We all know how important music is in video games. Sometimes, a game’s soundtrack is a character in and of itself, bringing life to a game in ways that a character can’t. Sometimes, a game’s soundtrack plays a supporting role by imbuing scenes with emotion, being a presence without overwhelming the action. Sometimes, a game’s soundtrack can be nearly nonexistent, popping up only when absolutely necessary in order to make the players react. And, no doubt, there are games without soundtracks. When done right, the lack of music plays a key role in forcing the player to focus on the game itself. When done wrong, lack of music in a game can make it feel hollow and incomplete.
So a game and its soundtrack often go hand in hand. We play great games and are rewarded by great soundtracks. But could it ever be that the soundtrack itself is the reward?
Riding the coattails of Hatm0nster’s post on Fable II from earlier in the week, it reminded me of one of the most lovely songs I’ve ever heard in a video game, and my most favorite song from the Fable series: the “Temple of Light” theme.
The forming (and breaking) of intimate relationships between characters has become something of a hallmark in modern games. We muddled about by ourselves in games for years prior, taking on the toughest of enemies either alone or with a ragtag group of new-found “friends” with vacant backstories. Enter in the likes of story-heavy games, such as those in the Final Fantasy series, and change happens. Even though you couldn’t actively court other characters in games like that, it was easy to develop vicarious relationships with and through them because they each had individual pasts that lain in wait, to be uncovered at the player’s discretion. And before the world was treated to the now –ubiquitous character development styles of firms like Bioware, plenty of games had introduced the complexities that accompany personal interactions into their ranks, such as games in the Zelda, Metroid, and Half-Life series.
It’s a privilege and a burden to be given the task of evangelizing the Walking dead to the you, the good readers of United We Game. Unlike the other games on this list, the Walking Dead is not a trailblazer of ground breaking game play. The other, rightly vaunted, games on this list tend to stick in the memory for bringing new mechanics, control schemes and interactions with the game worlds to the fore.
The Walking Dead, however, uses a fairly basic graphic adventure game. The usual complex puzzles are stripped back to their very basics and take very little thought to complete. Graphics are low rent and the control scheme adequate at best.
This all pales into insignificance however when the true merits are considered. This is the game that finally treats the slowly ageing gaming population as the adults they’ve become. Gaming finally growing up but don’t worry there are still zombies in it.
Like all the best fiction, the zombies, become only a secondary adversary. This game isn’t about zombies, it’s about people, just like Jaws isn’t about the shark. Both these movie monsters serve only to drive the characters into situations where they can do nothing but show their true colours.
So for those don’t know, in this game you play Lee, a convicted murderer (whether or not he did or didn’t do it is left ambiguous for a good portion of the game) on his way to jail until an unexplained zombie outbreak kind of gets in the way. He happens upon a young girl called Clementine (Clem for short) and the pair quickly form a bond as he becomes her protector and she gives him a reason to survive. As mentioned above, there is a basic adventure game template but puzzles are straight forward. They are meant to keep you moving along, interested in the plot and serve as convenient time to wander your environment and talk to your ever evolving group of compatriots.
Nearly everything in this game is in place to serve as character development. How your comrades react to changing situations, the locations they’re in, the conversations they have, the looks on their faces and their reactions to your choices. Choices, indeed, this game gives you choices. Remember that claim I made earlier about this being an adult game? The moral choices you make are what defines how you play Lee but they are not the usual cartoonish moral choices that first appeared in Fable and Black and White. These are real characters and your choices mean consequences for them, suddenly the weight of the choices is real because each character has been subtly developed throughout the game.
The whole “Good” and “Evil” path was developed many years ago and has not really developed in games. It was seen as enough to let you be a devil or an angel. A few games began to iterate such as Mass Effect and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Introducing grey areas to your choices or making you really think about the outcomes of your decision. Too many games basically rely on there being two separate play throughs, right up to the modern day, a good one and a bad one. You do the good one because you’re a nice person and then do the evil one to see the difference.
The Walking Dead gives you choices but there is no right choice, no wrong choice. There’s just a choice, your choice. Sometimes it’s completely instinctual. Each choice has a timer, you can’t sit and ponder. Let me give you an example, in the first episode (the game is split into five episodes) you have to decide which of two characters to save. You’ve spent perhaps twenty minutes in total with these people, you have but a few minutes of conversation with each of them to base your decision on. There is no right choice. You’ll question your decision for the rest of the game. Therefore justifying the need for the dilemma to be there in the first place. There’s no point to having a choice if you decided at the start which of two options you are going to select each time.
This interaction between character and player agency is the true genius of the game. In reality, there is no branching path, your choices don’t effect the final outcome of the story but that doesn’t matter because this is your story. You are reacting to these characters because of how you feel about them.
This is why I champion this game, it may not be the genre defining entry that some other titles on this list are but it pushes forward the template for the whole medium. Now, characters can be more than electric ninjas and busty maidens and they can mean something real to us because they are flawed but striving for the best world they can. Players can make a choice that felt truly important. Conversations between characters can be for more than just plot development.
All this and I haven’t even mentioned the fantastic voice acting and brilliant plot. They are all part of the package. Due to the episodic nature of the game, certain sections are stronger than others but each is an important development to the harrowing conclusion. Oh, and that conclusion. The less said for the uninitiated the better. Just experience it. If you haven’t played it then grab a copy and spend an evening with some complex, annoying, strong, terrified and brilliant people.
It registers now as kind of odd to me now that we never had an Xbox since we were so on top of the video game consoles of the time. But a close friend of ours owned one, and it was open to use whenever we wanted, so we never actually needed one. I also have to admit that the Xbox was rather strange to me at first. I mean, Nintendo and Sony had been offering the world lots of gaming goodness for awhile, and suddenly, in walks Microsoft with its giant, black box and a new Halo title and I’m just expected to bite? I dunno… That said, I wasn’t about to turn down some new gaming fun when given the chance. So whenever we went over to our friend’s house, the Xbox happened; and among his small catalog of games I found a few that I really enjoyed. (A fair portion of my experience with original Xbox games actually happened later on the Xbox 360.) When it came to choosing games for my island, the choices came down to those games I had played the most, and only four rose to the top.