Amongst the Living : Review of Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead

Courtesy of statesman.com
Courtesy of statesman.com

A New Day

If you are evenly vaguely aware of popular culture, you’ve probably noticed that zombies are kind of a “thing” right now. You may have even heard someone talk about “The Walking Dead,” in reference to Robert Kirkman’s long-running comic published by Image; or maybe – and more likely – they meant AMC’s television adaptation of the series; or – if the someone is especially awesome – they are talking about Telltale Games’ episodic adventure series that ties in with both. Even if you hadn’t heard of it before Spike’s VGAs this year, it probably would have caught your attention when it beat a field of triple-A titles for Game of the Year.

I was certainly surprised. Since the episodes had begun in May ’12, I had purchased three of them and completed two, so I knew the game was high-quality. Still, we’re talking about an episodic adventure series that some have claimed is little more than a point-and-click progression of choose-your-own-adventure interactive cutscenes. This, at the absolute core of the game – and especially highlighted during its weakest moments – is exactly what is going on. Luckily for anyone who has played it, though, those weak moments are few and scattered throughout the most player-driven experience I may have ever had. That’s because from the very first moments of the game, the content of the aforementioned cutscenes is based almost 100% on player decisions. The system is constantly keeping track of everything you do and say, and is using that to build an experience that is exceptionally unique.

Starved For Help

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. In such a story-driven experience, I would be remiss not to talk about the story: When the game begins, your player character Lee is in the back of a police cruiser being taken to jail. An accident occurs, and by the time you wake up, the zombie outbreak is in full effect. You make your way into a neighborhood, where your life is saved by a young girl named Clementine. The two of you team up, and you eventually make your way to a location taken straight from the comics and meet some of the people who will join you on your journey.

I am being vague about things like why you were going to jail, why and where you are going with Clementine, where you meet the other characters, etc. for two reasons: Spoilers would be a massive disservice to the game, and more significantly, the answers I would give are based on my playthrough, and might not be relevant to yours. Yes, I am telling you that information as specific as “were you actually guilty of a crime” is completely up to the person you want Lee to be.

That being said, Lee is his own person, something which has more weight to it the further you progress into the episodes. While it is true that almost everything he says comes verbatim from dialogue choices, some little things like personality quirks, facial tics and body language cues are all his own. It creates an interesting dichotomy the likes of which I’ve only ever experienced in the connect / disconnect between myself and my version of Commander Shepard in Mass Effect.

Courtesy of venturebeat.com
Courtesy of venturebeat.com

Long Road Ahead

The end result is unique: I had times when my decisions made sense as both a player and a character, and times when I had Lee do something in-character that was totally against what I thought as a player; those times tended to deal with the survival of Lee and the others in the group. As a player, sitting safe and warm and well-fed on my couch, I can think “This is wrong, I don’t want to do this,” and still have to make the call that Lee would make in that situation. The game really shines in these instances, and juxtaposes them with moments of tension, horror, and action where I felt 100% in Lee’s shoes as he (I)(we) tried to run from a horde or fend off a walker with his (my)(our) bare hands.

The game also excels at developing the secondary and even tertiary characters, especially considering how much of their development is tied directly to the choice structure. Again without spoiling too much, not only are there characters that can live or die based on your choices, but some of those characters make choices based on your choices that can then change whole plotlines. Not only does this give the player an amazing feeling of involvement, it means that Telltale was committed enough to this mechanic that they created content that players might never see. Considering that it’s not a large studio, an investment of time and money on unseen content is nothing to overlook.

What content you will see looks and sounds amazing, and I have to give credit to the artists who worked on this title. The cel-shading was a stroke of genius, and really gives you the feeling of being inside the comic; at the same time, it never looks “cartoony,” and the moments of violence are every bit as gut-wrenching as they should be. The characters are exceptionally expressive, and the voice actors sell me on their roles in almost every case. I experienced a few minor hiccoughs like items disappearing from a characters hand now and then, but it didn’t last long and never affected gameplay.

The choice mechanic itself is exceptionally well-implemented into gameplay, whether it was during dialogue or as part of an action sequence. If you’re in a free-roam area and initiate a conversation, there’s no pressure in weighing different responses; during time-sensitive sequences, though, there is a bar under the dialogue that quickly drains while you try to respond. During action moments, the bar is replaced by a red tint that gets darker the longer you take to respond, usually by pointing the cursor at something and hitting the action button. These bits are generally pretty tense, and the need to take action occasionally leads to split-second choices concerning who lives and who dies.

Courtesy of wikipedia.org
Courtesy of wikipedia.org

Around Every Corner

Unfortunately, those sequences also highlight one of my two big gripes with the game, which is that this game is so PC-developed-then-ported-to-consoles it hurts; sometimes it hurts so hard that Lee and others die. I’ve been using analog sticks to point at things for a long time, and it still felt like the cursory was just too… heavy is the right word, I think. Ten game also had a strange tendency to start the cursor – which is supposed to represent where Lee is looking – in the part of the screen furthest from what you need to do. I don’t know about you, but if I’m being attacked by a walker, I’m going to be looking at the walker, not off into the corner.

My other big complaint is that the item-specific adventuring has the ability to slow and even destroy the pacing, which is an issue in a game where you’re supposed to be surviving a zombie apocalypse. I’ll openly admit that I used a FAQ a few times, and felt justified when the answers were “look in this one very specific spot in a very specific way for this very specific item.” The third episode in particular dragged so badly I had to stop playing and pick it up the next day.

These little things didn’t keep the overall experience from being phenomenal, though. I was especially lucky in having an audience for the game in the form of my girlfriend; while she didn’t use the controller, we “played” the entire story together, with her keeping an eye out for items, helping with puzzles, and weighing in on decisions. I was genuinely happy about this, considering she probably won’t ever read the comic or watch the show given her natural aversion to gore. In this case, though, her shock and horror just contributed to my own; she was also my conscience, and openly disagreed with a few things I did. One particular decision at the end of episode four got to her so much that she wouldn’t say anything to me other than “You lied to Clementine. You lied to her.

No Time Left

Courtesy of wikipedia.org
Courtesy of wikipedia.org

Near the end of The Walking Dead, an antagonist confronts Lee with a laundry list of things he – and by extension, you – has done that makes him / you a “monster.” Actions like stealing food, abandoning other survivors, and even a few outright murders from over the course of the game’s five episodes are thrown at you interrogation style. During this scene, the dialogue options “You don’t know the whole story,” “There wasn’t any other choice,” and “I wish I had done that differently” sounded just as hollow and desperate coming from Lee as I felt telling him to say them.

Because we did have choices, in every one of those situations and a dozen others leading up to them; and while we had tried so very hard to do the right thing, we made mistakes and people died. The only thing stopping us from giving up right then and there was an eight-year-old girl in a dirty hoodie and a tattered ball cap. Everything Lee and I had done up to that point had been to keep “sweet pea” safe, and so long as that was seen through, I could live with the rest. If I can speak for a certain history teacher turned escaped convict turned makeshift dad from Macon, Georgia, I think he would agree.

NERD RATING – 9.0/10

Editor’s Note – I played the game on the XBox 360 as downloadable episodes. It’s also available on PC and PS3, and was recently released in [amazon_link id=”B007WQOIGW” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]retail disc form.[/amazon_link]


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