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Posted by Marianne Miller on Feb 8, 2013

5 Things The Walking Dead Can Teach The Gaming Industry

Yesterday, Quantic Dreams’ David Cage made the internet explode with discussion with his lecture on why games need to grow up at the DICE 2013 conference.  Essentially, Cage made the claim that the market was too polarized, using a list of the top-selling games of all time as an example, by pointing out that the most popular games are either violent, casual, or for children.  He then went on to say that games only appealed to a certain audience, and suggested the way we appeal to a grander audience was by focusing more on characters and relationships, by breaking out of the idea that a game needs guns or platforming to be a game, and by teaming up with Hollywood to create better entertainment.

Some have said that Cage’s speech was full of naivete and an excuse to justify and perpetuate the kind of games he creates.  Given the vague nature of his suggestions, I would be inclined to agree.  While there is an issue of immaturity in gaming, I don’t think any of it has to do with mechanics (unless we’re talking about a game like No More Heroes, which requires jerking off a Wiimote to charge a weapon).  The landscape of gaming is already vast—he just chose a very narrow spectrum to judge it off of.  Players have shooters, children’s games, RPGs, RTS games, puzzle games, weight loss games, language games, action adventure games, hack and slash games, horror games, and even interactive movies, like his contributions to the market.

Coincidentally, I finished Telltale’s The Walking Dead yesterday after watching his speech, and even before completing the game, I had the realization that Telltale had taken the formula that Cage uses primarily in his games (Quick Time Events and interactive movies) and done it better than he had.  While I enjoyed Heavy Rain, I thought most of the characters were generic and forgettable and some of the game fell victim to the generic color palette that many modern games suffer from.  The Walking Dead not only had engaging characters, but also an almost pastel look to it, due to the lack of heavy colors.

While Cage’s speech left much to be desired, it did have an agreeable point—there are issues with the ways videogames are being made and marketed.  However, I think The Walking Dead showed us how we can improve videogames in specific ways that don’t just involve game mechanics or trying to reduce a game to QTEs and cinematics.

 

 

  1.        Creating more diverse casts of characters.

It’s painfully obvious that most western games are generated with the intention of appealing to a white male audience.  This is true of a lot of artistic mediums, but because of the way that videogames are made (most including massive amounts of machismo and glorification of violence), I feel as though it’s easier for them to fall into this trap.

In our real lives, many of the people we know (or we ourselves) are not white.  Yet, in videogames, the majority of protagonists are white, joined by a few token minorities if we’re lucky.  Some games have started featuring more and more ethnically diverse casts, but many characters are still male, even if they are black, Mexican, or middle eastern.

However, The Walking Dead featured not only a main male character who was black, but also at least 5 women (an almost equal count to the 8 main male companions) which included a Russian, a black woman, and a biracial little girl—probably the most unrepresented of any ethnicity, despite the commonality of mixed race relationships (which were also prevelant within the game).

By allowing characters’ skin colors to reflect reality, that makes a game more realistic than simply dulling the colors and attempting to put them in “adult” situations.

  

             

 

                          2.        Write characters and stories without a gender bias.

Part of what made The Walking Dead so accessible was not only the fact that the characters looked like a group of real people, but they also behaved that way.  Many of us don’t fall into stereotypical gender binaries or character pigeonholes.  Sure, we all know that one guy who’s hardcore into monster trucks or naked women on cars and that one chick who doesn’t stop talking about shoes and shopping, but the fact of the matter is that most of us really aren’t like that.  Some girls like sports, some guys like long, scented bubble baths.

 

Mild Spoilers for The Walking Dead in the paragraph below.

 

None of the characters in The Walking Dead exuded any of the traits or stereotypes that are common within many videogames and TV shows for characters of their race or gender.  Both the male and female characters have moments of weakness, vulnerability and strength.  Kenny was only able to break past his denial of his son’s injury because of Katjaa’s firmness with him.  Lilly made the rough decisions for the group, and was as prickly and abrasive as her father.  Doug didn’t like guns and avoided conflict because of his inability to fight.  Omid was obviously not the dominant one in his relationship.

Creating these fluctuating and diverse dynamics between characters is only possible if we stop looking at a character as a man or woman (or as a specific race), and instead write them as capable human beings.  Lee was no stronger or weaker than any of his female counterparts, and vice versa.

By removing the male gaze that is so prominent in videogames by focusing on character traits, abilities, and weaknesses as opposed to butts, boobs and gore, we open ourselves and our products up to a wider audience (namely women, who still make up a meaty portion of gamers, despite the assumption of the opposite).  Most of the butt shots in The Walking Dead were Lee’s, and that was mostly to display the gun he always kept tucked carefully in the back of his pants.  The same cannot be said of Heavy Rain, which featured a shower scene and a possible near rape scene within moments of introducing the game’s only female character.

 

                3.       Allow more room for different types of love.

My biggest complaint about most female characters is that they usually have to justify their presence to the creators and the audience by becoming someone’s love interest.  It’s sexist at worst, and horrifically boring at best.  Not everyone you meet who are of the opposite gender (or the same, if that applies to you) will be a potential love interest.  Despite the claims that men and women can never just be friends, millions of men and women are.  So why aren’t more men and women in videogames… just… friends?

The Walking Dead had no room for romance, despite the numerous women that Lee encountered throughout the journey.  Instead, the game chose to focus on developing an uncommonly presented bond—the love between a father and his daughter.

Many movies, games, and TV shows tend to only focus on the validity of a love between a mother and child while the father goes off to do… manly, fatherly things.  This presents an unfair bias against men that reflects itself during custody battles in real life all the time.  People have a hard time believing that a man can be just as good (or better) at raising a child than a woman.

