Hi there and welcome to our group play through of Telltale Games the Walking Dead – its like a book club, but for video games! I’m Cian, he’s Noel and that’s Ger.
So let’s dig in: in Episode 4, our poor straggling band of zombie survivors finally arrive in Savannah – and its harbour, hopefully full of escape boats. But things of course go wrong as they meet other survivors in the city, and hear about the elitist and barbaric city-within-a-city of Crawford.
So guys, this weeks discussion question: in the opening of this episode we see that someone in the city is using church bells to lure the zombies to certain areas of the city, to clear areas of zombies and maybe even set a pack of the undead on Lee and his group. Its a pretty cool trick.
So, in an undead apocalypse, what would be your go-to zombie distraction technique?
Noel: It was a very very clever trick. I like to think I’d have something equally sophisticated. The old video game trick of chucking a bottle wouldn’t be particularly useful, as it requires you to be in pretty close range to the zombies., or to use the preferred term, undead.
Depending on the area, maybe an alarm clock. I mean you’d have to have some kind of premeditated plan and use for it, but it allows for reasonable distance depending on circumstance, and it’s something we’d all almost definitely have access to.
Ger: A few hundred rabbits, running all over the place.
Cian: Aww man, I was just going to say that I’d set the alarms on every discarded mobile phone I found to ring on the hour, except for the ones I found near my hideout, but rabbits is way better! As long as they can’t get infected though, the last thing you want is a crowd if zombie rabbits scurrying around underfoot. Or would they only be compelled to bite other rabbits? So many questions.
Ger: At first I thought Crawford was going to be just another “safe refuge ruled over by despotic leader”, similar to Woodbury in the comics and TV show. I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived and found it an infested ruin – that’s new. Actually, the entire episode did a pretty good job weaving between its various mysteries without losing momentum.
Cian: Yeah, I really enjoyed the Crawford twist: that the elitist, walled-in super-organised zombie-fighting society has actually crumbled before Lee and co. ever get there. You break in expecting to have to sneak past squads of guards and ready to fight for your life, like something out of the Batman: Arkham games and end up in an abandoned and wrecked school, with some kinda pathetic zombie stragglers roaming around.
Like you said Ger, we’d already seen the “Humans are the real monsters!!!” thing done, both with the St John farm in Episode 2 and many other times in the comics and TV series, so that expectation was definitely there to be subverted.
Exploring g Crawford, and the Savannah harbour before that, gave me real flashbacks to the Bioshock games: this idea of wandering through a ruined city, dodging its mutilated survivors and slowly piecing together what happened there. (Though here we get video cassettes instead of Bioshock’s audio tapes). And the glimpses we catch of whats-his-name, the authoritative guy who put together the Crawford community and set up its rules gave me definite Andrew Ryan flashbacks. Did you guys see any references or echoes of other games series in this episode?
Noel: So many! As you guys have seen in my previous posts whenever I get onto the topic of that environmental storytelling I always refer to Portal 2, which uses the same techniques, though I don’t think it just echoes with a few games specifically. That method is used frequently in games so much so that it is a staple of the medium. And it should be-it’s what allows them to stand out.
That being said, this game is starting to impress me with it’s recognition of that, and really using games as a medium to their full storytelling potential, through interaction and exploration.
In Portal 2 there’s a number of hidden rooms, and besides that several messages that had played years ago when the factory wasn’t dilapidated-there’s a lot f subtext in those messages. At face level you’re more or less told outright a certain number of things which I won’t spoil for you, but there’s much more to the story if you’re willing to explore the environment. A framed picture for example both prompts a line from GLados, whoch you’re free to ignore and certainly doesn’t tell you anything outright. Look closer and there’s something else hidden in that picture. Old kids science fair projects look like a throwaway joke, unless you’re keen enough to listen to an announcement that gives one in particular very significant meaning. I could go on but you get the idea. It’s not exactly as straightforward as saying its down to the exploration here-without the audio clips, much of what you find is senseless. Just as in The Walking Dead with the recordings. Though I can’t really think of a phrase to sum it up.
Cian: Sure, “environmental storytelling” seems like a pretty good label for that concept so – and we really see a lot of it here: the abandoned Crawford district with its videotapes, printed lists of rules and note-taking symbol system, but also at the pier, with the crashed tram and the wall of zombies on spikes.
Post-apocalyptic games also seem like a tailor made setting for developers to try out environmental storytelling, because every post-apocalypse story is set in the aftermath of an other, bigger, more dramatic story.
