Zombie adventure game? Is the puzzle solution 'use shotgun'?
You know, before I made a living doing this job (with "job" in quotation marks the size and shape of a pair of giant drooping labial flaps), I designed a few point-and-click adventure games. If you're thinking of having a go at making your own, here's my hot tip:
- First think of a problem that the player has to get around like, say, helping a cat get down from a tree,
- Then think of how a normal sensible person would solve the issue with the objects that would be close to hand,
- Then seal your head inside a half-full vat of boiling chlorine for about twenty minutes
- Then write down another way to solve the problem that at that moment makes perfect sense to your probably fatally poisoned mind.
- Repeat this process until you've discovered the most circuitous possible solution, maybe hiding a spider under the sunshade of Old Man Witherstein's car so that he crashes into the treetrunk, dislodging the cat and allowing you to catch it in a bucket of rose petals you found on the moon.
Why? Because adventure game developers can't cum unless they're picturing the frustated tears of people who used to trust them. Actually that could just be me.
I bring this up because the second Walking Dead episode came out recently from Telltale Games who you may remember from episodic adventure game series insert one of about fifteen different names here. Telltale Games is a fucking one-company conservation effort. They're simultaneously trying to keep alive the point-and-click adventure games, the concept of episodic gameplay, every conceivable franchise that the original developer doesn't care about and which could always bleed out a few more pennies, and presumably also themselves if there's time left in the day.
But The Walking Dead gets away from Telltale's "scavenge from the dustbins" business model by adapting the current comic and TV series of the same name. I'm not familiar with either, but you know, it's zombie apocalypse, we all know how this goes: 99% of everyone dies and the rest just shout at each other a lot. Although an adventure game with zombies is kinda new. It's traditionally an action setting because if you're not blowing their heads off with a shotgun, then what the hell else is there? You're not going to do a lot of water-skiing.
Walking Dead is based more around the relationships between characters in a survival situation that get along like six velociraptors in a tent with only one sleeping bag. It makes the claim that all your decisions will have an impact and when a game says that, it usually just means that one bloke will say a different line or have a screwdriver jutting out of his temple two scenes from now, but by keeping the episodes short and the enviroments tight, Walking Dead can make your decisions seem to have greater impact than a piss in the wind.
Although having said that, I spoke to a couple of friends and in the first episode at least, we all made exactly the same choices. There was let a kid die or let a dude die. Obviously you save the kid, don't you? He's got more life to live, the parents will like you, and worst comes to it, his flesh will be a lot more tender and palettable. *lip smacking noises* Later on, it's rush to help a dude being grabbed by several zombie arms or rush to help a lady who's being grabbed around the ankles by one solitary dead bugger she could probably send packing with a harsh reprimand. The binary moral choice thing games like InFamous do is kind of stupid but it's not much better when the choices are presented as equally sensible but really aren't, not so much picking the good path over the evil path as it is the sensible path over the adventure game developer path.
There are puzzles in the adventure game sense in that there are things you can pick up and rub on other things in the hope that they'll mate and give birth to progress, but it never reaches the spider in Old Man Witherstein's car kind of level. Mostly it's pretty sensible: something is screwed on so you undo it with a screwdriver that is practically being thrown at your face by a helper monkey, but it's so obviously straight forward that it seems kind of token. You can't call it a puzzle any more than writing your name on the answer sheet will count towards your test results. It's more like a device to make sure you're still paying attention as you're railroaded from scene to scene.
So what is the core mechanic? Well, it's not the actions scenes, that for fucking certain. The standard controls for getting around are WASD to mooch along the floor like a mallrat on a dull Sunday afternoon and left-click to winge at things. So when a zombie suddenly pops up like a Whac-a-Mole, it's time for the quick-time events! Even if they weren't the absolute nadir of game design, my laptop only has one built-in keyboard. I don't want to break the Q key. I'll never be able to write about John de Lancie's career again.
No, the core mechanic of Walking Dead is setting you up to make really hard decisions and that's something it does very, very well, more so in the second episode than the first. Right off the bat: "Dum de dum, lovely walk through the forest, AH! A MAN WITH LEG TRAPPED, ZOMBIES COMING, SAVE HIM!" Unfortunately for him, I was carrying a massive fuck-off axe at the time and what with everyone shouting at me, I made a snap decision, a choice of words that the poor bastard's leg might have found appropriate. It took four or five chops, and by the end of it I was almost in the fetal postition in my chair and my legs were crossed like an Amish virgin watching an MMA: First Blood crotch-kicks only match. Then the bloke had the poor manners to die anyway. "Shit," said I. "Maybe that's why the game gave me like six chances to back out. Perhaps someone should take this massive fuck-off axe away from me."
But even the slow decisions can be tough, like immediately afterwards when I had to somehow distribute four food items around ten people while keeping getting yelled at to a minimum, so I just knew I wasn't going to feed the guy who always yells at me anyway because that's what happens when you flood the yelling-at-me based economy.
At its worst, Walking Dead is a bit aggressively railroady and the characters can grate a bit. One bloke had been perfectly happy with all my decisions right from the word go, but one time I refused to help him bludgeon a helpless pensioner to death and he never let me hear the end of it! "I thought you had my back, man!" Ugh, I know someone who's not gonna have a go at my massive fuck-off axe anytime soon. But at its best, Walking Dead is quite absorbing and quite intensivley tense when you know acting fast will mean the difference between characters surviving and the yelling-at-me based economy getting another bail-out. I was going to say I'd be interested in seeing how it all turns out but then I thought about it and I'm actually kind of not.
This is the risk when you go with a setting like a zombie apocalypse which isn't so much tired as about to be taken off life support. I mean, we know how this is going to end, don't we? Either evil military show up or best case scenario, two to four of the least asshole-y survivors go to live on an island somewhere. What do you think they're going to do, find a cure? Rebuild society? Then everyone gets lemonade?
A man of no consequence: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
Why is the lower jaw the first thing zombies lose, is it from trying to eat really, really tall sandwiches
A fight, a bite and a website, aight
So the Escapist Expo is still in September and you should still totally come, but also in October, I've got a second novel coming out! It's called Jam, and you should preorder it from Amazon and tfaw.com . It's about an apocalypse, with jam in it!