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Zombie Point and Click Narrative

For a good while now I’ve been meaning to purchase games off Xbox Live Arcade. There are numerous options but I’ve always put the purchase off. Time. The fact the games have appealed but not sealed the deal. This Christmas I had some Xbox points, which focused the mind as I couldn’t do much else with them.

I was all for getting Lara Croft and the Guardians of Light, but then The Walking Dead started to make it into the various top games of the year lists. This was a game I was aware of but hadn’t really followed. I did a bit of reading. Noticed the episodes were all half price and put down my Xbox points.

The Walking Dead clinched the deal for numerous reasons. It’s The Walking Dead, which is a show I’ve always enjoyed but season three of the TV show has been astoundingly good. It was getting positive reports. The two main reasons though are its focus on narrative and its episodic nature. It’s a format that was proposed a while back, with games being released in smaller components, for a smaller price. It never took off, but The Walking Dead has succeeded. Narrative is also interesting, as I like to see how the narrative and the game can be merged. It’s an area I’m interested in from the traditional tabletop perspective, so how computer games are doing it is interesting.

I’ve played episode one and I’m a short distance into episode two.

The Walking Dead is basically an update of the point and click, pixel bitching style of game which, in turn, are an update to the old text-based adventures. The difference is a shift to narrative choices, rather than obsessive puzzles. The result of this is I’m not sure it counts as a game at all? Or we have to radically change our understanding of what a game is.

The majority of the game has no challenge to it. You make choices. You experience the narrative. There are outcomes but no challenges. The game component consists of relatively rapid button selections and the odd puzzle. Let’s take the puzzle element first. Episode one has a single puzzle from my point of view. This was a more logical variant of see plant, get bucket, fill bucket, water plant, plant moves rock to enter the cave. The fact it’s logical and an extention of the situation and the environment is a good thing, but it still involved clicking around until you figure it out.

The second game element involves manually dexterity due to having to point the controller and select buttons under time pressure and a threatening situation. Essentially, quick time events. The most common example of this is in dealing with the Zombie Horde, either singly or in groups. Point the controller and select a button to kick the zombie crawling up your left leg or trying to bash their way through the doorway. It has its moments, but it’s not that stressful, you do have plenty of time. Even if you fail you can try again. This part of the game is present to engender the feeling of the pressure within the genre rather than being a game from the perspective of them being challenging.

All the above isn’t so much a negative, more an observation, the main draw of the experience is the narrative.

The primary focus of the experience is: relationships and choices. The core relationship being the one between the central protagonist, and your avatar, Lee Everett, and the child Clementine. You become responsible for her throughout the events in the game and the depth of the relationship builds over time. This relationship is made complex by the fact Lee is a convicted murderer, the complete circumstances of that are not revealed in episode one.

Exactly like the show the relationships are formed and the choices made under extreme pressure. The point of the Zombie Apocalypse genre, the human condition under extreme pressure. These choices make the story go in slightly different directions. After the first episode different characters are undoubtedly dead (at least on two occasions) and you have stronger relationships with different characters. I’m currently favouring Kenny and his family, for instance, and I am assuming my character is attracted to the ex-reporter. At the end of each episode your choices are listed and uploaded to the servers for the overall stats. This is great as it adds the option of sharing your outcomes.

There is probably a structure to events, which I’ve not figured out yet due to playing only one episode. As an example, I notice there was five key decision points in episode one, this may well be consistent across all episodes. The most significant choice in episode one: the quick choice you have to make over who to save when the Pharmacy gets overrun.

It’s a great experience and shifts that experience away from being a game to experiencing and potentially sharing different narratives. On this basis it is like a spin-off show that you have some control over, even down to discussing the events. Tabletop role-playing games have also developed in similar ways, being focused on outcomes, often dramatic ones, rather then overcoming challenges. The fact a computer game based on the same principles gets listed in Game of the Year lists is great. Mass Effect 2 got game of the year as well, and while it had more game elements, such as being a shooter, it was very much focused on dramatic outcomes in its choices.

Looking forward to future episodes. I just need to dedicate some time to it.

About Ian O'Rourke

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