I've been a fan of Telltale since the Sam & Max games and in recent games started to notice a trend towards games that had some consideration of ethical issues. In their Jurassic Park game characters have a lengthy debate about the morality of the lysine contingency, and in their Back to the Future game a version of Emmett Brown pointedly asks what gives you (Marty) the right to use time travel to decide which people should and shouldn't be living happy lives in 1985. While I ended up being disappointed by the game ending in both cases, I was impressed at how Telltale had found ways to mine the world of the franchises they're playing in and ask interesting ethical questions about them. While the show version of The Walking Dead has issues, I was interested to see what Telltale would do with a world that was essentially always about making difficult ethical choices.
The Walking Dead game exists in roughly the same world as the comics and TV show (not aware if it's considered in the same canon as either, although there is some character overlap) where the world is overrun by a zombie apocalypse and the driving narrative force is dealing with how people exist with uncomfortable decisions and the end of civilisation. Gameplay is relatively simple, the majority of the game is spent going between cut-scenes and dialogue options, where your choices of dialogue will affect your relationship with other characters, affecting future dialogue. There are also scenes where there is freedom to roam and accomplish traditional point-and-click game tasks, or action sequences with Quick Time events.
At the start of each episode the game tells you: 'This game series adapts to the choices you make. The story is tailored by how you play.' However what becomes apparent quite quickly is that your ability to make choices that drastically affect the story is quite limited but what I found especially interesting after playing the first few episodes was how this made the game better at being an 'ethics game' than an endlessly branching story might be.
To take a typical choice, there's a situation where you can choose to act morally, but this will cause you to have less time to gather supplies. However aside from some dialogue about this the supplies themselves mean nothing, this isn't a game with health bars and you are physically able to carry out the same tasks no matter how much your character has eaten. Similarly a decision whether or not to take supplies from a possible abandoned car doesn't matter, your group will survive and be alive and well in the next episode anyway.
To an extent this is making lives easier for the developers who don't have to track and script every possible divergent fork. Unlike some text adventure games it won't severely punish you hours down the line from a decision made early on (and most decisions that cause divergent paths collapse to the same outcome, if through slightly different means), all death events are caused by insufficient button mashing and there are very few places where you can through dialogue choices lead to a 'game over'. However, practical considerations aren't the only ones here and I think the general inflexibility of the game world goes some way towards making this an interestingly ethics-based game.
In trying to work out how to account for ethical choices in a game like this I was reminded of a season two episode of Angel - 'Epiphany'. In this episode Angel, who had seen himself as a pivotal player in the battle between good and evil, realises what a small player he really is and decides that if the big ends are unchangeable then how he chooses to act is the only thing that matters - "If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do".
This is a credo that carries over well to The Walking Dead. Your character simply does not have the power to influence the world around him to huge degrees. We, as players, know that the world is on rails and certain events are inevitable regardless of our choices but the reactions of other characters are flexible enough to our choices that there is a sense of immersion and weight to choices we make. The key question here is if your character is powerless to prevent or control his fate, does it make choosing to behave ethically more or less meaningful?
My thinking is that this lack of control takes away a lot of traditional gaming thinking from the player. If it was possible to prevent every death, there'd be incentive for people to see each death as a failure and constantly reload in search of that '100% complete' achievement (à la Heavy Rain). By keeping choices about choosing sides (and aligning yourself with various other characters), the game sidesteps the problem of creating right and wrong answers to puzzles - there are simply choices you make. And if these choices have no effect on 'game score' - then there is no disincentive to role play.
How do you decide which four out of ten people will get food? You can play it by who you want to keep 'on side' but as established that doesn't matter-matter - by taking away practical gaming considerations the game makes you consider what you would do in those circumstances. When the game offered me a choice of keeping the last piece of food for myself, I was stuck on that decision for a minute or so - without in-game consequences our own sense of ethics can be fully engaged.
However, the flip side is the question of can a game that doesn't make you suffer for picking morally better but practically disadvantageous decisions really be asking you to make meaningful decisions? To which I'd answer that meaningful in the game and meaningful to the player are quite different things. By turning off gamer logic, the game changes the basis you make decisions on. You're not choosing which version of the game you want to be playing an hour down the line but are forced to make decisions based on personal considerations.
So while The Walking Dead may in some senses be far more linear than it's described as, the linear plot creates room for an interesting kind of sandbox ethics game. Even if most choices don't matter to the story, they do matter to you.
(Interesting but unrelated: article on experiments with ethical thinking in online MMOs)