Beyond control

I watched Breaking Bad and played the first season of The Walking Dead, by Telltale Games. There’ll be some spoilers ahead.

First off, I played TWD last year, before starting to watch Breaking Bad. I’m not into Adventure Games (they bore me, really), but it was a very great surprise.

Now, I won’t dwell too much into a deep analysis of the game. I think the guys at Extra Credits already did a great job; here are some of their videos regarding it: Raising The Dead, For Whom The Bell Tolls, Minority and The Illusion of Choice.

I really loved how the game made me really think carefully every time I had to pick a choice. As I played, it became almost natural to expect that my choices would have a great impact on the story (much more than it really was, even though I am aware it is very expensive and most improbable). The episode of Illusion of Choice, mentioned before, explains one type of choices present in the game: beads-on-a-string technique (temporal branching-and-later-merging of the storyline). Also, the episode on Negative Possibility Space talks about my expectations on the choices I made.

Now, about Breaking Bad. Truth be told, I started watching it a week or so after it ended. Nevertheless, I loved the show, it had a great production work and performance by the cast and gave me one hell of a ride. The show is not just one more on the pile. The Breaking Bad team did a wonderful job trying to create an awesome experience, taking care of the little details, like nods through the continuity of the story and the use of colors (there’s plenty of info on the web about that, but here are a couple of them: 1, 2) to complement the narrative.

At first, one thing I didn’t like throughout the show was how the character arc for Skyler and Jesse decayed, after half the show. To me, they started to lose relevance in the story after having a greater importance in the first half. However, the final episode made my mind up about that.

Breaking Bad is not a show about Walter, his family and Jesse. It is all about Walter (as he finally accepted, confessing it made him feel good) and how his choices IMPACT on his family and Jesse. Even if he didn’t mean for anything wrong to happen, they still did.

My kingdom, my kingdom, my family for my kingdom.
My kingdom, my kingdom, my family for my kingdom.

In the end, I understood something interesting. Videogames tend to differentiate from other media because of the presence of choice. However, they mainly don’t portray the other side of life: its unavoidable vicissitudes. Yes, videogames allow us to model our need to portray the ability to make choices, but what about the situations when we have absolutely no control of? When we play games, we can always replay our failures until we do things the right way. We tend to be spoiled and think we have the power to undo wrongs. And this is where other media (such as movies, books, etc.) do a great job. We can’t change the course of the story in a book, as it was written by someone else and we are but mere visitors. This limitation (not being able to choose) more than often makes us suffer; we get to see our favorite character die or innocent people suffering, and we can’t do a single thing about it.

I’ll be honest. The ending of Breaking Bad left me with a void inside. All the deaths in the show, of the people I came to care about, made me feel impotent, wondering why things could not went alright. I haven’t felt that way since Seven Pounds. Very few games achieve this.

Now, videogames do have these kind of moments where things happen beyond the player’s control, but it’s more because of the narrative than anything else. Given that the main focus of videogames is to let players DO, these kind of permanent-story-decisions are not core elements, as in other media (where narrative and witnessing is the focus). TWD and Spec Ops are few of the examples around that succesfully transmits the frustration of something escaping your grasp, although in a different way; it shows the frustration from not being able to please everybody (while I’m talking about not even being able to influence in any way the situation through your actions; complete impotence).

The lesson here is that there are other kind of media that complement game’s innate characteristics. They are not the best medium around, they’re just another. I think the article Fuck Videogames by Darius Kazemi sums up what I’m saying. We should try to embrace every way we have in order to better express ourselves and not limit ourselves to just a particular one. Each medium has its own set of utilities and shortages, fitted for different purposes.

Videogames, movies, TV series and books make people be something they’re not (as Spec Ops does a wonderful job pointing out).

 “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.”

– George R. R. Martin

The whole point of this is that we remember our role in life. Not only do we affect others with our decisions, but others affect us as well. We are not free from that and it will always be part of us. Shinji, from Evangelion, came to understand that at the End of Evangelion; you can’t avoid getting hurt by others, as it’s human nature to be hurt. Walter didn’t intend to hurt others, but his greed and lust for power made him blind; he lied to his family and friends and, most important, he lied to himself. Under the false pretence that he was working to help his family, it was ultimately his id that destroyed all he cared about. He may have saved his family, but at the cost of losing them.

Nevertheless, he died doing something that made him feel useful, rather than waiting bored in his home to die. And his death, just as the death of the people in Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead and Spec Ops, will be remembered.

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

– John Donne


  1. I started watching Breaking Bad like a week or so after the show ended and started writing this post 4 months ago. This was partly because of the blog hiatus and all the editing around.
  2. There are examples of non-choice media that change with its audiences participation (like that time fans voted for the second Robin to be killed) but it’s the same case I stated here: they’re not part of the core experience of the medium.

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