Narrative Economy Makes Walking Dead Work

In drama there is a principle known as “Chekhov’s gun”. It goes like this: If, in act one of a play, you place a loaded gun prominently in the middle of the stage so that it becomes notable to the audience, it behooves you to fire the thing before the curtain falls. If you don’t, it means you’ve wasted the audience’s time and attention on a meaningless detail when these precious resources could instead have been spent on something that contributes more earnestly to the quality of the story. The concept is most frequently applied to storytelling, but in fact it’s applicable to all forms of design and can be restated in a way familiar to all creators: Strive to make every feature of your product as purposeful as it can possibly be. Good design is economical; it maximizes utility while minimizing waste.

Previous videogames aiming to provide the player with interesting narrative choices suffer from a lack of economy, and this is partly why we find game stories to be so inferior to those of film or novels. Consider, for example, the time-honoured trope of wheeling two characters the player has never seen before out onto the stage, explaining some conflict in which they’ve mired themselves, then asking the player to decide everyone’s fate. Often the choice allows the player to make some clearly defined moral stance (the proverbial ‘baby save/puppy kick’); occasionally it involves thought-provoking ethical judgments (‘gray area’). Ideally the player asks herself: What is the best way to handle this situation? Pragmatically, however, I can think of a few more pressing concerns: Who the hell are these people, why should I care about them, why should I care what happens to them, and how does any of this affect me?

This setup places the designer in the untenable position of attempting to build some one-off dramatic arc and convince the player to care about it in at most five or six lines of dialog, which doesn’t work very well; it therefore becomes necessary to trick the player into caring mostly by using what amounts to a bunch of extrinsic motivators. One such trick involves the promise of extensive narrative branching, essentially turning the story into a configuration system and inviting the player to ‘decide the fate of the world’, the reward being a feeling of agency and, of course, power. (You heard me right: Narrative branching for its own sake is, more or less, a form of titillation.) Another trick involves designing a morality meter atop the game mechanics that attempts to fold the player’s decisions about other people back onto her own character according to some arbitrary (though often ethically grounded) value system. A third, similar trick involves tying said morality meter into the storyworld, the player character’s appearance and maybe even her abilities so that investment in any of those things indirectly produces investment in the choice (even if it isn’t related in any meaningful way). If you wanted to, you could even mix all three tricks together and make Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.

These approaches can be very successful (lots of people love KOTOR!), but they have loads of drawbacks. They sink huge amounts of development into large plot branches that many players will never even see; they deny the player the ability to make nuanced choices about the characterization of her avatars and instead push her into broad, streamlined ones; they introduce superfluous mechanical systems solely to add weight to decision points that would otherwise not even be worth including in the narrative. They are, in other words, the opposite of economical.  What if instead of working so hard to justify a choice that isn’t intrinsically very interesting, we simply tried to design choices that can stand on their own? How might we do that?

Well, we employ the principles of narrative economy described in part by Chekhov’s gun, which is exactly what Telltale does with Walking Dead. Its plotlines are careful to reuse people, places and objects with which the player is already familiar, and play on previously established relationships between these entities to afford choices that both borrow from and reinforce these relationships. We use Clementine’s Walkie-Talkie to represent the duality of hope and despair AND as a significant plot device (which happens to relate to that duality in an interesting way). We spend entire episodes deepening the relationships between a handful of characters so that they become nuanced and ripe for the dramatic harvest (rather than throwing brand new ones at the player every 10 minutes).  We show you a character who has proven himself over and over again to be a useless liability, then ask you what he really means to Lee. (And, in so doing, we allow the player to shape Lee’s character in a subtle but important way. No renegade/paragon points are required.) Walking Dead avoids introducing a bunch of new characters about whom no one cares, utilizes very little plot branching (and never purely for the sake of having a branching plot), and features no obtuse meta reward systems.

One thing Walking Dead does have is a set of optional UI indicators letting the player know when her choices introduce some non-linear wrinkle into the story. But if you want to know whether those are just dirty ludic trickery intended to make people care when they shouldn’t, consider this: By the end of episode 5, the designers have actually taken to repurposing these indicators for pure dramatic impact even though many of the choices you’re making introduce no narrative branching whatsoever! The mechanic isn’t setting you up to invest in the story; the story is setting you up for the emotional haymaker that is “Clementine will remember that.” Maximum utility, minimum waste. Bang.

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  1. Pingback: Choices and Consequences | Not an Industry Leader

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