Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Walking Dead, and the Futility of Choice. By Justin Rhodes

The Walking Dead by Telltale Games has undoubtedly been the most enjoyable gaming experience I have had in the past year, but my opinion is not entirely shared by the gaming community. Though many consider much of the game to be “on rails,” The Walking Dead is a thought-provoking piece that forces us to ruminate on ideas larger than the work itself. I speak mainly of the age-old philosophical/psychological debate of free will vs. determinism. Are we completely autonomous in all thought and action, or are we being guided by the invisible hand of fate, while our actions only appear self-guided? This article argues that player choice and free will are illusory. While the popular opinion may be similar (at least in attitude towards player choice) the real question is: Why is a game whose primary draw is high-intensity split-second decision making so heavily criticized for the choices it offers being meaningless?

The answer: it boils down to fear. I don't mean your run of the mill romp through our beloved zombie post-apoc genre that causes your stomach to churn involuntarily. I mean a very guttural undeniable feeling that the game is representative of life. I admit that it could just be me, since I'm so heavily introspective that I can't even go to the grocery store on any given day without contemplating the nature of destiny,

Which eggs would ZEUS want me to choose?

but I think that we are frightened that our own choices are meaningless. We have an unreasonable desire to be in control as often as possible, and our frustration is brought to the forefront of our minds when this unrealistic and unspoken demand is not met. It is why we feel so frustrated at the DMV, and why we can be so indignant when things do not turn out the way we want. The limitations of Lee and Clementine's actions only serve to remind us that the choices we make might inevitably lead to the same outcome regardless of what we do, and that is terrifying. Compound that with the fact that humanity has been arguing about this subject since we learned how to argue and we have yet to definitively prove either side, we can see just how problematic this concept really is.

I had a fantastic time playing through all episodes of this game, even the latest installment which began Season 2. It was never about altering the outcome, but the emotional character-driven narrative that I got to be an active participant in. All the while, my imagination was captured by the possibilities of what I didn't do. Even though some of the differences were negligible, it was a great and unique experience for me. I decided early on that I would only play through it once because that is truly representative of life. Regardless of whether or not my choices had any particular effect, I learned to enjoy the ride for what it was.

In the end, we really have to decide for ourselves whether or not our actions, even our existence have any meaning. I hope that at least you take some time to reflect on this: What's a more sobering thought? That things are not the way that you want them to be because you make poor decisions, or that things are how they are due to some intangible, invisible outside force which allows you no control over the outcome of your life? I know the answer for me, personally. If I'm destined to be a spectacular failure, I at least want the satisfaction of knowing that it's my own goddamn fault.

Justin Rhodes is a San Francisco Bay Area native with a background in writing, game design, film, and theatre.

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