I played Papers, Please and the Walking Dead, and although the two diverge in structure pretty quickly, they do have a few similarities. First, both games place significant emphasis on single instances of binary decision-making, some of which are more impactful and have lasting consequences on the rest of the game, and others that may not be profound as isolated incidents yet still force the player to question themselves. Another major factor that the two games share is presenting information or objects of varying levels of significance that the player must parse through carefully in order to advance.
1a. Papers, Please ultimately tasks the player with making a relatively simple decision over and over again; to allow or deny entry into the game’s country as a customs agent. The game presents additional information about potential entrants as it progresses, forcing the player to decide both what is relevant and what is not, and from that information, whether or not to allow the person entry. It’s a test of one’s ability to come to an informed decision, but also an exercise in confidence; although the game does sometimes give you warnings, one false diagnosis could result in a terrorist attack, and a subsequent game over. The game adds a layer of depth using this one-life mentality, and adds a lot of pressure to an otherwise yes-or-no question. Although the narrative provides some purpose to the player at the outset of the game, I didn’t think much of it as the game became an increasingly difficult mini-game rather than a linear storyline. That being said, I do think the narrative fits the core gameplay mechanic well, and the dialogue within the mini game itself supports the narrative in the form of witty one-liners from both players and potential border entrants.
1c. Survival appears to drive the narrative right from the beginning of the Walking Dead, as former convict and protagonist Lee finds himself cuffed in the back of an overturned cop car after it careens off-road from a zombie in the middle of the highway. Suddenly the player is given control of a limping protagonist in the middle of the woods, and survival becomes the player’s number one priority. This quickly becomes apparent through a cut scene and subsequent quick-time event where Lee is faced with an encroaching zombie, which with a little help from the player, Lee decapitates with the lone shotgun shell found near the dead officer’s body. It’s this type of gameplay that lends itself to a pure survival mentality; scavenging for supplies and reacting to danger as it gets thrown at you throughout the game. However, the introduction of Clementine and the decisions that follow begin to morph the narrative from one of survival to one of teamwork and protection, as Lee’s role goes from lone survivor to caretaker and many decisions begin to revolve around Clementine’s presence. In fact, the player’s first visual of Clementine is her showing up in the knick of time with a hammer, as the player finds themselves back pedaling from yet another zombie and ultimately grabbing the hammer from Clementine to bash its brains in in beautiful, 3D quick-time gore. From this moment forward, the player is forced to consider Clementine not only in making major decisions, but with everything they choose to say, because like it or not the player has assumed the role of father figure to Clementine, and the player’s choice of words can have an impact on her impression of Lee. Whether the player chooses to actually fulfill this role is partially up to them in the form of different dialogue choices I suppose, but what kind of heartless bastard would be anything but fatherly to a little girl like Clementine who doesn’t know she has two dead parents at the dawn of a zombie apocalypse?
2. Each game presents its narrative in a distinct way, and I think games as a medium facilitate many unique narratives despite being distinct in style and gameplay, which is well-illustrated by contrasting these two particular games. For one, Papers, Please is a 2D, 16-bit-esque game with a picture-book intro and a simple heads-up display and background image that remains relatively constant throughout the game despite some additions as the player advances. In this way the progression of the narrative is largely limited to short and crude cut scenes, ultimately placing less importance on it than the gameplay itself. While the art and dialogue of the narrative fit the overall graphical style of the game very well, there is only so much realism that can be pulled out of a narrative displayed this way. In contrast, the Walking Dead presents a colorful cell-shaded 3D world, packed with music and sound effects that fit very well with the game’s graphical style and varying moments of intensity. Impressive facial animations and voice acting further the narrative by adding a layer of realism that simply couldn’t be achieved in a game with the graphical style of Papers, Please, and this in turn adds more depth to each decision the player is forced to make. In addition, the game’s frequent use of quick-time sequences and time-sensitive decision-making taps into an aspect of narratives that is unique to video games, in that the player is forced to not only craft the narrative in major ways as the game progresses via some major decisions, but in this case they are forced to do so under a time constraint in increasingly emotional and controversial decisions. Furthermore, the continuation of the narrative relies on the player’s immersion in the game, and presents the possibility of the narrative ending either through failure on the player’s part in the form of a game over, or through a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ ending based on the player’s series of decisions throughout the game. This introduces another narrative mechanic that is often not seen in other media forms; games like the Walking Dead often have several alternate endings based on the player’s major decisions and trends that truly make the player’s experience unique as well as encourage the player to replay the game.
3. As a player, the value in ‘playing’ a game like the Walking Dead is in watching the story unfold and connecting with the characters as the weight and impact of your decisions becomes apparent on them, as well as being able to directly participate through exploration, quick-time events and decision-making in an effort to become fully immersed in the story. As a game designer, the value of crafting the Walking Dead narrative through a game (the narrative was originally a comic) is being able to implement exploration and direct player participation in a way that any other storytelling medium simply cannot, adding to the narrative by making the player feel directly responsible for part of it. In an interesting way, video games like the Walking Dead provide a platform to present storytelling through both print and film simultaneously, with subtitles placed casually on the lower portion of the screen as the game’s elaborate cut scenes run just like a movie. In fact, it often feels like the player is participating in a movie that would be unfolding regardless of their presence in it, and with a few straight-forward clicks is able to intervene in major instances (like helping to push a car and hitch a ride south with two other survivors). In this way, the value for the player is in participating in these interactive cut scenes, and through them getting closer to answering the many questions the game throws at you early on. The value for the designer, in turn, would be to make the unfolding and execution of the story line and cut scenes as captivating as possible, to immerse the player in the best interactive movie scenes imaginable.