Beyond Good and Evil: Morality and consequence in The Walking Dead

Jessica McDonell wrestles with tough decisions and her own emotions in The Walking Dead.

by

Spoiler alert: The following piece contains minor spoilers for The Walking Dead and Heavy Rain for the purposes of providing illustrative examples; it is not intended to summarise or spoil the game's narrative.

The best games extend the story beyond the role of a functional mechanic used to contextualise gameplay, and instead use it to create an emotional connection to the player, where they are confronted and compelled in equal measure. The Walking Dead is one of these games. It employs a decision-making system that forces its players to make difficult in-game choices, which in turn cause the gamer to confront their own morality, priorities, and sense of self.

The Walking Dead isn't the first game I've played that offers up extensive player choice. I remember siding with the Imperial Legion in Skyrim for the good of Tamriel, and sacrificing my own life to save my son's in Heavy Rain. Those choices were clear; at least, they were to me, considering I believed that they were in line with my own sense of right and wrong. The choices in The Walking Dead are not clear; they are messy and devastating, with each difficult choice resulting in an often unpleasant consequence.

The choices in The Walking Dead are not clear; they are messy and devastating, with each difficult choice resulting in an often unpleasant consequence.

So often, player choice in games is divided into light or dark. Chaos or mercy. Helpful or hurtful. In games such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, this division is dichotomous; it is the bipolarity upon which the whole story--and, in fact, the whole universe--hangs. Even stealth-action games such as Dishonored respect this division. It's a little less clear cut, but the message is the same: commit chaos, and you will be rewarded with chaos; deliver mercy and incapacitations instead of death, and the world comes out a little brighter.

The decision-making system in The Walking Dead is reminiscent of "Would You Rather" games that I played as a child. Two often unpleasant or downright awful options are offered up, and a choice must be made as to which would be more preferable. An early conflict in The Walking Dead resulted in my first confrontation with the game's "who will you save?" mechanic. Two people were in danger, and, as far I was concerned, the one I did not choose to aid would die. The choice in question was between a little boy who I had not spoken to, and an adult man who had given me a ride to safety.

The Walking Dead is not a classic adventure game, as you don't have all the time in the world to play with puzzles or toy with dialogue options to make an informed decision. It is, in fact, quite the opposite. A menacing white time bar trickles down in the centre of the screen, forcing your decision to be impulsive and your actions to be permanent. The second I noticed the bar moving and realised my time was running out, I made a spontaneous decision that I wasn't aware I had even processed. I saved the man and left the young boy to die.

The result was confronting, so confronting, in fact, that I had to stop playing for a little while. Not merely because the boy had lived, having been saved by his father, and the adult man had died as I struggled to help him, but because I didn't know if I had made the right choice. I didn't know if there was even a right choice to make. On top of that, I had chosen to save an adult--with whom I had formed only a basic rapport--over a helpless boy. The Walking Dead seemed to not only force me to make impulsive decisions; it also subsequently left me considering what those decisions said about me as a person, my priorities, and moreover my personal sense of morality.

The philosophical school of utilitarianism, which has permeated society's sense of ethics for decades, consists of the "Greatest Happiness" principle. It states that "It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong". Because of this, it is considered morally correct and noble to sacrifice oneself if it is for the greater good. Whether this philosophy is ascribed to or not, it is evident in both its direct representation and antithesis in games that contain divergent morality systems. Generally, players will either choose to abide by this system by replicating this noble, moral philosophy, or, conversely, push back against this expectation and act immorally and selfishly.

Having been raised by a lawyer--one of the honest ones--and a psychologist, I have always had a strong sense of doing what is right. I abide by laws, even those that I may not necessarily agree with, and I try to be honest wherever possible, even if it impacts me negatively in the short term. Consequently, I see these traits reflected in the characters I create in game worlds, and the way I go about my play. I always choose to be the Jedi, the martyr, the friend and confidant. I pour my credits into the hands of needy NPCs, and singing birds and forest fauna pick out my wardrobe like something out of a Disney movie. You get the point.

The Walking Dead is not as simple as that, though. The game doesn't make it easy to just be good or moral, because there's more at stake than getting Dark Side points or temporarily annoying a companion. If you don't ration out the scarce amounts of food you're given to the right people, you will alienate some of them, and that small action will reverberate through the rest of the game. If you're cruel instead of comforting to an NPC in need, they will remember it, and it will factor in to their willingness to help when you inevitably need their help.