One of my favourite examples of this in the game Bastion, where you explore a city after an unexplained apocalypse has turned everyone else there into stone statues. In one level, a marketplace, you find that the way forward is blocked by people frozen going about their daily business, and you have to (well, feel like you have to) choose the way that will get you through while smashing the minimum number of people-statues possible. What about ye, do you guys have any favourite moments of examples of post-apocalyptic environmental storytelling from other games?
Ger: I’m fairly sure that the Crawford posters were meant to evoke Big Brother, not Andrew Ryan, who was never particularly into mass surveillance.
One thing I really admire about the storytelling in BioShock is how the audio logs stewn throughout Rapture and Columbia are simply played over the gameplay. It’s a simple trick, easy to take for granted, but it’s a massive step forward – it essentially solves all the pacing problems that this amount of story content and this kind of scope would cause if implemented conventionally. Another favourite of mine is the original Half-Life, which tells a complete story without so much as a single cutscene. Areas which can’t be passed until a character finishes talking to you and opens the way are narratively identical to cutscenes, but the simple ability to run about and smash things like an idiot while receiving story information is tremendously freeing.
Cian: Point of order: Andrew Ryan was mad into mass surveillance!
But OK, nitpicking aside, the perspective you guys have as students of game design is really interesting to me: what’s the game design theory perspective on environmental storytelling – what are the things designers should be aware if when trying it, and what factors make it successful?
And why is different or more effective than other modes of video game storytelling?
Maybe we can use an example from this episode as our case study: let’s take for instance the abandoned house that Lee and company stumble upon and use as their home base – lots of examples of environmental storytelling there!
Noel: Honestly Cian I’m going to disappoint you I’m afraid, the course never really delved into the design aspects of games development. That said, I do have an opinion on this.
You’re going to think I’ve literally never played any other game, but I’m going to refer back to Portal 2 again because it absolutely nails it for me. Firstly, developers need to rely a little less on cutscenes. They’ll tell you too much and you just won’t have as much of a reason to pack the environment full of signs(though I do think they can be balanced-this really comes down to the desire of the developer to implement environmental storytelling well.)
The other big thing that I think a lot of developers who actually do implement environmental storytelling well, is to give the players a bit more credit. Audio logs are all well and good, but all too often they just tell you what happened. Spoon feed you the story. I’m going to be very careful here again but lets think of GLados’ reaction to the portrait. Nothing was explicitly said. Zilch. The player had to deduce what that meant, piece it together with what they had heard earlier. It’s not a difficult deduction, but you were made figure it out for yourself.
As to why it’s different to other modes in video games-well in my opinion, it’s the most effective way to distinguish storytelling in games from other medium. Unlike a procedural drama on television, where you watch the protagonist collect the clues-environmental storytelling allows you, the player, to collect the clues and piece what happened together. And if you miss a clue? You fail? That’s your problem. As it should be-you are the driving force.
Ger: Andrew Ryan’s surveillance system was basically a series of cameras set up in reasonable locations, only linked to armed drones. The Crawford lad seemed more interested in actually keeping an eye on his citizens, in proper Ingsoc tradition.
My version of the games development course was slightly different from Noel’s, but still glossed over pretty much anything to do with storytelling. I recall being told to add token collectibles to my Oblivion mod to motivate players to keep going, since apparently those are necessary, but that’s about it. So what’s the game design theory perspective on environmental storytelling? There isn’t one, as far as CSIS is concerned.
Come to think of it, GLaDOS’s dialogue is pretty much identical to the Rapture and Columbia audio logs or (more pertinently) the Half-Life dialogue in terms of how it conveys a story. Given how easy it is to implement without obstructing gameplay, audio might just be the ideal way to convey narrative information to the player.
I discussed the house and its gradual revelation of what happened earlier on. Though actually, it’s interesting that it tells its story mainly through visual cues like the family portrait (as seen in Portal 2… this medium really does seem to have a limited set of tricks sometimes). Clementine’s house back in the first episode was nearly the opposite, conveying everything we needed to know through the answering machine in the background.
Cian: So in talking about environmental storytelling and the house in this episode, we kind of have to bring up the little boy in the attic…
Exploring the house, recently bereaved father Kenny finds a boy in the attic who had locked himself up there to escape the zombies, before starving to death and reanimating. (“Kinda looks like Duck, don’t he?” Kenny mumbles, to really drive the point home.)
Again, like the last episode, Kenny begs off putting the boy out of his misery, and Lee/the player steps forward to do it. And I remember thinking here “Yikes, this is turning into a pattern I’m not too comfortable with…”
We talk a lot about the narrative and the game design aspects of the Walking Dead, but I think it also shines in it’s depiction of the smaller moments of interaction and conversation between characters: the father/daughter bond between Lee and Clementine, Kenny’s slowly piecing himself back together, Chuck’s unexpectedly brief exit, or Ben’s general worminess.
