Days Gone Bye:
The Walking Dead is everywhere these days. Over 100 issues of the comic have been released in the last 9+ years. AMC is in the middle of the third season of their TV adaptation. There’s social media games, pen and paper games, and board games. Now indie-dev-darlings Telltale Games attempt at submerging us into the world of Robert Kirkman’s zombie apocalypse comic book series.
You play out the story of Lee Everett. When the zombie apocalypse finds him, he’s in the midst of being transferred from jail to prison to serve his time for a murder with extenuating circumstances. However, when there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk in front of police transit vehicles.
The folks at Telltale have made a name for themselves among PC and Indie game enthusiasts in the last few years. They’ve managed to tap into a market long forgotten: The fan of the point-and-click adventure. They’ve made critically acclaimed (and financially successful) games out of surprising movie, video game, comic and TV licences, including Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Sam & Max, and Monkey Island. These games are released episodically, over the course of a few months to a year. This was my first venture into one of their games. If the quality here is any indication, I’ll be trying at least 3 of those other games as soon as I take another run through The Walking Dead.
No Way Out:
The Walking Dead draws you in. You make all of Lee’s choices for him. Your actions affect your story, and how the other characters react to you. Other games have made this claim, and you can’t help but make comparisons to them. The Walking Dead‘s crafted story experience is as good, or better, than all the others I’ve played.
The game-changing difference really comes from a feeling I haven’t gotten since Mass Effect 2, when I first imported my save file. In that game I knew my decisions were being imported into an continuing trilogy, and I was promised my choices would matter. There, and here in The Walking Dead, little differences around every corner and in every conversation give the feeling that I’m crafting my story.
Mass Effect 3 (in its original ending) flops by giving you choices that are functionally identical, make no sense in the context of the story, and do no justice to the 120+ hours of gameplay that came before it. The Walking Dead shines by givng you choices that, while functionally identical, really feel like they make sense in context, and honour not only the story and characters you’ve helped create, but also the entire nightmare hellscape that Robert Kirkman has created in 100+ issues of the comic.
What We Become:
There are a few interesting things about the episodic release format. It gives the developers and almost real-time ability to react to their audience’s preferences, gauging what they find fun (or boring) and adding more (or less) of it to future episodes.
When the first episode launched and reactions started coming in, it was pretty clear that roadblock style puzzles revolving around a character trying to figure out how AA batteries worked was not going to fly. Future roadblocks were going to have to make sense. The devs even threw in a line making light of the battery puzzle, to boot. When stats showed choices were feeling too “clear cut”, with 75% of players choosing almost exactly the same things in the first episode, future choices were made harder.
These choices are a major part of building that level of immersion into the story. While it’s obvious that major events that cause you to leave settings, lose friends and the like will occur no matter what you choose, the tiny specifics of the situation, those details that really draw you in, are different. These differences in details affect how you end up feeling about certain characters, and how you treat them. You’ll find yourself feeling betrayed, or guilty for betraying, friends and people you’re depending on along the way.
This ends up working so well because the story, and the characters are so engaging. You want to help most of these people. Sometimes you’ll want to tell them to go fuck themselves. The great thing is that, at those times, the game usually gives you the option to do just that. Also, again, no spoilers, but as a father of a very young daughter, dealing with Clementine was… just… fuauaghk. Sometimes annoying, sometimes happy, sometimes heartbreaking…. Just another job done well by the folks at Telltale.
The Heart’s Desire:
Okay, I’m done gushing over the story. Story isn’t everything in a game. There are plenty of other things to take into consideration. There’s graphics, sound, animation, level design, game play and even price point to consider. Guess what, though? Put up against any other downloadable title, and even some “Triple A” titles, they’re all top notch.
The graphics stand out nicely. The stylized textures give a graphic novel look. While the game isn’t in greyscale, the faded colours used really enhance that graphic novel feel as well. They also help create that Whole-World-Gone-To-Shit feeling that every zomb-ocalypse just can’t go without.
The sound design is top notch as well. There’s great “Gotcha” jump moments, but there is also that uncomfortable near-constant moaning that Max Brooks has described as the Zombie’s ultimate psychological weapon. In one scene, late in the 3rd episode, there was a zombie trapped in an area that I couldn’t kill it in. Its constant moaning and growling while I tried to accomplish something nearly drove me mad. It was one of the most immersive moments I’ve had in recent gaming memory.
As mentioned, the ability that is offered by the Episodic Release model to alter the kinds of puzzles and game play featured in the game is also a great boon. By the release of the last couple episodes, the devs at Telltale had even found a way to make something as simple as a glorified Quick-time Event a gateway into immersion.
All this, and all five episodes weigh in at a paltry total cost of $25. This experience is well worth that. Some games these days really need to be measured on an Hour-Per-Dollar ratio, though. My first playthrough clocked in at around the 12 hour mark, and I think $2.50/hour on a title that might be short, but packed with quality, is well worth it.
This Sorrowful Life:
Okay, I’m really done gushing this time. Honest. While this game has many amazing things going for it, it is not flawless. As mentioned, some of the early game play and roadblock designs were atrocious.
Another problem was a bug that seemed to pop up several times through the course of various episodes, which had a jittery Lee almost Moonwalking, or Pop’n’Locking his way along as he explored his surroundings.
Also, the game was clearly meant to be enjoyed on a PC and not a console. Your pointer reticule, controlled by the right stick on the Xbox360 Controller, often suffered from wonky targeting. Also, there was no option to invert the Y-axis input. As an older gamer, raised on flight sims, I’m a firm believer in the Y-axis invert. Taking that ability away from me kills me in games for several minutes every time my play sessions begin.
Even the story that I loved so much wasn’t perfect. There were several red herrings, and Deus had a great time Ex Machina-ing at least once an episode. But I’ve always been pretty forgiving of those particular trappings, so I won’t hold it against The Walking Dead, either.
Miles Behind Us:
Summing everything up, The Walking Dead is one of the best video game experiences I’ve had in a long time. You don’t need to be a fan of either the comic, or the TV show to get into it. If you are a fan, the story told easily falls into the cannon of either of them, and you even get to see a couple glimpses of characters you know.
Bottom Line: This game is a must play for anyone that’s a fan of story driven gameplay, zombies, or any The Walking Dead media.
P.S. How fucking badass is Season 3 of the show this year? Holy Hell I’m fucking glad I didn’t rage quit it when Carl got shot and Shane didn’t.