Worldbuilding is something that is incredibly important to any game. It’s how we get sucked into worlds that companies like Software, Bioware, and Obsidian create. The people they create, the settings they raise, and the backgrounds they disperse through their games are all absolutely instrumental for people to become immersed. Mass Effect wouldn’t be the same without the codex, flavor text, the characters we grow and love, or the information we learn about the planets and areas we visit.
In recent years, episodic games have become a real force as smaller, narratively driven games. Starting with the big breakout from Telltale Games, The Walking Dead Season One, episodic games have slowly but surely been making waves in the realm of games, and with their format of shorter episodes, having to take a different approach to how they handle worldbuilding as well. In this series, I’ll be looking at three major episodic games: Telltales’ The Walking Dead Season One, D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die by SWERY, and DONTNOD’S Life Is Strange. I’ll examine the first episode from each of these games and analyze how they connect to the tone and the setting, and the pros and cons of their approaches to building these worlds.
The Walking Dead is, of course, a post-apocalyptic game. Lee passes out in a police car on the onset of the zombie horde and wakes up within a day or so to an apocalypse that’s well under way, with the first episode as a whole taking place within the first week. I’ve heard people say every so often that with media that has a story like The Walking Dead, it’s not about what happens during the apocalypse, but the end result. The journeys through the apocalypse don’t matter, but the lives that have to be lived now that this has all happened do. For better or worse, that’s The Walking Dead to a T, especially in the first days of this new world that everyone has to live in and adapt to.
After having played through the first episode again, I want to talk about specific aspects of the worldbuilding in The Walking Dead. I’m a small-time game developer and an avid writer, and the creation of worlds is fascinating to me. There’s something so intriguing about seeing approaches to how creators prop up where their games take place. It’s something I want to focus on in my writing and when I start creating bigger games. These episodic games have really resonated with me in how they build their worlds. What I’ll be focusing on in this article—and this series as a whole—is the worldbuilding through objects in the world. More specifically, what the character or characters say when an object is looked at in the world.
So let’s get to it, shall we?
It’s easy to note that from the get-go, The Walking Dead is one thing for sure: minimalist. As I noted earlier, like a lot of post-apocalyptic media, The Walking Dead focuses on the stories of the characters. The world around you barely matters. There are zombies in it (which has made supplies scarce), some people are very bad, and your main objective is to get to Savannah. Items you can see in the world barely matter unless it’s something you can use to further your survival, or the survival of others in your group.
It’s an approach very fitting of the genre—a sad, minimalistic showing of the world after its collapse when zombies have risen up all over. Very little matters. It’s all about one’s ability to survive in a new, messed up world. Despite it being a fitting approach, I don’t believe that it’s a great one. There’s a difference between minimalism in the way that The Walking Dead handles it and an approach of a minimalism with, as strange as this may sound, more writing.
Telltale really loves two ways to write types of dialogue when it comes to Lee looking at something. Either he will say what the object is and little more than that, or he will say how the object is a solution to something or the path to some place that needs to be gotten to. It’s incredibly clunky writing that feels out of place, and seems to serve the role of letting the player know the solution during puzzles. But most of the puzzles aren’t that tricky (there are some annoyances with how objectives need to be done when outside the drug store, but that’s neither here nor there), so it simply serves as disrupting a narrative-based game.
It’s a bit odd how Lee will simply voice out loud what he has to do in order to do something like getting pills for Larry or getting out of a police car. It’s in service to the game, not the narrative, the characters, or the world. For a game that has been acclaimed over and over, the worldbuilding just doesn’t feel there at times.
Though, as noted, the draw to The Walking Dead is the drama between the characters, their survival, and the struggles they have to face in a new world—not what’s around them. But the lack of real acknowledgement to their surroundings is so disappointing because the falling apart of the world is such a real thing at that point. Lee and other characters should be wondering what happened at a place when they look at something, or thinking about how something could affect them. It might just be me, but if I saw something in the post-apocalypse, I wouldn’t think “Oh, that’s just [x],” I would be thinking about what might have happened to it—anything other than just what the item is.
Like I said earlier, I played through the first episode of The Walking Dead Season One again and I examined—as far as I could tell—every examinable item in the first episode. From the moment you gain control of Lee after the car crash to going back to the office in the drug store right before the end of the episode, I checked every nook and cranny in all of the main playable parts of the episode, and the results are as follows.
Firstly, I checked 52 different items total. Some items I examined more than once, but I only counted an item on my listing once. While I’m not sure I looked at every item that I could examine with the “look at” option, I’m pretty sure I got at least 90% to 95% of them. Next, I filed each item and what Lee had to say under four different categories:
Yes, there were moments where you examined something, it zoomed in and examined the item, but Lee said nothing.
Lee saying something was a solution that happened 15 times. This was generally when looking at a door he needed to go through or something similar.
Lee saying what an object was happened a whopping 26 times. He might have elaborated on it a bit (though not a lot), but the point stands that he said what an object was, out loud, 26 times. Twenty-six objects where he looked at them and felt the need to say little more than what the object was. That feels astounding and confounding to me as to why that’s the case, and why it needed to happen so much.
Lee saying something of actual note—him talking about something and going on about it for a bit that leads to some sort of worldbuilding, or something humorous—happened only nine times. The fact that it happens so little (at least, aside from complete silence) feels disappointing, because clearly Lee has things to say, whether funny or insightful, but Telltale primarily went the route of just saying what things were.
And finally, Lee is silent twice: in his parents’ drug store when looking at pictures and newspaper clippings on the wall. I’m much happier with this than with saying what an object is because, while there is no dialogue, there’s a gravity to the situation. Coming back to a place he’s been away from for apparently a long time (if what Lee had to say is true), and meeting items with nothing more than silence says a lot about Lee’s return to Macon. It’s meaningful—more meaningful than, “I better move that pallet out of the way so we can get to the pharmacy” by far.
I do want to go over a few lines because, while the majority of observations aren’t much, there are times when Lee does have some pretty good stuff to say.
Lee has the capacity to be humorous, to be deprecating about the situation at hand, to have real things to say about the world around him at times, which is why it makes it all the more sad when Telltale saddles him primarily with dialogue that are essentially just filler lines. Not only does it diminish Lee, but it diminishes the world around him. It goes largely unexamined, largely unquestioned in what’s happened in the days since this catastrophe. It all doesn’t matter for reasons that seem surprising to me. Despite the world of The Walking Dead being, well, dead/dying, there’s so much more to see in it.
The slow fading away of everything isn’t nothing. In that world, it’s something that the characters have to deal with on a daily basis, yet it’s rarely acknowledged—at the least in the first episode. The start of the worldbuilding is very little, and it’s saddening. For a game so acclaimed, the world goes largely ignored by a lot of the characters.
That was my look at the worldbuilding and its connection with the narrative of The Walking Dead Season One, Episode One. In my next post, I’ll be taking a look at the first episode of SWERY’s D4.