Game Design

The Walking Dead and the Power of Choice

Telltale Games’ latest title, The Walking Dead, has garnered a lot of attention in the past year, and for good reason. The game offers an unflinchingly brutal take on the point-and-click adventure genre while capitalizing on a well-established intellectual property with poise and respect. For those unaware, The Walking Dead is a a downloadable (and, recently, disc-based) title that follows the story of Lee Everett, a history teacher from Atlanta charged with murdering a state senator who was having an affair with Lee’s wife. Lucky(?) for Lee, the zombie apocalypse strikes, and the Macon native is thrust into a full-blown quest for survival. Lee encounters other survivors on his journey over the course of five separate episodes, and finds himself making a number of difficult decisions that influence the game in meaningful (if not fundamentally different) ways.

Let me first preface this article by stating that I absolutely love The Walking Dead as a franchise, and I believe that Telltale Games nailed the atmosphere. The first season of TWD is an engaging, immersive, and incredibly gripping tale that is written so masterfully that it’s hard to find fault with it at all. The game wields choice like a weapon against your emotions, and forces the player to decide between options whose outcomes often yield traumatizing and painful outcomes.

Yes, The Walking Dead emphasizes the notion that games that typically feature choice often settle for black-and-white options that fail to provide any truly difficult decision-making. Far too often are choice-driven titles polarizing players into clean-cut categories with good and evil choices that essentially boil down to role-playing as a saint or a monster, with tangible incentives usually offered for the latter in the hopes of generating a clash between players’ ethics and pragmatics.

Suffice it to say, such an approach fails to inspire any sort of real agency when it comes to choice. Mass Effect, Fable, and Fallout all market choice as a gameplay mechanic, when it reality, each franchise merely utilizes it as a cheap gimmick to push for “immersion”. Choice can take an amazing experience to an all-new level of engagement, or cheapen it through meaningless, shallow decisions that ultimately feel like wasted development time.


Choice needs to be permanent, meaningful, and ambiguous. It needs to be a case of lose-lose or win-win in any given scenario. You shouldn’t be able to immediately discern the consequences of your actions after pressing A or B. The Walking Dead understands this, and that is why it succeeds. Some of your choices have obvious, apparent ramifications with long-lasting and unknown effects, while others influence your interactions with group members and their perception of you.

The latter concept only works because of the subtle and understated characterization in The Walking Dead. Archetypes are nonexistent, and every character you come into contact with has a personality all their own. It’s an approach that works marvelously well, and makes the unpredictability of each dialogue choice carry substantial weight. You don’t have to try to like any of the characters: you either do, or you don’t, and the way you speak to people reflects how you, as a player, feel about them to everyone around you. This has been done in other games, but stereotypical characters and archetypes make it easy for players to predict potential outcomes of their actions. In The Walking Dead, every new face you meet is a new mystery to unravel and discover, and the choices you make help you uncover more about them if you care to do so.

Of course, The Walking Dead is limited in its ability to allow for truly branching paths, but the illusion of choice that it creates is more compelling than any other game on the market. Maybe it’s the established fiction of the franchise, or maybe it’s just the way Telltale Games does things, but The Walking Dead is an experience that proves how important choice can be in video games, and just how expertly it can be done.

Any thoughts?