The Walking Dead, Choices, and Kenny
(Post full of spoilers)
When I first played Telltale’s The Walking Dead Season One, back when it was released, it was an amazing experience. I wasn’t familiar with The Walking Dead franchise at all then, so it was just the game, and after every episode I’d feel like shit. Really depressed. And would get back into it as soon as the next episode was released. And I knew that something awful would happen again, that there’s no way the series is gonna end in a good way, but still had this damn hope that everything is going to be alright. And then that hope would get obliterated. And I’d get back for more. And with the release of the third season I decided to replay this, and the journey was as emotional as it was on the first run, even though I knew most of the things that would happen.
Each episode starts with a disclaimer. “This game series adapts to the choices you make. The story is tailored by how you play.” And from time to time, the game shows in the corner what has become somewhat a meme, that “This character will remember that”. However, in The Walking Dead the choices you make, they don’t affect the possible overall narrative outcome as much as they affect who the protagonist is as a person and what his/your relationship with other characters is.
There are only three characters in the game who are present in all five episodes of the series. The core duo of Lee and Clementine being two of the three. They are really at the heart of the whole experience. Finding that little girl, developing a step-fatherly relationship with her, teaching to survive. And her teaching you to try and keep some of the humanity. You start to really care for Clementine. But, regardless of what you do, Lee and Clementine will have a good relationship with each other.
The third character who’s present in all five episodes is Kenny. And he’s the character you can have really different relationships with, supposing to represent the principle of tailoring the story to your choices in full. That said, to me, he doesn’t.
Here’s the problem that I have with Kenny, though. Until the final episode (and very end of episode 4 as well), he is very binary – he either hates you or is your best bud, nothing in between. For example, in the replay of the first season, I:
– Saved his son at the farm. (+)
– Sided with him in argument with Larry. (+)
– Opened up to him regarding who the owners of the drug store were. (+)
– Gave food to his son AND him. (+)
– Tried to save Larry first instead of smashing his head outright like Kenny wanted. (-)
And that’s it, after that Kenny just hated my guts. Yes, the Larry situation was a big one, but even while repeatedly helping him or his family after that moment, he still went on how I never agree with him, how I never help him, how I’m always against him (even though I didn’t blame him for what he did), and even sometimes refuses to lend me a hand in spite. And to me it’s like, ‘What. The. Fuck. Kenny?’
I presume that’s because there were only two types of dialogues/actions for Kenny: negative relationship with Lee, and positive relationship with Lee, so when there’s something more complex, the game just chooses the negative relationship option. I might be wrong, but at least that’s how it feels like.
That is very frustrating. In the final episode (as well as the end of episode 4), it gets more detailed, like for example Kenny acknowledges how even though there were disagreements, Lee was always there for his family. And in many ways, the final episode is sort of a redemption for Kenny, not just in terms of his character arc that he went through the season, but also how the game handles our relationship with him. And while that’s nice, it still doesn’t remove all the feelings of frustration I had with that character due to what I consider a flaw in design.
But here’s the most interesting part. The players tend to look at it differently. They don’t look at Kenny having binary dialogue possibilities for most of the series as a flaw in making a believable relationship. They look at it as part of his character. In discussions about Kenny, you see phrases like, “Kenny is loyal to a fault if you’re loyal to him, to the point that he’ll choose you over a group in times of conflict, but that’s not the case if you don’t prove his trust in you.”
Or even people discussing how he’s like an abusive controlling friend, an idea that gets ambiguously explored in the Season Two of The Walking Dead where Kenny reappears. And there are many other justifications or discussions about Kenny as a character.
And that’s very fascinating to me for several reasons. Mainly because I think it’s interesting how a character gets a life of his own with all these different interpretations. But also I think it validates the Telltale’s principle of tailoring story to your choices.
The biggest criticism regarding Telltale’s games is that the choices there don’t change the global narrative direction, like one would see in plenty of RPGs for example. And that’s true that at least so far there are very few choices in Telltale’s productions that have massive ramifications over the global plotline.
But all the little choices do have ramifications over your personal experience with the characters surrounding you. What kind of Lee you are. What do you teach Clementine. How do you see other characters and how do they see you. And that helps personalize the experience a lot, which is why the Telltale formula, while not as epic in scope as let’s say The Witcher 2 (where the whole middle of the game is entirely different depending on one choice), became so very successful.
It’s not about the destination. It’s about the journey. The context. Both Carla and Doug will always die, one later than the other. But who do you save when you get the chance? Why? Your group will always take food from the car. But will you do it with them, or will you support Clementine who thinks it’s wrong to steal without knowing if it belongs to anybody? Will you take the gun to shoot the infected child of your friend so he wouldn’t do it yourself? Or will you both just leave the dying boy in the wild?
Those are just examples of some of the questions The Walking Dead poses. There are many, many, many more, and the way you answer them really tailors the story to how you play, just like the disclaimer in the beginning promises.
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