- The Walking Dead
- CLR Rating:
Release Date: Episodic Downloads from April 24th to November 21st 2012, Full Release December 4th, 2012
Platform: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Windows/Mac, iOS
Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Genre: Decision Focused Zombie Adventure
ESRB: M for Mature
Campaign Running Time: About 2 Hours per Episode, 9-10 total
Auteurs Attached: Sean Vanaman (Writer/Producer)
A Gut-wrenching Work of Shambling Genius
As with every year, 2012 produced a large number of games to play, and not nearly enough time to play them all. As January is a month of limited releases from the industry, it’s a good time to take a moment and cover a few of the titles that were missed the first go around. Welcome to the ‘Backlog Review.’
In 2004 Neil Young (no, a different one) asked a question to the collected audience at that year’s Game Developers Conference, “Can a game make you cry?”
By harkening back to his employer’s original mission statement, Young was grappling with a common grievance about gaming as medium of expression: a lack of deep, emotional resonance. His solutions to this supposed problem were primarily technical: games needed better graphics to convey more nuanced emotion and appeal to a wide audience, complex AI to react more realistically to players, fewer cutscenes, and notable innovations. He probably had his company’s then upcoming (and now very canceled) LMNO in mind, a title with big names like Stephen Spielberg and Doug Church attached, which was to follow the model he proselytized.
The gaming industry reacted predictably to Young’s words: they argued. Weren’t there examples of tear inducement in gaming already? Why would games even want to “make you cry”? Shouldn’t we be having fun with our games? Even if he was right about the narrow emotional palette of gaming, was his approach correct? Only a major AAA studio release seemed capable of delivering in the manner he described, but why would they do so if they could make as much or more money on the simple spectacle games they knew to be profitable?
That last question was answered at least, with the release of David Cage’s Heavy Rain. While it stayed in the Uncanny Valley long enough to obtain part time residency and had a one-note atmosphere so oppressively despondent even the most Panglossian Pollyanna would call a suicide hotline, Heavy Rain did get many a gamer to pay for the privilege of weeping like they were watching an extended Hallmark commercial. As a theoretical exercise Heavy Rain was a success, but it required such exceptional means – a large budget, a long development timeline, and an iconoclastic director with the full support of a major studio – that it seemingly also proved such experiences were going to be exceedingly rare.
But over the course of 2012, Telltale Games produced a title that more fully engages a player’s empathy than Heavy Rain ever could, while at the same time providing a total antithesis of Young’s methodology. With their licensed tie-in to Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, Telltale proves once again that worthwhile emotional experiences in gaming have nothing to do with fancy graphics requiring billion dollar budgets, but everything to do with well-crafted narrative and smartly written characters that you give a damn about.
You know, the old fashioned way of doing things.
First things first, though technically set in continuity with the comic books, this The Walking Dead avoids stepping on the toes of existing canon by occurring slightly before either book or show and using a brand new cast (aside from a couple of early cameos by Glenn and Hershel Greene).
At the outset, we’re introduced to Lee Everett, a University of Georgia history professor convicted for murder and currently en route to his home for the foreseeable future: West Central Prison. It also happens to be the day a zombie apocalypse is breaking out! After a nasty Walker induced car wreck and an even nastier Walker induced One-Cop-Lunch, Lee escapes his bonds, twists his leg and flees to a nearby Atlanta suburb looking for help from anyone who still has a pulse.
Lee doesn’t find help. Rather he meets someone who needs it more than himself when he encounters Clementine, an eight-year-old home alone while her parents are out of town in Savannah. After an altercation involving Clementine’s former(ly living) babysitter, Lee resolves to protect the young girl as they venture out and try to survive in the hostile world of Kirkman’s undead opus.
The gameplay of The Walking Dead is nothing new if you ever played an adventure game. You’ll walk around the various environs collecting items with a point and click interface, solve puzzles, and talk to people with Alpha Protocol style dialogue trees whenever the characters start arguing (which is pretty much every conversation). Occasionally you’ll shoot, stab, or chop a walker in the brainpan with whatever Lee happens to be carrying at the time through quicktime events. It’s a goulash of mechanics borrowed liberally from previous Telltale titles and their forebears.
While neither the interface nor mechanics are new, there is major break regarding focus. Puzzle solving still exists, but it bucks the oft insane and convoluted conventions of the genre in favor of simplicity and practicality. As a result, the puzzles are more a buffer for character development and tension building between the major plot points, thus highlighting what the game’s really about: consequential choice.
As could be expected given the circumstances, Lee is confronted with one dire situation after another and the player is continually forced to make decisions affecting the fates of the characters stuck in the brutally violent Danse Macabre that is the plot of a given episode. This focal shift makes it difficult to call this an adventure game in a traditional sense; it’s much more an interactive decision engine driving along a linear narrative path.
A game devoted to moving a story forward through a plethora of player decisions means that it lives and dies entirely on the skill of its writers. For most developers this would be a death sentence, but this is Telltale Games, a company entirely devoted to, well, telling tales. Narrative is their thing, and head writers Sean Vanaman, Mark Darin, and Garry Whitta fire on all cylinders throughout each of the five episodes in order to prove it.
