P-Zombies, Zero-Sum Videogames, and the Problem of Free Will

How does “The Walking Dead” solve the conundrum of narrative vs. freedom in games?

NOTE: this article is actually about The Walking Dead videogame. Don’t let the first almost-1,000 words fool you.

Okay. The maturation of videogames as a medium and an art form is happening on two parallel tracks: creators are increasingly using games to tell more complex and meaningful stories than videogames did in the past (there’s some narrative that can be gleaned from Pac-Man, for instance, but there’s genuine literary depth in BioShock), while at the same time, advances in technology are making it possible to create more immersive experiences than were technically feasible in the past (the Pac-Man vs BioShock example still appertains).

That the development of games depends on these two related but not inextricable aspects (technically sophisticated games can be narratively shallow – the recent Killzone: Shadow Fall seems to fall into this category – whereas games that are relatively simple in programming terms can be very advanced when it comes to storytelling – genius indie games like Home, The Binding of Isaac, and Kingdom of Loathing are some notable examples, plus remember how A Link to the Past was the best game ever? Yeah) can present a conceptual problem when games start to venture into artistically suspect territory. And usually the most incisive criticism when this happens is from games themselves.



Cow Clicker satirized the abuse of social networking and monetization models that was diluting the market for serious works of videogame art. Achievement Unlocked  parodies the “achievement” model in massively multiplayer RPGs, and, increasingly, every single other game ever (and even non-games; you can get some sweet sweet cheevos for watching movies on Netflix now) by awarding achievements for absolutely anything and everything that happens in the game, like “Played for 10 Seconds,” “Hold both the left and right keys,” and “Earned an achievement.” In Gunpoint, the game gives you an achievement for punching a guy a hundred times – and the game breaks the fourth wall to tell you that it’s only giving you the achievement to get you to stop punching him. You don’t have to stop.

The Stanley Parable is also a game about games, but it is equally a game about the philosophical conundrum of free will. It’s a first-person exploration game that contains direct parodies of several extremely popular games like Minecraft (which gives the player nearly infinite choices but has no built-in story of which to speak), Portal (which has brilliant writing and challenging puzzles but no opportunities for the player to express anything about the protagonist’s character), and Dear Esther (which is more like a painting that you get to walk around in than a game).

The narrator of The Stanley Parable realizes, at one point, that you – the player – are not Stanley, but “a real person,” when it becomes clear that you keep making the wrong decisions and eventually do something that you’re not supposed to be able to do, which breaks the game, much to the narrator’s irritation. This makes for some very very funny exposition, but is also a devastating attack on the current state of the videogame industry and the sort of people who prop it up.

This is a spoiler but there are like a hundred endings in this game so whatever.

What The Stanley Parable seems to be criticizing is the problem that videogame creators come up against when they need to balance giving the player meaningful choices that affect the story while actually producing a game with a limited number of programmers, storage space, hardware requirements, budget, and time. It’s probably not even physically possible to make a game where you can do anything, especially not when you have a deadline to hit, and especially if you have an actual story you want to tell rather than just making an infinite sandbox type universe simulator.


The key term here is meaningful choices. The game company BioWare has been frequently hailed for the depth of their games in terms of the sorts of decisions you as a player can make and how they affect your character’s relationships and the game’s outcome. Games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age: Origins, and Mass Effect are some notable examples, and while they are all genuinely great games with wonderful storytelling, the limitations imposed by the physical and computational architecture of the genre are still pretty apparent. There’s more freedom in, say, Rockstar Games’s Red Dead Redemption, Bethesda’s Skyrim, and that sort of “open world” game, but even there, much of that “freedom” lies in the player’s ability to completely ignore the main storyline if he or she is so inclined, doing nothing but sidequests or completing self-imposed goals and challenges with no regard for the game’s actual plot.

There seems to be no solution. A game is defined by its restrictions – that’s what “rules” are, after all – but if it’s impossible to give a player sufficiently meaningful choices without compromising the game’s ability to tell a story, then videogames are always going to be a tug-of-war between interactivity and narrative; game creators need to decide what they want that balance in their game to be, and everyone just has to deal with that. Now, this compromise definitely doesn’t have to lead to bad games; every game has to walk this tightrope and lots and lots of them have done it very, very well. It’s just something that game creators and players need to acknowledge and then move on with their lives.


no it is not

no it is not

There is a game – a licensed game, even – that deals with this issue in games and the associated philosophical problem of free will without getting all meta like The Stanley Parable or Save The Date. It manages to reconcile the paradox purely through gameplay while also being a great game on its own terms. That game, you probably already have guessed, is The Walking Dead.

