Due to monetary concerns (a euphemistic way of saying I’m poor) I can’t afford The Walking Dead. Like with Dear Esther, however, that ultimately isn’t necessary. I don’t have the luxury of forcibly making life-altering decisions for the characters the episodes follow, but admittedly, I don’t think I could handle it. Too much pressure. (Just thought I’d clarify before you go on to read this.)
Also, to not get screamed at, spoilers are ahead. Go play (or watch on YouTube; several people have playthroughs) and see if you agree!
Telltale’s The Walking Dead, through a measly three episodes (about six hours of content), has accomplished what most games simply cannot. Presenting the mental, emotional, and moral chaos of human interaction in a worldwide epidemic, without emphasizing violence, believably. A game built for provoking survivalist tendencies, not bloodshed.
It is unconventional these days to praise a game for such qualities, but somehow Telltale have foregone assertions that zombie adventures are purely combat-soaked affairs, à la Left 4 Dead. Rarely do games triumph in breaking through that threshold, but the developer’s ability to continuously provide heart-wrenching moments is a trait worth marveling. How each character’s death, no matter how insipid, constricts the heart valves and generates feelings laced with disbelief.
Existing through each sequence is a writhing stream of tension, where the most dull moment could suddenly turn into a fight for survival. No game, episodic or not, has achieved this perplexing level of intensity whilst equally displaying a resounding confidence among the cast to press forward, even without cheap gimmicks commonly borrowed from survival horror.
Further adding to the intensity are player choices, and how Lee’s often quick, uncontemplated decisions directly affect the story. Like splitting loyalties between Lilly and Kenny; saving either Doug or Carley, and Duck or Shawn; whether to leave Lilly behind after she shoots Carley; and so on. This unbridled freedom makes every conclusion much more contentious, leading to hasty decisions as the timing bar decreases. Preferences are then based on instinct — “from the gut” — emphasizing their importance but also revealing a snapshot into the player’s view.
Mind-bending at its finest
A zombie apocalypse would bring out the best and worst of people, and The Walking Dead shows the disastrous toll an unprecedented situation takes on the human psyche. It breaks you, defiles the mind in such a contorted way; and this is no more evident in episode three, The Long Road Ahead, when Lilly’s anxiety takes control.
After she neurotically believes medicine is being stolen, she seeks Lee’s help in finding the perpetrator. Some handy investigative work (with pink chalk of all things) leads to a stash hidden outside camp, which is secretly keeping the Save-Lot Bandits at bay. The stash is found and the bandits attack, where gunfire attracts a walker hoard, forcing the cast away from the motel in Kenny’s RV.
Kenny bulldozes over a walker, effectively halting the one-way trip. Tensions rise as Lilly’s loses control, accusing everyone of stealing the meds. The group goes outside for some air and accusations continue, leading to a confrontation between her and Carley. Never thinking Lee or Kenny are responsible, Lilly pits Ben and Carley against each other, wherein Carley insults Lilly, motivating her paranoia.
As Kenny clears the road, Lilly is seen reaching behind when the camera pulls away. A gunshot is heard and Carley lay there, a bullet lodged in her temple. Frantic and unsure, the group later asks Lee on whether to leave her or not. A moral dilemma — something this game does remarkably well.
Shocking twists and turns
Fans of the comic and TV series are prone to expect the unexpected, and certainly The Walking Dead provides some startling moments. When the St. Johns are revealed as cannibals to Lee’s stress-induced dream about Clementine, players are stuck clenching the controller unsure of what lies in the next frame.
Perhaps the most startling of all is the culminating moments of The Long Road Ahead, where a mysterious voice is heard over Clementine’s walkie-talkie. The figure apparently has convinced her that he has her parents, but the transmission conveniently shorts out before he says his demands.
Not to besmirch other zombie video game properties, but Telltale’s rendition is truly impeccable in its way of storytelling. Each episode doesn’t fall into the trap of predictability, and through clever camera work and pacing, the player is uncertain of whom to trust. Or what the consequences are of applying that trust.
It is that sickly sense of storytelling which sets The Walking Dead apart, and refreshingly so, from the cavalcade of modern warfare brouhahas and other zombie titles relying heavily on combat to push events forward. The plot is strictly player-driven, and having seemingly miniscule actions work into defining the adventure is uncannily individualistic.
Developer Telltale tallied how players behaved, posting videos like this (major spoilers for episode two, Starved For Help) to show collectively what players chose. Specifically for episode two, the majority of players were morally incorruptible, sparing and saving lives but doing what would be necessary to survive.
And now the argument for… Game of the Year!
Personally, I hope the lot of you reading this (and my very small regular audience) have tried or are going to try The Walking Dead. It’s a thrill ride through-and-through, and deserves the attention and praise of every loyal gaming fan out there.
The Walking Dead has changed my understanding of what makes a game great. Addictive gameplay, engaging story, etc. But all the emotion and tragedy compiled into six hours (so far) by Telltale is a testament to how games have matured, and that this industry is capable of producing masterpieces.
Last year, briefly, this article courtesy of Kotaku spurred discussion of what constitutes a “Game of the Year” candidate. Clearly, Mass Effect 2 and Red Dead Redemption led the charge; but sneaking behind those two heavyweights was Angry Birds, a mobile game which made developer Rovio a household name and established mobile as a viable platform.
One quote by David Jaffe stuck out, perfectly describing the case for The Walking Dead (emboldened part for emphasis):
“They [Rovio] managed to show that it doesn’t take much presentation if your interactivity is solid and strong to engage the mind. And ultimately that’s what a great game does, whether you’re talking about Go or Chess or whether you’re talking about Killzone 3. Angry Birds is such a great expression of the power of the medium because it can basically stand above all of these other super-expensive, super-technological, super-graphical games and still be as, if not more engaging, than the others.”
I thank you for staying with me this long! I never intended for this post to stretch beyond 1000 words but with so much information, it was inevitable. Anyway, I went to see Lawless and therefore a review is pending.
To the readers: Are you enjoying The Walking Dead? Any particular things stand out to you that exemplify Game of the Year potential? State your comments below!
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