From a plotting perspective, The Walking Dead serves as an object lesson on how to tell any serialized story, not just semi-interactive ones. Each episode manages that amazing balancing act only seen in the best serialized fiction: strong singular plots seamlessly weaved into slowly building overarching story that (thanks to the condensed arc) moves at a relentless pace with absolutely no filler. While there are certainly better individual episodes than others – episode two is fairly easy to predict and episode four doesn’t live for itself so much as build up the subsequent finale – they’re remarkably excellent throughout and at least equal to, if not better than the best moments in either the comic or the show.
Strong structure is all well and good, but the conventional wisdom these days is that plots don’t matter nearly so much as characters, and this is where the star that is The Walking Dead shines brightest. Over the course of the five episodes Lee encounters a robust menagerie of misfits trying to survive the zombie-caust with him, like Ben, the luckless high school student, Molly, a lone wolf survivalist, and Chuck, a no nonsense rail-riding hobo. A heavy mortality rate of often extreme violence means the lineup changes often, expanding and shrinking in direct relation to just how screwed the characters are, so the fact that all these characters are well defined is all the more impressive.
But as good as these side characters are they’ve got nothing on the real stars of the show: Lee, Kenny, and Clementine.
Lee is our everyman, either an idealist or a realist depending on how you play him. It’s a difficult role to pull off due to his status as player avatar, since he can always make different decisions and can’t have a totally fixed characterization, but the excellent dialogue make all of the choices feel natural and justified. Actor Dave Fennoy’s marvelous vocal performance grounds Lee with so much life, it becomes very easy to bond with him as a unique individual; rather than being a bland digital pair of pants for the player to wear, you’re guiding a man through this journey.
Kenny, a Floridian fisherman watching out for his wife and son, is the counterpart and foil; a mirror for Lee during the many moral quandaries the group encounters, while at the same time a portrait of an average family man in desperate times. Depending on how events unfold Kenny proves either a loyal companion or a seething pile of anger and mistrust, creating a fascinating mutable friendship. Essentially, Kenny is the game’s Shane, but thanks to the interactive component, you get to determine (to some degree) just how much of a jerk he’s going to be!
But it’s Clementine who pushes the game from a well-executed drama to the indelible bit of genius that it is. No child in any game has been portrayed as perfectly as Clementine. She’s incredibly endearing, never annoying, and while serving as an innocent super-ego to Kenny’s more cynical id, still feels like a real kid.
This is rather important since most of Lee’s (and thus the player’s) motivation centers on the paternal bond between Lee and Clem, your main goal throughout every episode is the same as for any parent: to protect, provide, and care for someone other than yourself. If this relationship didn’t work the rest of the game would fall apart, but it does, and it’s why the game has such resonance – Clem is why you’ll care. She’s the beating heart of the whole experience.
Telltale wisely shies away from giving the player too many Sophie’s Choice moments lest they become de rigueur, so the bulk of your decision making occurs in small conversations that alter how much a person likes or trusts Lee. Such nuance is tricky to convey, but it’s handled with aplomb here. First, the presentation is excellent; the cel shaded art design is fairly simple given current standards, but the well-defined facial expressions and animations convey plenty of emotion, and this is backed up with excellent voice acting and music. Secondly, the player is informed about the important choices being made as they occur through little pop-up messages like “Clementine will remember that” or “You chose to lie about Lee’s past.”
Such messages are blunt, but the technique allows the game to stay focused on quiet decisions and moments, on the people rather than the zombies. Furthermore, by making the player acutely aware of their choices – bolstered by post episode stat screens comparing your picks against other players – and by using some misdirection – some messages matter, others don’t, and you won’t discover which is which until after the fact – it creates a real sense of personal responsibility and trepidation over every choice you make. This responsibility, as much as anything else, is paramount to creating a deeply involving experience.
Assuredly there are some flaws too. Telltale’s using the same engine they have been for years, and it shows its age whenever the animation hitches during quick camera cuts, and Lee could use a run command as his ambling is slower than a turtle walking through tar. As noted earlier, this is a remarkably unoriginal game from a design standpoint, but thanks to the well-worn Zombie apocalypse setting and the fact that this is a licensed tie-in, the same dearth of innovation creeps into the narrative a bit – if you’ve watched the show or read the book, much of what Lee and company face should feel familiar.
But these issues are negligible at best. The Walking Dead makes no pretense to push gaming forward or get clever with its narrative. Like The Shawshank Redemption or Frank Capra films of old, it’s a simple, somewhat schmaltzy story with common, relatable themes, working precisely because even if you’ve probably heard it all before, it’s told so well and has so few flaws that you won’t likely care. It’s bound to be placed in the small (but growing) list of game narratives, alongside Planescape Torment, Thief, and Silent Hill 2, that no self-respecting gamer should miss.
Mr. Young might have been correct to ask whether a game could make you cry, but he was definitely wrong about how to go about achieving the result. While I won’t say for certain that The Walking Dead will turn the manliest man into a blubbering sob factory since that just causes folks to don their emotional armor, I know I was broken up by the time the credits rolled.
It’s a precision strike to the solar plexus of the heart, a beautiful testament to the best and worst of humanity, and it’s not only a high watermark for Telltale, but one of the best games of 2012. Whether you’re a gamer, a fan of the show, or just someone who likes a good yarn, you owe it to yourself to check it out.
Besides, there’s a little girl who needs your help, all alone in desperate world. You wouldn’t want to hurt her feelings by abandoning her, now would you?