I always choose to be the Jedi, the martyr, the friend and confidant.

An old man lay dying on the ground, and four people, including my character and a little girl, were trapped in a room with him. If he died, he would become a zombie and we would all be in danger. His daughter tried desperately to revive her father while a man screamed that we needed to destroy his brain before he became one of the undead. Another decision. Side with the man and help kill a woman's father for the possible good of the room, or side with the woman and try to help her father while endangering the group. I chose the latter, but before we could try to revive him, the shouting man had driven a concrete block through the dying man's head.

This scene depicts another important feature of the game: the characters are not under your control. Just because you step in doesn't mean the person in peril who you side with will be saved, or that the characters around you will go along with whatever you choose. The NPCs have their own families, concerns, priorities, and, yes, morality. Without so many points of reference, it would be difficult to gauge a comparison to my own priorities and decency in the game world, where survival is constantly threatened.

Later in the game, my group found an abandoned car full of much-needed supplies. There wasn't a person in sight, but the sinking feeling in my own gut, and on the minds of some of the other characters, was that the supplies were not ours and it wasn't right to take them. On any other day, I wouldn't, but I had an eight-year-old girl in my care who hadn't eaten in days, and in The Walking Dead supplies are few and far between. The ordinarily clear-cut, black-and-white thought process is an unnavigable grey. I fought the sinking feeling, and opted to take the food and medicine for our group. The little girl, whose moral compass must have been stronger than mine, looked on, disappointed, and claimed that she wanted no part in the spoils. Immediately, I felt terrible as I watched my character hand out every last thing in the boot of that car while my ward looked down at the ground.

I sat back from the game and my urge to reload spiked, but it was already too late; the saving symbol in the top-right corner of the screen set my decision in stone. The situation and its results passed through my mind as it would in any other game. Did I say the wrong thing? Was it wrong to place survival above righteousness? What about a child's survival? The questions swirled inside my head.

This is a game that manages to confront the player beyond the mere act of telling a grisly story. Choice in games has generally been celebrated, but it is rarely taken beyond two paths. Here, it is transformed into a tangled web of spontaneous choices that drastically alter the player's experience. It will still lead the player through the same locations, regardless of the relationships between the characters, though the way that these affect the experience is seldom evident. Every episode left me lying awake, contemplating the results and feeling emotionally drained; each new option was accompanied by ramifications.

I found myself taking a moment before revealing to friends who had also played the game what my decisions were in different sections. I contemplated what they would come to conclude about me as a result. What would a choice to ransack a stranger's belongings out of self-interest say about who I am? Would they be able to see through my choice to yell at my young ward for putting herself in danger? Could they connect that decision to my deep-seated personal struggles in dealing with anger and my fierce over-protectiveness?

Perhaps it's over-analysis, but I feel it would be remiss of me to deny the power of a game that can evoke so much emotion and contemplation that it makes me question my own beliefs. It is jarring to be faced with a reflection of yourself, particularly one you weren't expecting, and presented with a side you didn't think you had.

The Walking Dead is an unsettling game, and it tested my subconscious sense of self and priorities at every turn. It's fascinating to be able to connect with a video game in such a way that it pushes my own emotional boundaries to breaking point. Gameplay and story seldom come together in such a harmonious way as they do here, and, with such powerful results, my hope is that this season will provide a model of emotional resonance that other developers will also want to shoot for in their own games.

Discussion

2 comments
pleasetakeabow
pleasetakeabow

After a full 2nd play through making all of the opposite decision choices as my first, I came to realize how much your decisions don't really matter and that the main linear story still plays out.

 

PERFECT EXAMPLE IN THIS ARTICLE that in the first chapter she made a decision to save the man over the boy, yet the man still died anyway and the boy was saved..........HELLO!!! THAT'S GIVING YOU A FALSE SENCE OF RELEVANCE.

 

*Spoiler Alert* My biggest disappointment was at the end of chapter 2 you have a choice to take supplies out of an "abandoned" car and what I came to find is whether you take supplies or not, your group still steals the supplies which causes the owner of them to ultimately stalk you down and cause a conflict in chapter 5. 

 

sanch_ssj5
sanch_ssj5

A brilliant game & a true & brilliant article. Cheers!

