The Walking Dead And The Illusion Of Free Will

In the 1980s Benjamin Libet conducted an experiment that had the potential to completely transform our perception of free will.

But more importantly, one week ago, I played The Walking Dead.

I played The Walking Dead and at the end of the first episode I let Doug die. Doug’s hi-tech smarts helped me find the key that opened the door that saved another man’s life and allowed me to progress, but that didn’t matter. I let him get eaten by the zombie horde in favour of rescuing another character, Carley, and I felt nothing.

Carley had helped me in a different way: fighting alongside me in a shootout where the rewards were less tangible. We rescued our friend, that was the initial objective, but our exploits resulted in the suicide of another tangential character. It was an unsettling experience where decisions I made resulted in the death of another (virtual) human being.

In hindsight I think I could explain all the subtle reasons why I allowed Doug to die in favour of Carley. It may have been a gender thing. Doug was a man and Carley was a woman. Maybe it was an outdated, old-fashioned patriarchal obligation. Maybe it was because Doug was annoying. Maybe it was because Carley seemed as dumb as a bag of hammers and couldn’t even put batteries in a cheap radio the right way round. Maybe I thought Carley needed all the help she could get.

But I don’t honestly think any of those thoughts consciously went through my head as I made my decision. I just did what I did and I lived with the consequences. I did my ‘reasoning’ afterwards.

Okay, back to Benjamin Libet.

Benjamin Libet was a neuro-scientist whose experiments raised serious questions about the ability of human beings to actively, consciously control the choices they make. You might argue that he disproved the very notion of free will. In the 80s Libet was able to find and record brain activity relating to an unconscious decision to physically move before the subject was consciously aware of making that decision. Then, they moved.

So, in Walking Dead terms: my sub-conscious had already decided that I would let Doug die and save Carley before I consciously decided to. The argument goes thusly: despite the that The Walking Dead’s calling card is its focus on difficult split second choices, there was never really a choice at all. I thought I made a choice, but I didn’t.

In his book ‘Free Will’ Sam Harris uses the example of Benjamin Libet’s experiment to argue that free will is an illusion. Our conscious ‘choices’ are the end result of multiple different neurons firing in multiple different directions and nothing more. The idea that we have chosen anything is an adaptive, convenient magic trick. A pretty scary thought considering everything we know about ethics, law, government, religion and life is built upon that illusion.

But anyway, back to more important matters. Video games.

Video games like The Walking Dead are interesting because while philosophers can argue all day long about determinism or hard determinism we can legitimately go back and ‘make’ different choices. We can say to ourselves, ‘I’m going to go back and do the exact opposite thing every single time’. We can do that. Again, the choice to remake that choice is most likely enmeshed in a fatalistic matrice in our rubbish, flaccid brains, but on the surface level it is possible to relive certain experiences and do something different. We can’t do that in real life.

In real life we are zombies — I suppose that’s argument I’m trying to make here – shuffling, barely sentient beings shuffling towards the end of this linear mortal coil in blind search of whatever it is that sustains us, but in video games? In video games we are the active arbiters of a constantly changing, reversible fate. I guess I’m trying to explain that there’s an irony in that.

If that’s even what ‘irony’ means these days. Who knows?

Sometimes video games feel like a life lived without choice. Stumbling through corridors, groaning like zombies, towards a goal we don’t really comprehend but can’t help chasing. This goes double for scripted experiences like Uncharted or Call of Duty. Even video games like The Walking Dead feel shallow and contrived in the choices we are offered and how they ultimately affect our individual experience. It is, essentially, the illusion of free will implemented in a world where free will – arguably – doesn’t exist and that’s an interesting idea.

But at least we get to go back and re-experience different paths. That’s rewarding; almost comforting. Almost as if we are making choices; like the whole thing isn’t all a carefully structured complex illusion.

That’s one good reason to play a game like The Walking Dead I suppose: to verify the existence of your capacity to make choices. Even if that capacity doesn’t necessarily exist.

