The Walking Dead is an episodic point and click adventure game by Telltale Games. I’ll only be talking about the original 5 episodes as I’m planning to review the 400 days DLC separately. This game reminded me why I love this genre so much (although it’s not really the kind of game I typically play) and it does it in a different way that’s more action-y than your standard adventure game (as opposed to an action-adventure game), true to its source material. I haven’t read the comics that the game was based on, but I have watched the TV series, which is now one of my absolute favourites. The game has got everything I love about the zombie genre and what I like about the TV show – it examines the effect an apocalyptic event like this would have on people and explores the darker side of humanity that exists even now. Sure, I like games like L4D that are just about shooting zombies, but The Walking Dead is truly a gem in its genre and in the game industry generally for achieving a level of tension, emotion, depth and believability that many games can’t and for going places others won’t. It is an undoubtedly flawed game and one that not everyone will enjoy, but one that definitely deserves some recognition.
The story centres around a man named Lee Everett, who was being transported to prison after being convicted of murder. Before he can get locked away though, the zombie apocalypse hits and he suddenly finds himself free, but running for his life. He soon comes across a little girl, Clementine who was left with a babysitter (now zombie food) by her parents who went on holiday. Lee decides to take her under his wing and so now, in addition to having to stay alive, he has a new goal – protect Clementine and keep her alive too.
The thing I love most about this game is that it has an incredible story that has the ability to resonate with anyone. It deals with issues and feelings that any human being could empathise with, like friendship, love, loss and the desire to protect those you care about. These are all amplified and set against the constant overarching need for survival. It’s easy to say that you love your friend or your partner and that you would die or kill for them, but how far would you really go for them, especially when any choice you make will damn you? Would you kill or steal from innocent people? Honour doesn’t feed you after all. That’s the dilema that Lee is faced with throughout the whole series and like the Witcher 2, the choices are not black and white or good or bad and they’re genuinely difficult, at times even heart-breaking. There’s no roadmap or blue and red options. You don’t know the consequences of siding with one person or another or choosing to take the food or not. Sometimes even decisions that seem small at the time and that you make off-handedly will come back to haunt you later. You quickly learn to take care with every decision you make. It’s just about how you can keep Clementine and yourself alive (even those two goals are difficult to balance) and doing whatever else you can bear to live with. There’s a timer for most dialogue options and this always adds a level of urgency and tension that games, which just allow you to mull over the choices don’t. You often have to make your decisions very quickly, like you might if you were really in that situation and afterwards you just have to live with it.
Also, who doesn’t love a good choose-your-own-adventure type of game? It’s the perfect format for the Walking Dead, which is really all about the choices people make (at least in the TV series, which I’m assuming is pretty similar in many ways to the comics). There are other zombie movies out there that are a lot more action packed and games that are more about running and gunning. This game is about survival and what you’re willing to do to obtain it. Except, even there it’s a little different. It’s not so much about having a vast number of different consequences as what the choices you make along the way tell you about you and about human beings in general.
The characters and relationships are the other part of what made The Walking Dead so good. Each character you come across gets their time in the spotlight and the character development in general is fantastic. They react and interact with a level of believability that I haven’t seen in many games to date. As time goes by, you can’t help but empathise with even the most horrible and evil people and begin to understand why they do the things they do. Each person, even Lee, will have things you like and don’t like about them and things which condemn and redeem them. They’re all presented as just human beings trying to do live in a hostile and scary world, where they could die or be betrayed at any moment. Who you choose to befriend and who you choose to turn against will have a lasting impact on your relationship with them and on the game in general and there are some things that you just can’t take back no matter how hard you try. The best relationship though, is of course that of Clementine’s and Lee. Right away it’s clear that even though Clementine used to be just your average kid, she’s now a survivor as much as the rest of you (zombies don’t wait or give reprieves to anyone, no matter how small), but unlike the adults she has an undying sense of innocence and hope that keeps the rest of the group going. And whether you decide to immediately bond with Clementine or not, it becomes clearer and clearer that no matter how hard-hearted you try to me, Clementine does matter to you. She’s the only person in the whole world that you’ve got left, your only constant and the only one who will love you unconditionally. That relationship is one of the most heartfelt and believable I’ve seen in a game yet and might even make you a little weepy at times or at least make your allergies act up.
I think The Walking Dead has a great art style as well, which from what I can see shares many similarities with the comic. Granted, it’s not the most beautifully rendered game ever, but it suits its style suits the game’s grittiness, in a way that realistic character models might not. The comic-like look of the game allows for exaggerated facial expressions and levels that reflect the mood without having to be incredibly detailed. The focus is clearly on the story and I think that was the right decision to make.
The gameplay is pretty minimal and mainly consists of simplified point-and-click and quicktime events. What you do get still manages to build an unparalleled level of tension – having to pick up that gun up quickly, grap the ammo you just fumbled, load it, and shoot. It feel like you’re both in control and in many ways powerless, which I imagine is what you’d feel in a situation like Lee’s. Clearly the focus is not on the gameplay, which I feel to an extent was a good thing in that you’re not concerned with trying to complete really difficult tasks or having to really get those headshots every time. It’s more about the tension and the urgency and I think The Walking Dead pulls that off really well. The game is largely about the choices you can make and the dialogue that reflects that, but there’s still a nice amount of exploration and ‘action’.
The gameplay was also my main problem, however. It did feel more like a semi-interactive animated movie at times. My personal preference, as I mentioned before, is for my games to feel at least fairly game-y. Personally, a little more interactivity would have been nice to satisfy that part of me. I liked that it stayed true to its adventure game roots and didn’t add in any real shooting mechanics or anything like that, but it did still feel a little bare. The puzzles were also never difficult. It was more about walking around until you found the item you were looking for. It would have been nice if the puzzles were a little bit more of a challenge and if the routes weren’t as obvious as they sometimes were.
It was also quite buggy at times. I did have to restart a fair few times because of audio and graphical glitches and although they were generally pretty minor, it was also incredibly irritating because you can’t skip cut-scenes and the auto-saves are sometimes quite far apart. Also, I think the animation improved over the course of the series, but it was still sometimes a bit awkward and choppy. The game in general could have done with a little more polishing and ironing out the kinks, I think. However, they didn’t make the game unplayable and I would like to see what they do with Season 2 and how they improve on those kinds of issues.
The Walking Dead did have its problems,, but I’m incredibly excited about Season 2. The story was phenomenal and even if the rest of it was all crap (which it wasn’t) I would still highly recommend this to people. It’s difficult, because I loved the story, characters and the choices you had to make so much that it’s definitely up there as one of my favourite games of the year, but it might fall short of GOTY status for me, because of the heavy imbalance against the more game-y aspects and some of its more glaring flaws. Like I said though, I really would still suggest this game to anyone who wants an emotional, intelligent and tense game (similar to TLOU) that will make your both palms and your eyes sweat.