What was your favourite moment of dialogue or personal connection between characters in this episode?
Ger: There weren’t any stand-out lines for me this time round, though I particularly enjoyed the addition of Molly in all her sketchiness. Actually, I think this episode marks a broad shift into a more melodramatic story mode. Ben’s attempt at suicide-by-zombie-clocktower is fairly ridiculous, and Clementine’s kidnapping by the walkie-talkie stalker is similarly detached from reality. It does make you wonder where they’re going with all this.
Noel: I’m kinda on the fence between both of you guys on this one. Cian, I think you’re right to a point-the game is doing a good job of developing the characters, though I can’t think of a single shining example for a turning point in relation to this. No real tentpole moments you know?
I’m actually starting to lose interest at this point. I’m invested enough and care enough about the characters to continue-but I do think Ger’s right. It’s losing it’s bleak real world grittiness for more over the top set pieces. Here’s hoping they’ll pull back.
Cian: Sure, I know what you guys mean about the growing sense of “over the top-ness”. Though I’m not gonna lie there were two moments mixed in among the melodrama I kinda loved: the bit where the zombie is hanging from the end of Lee’s shotgun over the stairs-bannister, and he shoots the gun to shake it off.
And then of course there’s that amazing Scoobie Doo-style moment where they open the door, see a crowd of zombies, scream “Fuuuuucccckkk!!!”, and shut the door again.
I wouldn’t trade all the grim-and-gritty in the world for that shot, but that is because I am a goofy, goofy man.
I’m surprised to hear you’re losing interest Noel, as the final cliffhanger, with Clem kidnapped and Lee being bitten (and potentially hiding it). Is the plot being set up for the last episode not enough to pique your interest, or are the characters no longer engaging you?
Noel: In fairness it was quite a cliffhanger, but my reason for losing interest is this-the storytelling mechanic that TellTale have is innovative and is very powerful-but I fear they rely on it over the substance of their tales. That might work early on for the sheer novelty value, but not over time.
Secondly, I find myself not particularly caring for the characters themselves, but rather how to control things to make everybody happy with me-it becomes a politics game over actual character investment(take, for example, the food rationing in episode 2)
And at this stage the story just isn’t engaging me. And when you’re not invested in the characters and the plot feels contrived, what else is there? Like I said I’m definitely going to see it through-but I’m finding that perhaps this isn’t the game for me. And let me say, that is a purely subjective viewpoint(obviously I know, but I feel it’s worth mentioning.) The games are doing extremely well, both critically and commercially, so I fear i may be the problem as opposed to the game here!
Cian: What do mean by the storytelling mechanic? The dialogue system, or the branching “your choices matter story”. I get where you’re coming from, but I’m not sure they can be said to be overusing those mechanics – they’re the core the game is built on.
“I liked those Mario games, but they kind of overused that jumping gimmick, didn’t they?”
As to the characters, is the ability to,at least in some small way, interact with them and form bonds/ relationships with them not getting you invested in them as characters? Like you said, you have to “play politics” with them and you feel a pressure to “make everybody happy with me” – so your projecting that these characters have an inner life and opinion of you: that’s pretty high-level character investment to me.
I’d agree with your criticisms of the story, it has taken a turn for the silly, but story and plot were always relatively far down the list of reasons I’m enjoying this game: and character and investment are nearer the top.
Or more specifically, what about the interactions with Clementine – how can you feel no affection for that cute little girl you heartless MONSTER!!!!!!
Noel: It’s not that they overuse it – its that they know it’s original and innovative and I feel they expect that, rather than the actual quality of the story:to draw people in. Or maybe I’m just a cynical bastard!
You’re right-the politics game means you acknowledge that those people have lives, opinions, etc. But, you’re decisions aren’t based on how it will effect those people. It’s how that effect will come back to you.
For example, when the game forces you to choose who to let live or die-you’re not thinking “That’s a father, he was nice to me, he;s got loads of life left in him, he’s a good person etc. etc., which is what you’d do if you genuinely were invested in and cared about the character. But instead, you’re only interested in how valuable they are to you. Niceness, family person, doesn’t matter. Can they handle a weapon? DO they need much food? These instead are what goes through your mind in the decision making process, And that just doesn’t equate to actually caring about those characters.
Do you acknowledge that they are very real people with opinions and their own character traits? Absolutely. But does the game allow you to care? I’m saying no.
Granted, Clementine is the exception to that rule, so please don’t kill me!
Ger: Conversations with Clementine are usually the best ones. I almost wish they’d dedicated more time to that relationship rather than emulating the TV show’s revolving door of cast members.
