Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Game Translation: The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead is an adventure game that is broken up into parts which aresold separately as episodes. It revolves around a man accused of murdering his wife's lover who has to survive the zombie apocalypse with a little girl he finds alone the way. Most of the mechanics are quite simple and revolve around choosing dialogue options, clicking on objects or a part of the enemy when prompted, so this translation will mostly talk about the world building considerations rather than on how to translate the mechanics into a roleplaying game.

One of the major elements of this game is that the reactions of the protagonist will change the outcome of the story - affecting who lives and who dies as well as which people like, or dislike, him. Even better, the choices aren't about taking the good, neutral or evil route as your choices are all rationalised by the same sort of personality. Sure, there are mean options and nice ones but at no point do you get to throw babies behind you to distract the walking dead. This game isn't about you, the player, creating your own character and roleplaying their decisions (as if three choices per dialogue point could allow you to do that). Rather it is a game about how the choices Lee makes will affect his life.

This almost seems to be more a case of a videogame imitating roleplaying than something a roleplaying game can mimic from a videogame. Really, the only thing I can suggest here is that Storytellers allow a character's decisions to have in-game repercussions. It can get pretty dull if the NPCs treat you the same way no matter how you treat them or if you're railroaded into taking certain actions or dealing with enemies in a certain way.

The Walking Dead also makes use of weather to give some of the situations an emotional resonance. While episode 2 begins during a calm and sunny day, it grows cloudier as the episode progresses, only to have low, ominous thunder towards the end capped off with rain during the final scenes.

Using weather to influence the mood of a story isn't unknown in roleplaying games but it is a little harder to make the most out of it. It isn't enough to simply say 'Its cloudy' and 'oh, its raining now'. You have to fold it in so that they don't simply forget those few words. You could do this on a real world level by dimming the lights, putting on rain sound effects and even spraying them with water from a mister (if they'll let you). Or you have the difficult, yet more accessible, option of remembering to mention how the weather affects the world around the. Or do both.

Let's say that your player has expressed that they're going to step out in front of their ex-wife's car to stop it. You could describe what happens as: "It's a rainy day when you run out before her car and, when it squeals to a halt, you stare at your ex-wife through the windshield. What do you do?"

Or you could describe it as: "You run out across the rain slick road, and the car comes to a halt with a squeal of brakes and a splash of water. You stare at your ex-wife through the rain dotted windshield in a silence broken only by the motion of the windshield wipers." The last option is far more evocative.

Do remember not to over do it, though. Mention it only when it matters or when the characters would notice it. You can mention the sunlight drifting through the cracks in the beams or the way the sun flashes off the rearview mirror at sunset, but there's no point mentioning how sunlit everything is during a routine description of an NPC. The more subtly the weather descriptions fold into your general descriptions, the better it evokes the mood.

Don't you just hate uninvited guests?

Zombie games are generally not about the zombies. Not really. I mean, having to kill someone you love before they bite you is an integral part of the genre, as is the risk of an infection so bad that you will hurt the people you care about, but it's not what the game is generally about. It's mostly about the threat of starvation, surviving on limited resources (such as ammunition), the break down of civilisation and how bad times can make evil people out of us all. It's about tough decisions as well as moral and ethical questions to which there can be no right answer.

So sometimes you need to be a Jerkass Storyteller. Sometimes you need to put the characters in situations where there is no right answer. They can save one person but not both. If they try to do a heroic rescue, more people die than are saved. If they come across food supplies, it may belong to someone else and they may have to either steal it or leave it behind - perhaps without ever knowing if the owners are still alive or not. These shouldn't be over-used or else the players will get frustrated but they should come up.

It's best to just let your players know beforehand about why you're going to be a Jerkass Storyteller so that they don't think they screwed up by not being clever enough -- which could slow down the game as the players try to iron out every crease. Throwing in some time sensitive choices also helps, to an extent, but players whose characters have high intelligence could justify more time to figure it out by claiming that their characters' brains are faster than their own. Considering that their characters are pounding with adrenaline and in imminent danger while the player may, at best, be experiencing a low level of anxiety, this is a debatable point, but still a good way to reward those who chose intelligence over strength.

Also remember that man's inhumanity to man is a big trope here as well. Survivors can go axe crazy, suicidal, paranoid (sometimes justifiably), and often grow steadily more callous as the game progresses. This can reduce the players' caring potential as they end up travelling with a group of coldly hostile killers who are little different from the bandits they rail against. The trick is to tread this line with care. No matter how bad the players' group gets, they need to be better than at least some of the survivors they come across. Otherwise, the players really won't care if the people around them dies and some of that horror potential disappears. Heck, the players might even be hoping that some of those characters dies or that their entire group gets wiped out.

So there you have it. A campaign based around The Walking Dead, or including elements of it, should appeal to Communicators who will get a lof of enjoyment out of simply playing a normal person trying to cope with a horrible situation, as well as seeing how their treatment of other people affects the group. Explorers will enjoy being able to sneak into almost anywhere and the very real need to voyeuristically poke about other people's belongings to get what they need. Action Heroes will enjoy being able to fight against obvious evil in guiltless combats and so long as you give them the chance to stealth kill the odd zombie, they should be happy. I would recommend giving them a crossbow so they can get their violent kicks without drawing a horde right to their door step every other day.

Tacticians can get a lot of mileage out of this sort of campaign but they'll likely get stuck on the idea of perfect food runs and this can be a major problem since zombies are primarily an environmental hazard designed to reveal how human stupidity, recklessness, and emotionality can be our undoing. Treat the situation with intelligence and insight and you'll probably survive. Investigators won't generally have all that much to do but you can always include the Mystery of the Stolen Rations to keep them interested.

If you'd like to take a look at the trailer to learn more about this game, you can check it out here. If you'd like to read the sort of tropes that the Walkind Dead used, you can find them here.

For the next Game Translation, you have a choice of these: Left for Dead, The Sims 3, Half Life 2, Prototype, Skyrim, The Last Express, Gears of War, Mass Effect, Dracula: Origins, Realms of the Haunting, Prototype, and pretty much any survival horror or horror game. If no one picks anything by next week, it'll be Prototype this time, I promise.

If you want to see the list of games I've done thus far, you can find the Game Translation series starter over here.

No comments:

Post a Comment