THE WALKING DEAD (2012) – TELLTALE GAMES
Point-and-click adventures have never really been my forte in gaming. Aside from a short demo of Broken Sword 2, I can’t say that I have come across too many of them over the years; which I think says a far bit about the tough times the genre has had since its heyday in the early 1990s. It seems now though that the genre is having something of a renaissance through the efforts of Telltale Games, and in particular their game which picked up several Game Of The Year accolades in 2012 – The Walking Dead. Based on the comic book series of the same name (which also has a very popular TV adaptation that I have yet to watch), The Walking Dead is an story driven point-and-click adventure that was released in five episodes from April through to November last year. The first episode was made free to download in a recent Xbox Live promotion, and playing through that made me interested enough to pick up the full game through the Telltale Humble Bundle.
The Walking Dead (which should not be confused with Activision’s The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct, which I am led to believe is quite average at best) is set in the same universe as the comics, an apocalyptic world where flesh-eating zombies have overrun the population of Georgia, but does not follow the same characters. The main protagonist is Lee Everett, a man who at the start of the game is being driven to jail having been sentenced for killing a state senator who was sleeping with his wife. While being transported however, the car he is traveling in hits a ‘walker’ and careers down a hillside. Upon waking, Lee finds that the driver of the vehicle has turned into one of the undead, and barely escapes. Upon making his way to the local urban area, he finds a young girl called Clementine who is alone in her home as her parents are away on holiday in nearby Savannah. Presuming them to have perished in the attacks after listening to some desperate answer machine messages, Lee takes Clementine under his wing, and over the course of five episodes they join a ragtag group of survivors looking to do what they can to prevent becoming ‘walkers’ themselves.
Telltale decided to blend traditional storytelling with action orientated segments to keep The Walking Dead ticking along rather than focusing overtly on solving puzzles. Lee controls from a third person perspective, and can move around areas with dynamic camera angles, talking to other characters or observing and interacting with local items that are required to advance the plot. Most conversations have branching paths (anywhere between two and four options, selected by clicking the suitable answer or pressing the highlighted button if using a controller), and you often have a limited amount of time you make your response, otherwise Lee will remain silent which can have it’s own impact. Certain responses will be remembered, and may pop up later in the game if Lee follows a course of action that conflicts with his earlier responses. Action segments largely boil down to quick time events, for example mashing buttons or moving the cursor/right stick quickly to deal with a walker attack. If Lee dies, the game simply restarts just before the QTE making it quite a forgiving system. There’s opportunity to walk around when things are calm, but the environments are small and exploration is limited – the gameplay in general is quite linear.
The story in The Walking Dead is tailored to the decisions you make, and it ends up being the game’s strongest asset – there is a definitive end-point to affairs, but along the way the Lee will converse and interact with other characters and the decisions that you make can affect how they will react to you, and in some tough scenarios can decide their fate. Each episode has five definitive choices that you must make, and your decisions in these matters is tracked – at the end of the episode, you can see what percentage of other players went along with your key decisions. The contrast in opinions on some of the decisions is really quite startling to observe when compared to your own path through the game, and Telltale actively used this data to craft the story for the next episode, subverting people’s expectations and keeping them attentive in the process.
The end result is an exceptionally well written tale, where ultimately there are no good or bad decisions – a refreshing change from the likes of Mass Effect where it often benefits you excessively from being righteous and kind. Lee is forced to make some very tough decisions, and at points the game can be quite emotional; the third and fifth episodes in particular are tearjerkers. Once you’ve completed an episode, you can use the Rewind feature to enter at a particular chapter and change history, meaning that you can see the permutations of different actions without having to start the game from scratch again – a smart inclusion by all means. My only criticism is that sometimes it becomes a bit too easy to predict what is going to happen (e.g. everyone trapped arguing in an small confined space SUDDENLY ZOMBIES THROUGH THE WINDOWS etc.), but I blame that more on the clichés tied to zombie fiction in general rather than Telltale’s efforts.
It took me a while to get used to the artwork of The Walking Dead with its heavily outlined characters and environments, but eventually it becomes quite charming in its own bloody, gore filled way – at least the ‘walkers’, with their glassy eyes and exposed gnashers, look creepy as hell. Character animations can look a bit odd at times, and while there were no glitches in my playthrough, occasionally the wide eyed, open mouthed facial expressions came over as more comical than shocked which detracts from the atmosphere a bit. There was almost universal praise for the vocal performances from Dave Fennoy as Lee and Melissa Hutchinson as Clementine, on top of which I will add my own commendation – the acting in general is top-tier and helps makes the game much more enjoyable, helping to contribute to the feeling that the characters are a bunch of desperate, emotionally charged survivors rather than just another generic videogame cast. Regular Telltale composer Jared-Emerson Johnson is also on hand to offer up a suitably haunting soundtrack.
The Walking Dead represents a commercial and critical triumph for episodically released games, and the overwhelming positive response to the game has prompted development of a second season. It’s certainly made me more interested in point-and-click adventures in general. I do think the basic straightforward nature of the game has perhaps been overlooked a bit, but as a case of interactive storytelling it’s right up there with the best of them. I’d heavily recommend picking it up if you haven’t already.