Video games have progressed almost exponentially with each generation in all facets of development. When a new generation of gaming emerges, the games look prettier, sound nicer, and play better. While the production quality continues to improve, it’s also allowed for games to be produced more quickly in order to reap the benefits of a demographic with attention spans too short and income generously disposable. Every so often though, a video game comes along that reminds us why we play, a game that stands as a testament to how far the industry has come and all it is capable of. Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead exists now and forever as an immensely important work of art that will attract gamers and non-gamers alike with its inviting gameplay, memorable characters, and incomparably emotional narrative.
You play Lee Everett, living in Georgia on the last day of life as you know it. At the time you think that’s because you’re being escorted to jail via police cruiser, but you’ll soon find that the world as you once knew it, the one of law and order, uniforms and titles, is gone and it’s not coming back.
You’re quickly thrust into the now popular zombie apocalypse scenario. We’ve seen it play out dozens, maybe hundreds of times in the industry, but the story that Telltale presents isn’t one that glorifies the kill or has its characters chopping up the undead like it’s a hobby. Just like the source material, this video game version is deliberate, somber, and sometimes – perhaps too often – downright depressing. As you narrowly escape your first brush with the “walkers”, you’ll stumble into an even scarier scenario: an abandoned little girl looking for help. Her name is Clementine, she doesn’t know where her parents are, and she has no means of protecting herself. If you hadn’t come along, it’s likely she’d have starved to death in her backyard treehouse. Lee decides he can’t just leave her alone, he hasn’t so quickly lost his humanity.
The same can’t be said for others in the game. As you play, you’ll meet new characters. Some are good, some aren’t. Some are deceiving you, and others are misunderstood. At the root of the game’s five 2-3 hour episodes is a perfectly woven tale of humanity. You’ll be given choices throughout the entire game. Sometimes it’s just dialogue options in order to shape Lee to your exact specifications. Other times, you’ll have to think on your feet in order to save one’s life at the cost of another’s. The decisions will seldom be easy and will almost always change the progression of the game. Most decisions will also be visibly timed too, demanding you act swiftly even if you’re not ready to do so. The Walking Dead you experience won’t be the same one that your friend experiences or that I experienced. It is this story-driven approach, with a huge cast of characters, locations, and pivotal choices to make, that becomes the basis for what makes The Walking Dead an amazing title.
If you’re looking for the next great “game” game, stop reading right now though, because The Walking Dead likely isn’t what you crave (unless that’s human flesh). At the heart of the gameplay is an old school, point-and-click adventure game. While most studios have moved beyond the once popular format, Telltale seems to have never left its side. The use of point-and-click in The Walking Dead ultimately made it a better game, even though many will feel it sacrifices what constitutes a game at all. You’ll often be given control of Lee to explore your world around you. You’ll always be constricted to the area that’s relevant to you and to the story. If you’re spending time on a farm, you can’t just head off into the city. This isn’t Dead Rising. It’s not Grand Theft Auto with zombies. The gameplay is mostly linear in order to allow the more open narrative to take center stage. As mentioned, you’ll always get to choose what Lee is saying and how he treats other characters. Be careful though, the other people in your group will remember how you’ve behaved. If you’ve been dishonest, they won’t trust you. If you’ve been cold, they won’t respond to you. If you’ve been friendly, they will console in you. You’ll see just how difficult it is to maintain civility as the de facto leader once the world around you is crumbling to a dark, deprived, and depraved world.
By performing traditional point-and-click tasks, like item collection and puzzle solving, along with the constant use of dialogue trees, you’ll be familiar with the bulk of the gameplay. The last piece of it is often saved for more tense moments: quick-time events. Telltale often incorporates QTEs into their games as they fit naturally with the adventure genre. You can die in the game, most often when you fail at these QTEs, but if you’ll just restart from a recent checkpoint, usually right before the quick-time event. In other cases, your failure to act correctly or quickly will result in the deaths of characters. You won’t have a chance to fix your errors. They’ll just be dead and the story will advance from there.
The audio and visuals were both very impressive as well. The entire cast of voice actors contributed to what is certainly one of the best acted video games ever, especially when you consider how that believability doesn’t waver with the many possible conversations you can have with any given character. The music was comprised of gloomy, slow chords on strings and keys – the perfect accompaniment to the on-screen sadness. One melody in particular is so melancholic and used at all the right times, you’ll be conditioned to shed a tear at the sound of it. The game’s graphic style is meant to look like it’s pulled out of the comic book world. Although Robert Kirkman’s paperback series is told in black and white, Telltale elected to use color, which isn’t a bad thing by any means. It’s smart of the studio to create the visual style they did. Traditionally, their games are not visual darlings, so by working around their limitations in this way, it ensures the visuals actually enhance the story rather than detract from it. Still, they couldn’t find a way to get the lip-syncing any better than their other titles like Back to the Future, and it’s one of the only blemishes on what is otherwise a masterpiece. The only other negative of the game is that the digital copies I played (via XBLA) experienced some graphical hiccups from time to time. Slight freezing or pausing between scenes took me out of the immersive story, if only briefly. Hopefully the upcoming retail version will have fixed those slight bugs.
As I briefly alluded to above, the game was originally released digitally via five standalone episodes that collectively tell the Lee and Clementine story. Since April, I had been sitting down with my family to experience this game, not knowing just how great it would turn out to be. Some of what made this game great is in danger of being lost in next week’s retail version. Like the few other games that have tried the episode format, The Walking Dead works best when you respect that format. If you sit down to play the first episode, make sure to finish it, and then let it sit for a while before starting episode two. It adds another layer to what will be – and I promise you this – one of the most emotionally taxing video games that has ever been released.
With the branching storylines and multiple outcomes, the game also invites replays. While many will gladly revisit scenarios and episodes to see how they play out with different choices made, I’ll never play it again. The story that I witnessed was unique to me, just as yours will be unique to you, and I never want to see how things might’ve been different. It’s up to you of course to replay it or not, but if you have any sense of humanity in your body, you’ll undoubtedly feel things during this game that others may have never made you feel.
Because of the old-fashioned gameplay and the game’s persistence to often tell the story first and foremost, The Walking Dead certainly feels like an interactive TV show more than a video game at times. Like PS3’s Heavy Rain, you’ll often be directing a cutscene, whereas in most games you’re fighting from one cutscene to the next. I don’t think this approach is either a reversion to an outdated formula, nor do I think all video games will soon look like this one does. However, I do strongly feel that this game, above all others I have played, understands the power of the medium as it pertains to storytelling. The characters in The Walking Dead video game are often better than those the TV or comic series, and you’ll care more for them because you’re a part of their world. You’re making choices. You’re killing some people and saving others. You’re shaping the world around you just as it reshapes what’s left of society.
No matter the medium, Telltale’s story presented in the game’s 12-15 hours would be a tremendous success and placed among other great modern stories. If you care at all about storytelling, you owe it to yourself to play The Walking Dead. It’s character development, cliffhangers, and commitment to a compelling and significant theme make it feel more like an award-winning television series. The next time someone tells you video games can never be art, point (and click) them in the direction of this game. With The Walking Dead, Telltale has presented to us their magnum opus, a modern masterpiece, and a true work of art.