Now, I don’t even particularly like zombies, and I’ve never watched The Walking Dead TV series because I read the first couple of volumes of the comic on which it was based and I was bored. But I heard so many good things about Telltale Games’ third-person graphic adventure game set in the world of the series – which was on absolutely everybody’s Top Games of 2012 list, frequently at #1 – that I got it on Steam and played it. And yes, it is completely brilliant. The writing, acting, and graphics are all great, but most of all the characterization is believable and incredibly affecting. Now here’s the thing: this is a game where you make choices, serious moral choices, life-or-death choices – but ultimately not very many of them, and they don’t really make all that much difference to how the story plays out. On the one hand, this is a decision that the creators had to make because of the zero-sum game of narrative vs. freedom; you just can’t make a game where the player has a lot of decisions to make and have all of those decisions be capable of significantly altering how the game unfolds, because you’d end up with an unwieldy, or potentially infinite, number of branching trees, and obviously that’s just not physically writable or programmable.

But what The Walking Dead does that makes it so good is resolve the paradox by synthesizing narrative and freedom in gameplay terms while also taking a stand on the philosophical problem of what makes our moral choices meaningful in real life. Practically the only criticism of the game has been for its giving players the illusion of choice rather than actual freedom, and even the creators have said that their intention in the game was to put the player in a position where there are no good choices and you have to decide between two options that are maybe equally awful. This is in stark contrast to games with a “morality meter” like Star Wars: The Old Republic, where you can decide to murder someone or not murder them, and what you do earns you either “light side points” or “dark side points” that affect how other characters see you, what kind of powers you can use, and so on. But those are easy choices because going into the game you can have already decided either to play light side or dark side. Which decision is good and which is evil is completely uncomplicated.

But in The Walking Dead, you have to decide, for instance, whether or not to take a bunch of food from an empty car you stumble across. Do you take the food, which does not belong to you, possibly dooming the car’s rightful owners if and when they return? Or do you not take it and maybe let your whole group starve to death? In other words, it’s not that there are only bad choices as much as it’s not the choice you make that is important at all, it’s how you make the choice that is the meaningful part. What the game does is present you with the option to act out of principle or practicality; what it does is force you to decide between two moral systems, between a rule-based deontological ethics and a result-based consequentialist ethics.

Deontological ethics, probably best exemplified by Immanuel Kant and his “Categorical Imperative,” is the idea that the correct way to make moral decision is by using reason and following rules, acting out of duty rather than according to anyone’s desires or emotions. For instance, stealing is wrong not because it makes the person you’re stealing from feel bad, but because if taken to its logical conclusion it becomes paradoxical. The concept of theft requires the concept of private property; if stealing was an okay thing to do, then private property would become a meaningless idea, as nothing would ever really belong to anyone. When you see what happens if you apply the decision to steal as a universalizable principle – that is, it contradicts its own premises because theft only works if other people don’t do it – you can see that it’s therefore the wrong thing to do. So you don’t take the food from the car because there is an objective rule against it; the person who steals must assume that most other people aren’t thieves in order for theft to function, the thief makes him or herself an exception to the rule that the thief otherwise assumes and requires that everybody else follows. That is immoral, under this system.

On the other side of things is consequentialist morality, for instance the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill. Under this system, it’s the probable results of your decision that determine whether or not a certain action is moral. If your decision is likely to cause a greater amount of happiness for a greater number of people, then it’s right; if it’s likely to cause a greater amount of unhappiness, then it’s wrong. Under this schema, taking the food from the car could be the right thing to do. You don’t even know for sure that the car’s owners are still alive, and even if they are, there couldn’t be more of them than could fit into the car, and you know that there are more people in your own group than that. So you’re allowed to save your own life by taking the food even though you could be dooming whoever it actually belongs to.

Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill

Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill

The Walking Dead presents you with numerous situations where you must decide between doing what will benefit you and what some universal, impartially rational arbiter would require. If someone stole your food, you’d think that was wrong – so why is it okay to steal someone else’s? And the answer is, well, because you’re you, so your own welfare is more important to you than another person’s is. You are the exception. Or the answer is: the food’s owner might be dead, and there are more of us than there are of them, so by saving our own lives instead of theirs we’re doing the right thing.

The game forces you to make this decision, and gives you a very short amount of time to choose – if you say nothing, the rest of your group will vote and do whatever they want whether you like it or not. The choice is less between taking the food or not taking it as it is about how you make decisions in the first place, what are your criteria for deciding whether a certain action is morally right or wrong. And you have to decide now.

Though the other members of your group judge you, the game itself does not  – but it gives you the kind of decisions that cause you to judge yourself, it puts you in the sort of situations where you have three seconds to choose whether to be a deontologist or a consequentialist, and then live with that.

The criticism that the game’s choices aren’t meaningful because they don’t have any significant impact on the game’s outcome – and how could they, for the aforementioned practical programming reasons – falls flat when you consider this. Because what happens doesn’t matter, the results of your choices are totally irrelevant. In truth, you don’t actually ever know what the results of your choices will be. You only know what you want to happen or what is likely to happen. What does happen, in the game just as in reality, you have absolutely no control over the forces that determine events. All you can control is yourself. You make the decision, and then the universe does whatever the hell it wants. Whether you deserve praise or blame doesn’t rest on what happens – can’t rest on what happens – because it’s impossible to predict the future with complete accuracy. The Walking Dead makes this clear; when basically the same thing happens regardless of what you do, the meaningful part of the decision is the decision itself. The important thing about the choice is that it makes you the person who made that choice instead of the other one.

