There’s a moment in the new The Walking Dead video game, toward the story’s climax, in which zombies are finally breaking through the humans’ fortifications and two main characters are being cornered simultaneously by the undead. It’s a crisis point. But whereas most video games, that loud and violent breed, would revert back to type and arm the player with a shotgun or a chainsaw and turn you loose to blast the bad guys to hell, The Walking Dead game gives you no weapons–it makes you choose between saving one character or the other (video here if you don’t mind spoilers). The choice you make alters the rest of the story’s narrative. You have to live with your decision.
Because the game progresses based on character choices rather than a gauntlet of enemies you must mow down (though you do have to dispatch of a few zombies, and gruesomely)–The Walking Dead game’s story feels decidedly literary. Specifically, while playing the game, I was reminded that watching choices play out within a dramatic framework is one of storytelling’s great pleasures–we want to see great characters make good and bad decisions. And more specifically, I was reminded of John Cheever’s short story “The Wrysons.”
Obviously, “The Wrysons” isn’t the only example of story hinging on a character choice (and its consequences), or even the best, but it is one of the most clear and, for me, one of the most memorable. Its exact, climactic moment of decision is so potent and full of such clarity that the reader can feel the shift in the story’s world–that low, tectonic creaking where you know the substrata of the world has been altered for good.
Structurally, “The Wrysons” is very simple. The majority of the brief story is set-up for the climactic question posed at the end, which is why the choice–the answer to this final question–is so memorable.
The story opens with this sentence:
The Wrysons wanted things in the suburb of Shady Hill to remain exactly as they were.
Cheever then beautifully tells us about the unattractive Donald and Irene and their hapless daughter Dolly, stating that their “taste in painting stopped at marine sunsets and bowls of flowers” and that the thing they most care about is upzoning. In short, they are dull and they are inflexible. But, the story tells us, there’s one thing about Irene and one thing about Donald that is odd: Irene has a vivid, recurring dream about the nuclear holocaust in which she has to kill Dolly and Donald makes Lady Baltimore cakes. Neither spouse knows the secret oddness of the other. But through Cheever’s masterful narrative manipulation, the story ends with Donald and Irene in the kitchen, Irene roused from sleep and terrified because of her dream, looking down at Donald and the burned Lady Baltimore cake he’s made in the middle of the night.
The question–the choice–presented to Donald and Irene is: “Will we change, given these new facts?” They have the choice to acknowledge the new developments in their world or swallow them and pretend like nothing ever happened. They choose the latter. What makes this choice more satisfying than the former–and likely why Cheever chose it, though we can only speculate–is because it shows the Wrysons will not change, even though their world has. It’s this contrast of unchanging character in a newly changed world that stays with the reader.
In “The Wrysons,” we don’t need to see what comes after the choice because nothing will be different; the Wrysons have elected not to change and we already know what their world looks like. So, in the case of Cheever’s story, the pleasure comes not from the consequences of the choice but the choice itself. In The Walking Dead, the pleasure comes from the consequences of the choice–how will the story be altered by what you’ve decided?
The game, which is basically a Choose Your Own Adventure, takes decision a step further: there are five crucial decisions your character has to make during the course of the story that irrevocably alter it, and when you complete the game, a screen appears telling you what your decisions were and how many other players made the same decisions as you did. It looks like this:
But while The Walking Dead game takes the role of choice in storytelling to a new, interactive level and Cheever’s story is a more traditional example, both are first-rate, largely because both create wonderful characters that we want to see make decisions. The choice in one story is: Will a suburban couple change?; the choice in the other is: Which friend will you save from being eaten by zombies? In one, you make the choice, in the other, the choice is made for you. But both The Walking Dead game and “The Wrysons” attract our deep-down desire to watch choice, and to see where it takes us.