At the end of ‘Free Will’ Sam Harris does an exercise. He attempts to write in a stream of conscious style, but then proceeds to explain how even those sentences, written in the spur of the moment, were still not produced of his own ‘free will’.

Maybe I’ll follow in those footsteps. Typos and all.

Here goes...

I really liked The Walking Dead so I thought I’d write a couple of sentences about it without planning, and it all got a little bit out of control really and I got out of my depth quickly because, Christ, what do I know? I’m not a philosopher I just write about games.

But here’s the crazy thing: after all of that, after all the rumination of choice, free will and all that mind bending crap, when I went to start Episode 2 of The Walking Dead, the game bloody well forgot all of my choices because of a bug. I had to play through the game with Doug still alive, reclining on a Lazy Boy and Carley was dead for some reason. What the hell?

I guess free will is an illusion after all.


    The lack of free will was one thing I felt really annoyed about with The Walking Dead, the first time I played it through I loved it... The only time I reloaded and played something different was when stealing from the car... I got Clementine the jumper, because I was convinced without it she would die from the cold.

    So after I finished I considered replaying, to see if I would do anything different... but instead I just sorta looked it up... and in the end it didn't matter... The choices you made didn't lead to a different game or ending, it just sorta took a different path to get there. The whole Doug/Carley thing... Doesn't matter who you save, the other dies at the same point eventually.

    Now some of the decisions you make might make a difference when imported into season 2, but I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

      You missed the point so hard you circled all the way around and missed it twice.

        i dunno, i only played the walking dead once. At first i was doing my best to try and save everyone and make the "correct" choices, but at some point i realised that my choices didn't matter. Once i'd realised that my choices had little affect it made me feel disjointed from the game and broke the connection (which seemed like kinda the whole point of the game) and made me not want to play through again choose all the opposite decisions. either that, or i'm a heartless bastard with no emotions.

      It reminds me of a short story I wrote in high school about fate: it was a choose your own adventure that diverged in the middle, but no matter what you chose it led to the same ending. I thought it was pretty clever at the time.

      Last edited 12/08/13 1:52 pm

    Good article. Walking dead is a complex case study: I don't know whether to damn them for making the choices basically meaningless, or praise them for successfully making me think I was in control.

    On the one hand, they basically made a choose your own adventure game where the choices always lead to the exact same sequence of events. On the other hand, I was definitely more engaged with the story because I THOUGHT I was controlling it. The problem as I see it is that I've seen behind the curtain, and I expect this will spoil the sequel for me.

    Last edited 12/08/13 1:15 pm

      I started fixating on the branching plotlines part way through the second episode, and it pulled the curtain away for me well and truly. I would think "Well, I had the choice to save this person or that person... how would this scenario be playing out if I'd chosen differently?", rather than "Oh shit, look at the scenario unfolding right now!!".

      End result was that I did play through to the end, but had ruined it all for myself and felt very little attachement to the characters. Without that attachment, the game was not very compelling :(

      Last edited 12/08/13 1:31 pm

        What was disappointing about it is that the choices didn't really even impact the game in the short term. If you let a character die in episode 1, the other personal will die in episode 3. It made them totally interchangeable.

          Understandably, though, because it would be an absolute bastard to write a plot that branched much more than that. I can't really fault them for what they tried to do, and think that it did work to a degree. But once the illusion is broken, there's no going back and you will never see the game as a GOTY contender.

      Personally, the idea that choices weren't tied to gameplay rewards made the choices themselves matter more. Like that Angel quote "If nothing you do matters, then all that matters is what you do."

      Dime store philosophy to be sure, but no less true for it.

        I'm not talking about game play rewards, I'm talking about the fact that decisions that should have had real implications didn't.

    I just find it funny that people praise Walking Dead to high heaven for being all about choice when there are none, and violently attack Mass Effect 3 for having "no choices" despite the fact that those choices stick with you until the end.