With this in mind, the fact that the game that does this is The Walking Dead is even more philosophically appropriate. I think I talked about Philosophical Zombies in my previous article “In Defense of Evil Killer Robots from the Future,” but briefly the concept is that it’s a thought experiment intended to show that physicalism is false and that the mind cannot identical with the brain. A philosophical zombie (or p-zombie) is physically identical to an ordinary human, down to the neuron, down to the atom, but, unlike an ordinary human, it has no inner life, no subjective character of human experience. It behaves identically to a regular person, because the electrochemical impulses that immediately cause its actions are just the same as anyone’s, but it doesn’t really see, hear, taste, smell, feel, or think anything – it only appears that it does. Inside, it’s dead. The fact that creatures such as these are logically possible (that they don’t present any actual contradiction), even though they are likely to be physical impossible, is meant to prove that there is something above and beyond the purely physical that distinguishes a being having subjective experiences from something that doesn’t.

The zombies from The Walking Dead are not philosophical zombies, of course – they’re your garden variety reanimated corpses, easily distinguishable from living humans – but the point is still important to the game’s theme. Because while playing you are situated in a world where there are creatures out there that do not make decisions, they are metaphysically incapable of free choice. They are not people, although they used to be. Every action they take is dictated by blind and mechanical physical impulse. They do only what their nature compels them to do…what their programming makes them do. They are non-player characters – you have no control over them and neither do they. They will do whatever they will do, and don’t care one way or the other what you do. They’re incapable of caring. They just stagger around and if they see you they will try to eat you. Not because they’re acting out of principle, and not because they think it will cause more happiness in the world if they eat you rather than not eating you. But because they are essentially machines.

The only thing in your control is your own decisions. The Walking Dead is making a profound metaphysical statement about the nature of morality and the existence of human free will, while at the same time making a statement about the purpose of videogames and the necessary limitations on them created by the narrative-freedom dichotomy. What the game says is that those limitations are not limitations at all; the fact that nothing you do changes things very much doesn’t mean that you only have the illusion of choice, because the result of every decision that you make is unpredictable anyway. You don’t need to preprogram an infinite number of possible endings for every game in order to respect the player’s agency. All you need to do is make the player care about what kind of person they are after the game is over.

8 Comments on “P-Zombies, Zero-Sum Videogames, and the Problem of Free Will”

  1. Awful #

    Very nice article.
    Just thought I’d chime in with the idea that, given the knowledge that we know our choices our inconsequential, making a ‘moral’ decision takes on the role of a sort of ‘ritual’. ‘Ritual’ in this sense meaning something which we apply almost arbitrarily not because it gives us meaning, but because it allows us to feel that it is meaningful because it is a ‘ritual’. It is sort of the aggregate of every one of its iterations, and takes on a life of its own within that role.
    My point here is that this is especially effective in a format like The Walking Dead game, because the ritually sort of feeds into itself: as you continue to play the character of Lee, you feel more responsible for him. Doubly so the actions which make an impression on Clem, as you can practically feel the consequence of what you did echoing through generations.


    This, I think, will be an interesting dynamic to play with in the second season as you take on the role of Clem herself.


  2. Richard Ellicott #

    i used to play text adventures,

    so maybe pacman was just a bad example


  3. Steve Stormoen #

    Great article. I’m in the middle of the Walking Dead game, too—just finished chapter 2. I’m loving the balancing act between narrative freedom and the stakes of the in-game decisions, but I’ve got another philosophical conundrum chewing on my brain, regarding the role of metatextuality and who in the game I am supposed to be representing–the player character or myself.


    So, chapter 2. On the cannibal farm. I’d seen/read the creepy backwoods cannibal trope too many times to trust their kind offer, though there was no in-text reason for Lee to turn them down. Also, the music was off-putting and slightly creepy. I’m having trouble getting over this metatextual divide, between whether I’m supposed to make decisions on behalf of Lee, with only the information he has available, or with meta-obtained knowledge as the videogame player. Any thoughts?


    • Cpt. Spaulding #

      A possible solution would be to regard the game’s intertextual way of communicating the nature of said segment, to be the game’s in-text way of communicating the character’s feelings or sixth sense if you will.

      If I recall correctly, Lee seems kind of suspicious at times, and therefore I’d see the visual and auditive clues as being a mere insight into his internal analysis of his situation.


  4. David #

    That’s not a picture of John Stuart Mill, that’s a photograph of Jon Stewart.


    • J. S. Mill #

      Did you ponder the morality of making that statement? Or did you merely make it to observe the consequences?

      PS. That Is me, I’ve just aged well.


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