Putting Design In The Design

The Walking Dead in its current state is already spread pretty far and wide. It’s a (very) graphic novel, a successful television show with a talk show accompaniment, and a Telltale adventure game with an Activision-backed shooter slant to come, and I’m sure that’s not the end of it. Much of it has managed to transcend the usual zombie banality and focused on human drama, an element of entertainment with timeless appeal.

However, if pressed, I could easily rank the three medium infusions: the AMC show in dead fucking last, graphic novel in pretty good territory at second, and the game so far ahead of the other two and it’s not even fair. To be clear, I have no problem with the comics; I think they’re great. But the show is so flawed and sloppy to the point that I recommend people actually avoid watching it while the game is so full of emotion and drama that I wholeheartedly recommend it to every living thing I come across, human or otherwise.

So it’s not surprising that some of my favorite video game features to come out of late include the first two installments of Giant Bomb’s developer fireside chats with The Walking Dead‘s two project leads Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin and writer Mark Darin, courtesy of the inimitable Patrick Klepek. There’s a plan to write up five pieces—one for each episode of the adventure game series—with each part breaking down the thought process the team used and post-game analysis of the fallout for each major choice or event in the story.

And so far, it has been utterly fascinating. Definitely don’t read them if you haven’t played through the first two episodes, but if you have, wow. There is such a nuance to each choice that I can’t believe it was all intentional. For instance, the first major choice you make in Episode 1 with Shawn and Duck will shape your entire perception of a single character for the rest of the game in a crucial and fundamental way. And the fact that you can see every dialogue choice if not choose each one will mold your understanding of Lee as a person.

But as a designer (namely of user interfaces and whatnot for the web), a few things really stuck out to me.

SPOILER WARNING: Since I will be discussing something else that discusses pretty much everything that happens throughout The Walking Dead video game, there will be spoilers ahead. I wish I could refrain from ruining the game for you, but even just setting up the part of the feature I want to talk about would spoil major events.

To preface, every major decision in the game that results in formed or broken allegiances or dead characters is tracked by Telltale. After a couple of weeks of an episode out in the wild, they’ll compile the statistics into videos that show you how the overall world of gamers approached each scenario. They optimally aim for a 50/50 split on each decision, but they’ve discovered that they usually end up with 50/50 or 75/25.

And the leg-chopping intro of Episode 2, which is already rife with stress and panic, falls on the skewed side of things. 85% of players chose to lop off the limb, a far cry from the ideal 50%. But in its present incarnation, it is also a hotbed for user interaction study.

As soon as you gain player control of Lee and given a choice of what to do (attempt to axe the chain, axe the trap, force open the trap, or chop off the leg), a reticle comes up (on console versions, anyways) so you can select your and this poor man’s fate. And while the leads acknowledge that some players are likely in a heavy mindset of “this is a video game, I know what I need to do, I’m chopping that fucking leg off,” it also has a great deal to do with the fact that you immediately start out hovering over the leg with the reticle.

And as any UI or UX designer knows, the first thing you see is often the most important and most likely to be picked. It’s like a mother fowl imprinting itself on its young, so when you see that you can immediately and without action choose a deft if overly utilitarian solution, that’s what you’ll pick. 85% of the time, in fact, you’ll choose to chop off that leg despite morality staring you in the face, telling you maybe you should try just opening the trap up first, but user psychology is what it is.

This point is proven in choices where there is no starting bias, something found more often in Episode 1 (it seems like Episode 2 was more deliberate in pushing and poking at your psyche). If you look at the Shawn or Duck choice—the very first major life-or-death decision you make, I think—you start out dead even between the two hopeless dudes.

We’ll leave out the psychology of people preferring left or right choices, but amazingly enough, the user split was almost dead even. 49% chose Duck, 48% chose Shawn, and 3% were left dumbfounded at the choice. In the end, it didn’t really matter as Duck will always survive, but the fact that the game itself does not purposefully or accidentally skew you to make a choice has a profound effect in the eventual aggregate outcome.

But it’s not all basic usage patterns of UIs and the like; there is some psychology involved beyond ordering. I do mean emotional response, but not in the way of responding to character arcs or personal relationships.

A while ago, I wrote about how people tended to associate emotions with certain words based on how they were typed with a QWERTY keyboard layout. Right side-heavy words had a positive association whereas left side-heavy ones were negative, a thought I figured could also be applied to video game controllers.

Take for example the forest campsite scene with Jolene in Episode 2. 13% shot her while 87% waited for that creepy, potentially physically gun-loving psychopath to shoot her. The stats don’t break the scene down to this level, but I’m willing to bet most the players that shot Jolene actually shot her on the first dialogue choice (between questioning the hate, accusing her of killing mark, shooting her, or silence). Not only would it only make sense to shoot her right off the bat if you were to shoot her at all, but the orientation of the choices makes this seem like the proper decision.

Shooting Jolene is located on the A/X button, traditionally associated with progressing or accepting something, both of which are positive emotive outcomes. In the case of the 360 controller, it is also green, a common color for call-to-action buttons in web design. These two facets seem to be shaping players to shooting her right from the start if you can overcome your curiosity of asking Jolene about Clementine’s hat or Mark’s disappearance.

Once you’re past that, the orientation flips. Now shooting her is placed on the B/O button, traditionally associated with canceling or negating something, both of which are negative emotive outcomes. Both 360 and PS3 controllers in this case are red, a color normally associated with backtracking functionality in user interfaces as well. The acceptance A/X button is now a quelling selection, pleading with Jolene to be rational about the situation. This is now heavily influencing you on multiple fronts to not shoot her.

After that, though, she gets shot anyways so it kind of becomes a moot point, but the psychology is there. Purposeful or not, it does seem to have influenced the 87/13 split on this particular decision.

Of course, I could be all wrong. Psychology is regarded as a soft science for a reason. I mean, it was recently shown in multiple UI case studies that a red call-to-action button actually improved user signups for some websites. However, the correlations and potential causation for these interacting pieces of the human mind and a video game story are far too interesting to ignore.

Also, if you read all of this and never played any of The Walking Dead, ignore everything I just said and go play it now. It’s still worth it. There’s still time! Gooooooo!

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