A video game made me cry last night.
Over five chapters, The Walking Dead, made by the same company that churns out so-so bunny detective Sam and Max adventure, puts you in a shoes of an escaped convict taking care of a little girl in the midst of a zombie apocalypse.
And it’s absolutely brutal. People die. Sometimes they die again. Other times they betray you or say things that make you furious or empathetic or downright devastated.
It’s not like media hasn’t made me tear up before. Sure, I got a bit weepy in the series finale of Lost or that super-sad SouthPark episode where Stan coaches a pee-wee hockey team. Television is good at that. You spend enough time with the characters, that you almost see them as friends.
Video games, by contrast, do a lousy job of creating an emotional response. You shoot tons of dudes or robots and zombies and don’t feel a thing. If you mess up, you reload. Big deaths usually happen through cutscenes with stilted computer acting, lousy writing, or interminably long translated-from-Japanese dialogue.
The game part of games, the reflex-based bullet firing or car racing, usually works against the character development.
But The Walking Dead isn’t like most video games. You don’t kill hundreds of zombies. Across five different chapters, you might personally kill 25. You don’t solve excruciatingly difficult puzzles. Most of the time, the solution to any problem is perched directly in front of you – all of you have to do is click.
Most of what you do is make decisions. You decide how to answer or ask questions, you decide which tool to grab off the wall. Sometimes you decide who lives and who dies, or who gets a limited supply of food when you’re hungry.
Those decisions do what books and movies can’t: They immerse you directly in the story.
Most video games immerse you in the game -- you directly control how many pedestrians you hit with your stolen sports car – but then kick you out into cutscene when the story starts. Here, that rarely happens. The story is the game. If the game was more “fun” to play it would defeat that.
By making a character’s choices you begin to associate yourself with him. The results of those choices becomes personal. It somehow manages a deeper level of immersion.
You’re responsible for the little girl. Your actual choices are responsible for horrible things happening to the people you care about.
It’s one thing, on a TV show, to hear a dying person say their last words. It’s another thing entirely to get to choose them.