so picking the choice which made me look the best wasn’t always an option. In Telltale’s Game of Thrones, the player swaps between several characters, each with unique, distinct personalities. Playing each of these characters the same, in my mind, defeated the purpose of having so many diverse characters, so I began to make decisions I knew were irresponsible if I believed it fit the character’s personality.
But I was curious how other people in the Telltale community played these games. My discussion proved fruitful, as I received about 4 pages of responses (the full forum thread can be found here).
Respondents were pretty evenly split on whether they made choices as they would make them or if they roleplayed. Some even came up their own ways of playing beyond the two I provided in the prompt.
User “The Great Fish” discusses how the changes in characters’ circumstances affected how they acted:
“Homerous” reports the issue he had with assuming the identity of another character with whom he had few personal connections with:
User “AgentZ46” says that although they roleplay, Lee would sometimes act out in ways that contradicted their envisioned character. Referencing a moment in the first season where survivor Kenny smashes the head of someone who had just suffered a heart attack for fear they’d turn into a zombie post-mortem, “AgentZ46” explains the internal contradiction between what he would do in that situation and what Lee does, as well as how Lee at times defied “AgentZ46’s” established identity for him.
Another user, “DabigRG,” says in Season 2 (where Clementine was on her own without Lee), they had a complicated characterization established for Clementine.
Rather than roleplaying or putting themselves into the game, user “AnKun” simply picks the most interesting option.
Another user who plays in an alternative way is “Melton23.” They also mention a moment in Season 3 where Javi and Clementine are both fighting a group of survivors and the player must choose if Javi fights with Clem or makes sure his family is okay. Since Javi and Clem are the main characters of the season, “Melton23” says it was a low-risk decision, as they knew the two wouldn’t die.
“Kenny111” said that even though they try to make intentionally bad decisions, they feel guilty and will reload the game to make the decision differently.
Why it Matters
At the base level, these findings show how differently players can interpret the same interactive story they’re participating in. But on a higher level, it presents the question of identity in gaming, and how players separate themselves from the choices they make within virtual worlds.
Adrienne Shaw argues that unlike other forms of media, the interactive component of games provides unique opportunities for player identification.
“How players think about what they are doing when they’re playing and whether or not they identify with game characters has implications for how we study video games as texts,” (Shaw, 2009).
Shaw says that player identification is a major component in discussions surrounding in-game representation, games and learning, and video game violence.
Shaw also references James Paul Gee’s “tripartite play of identities”, which consists of the player’s own identity, the identity of the avatar and the interplay between the two. This tripartite is particularly present in Telltale’s choice-based games, where that projection of self onto the player comprises most of the experience.
In Gee’s book What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, he says that all learning requires the assumption of another identity.
“All learning in all semiotic domains requires taking on a new identity and forming bridges from one’s old identity to the new one,” (Gee, 45).
He continues in this chapter by describing his relationship with the character of Bead Bead in the game Arcanum. By the end, Gee felt a sense of shared pride from what he and Bead Bead accomplished collectively.
“As a player, I was proud of Bead Bead at the end of the game in a way in which I have never been proud of a character in a novel or movie, however much I had identified with him or her. I can identify with the pride characters in a novel or movie must or should feel, given what they have done or how far they have come. But my satisfaction with Bead Bead is tinged with pride (it could have been regret had things turned out differently), at various levels, in and with myself.
“This feeling is not (just) selfish. In a sense it is also selfless, since it is pride at things that have transcended – taken me outside of – my real-world self (selves), if I am playing the game reflectively,” (Gee, 54).
In Play/Write, Emily Stuemke discusses World of Warcraft and how players project their identities onto their avatars.
“The identity reflected and recognized by the group is given the power to participate and to create stories both within the game and about the player behind it. The player joins in the game world as a participant who composes his or her own story, whether that is a detailed role play characterization, as described by Saif, or a more casually fabricated process that reflects the skill set, aptitudes, and mannerisms of the player,” (Stuemke, 230).
Here, Stuemke mentions how even in games where the player-controlled character has a defined backstory and characterization, players are stilling leaving their mark and imposing their identities onto the characters in the world. Again, The Walking Dead could not continue without some kind of player input, so it’s impossible for people to completely dissociate from what’s happening on-screen.
So, why does this all matter? This discussion of identity in games how players form that relationship speaks to the unique storytelling advantage games have. As Gee describes, experiencing the success of a character one loves in a game is a little more personal than watching the success of a character one loves in a film. There’s that extra participatory element with video games that sparks so many academic discussions.
That interplay of identity, the “tripartite” as Gee puts it, is the reason video games are a cathartic get-away for so many people. Players can be challenged by different perspectives, live out personal fantasies, or operate in a completely different life inside of a virtual world.
So why limit yourself to reading about different perspectives when you can experience them for yourself?
Gee, J. P. (2007). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Shaw, A. (2009). Relocating Gamer Studies: Two Case Studies in Solitary Gaming. Conference Papers — International Communication Association, 1-30.
Stuemke, E. (2016). VoIP, Composition, and Membership. In D. Eyman & A. Davis (Eds.), Play/Write: Digital Rhetoric, Writing, Games) (pp. 218-233). South Carolina: Parlor Press LLC.
Telltale Games (2012, April 24). The Walking Dead By: S. Vanaman, J. Rodkin, D. Lenart, E. Parsons, N. Herman, S. Ainsworth [Computer software].
Telltale Games (2012, April 24). The Walking Dead: Season 2 By: D. Lenart, E. Parsons, S. Ainsworth, G. Ross, J. Latino [Computer software].
Telltale Games (2012, April 24). The Walking Dead: A New Frontier By: J. Latino [Computer software].