If you’ve been following Geekscape for a while now, what you’re about to read might astound you… I’m about to heap some serious praise on The Walking Dead. Now please keep in mind that I do like The Walking Dead. I’ve read the entire comic series, have watched every episode and this past weekend played through the first chapter of Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead episodic adventure title. We’re even good friends with one of the show’s supervising producers, a recent Geekscape guest.
But like the actual dead having returned to life, the various Walking Dead iterations have each felt surprising at first, then compelling, then slowly a bit laborious and as they continue along, less and less fresh. I like The Walking Dead. I wouldn’t put myself through it if I didn’t… but it’s been a while since I consistently loved The Walking Dead comic or TV series.
Well, and I hope that I’m not predicting impending decay, I LOVE The Walking Dead video game, at least the first chapter, recently released by Telltale Games for PSN, XBL and PC. In fact, and please leave your crazy accusations in the comments, it might be my favorite version. And I’ll explain why (because those are some pretty big statements right there!).
First off, it follows the more compelling storyline of Kirkman’s original comic book series. It actually takes place just as the Atlanta of the comic book series is going to hell, being evacuated and Rick lies unconscious in a hospital bed. It doesn’t as much parallel the events of the comic book as much as give it a bit of a prequel or alternative point of view. In the first chapter, A New Day, you do run into some characters and locales from the comic book series, but this is before Rick and his group encountered them… and you actually take part in setting the stage for those characters. This is a huge plus for anyone who’s a Walking Dead fan, because you feel as though what you’re doing matters to characters that you care about. It gives you a responsibility to protect what will come later.
Which leads me to the greatest plus of this series and why it’s a much different experience than the comic book or TV series or even other zombie games like Left 4 Dead or Resident Evil. The Walking Dead game, more than the comic or the series, really strives to and succeeds at putting you squarely in the shoes of the survivors, in this case through the eyes of the controllable character Lee Everett, who is always at the center of every decision the group must make within the story.
The artwork and writing are fantastic, easily the best we’ve seen from Telltale and the game play is intensely compelling. This is very much an adventure game, but it doesn’t come without some action sequences (and you can definitely die while playing). In fact, a lot of the decision making processes, even conversations with other characters, give you the same adrenaline rush as the game’s quicktime events. The Walking Dead autosaves, so if you flub a conversation, leading others to mistrust or lose faith in you, those decisions are immediate and permanent. I found myself just as stressed out by doing what I perceived was the right choices in the conversations as I did while stuck between saving survivors, knowing that whoever I didn’t save wasn’t only dead in this episode but the rest of the series. The choices that you make in this game haunt you and I was soon playing the game with trepidation, weary that I’d make a wrong move and get someone permanently killed or lose an ally I would need later. Hell, I was also scared that I’d miss some detail in scouring the environments that would end up keep us alive down the road!
This is where the writing and the characterization really differs from my recent experiences with the comic and TV series. I find myself really caring about the characters involved, probably out of this engaged responsibility for them. Even characters that you don’t get along with strengthen the group, just by being able to help move a car or hold a weapon. The game’s characters and situations all live within a gray area, Lee having escaped from the back of a police car in the opening sequence of the game, and it keeps you there, so decision making is sometimes difficult. Not only are you immediately responsible for yourself, but when Lee discovers the young abandoned girl Clementine early on, your responsibility to make the right choices grows.
In Left 4 Dead or Resident Evil, things are very black and white. Here, nothing is very clear. Even when you think that two choices in a dialogue tree would lead to the same result, the way that you choose to word things might give you a result from another character that you didn’t anticipate. This not only makes them more realistic but gives them relatability. Everyone seems to be in a state of shock at their surroundings and it makes the story that much more compelling. You don’t see Carl lazily wandering the farm or someone making dinner. They are all driven by the need to survive.
The gameplay and situations all elaborate further on this concept of responsibility to the group. You control Lee’s movement with the right trigger while exploring the environment’s objects (or what he can see) with the right. Like other adventure games, you sometimes you have to search for items or enter areas to solve puzzles, but very early on you start doing this with other members of the group, putting them, or mainly Clementine, in harm’s way. The game forces you to work carefully in these areas, even if dying means resetting to your last save, because you don’t want them to die, or they’ll be gone from the game’s story forever.
And when a zombie (or in many cases zombies plural) DOES come at you, the game’s quicktime events are more than just button combinations or quick button tapping. You’ll usually find yourself temporarily dazed when the zombie knocks you down or surprises you and you have to move the right reticle towards your attacker just to instigate the quick time event. This really does a great job of forcing the player to “get their wits about them” so they can take back control of these intense situations. I didn’t die much while playing The Walking Dead, but in the moments in which I did, it scared the hell out of me because my shock at having these events thrown at me and not being immediately or obviously prompted to do button mashing gave me that immediate sense of “crap! What do I do!?!”
If I have to talk about the downsides of the game, and there aren’t many, it would be towards the end of the chapter, not necessarily because of the story or character work, but because the “scour environments for objects, use objects” redundancy that plagues all adventure games isn’t completely cured here. If you don’t like adventure games, you might find yourself wanting something more in these areas. But considering that adventure games are my favorite genre, I took these conventional sections of the game as an acceptable byproduct of the chosen form. Telltale do enough fresh things in The Walking Dead, and do them exceedingly well, that this never feels like a tired adventure gaming experience. In doing so, they’ve also injected new life into the Walking Dead brand, which up until now, you could only read or watch as it played out in front of you on a string. I hope that with the release of each of the next four chapters, Telltale continues to effectively expand not only the Walking Dead gameplay and story but the adventure game genre itself.