PabloZm
PabloZm

Really good article, it is true that this game puts the player in really tight circumstances, stress is part of the game and sometimes it gets to the point of forgeting that im (as the player) just staring at a screen with fictional characters and it transports me to their reality and forcing me to choose what is useful (according to the lady here about utilitarianism) for me AND the group, sometimes when i quit the game to be back into my life i cant avoid to reflex into what i just did in the game and say to myself: "Damn, would i really do something like that?" Here in TWD game its more complex than just to be a good or bad person, reality is that things are not so easy to differentiate like black or white, our choices will create a path in which we must learn to keep walking and live with what we have done, and that (and this is a personal thought) is the real moral we need to learn in the game. Our choices, whatever they be, are ours alone, and we must learn to live with them.

 

Finally, forgive my english. 

Emmett12
Emmett12

I agree with you all, this is a great article. I'm glad gamer's like Jessica take the time to see the amazing details a game like The Walking Dead offers. I hope Telltale is able to make a full game someday. Jessica as a fellow gamer you have my respect, and I hope to see another article of your's soon.

Cybrggame
Cybrggame

Dang, I'm gonna have to try this one out.

Garnog
Garnog

This article handily illustrates the hallmarks of what makes a game truly great.

supa_stud
supa_stud

Great Read! love the game love the tv series and i have got a copy of volume 1 and 2 of the comics waiting for me when i get home.

ps3thabest
ps3thabest

The Walking Dead should be game of the year. 

zenstrata
zenstrata

I believe the problems many people have making decisions in these games stems from these same people not having their life philosophies properly sorted out.  Many poeple go through life wearing blinders.  They choose not to see or deal with the more difficult decisions in life, so when they are eventually forced to make one, they have issues deciding how to deal with them properly and often go with their gut 'instinct'.

 

Circumstances matter. But we also have codes of conduct which help guide us. These codes are usually based on group survival. But some crimes are obviously worse than others and demand different responses. For example, in the country in which I live, if I witness a crime and see a criminal brandish a weapon and threaten someone, I am completely within my rights to dispatch the criminal to defend my life and the lives of the good people around me.

 

In fact, I would say that anyone who does not take that decisive action is failing in their responsibility to society. Citizens should protect one another. Protection and application of law/justice originates in the general citizenry of societies. It is not solely in the purview of the police or armed services. Those organizations exist to aid society in the application of law and justice. But they are not the only ones who should be capable or expected to enforce it. Power and its application stems from the people - not from the governments they form.

cgobeil
cgobeil

That's one of the best articles I've read in all my life!  I wish developers would make more emotionally-driven games like The Walking Dead.

norman69
norman69

Great article- I've played the Walking Dead games and it is pretty much a lesson on how you should do story telling in video games. Because when you get to know these characters over the episodes, when one of them gets killed off it has a genuine impact on you. The end of Episode 5 is pretty much one of the most emotionally-devastating things I've played for a while. :'(

TheMacbeths
TheMacbeths

Great article, Jessica. It truly describes the unique experience this great game offers. I didn't play all the episodes yet, but I'm already anxious to start over and see what's gonna happen when I choose a different path. For now, I'm playing "my main story", where Lee is an honest and caring man, always trying to be fair in his decisions and committed to protect Clementine. I feel completely attached to the characters and every difficult choice is somewhat heartbreaking... But what if I choose being a selfish liar with no moral concerns, as hard as it is, for example, being mean to Clem or not caring if someone dies? 

In times when the "adventure" genre struggles to survive in the industry and bring something new to the gamers, The Walking Dead is a real masterpiece of creativity, bringing a fresh and intriguing emotional experience. As a fan of the genre, I also hope it inspires other developers - and even Telltale itself to make a second season. It's also a perfect reference to survival horror franchises to put more effort in their stories instead of the prevalence to repetitive combat and shooting action.

 

 

gilbergr
gilbergr

Wow, what a well-written article. It's nice to read something from the heart and not full of cliches for once.

DeKuip
DeKuip

 This was a great game but the last episode was terrible. 1 hour of gameplay is way to short. The ending was so lame why make something so good and then fuck it up at the end.

The Walking Dead should be a ten but instead it's a 7 and that's just a shame

 

xand3rro
xand3rro

This was hands down the best game i have played this year. I loved making mature decisions in a video game like who gets food and who doesn't etc etc. And i actually cared when a character died that is something new for me.

