Shortly after I posted my GeekBeat.TV review of The Walking Dead Game I got a number of comments to the effect that people were disappointed by how little the story changed over the course of playing the game. I was pretty dumbfounded by this, as the degree of change was one of the things that impressed me the most; so much so that I wrote about it here, too.
After having given it a few weeks of consideration, I’ve come to believe people have the wrong idea about interactive storytelling, or at least that they have unrealistic expectations. There’s this sense that “the story completely changes when you select different options!” means really radical changes, like in one branch you abandon Atlanta and go off to a totally different city with different characters, while another branch has you stay in the area.
That kind of branching story can be done, but not in a game like The Walking Dead Game. That’s more the kind of difference you’d see in a massively multiplayer online game like World of Warcraft or Star Wars: The Old Republic, where the games were designed with massive budgets and enough staff to be able to cope with wildly diverging paths of that nature.
The Walking Dead is a much more tightly focused game, and it works within some limitations. You’re always going to start the game in that police car, and you’re always going to end episode 1 in [SPOILER REDACTED]. Nothing you do during the game can change that, except die, and I’d assume you’d try again if that happened.
Instead what changes is Lee’s relationships with the other survivors, and even who the group of survivors is composed of. Did so-and-so live or die? Did you stick up for the one family during the confrontation in the pharmacy so that he has your back later on? Did you call someone a nasty name, earning a black mark in her book that she’ll remember later? Did you lie to Clementine or tell her the brutal truth early on? All of these things are noted and remembered by the game, and really change how people interact with Lee as you play him through events.
THAT is how interactive narrative changes, even when settings don’t. Now, where’s episode 2?