Actually Noel, I seem to recall that you spent a couple of years talking non-stop about The Last of Us. How does the relationship between Joel and Ellie stack up against this one? (I still haven’t gotten round to playing it yet.)
Noel: Ger, that is an interesting question. And you’re right, I love The Last of Us. One of the greatest stories I’ve experienced int he last 5 years. I guess firstly it’s worth acknowledging that their arcs are quite different-Lee wants to protect Clementine from the offset. Joel looks after Ellie for a payday. There’s also the fact that Ellie is, to a greater extent than Joel would care to admit, a replacement for his daughter Sarah(a friend actually pointed out something very cool to me but I won’t say it hear because of spoilers) They both grow to care deeply for their charges over time.
Where I think the main difference between the two actually shows is that Joel’s decisions over time go from logical and sound, to emotionally fueled by Ellie(even when it’s not what she wants.) Given that you’re in charge of Lee’s decisions(you’re not in the last of us), that could change in The Walking Dead. I personally feel that Joel and Ellie’s bond was stronger, but it was condensed into a shorter time frame and scripted, and I got to see it come to it’s conclusion which I haven’t seen in TWD yet, so the comparison is perhaps not fair. But certainly, Joel and Ellie’s relationship is more layered.
Cian: So let’s close out our discussion of Episode 4 by talking about the choices we made this time round:
Myself and 73% of other players chose to mercy kill the boy in the attic (though I did it under extreme protest of the developing “parade of misery and child death” pattern).
I was honest and calmly explained my story to Vernon and his band of vault-dwellers – which led to the “calmly take gun” action prompt, which is my favourite one of those in a while…
I of course left Clem in the house when we left for our raid on Crawford – yes, it was heavily foreshadowed that leaving her alone would lead to her getting kidnapped, but c’mon no way was I taking a child into a warzone. Shame on you, 48% of players who did that!
And yeah, like 54% of other people, I also led Ben fall to his death from the belltower: in fairness, I was kinda just sick of his shit after the dope took out the axe that was holding a zombie-crowded door closed. The door had windows, Ben! You could clearly see the zombies on the other side! Gah!!!
And then we have the closest we’ve seen to a unanimous choice within the playerbase: myself and 80%(!) of others chose not to hide the fact that Lee was zombie-bitten from the group.
As a result of my choices, the group going out to search for the kidnapped Clementine is Lee, Kenny, Omid (he’s still alive! And still not really doing much!), and Christa.
What about you guys, how did your decisions turn out?
Noel: Followed you pretty largely here Cian. I also killed the boy in the attic, told vernon the truth, left Clementine in the house(though I gotta say, I deliberated over this-I knew something bad would happen if I left her, but the thought of her dying in battle fighting alongside Lee was too much for me to handle), killed Ben(well, let him die more accurately I guess), and revealed the bite. And yeah, Christa, Omid and Kenny going into the finale.
Ger: I took Clementine to Crawford, basically so I’d get a few extra conversations with her. Ben’s death wish annoyed me to the point that I saved him out of spite (and partly because Clem wanted me to – I suppose I tend to do what she wants). Other than that, all my choices were the same as Cian’s.
Cian: So nobody kept their zombie bite from the group? What an ethical bunch we are.
So as we close out this penultimate episode (thanks, thesaurus.com), do we have any predictions going into the grand finale?
I’m gonna exercise my conversation moderator’s privilege and jump in first to grab the easy one: I’d be very surprised if the closing minutes don’t involve Clementine using her newly developed shooting skills to kill off a zombified Lee. (Or maybe mercy kill him before he reanimates, just to pay off the motif that’s been developing with Duck and the boy in the attic?)
What do you guys think?
Noel: On that point I actually have a confession to make-I occasionally watch watchmojos videos on youtube and do in fact know the final decision given to the player regarding Lee, so I’m going to back out of this one as it’s pretty difficult to keep objective when I know what’s coming
Ger: Leaving Clementine to deal with a zombified Lee, with her choices influenced by either his last words or the sum of their previous interactions, does seem like the most straightforward way to close the story. I mean, their relationship is absolutely the game’s throughline, and the game is about zombies, so we’re not left with millions of possibilities for the climax here. A more interesting idea might be to pull a fast one on the player and have Clementine turn first, leaving Lee to decide what to do, though this verges on… aggressively uncommercial. But then again, alternate endings, so who knows?
About the Authors:
Native to Costello’s Tavern, Gerard O’Mahony likes nothing more than discussing made-up stuff in the context of other made-up stuff.
A lifelong TV addict since his first episode of Sesame Street, Cian Sheppard works as an English teacher in Germany and thinks you look very nice today.
Rumored to have been born with a games controller in his hand, Noel Gleeson works as a Java Developer in Ireland and loves all things pop culture.