DeathKurse
DeathKurse

Great game, just wonder why it only got a 7.5? Still a good a score, but I hear a lot of people using the " best" word. Surely an 8 would've been justified! lol.

man55575
man55575

Saddest end to a GAME EVAAAAAAAA!!!!!!

sknight175216
sknight175216

This was one of the best games I've ever played. I'm a pretty stoic person and this game came close to making me cry pretty often ha ha.

Rivboets7
Rivboets7

This is such a great game.  I cannot believe the 5th one...

cyanide_junkie
cyanide_junkie

This is game is amazing and its a freaking point n click game.  Fantastic story, and that's coming from someone who could give a rat's ass about story in games. Episode 2 alone is worth the purchase.  I started  watching the tv show after playing the first four game episodes.  The game's story blows the tv series out of the water imo.  Way more brutal, and what's better is youre the director of several key plot twists.   Can't wait for seasons 2!

pip3dream
pip3dream

i stumbled on to this game; if you haven't played it, you need to

123yms
123yms

Is the game fun without watching the show first? 

RAD_TRBO
RAD_TRBO

I cannot explain how happy I am that this is coming out in disc form soon! I didn't have enough space to download all the episodes on my xbox so now i can FINALLY play them all!

firehawk998
firehawk998

The Walking Dead the videogame > The entire season 2 of the The Walking Dead Series.

Shatilov
Shatilov

I loved this game so much, it have many choices either wrong or right, which makes you struggle as a person and who you are on what you have to do, what choice to make. I felt like a part of the group while playing the game.

dz99ls
dz99ls

@pleasetakeabow This is exactly what i was afraid of... While i enjoyed the story I was hoping for a different outcome based on other choices. At least now i know i can save my time

tempertress
tempertress moderator staff

 @cgobeil Thanks! Me too, it's awesome what you can do with this medium with the right amount of effort and a strong dev team.

 

- Jess

lucidanz
lucidanz

 @DeKuip The length was a bit disappointing but the ultimate ending was great, that is the whole point of TWD universe there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow or happily ever afters...there is just tying to survive for another day.

tempertress
tempertress moderator staff

 @DeathKurse It's certainly GOTY for me. Review scores are always subjective.

 

- Jess

tempertress
tempertress moderator staff

 @cyanide_junkie I've found pretty much all amazing narratives are born out of point and click games. More room for story I suppose.

 

- Jess

tempertress
tempertress moderator staff

 @123yms Absolutely, I hadn't watched the show or read the comics when I played it. I'm going to now though!

 

- Jess

lucidanz
lucidanz

 @b_o_l_h_a  @cyanide_junkie er no way, the tv show is best thing on tv next to Game of Thrones...even with the changes to the story line. TWD tv series has basically redefined the genre in movie/tv media.

cyanide_junkie
cyanide_junkie

 @b_o_l_h_a I really wanted to like the tv show since I loved the game, but I don't feel its that good.  Wish I saw what the hype and numbers suggest, but I don't.  Too each his own.

Wizallah
Wizallah

 @b_o_l_h_a  13.4 million viewers a week would say you're wrong. Arguably the best show on tv right now. 

cyanide_junkie
cyanide_junkie

 @tempertress I played the Back to the Future point n click game also by Telltale Games.  I lasted 10 minutes before i uninstalled.  This game however- genius.  :)

Shatilov
Shatilov

 @tempertress  @123yms 

This game is the reason I bought Season 1 & 2 on bluray. I didnt watch or read the comics, untill I knew how much good it is. 

Wizallah
Wizallah

 @b_o_l_h_a  @cyanide_junkie I started with the tv show. Then I started with the comics which you're right, some story elements are the same and some are different. Being a fan of both made me enjoy the game that much better. Even though the show and the game are based from the comic, the game follows the timeline from the comic while the show changed a few key story points.

b_o_l_h_a
b_o_l_h_a

 @Wizallah  The tv series doesn't follow the same pace as the comics, so i don't enjoy the tv series more because i read the comics, it's worst. You should try the comics someday. If you already read them and you still enjoy the tv series the same way is you enjoyed the comics, than, don't mind my comment.

Wizallah
Wizallah

 @b_o_l_h_a If you've read the comics then you will probably enjoy the show even more.

lucidanz
lucidanz

 @cyanide_junkie  @tempertress Hehe well it WAS Back to the future :P Tough to make it compelling. Id like to see Telltale tackle some other emotionally intense/character driven IPs after seeing what they did here.