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.


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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.

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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.

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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.

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