I’ve long been of the opinion that games like Dear Esther technically aren’t games. That’s not to disparage them at all – it’s just to classify them according to their actual type. We might more accurately describe Dear Esther as an interactive digital text – a computer story, if you like. Drawing on our past two posts on Bernard Suits’ The Grasshopper, we can see that just being in a computer program doesn’t qualify as ‘playing a game’. He gives us a strict set of criteria that allow us to distinguish between games and not-games. According to that criteria, Dear Esther is not a game – most tellingly because you can’t lose. It’s not a win-lose situation, so it’s not really a game. If you approach Dear Esther and try and ‘win’ it, you’re really missing the point. Anyway – I don’t want to talk too much about Dear Esther today. I want to take on a bigger fish: The Walking Dead.
So I don’t think The Walking Dead is a game, according to the same criteria that makes Dear Esther not a game. However, I also think The Walking Dead is complicated in interesting ways, which is why we’re talking about it. Before we get into it properly though, there’s a red herring we have to get out the way. Basically, it’s possible to make something into a game even if that’s not initially what it is. If you’re reading Ulysses, that’s not really a game – it’s just you reading a book. But if you decide that you want to read all of Ulysses in 24 hours, that’s a game, right, because suddenly you’ve got a timer – you’re racing against the clock. You can win or lose. So something that’s not initially a game can be made into a game by the audience. The point here is simple: you might say “Well, I play The Walking Dead as a game, so therefore it’s a game.” The response would be that making something into a game doesn’t mean it was a game initially.
The other point is that a wider artistic work can have a small game as part of that wider work. Imagine going to see a play, and before the play opens, members of the audience are allowed to play checkers with one of the actors on the stage. Checkers is the game, and it’s limited to the board and the pieces. It doesn’t involve the rest of the set or the other actors or the lighting or whatever – it’s just the board and the pieces. It’s like a small little island of game at the beginning of the play. That game has an aesthetic effect, obviously, but it’s also very isolated. The play as a whole remains a play – that is, not a game.
So let’s imagine now a variant of The Walking Dead. Imagine that there was only one linear story-line, with no branching choices or decisions etc. The only thing that remained were those occasional quick-time events. Because there’s no branching choices or decisions, these hypothetical quick-time events have only two possible outcomes: either you succeed, and the story keeps going, or you fail, the story ends in death, and you have to reload and try again. You wouldn’t have the sort of moments where a failed quick-time event results in the death of somebody but the story goes on without them – that counts as a branching choice, so it’s excluded from our imaginary situation. It’s just either you win, and you keep going, or you lose and you have to re-start. In that situation, we could confidently say that The Walking Dead was not a game. It would be an interactive digital text, like Dear Esther, with occasional isolated moments of game in those quick-time events. Just as with the theatre example, those isolated moments of game are not reason to describe the whole entity as a game – it’s really better understood as a text with incidental game moments.
The branching narratives are the really thorny part of this issue. Some of the branches are clearly not game-moments: for example, in ‘Episode 1’, the player must choose whether to save Carley or Doug. As a decision, it’s kinda moot – neither option results in a ‘Game Over’, and neither option makes the player more likely to ‘win’. That whole win/lose paradigm just doesn’t apply here. We can also argue that it doesn’t really matter which branch you take – one way or another, you’re going to end up at the end of ‘Episode 5’. Can you really be considered to be playing a game if there’s no threat of ‘losing’? Aside from those individual quick-time events, which we’ve already dismissed as isolated game-moments, you can’t really ‘lose’ The Walking Dead per se. There’s just a series of different outcomes.
Let’s draw back and talk about another example, in the hope of getting some contrast. In those old Pick-a-Path books, you had to make decisions about which way you’d want to go, or which action you’d want to take. I don’t have one to hand, but let’s imagine a scenario. Say you’re lost in the jungle, and the premise is that you have to get out alive. In this sense, we could consider the book to be a game – you have a specific goal, you pick your path in order to get there, and either you meet the goal and escape, or you don’t. There are clear win/lose criteria. Let’s say there are twelve different endings to this book: in six of them you escape, and in six of them you die horribly.
In the six endings where you die horribly, we can say that you’ve lost, because you’ve failed to achieve your goal of escaping the jungle. If you want to play again, you have to start back at the start. Our book is therefore different to The Walking Dead in that a ‘fail’ sends you back to the start, while a ‘fail’ in WD only makes you start that particular quick-time event again. This is the kicker: in Jungle Escape, if you lose, that’s the end of the story, because you’ve lost the game. In WD, if you lose, you get to try again, because that loss-state isn’t the way the story’s meant to go. Based on that distinction, I would argue that The Walking Dead isn’t actually a game.