Yet Lee manages to “raise” Clementine on his own, with the support of others.  The only people who question his ability to take care of her are men, not women, which presents an interesting reversal of gender roles.  While men are usually strapped with the responsibility of providing and protecting their family, it’s women who are left to taking care of and judging others’ abilities to raise children.  Allowing men to have a more maternal side not only helps challenge the harmful, real-life attitudes towards father/child love, but also makes for more interesting, realisitic characters.

 

 

               4.          Challenge Stereotypes by not calling attention to them.

The Walking Dead had one moment where it actually acknowledged that Lee was black.  Kenny and Lee were attempting to get through a locked door, and Kenny—the only character in the group with a southern accent—asked Lee if he could pick a lock, since he was… “urban”.  After a harsh look from Lee, Kenny hastily apologizes, blaming his Floridian roots for his mild racism.

The game ignores common inclinations to write characters based off of the color of their skin, which happens quite a lot and I believe is perpetuated by the ever-common “token minority”, who usually ends up being written in an overly simplified, stereotypical way for comedic relief, or to establish a dynamic that somehow wouldn’t be there with a white person (or just a normally written person of color).  For example, while most of us are past the painful “watermelon and chicken” stage of racism towards blacks, many of us have subconscious associations with personality traits and race.  Many of us assume that black people are loud and boisterous, have poor grammar, are low-income or live in low-income areas.  In that regard, most people would probably assume Lee was a white man if you were to describe him in every aspect aside from his skin color—a quiet, divorced University professor who grew up in a small town.

Similarly, Omid is another character that acts outside his race, by having a normal North American accent, a geeky sense of humor and a passion for Southern history.  Even his girlfriend, Christa, makes a joke about how no one except for old white men could give a damn about Civil War history.  Of course, Lee takes that moment to let her know that he is also an enthusiast.

If anything, Kenny is the closest thing to a stereotype, with his mild moment of racism, his southern accent, and his fiery temper.  But to call him a hillbilly would be a bit of a stretch.

By allowing characters to be people rather than skin colors and the personality assumptions that come by associating those people with their skin colors, we can start opening up character writing beyond stereotypes and start exploring more interesting parts of the human experience that are unique to minorities in general, such as their experiences with racism and bigotry.

 

 

              5.           Allow for actual weakness and vulnerability.

It’s common for characters to have flaws and tragic backstories, but I feel as though those things rarely lead to any sort of weakness.  After all, some “flaws” can be considered more useful or double-edged than others.  For example, calling someone “stubborn” or telling someone they have a “one-track mind” isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Stubbornness can be a flaw that can work in someone’s favor.  Being focused can benefit someone’s work life.  Even being short-tempered doesn’t really come off as negative—especially for male characters—because it allows them to look powerful and intimidating from a story standpoint.

But something that The Walking Dead had that I’ve not encountered much in games recently were these moments of silence, punctuated by painful looks from Lee.  Here is a man who was doing everything he can to do right by his “daughter” and the people he’s traveling with who is ultimately powerless.

 

Mild spoilers for Episode 4 in the paragraph below.

I think one of the most powerful moments in the game for me was when we found the starved, zombified child locked in the attic of his house.  Kenny is devastated and nearly useless upon the discovery.  Once the child is put out of its misery, Lee buries him beside his dog in the backyard.  Controlling every shovel of dirt was a very real moment for me, because it wasn’t just burying a body, and that was evident by the pain that Lee wasn’t trying very hard to hide—it was coming to terms with everything he’d done.  That he would have been a murderer no matter what, even if he hadn’t killed the man who was stealing his wife away from him.

 

MAJOR SPOILERS for Episode 5 in the 3 paragraphs below.

 

And after he’d been bitten, there are moments where he’s allowed to be empowered and the violence is glorified, like when he single-handedly crosses a zombie hoard using only a meat cleaver, but that moment is soon gone after he meets up with Clementine and feels the last ounces of life dripping out of him.  His last moments are not empowering or overly dramatic—he simply sits, handcuffed to a radiator, completely helpless as he places his life in a little girl’s hands.  Personally, I didn’t have her shoot me, and I feel as though I got the more powerful ending.  If she shoots, you see a predictable shot of her holding the gun with a tortured look on her face before the bang and the cut to black.

But with my ending, she merely leaves, however hesitantly.  Lee is left alone, his eyes closed, his skin grey, and we watch as his chest slowly stops moving and he slumps, undignified, against the radiator, his head tilted at a strange angle.  There was no blaze of glory.  No drawn out monologue.  Just a few last words of advice for a girl who he forced to let him die alone.

It’s a sobering, real moment that you don’t see often in any sort of fiction, even ones that end with a character dying.  Death, especially for a protagonist, is usually romanticized, even if it’s only in a miniscule way and there’s usually follow up from the other characters involving their mourning.  But The Walking Dead allowed Lee to die the way any of us would—in a dark, ugly, abrupt way.

David Cage was right: games do need to mature.  But I think his ideas were too limited to his bias towards his own games, and his fascination with movies.  The Walking Dead was not a AAA title by any means, in terms of budget or anyone’s involvement.  There were no movie studios involved.  The game wasn’t obnoxiously cinematic (like… say… Uncharted).  And there were no recognizable names involved in the cast.  This was a game that became as wildly popular as it is based off of its own merits in storytelling and character development.

Asking that games break away from what makes them games treads dangerous water, because we run the risk of seeing the same game over and over and over again.  But characters are the one thing all games have in common, and are the mouthpiece of games themselves.  By having realistic, balanced characters that aren’t reduced to sex or skin color, we can start seeing the vast improvement in storytelling that David Cage is asking for.  But without trying to force people into making games with mechanics they don’t like.

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