    You read Sam Harris too @markserrels? YOU ARE MY HERO! :D

      I own every book sam harris has written. I would hope Mark had read it considering its a small book.

    Also, free will is most certainly an illusion and universal determinism is, depending on how you look at it 'unfortunately', quite real.

    Quantum physics aside (which I believe also has a set of rules, but merely appear to be 'random' to us), the universe from a Newtonian physics perspective is completely determined.

    Why? Because every atomic particle interacts with every other atomic particle in a particular way that's set out by the laws that govern the universe. In fact, any system that has a fixed set of laws/rules will always be deterministic.

    Fortunately for us mere humans, it's all too complex to determine, so we go about our lives like we have choices. :)

    Last edited 12/08/13 2:50 pm

    It's why I got through 4 of the 5 chapters and haven't looked back since.. It's not a terrible game.. not at all.. I loved the game.. but it grew tiresome at how little control I really did have over the game and I got bored of that aspect more than anything.

    I don't think it necessarily is required to have free-will in all games but when a game is presented in such a way that you are given an illusion of free-will, then that illusion is shattered.. the game falls apart emotionally/mentally.

    "Illusion of free will" is becoming more of a contrived idea than "Doom clone" was a few generations ago. TWD is an interesting study in the way we perceive video games. There are metaphors abound in the mechanics and even the very idea that you can't change your fate is one of the most prominent themes in the game, turning the idea that you WANT TO on its head in the end to make the point. What's frustrating is how the mechanics of a game - what it lets you do and what it doesn't - is largely ignored when it comes to story. The criticism is as simple as "I want more things different". The audience is the reason why we don't get games like this, when subtlety makes up a large portion of your experience, most people will miss it and when they learn about it, they'll just dismiss it. It almost doesn't matter because they segregate the gameplay portion almost entirely and focus on that and not its harmonic existence with the story.

    In any the story, the writer can deny the viewer/reader something in order to make a point. In No Country for Old Men it's a sense of satisfaction, in The Great Gatsby it's the truth... etc. But when this happens in a game, it's almost like we don't care and will always gravitate towards the base gameplay. TWD isn't about feeling because the story is good, the reason it's good is the way the story organically exists with the gameplay. It's a game about realisation, not necessarily mechanics. It's about learning about these characters and thinking about what's right when you have to make a hard choice. Could I point out that the game actually DOES change considerably based mostly on what you say to people. I had a different fate and more importantly: relationship with most of the characters on my second way through which greatly changed the moral system I had to use. It was different, just not in the traditional sense. Try and pull yourself away from cynical armchair critic just for a second and just try to appreciate what the game tried to do, even if for you personally, it wasn't successful.

    I obviously loved the game but like many others, I was hit with the save bug that truly tested my patience in ways I never thought how. Whatever criticism I try to defend the game on, mention that one bug and I'll turn on it.

    The Walking Dead isn't really a reflection of real world free will being an illusion. It's a reflection on how hard it is to tell a story with a concrete beginning and a concrete ending while giving the illusion of free will. I tend to play games only once for this reason.

      ... and yet it was still enough to compel me to play through multiple times just to see what would, or could change if I did something different.

      Them damn writers got me!

    I think the main draw in The Walking Dead's choice (depending on the way that you look at it) is the fact that it makes your choices meaningful by the very acceptance that some things are inevitable.

    By this I mean that in certain scenarios there are no alternative actions, or possibilities that you can take that will alter the outcome of the scenario (e.g trying to save Hershel's son or Larry in the first two episodes). The game doesn't rob you of the ability to make a choice in those scenarios (you can choose to try to save those characters ineffectually), but instead robs you of having the success of your choice. I.e. Just because you want someone to live doesn't neccesitate that they will. Lee in the Walking Dead is only human, he can't save everyone - what's important is that he tries.

    /Continued rant:

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now