The dust has settled after the release of the fifth and final (for this season) of The Walking Dead episodes from Telltale Games, and I’m finally ready to give my verdict on what I’ve experienced.
Playing The Walking Dead, you quickly forget that you’re playing a game. You become Lee. You feel his fear of losing this little girl, Clementine, the one bright spark in an otherwise grim and macabre world. You feel his inner struggle as he makes decisions with no right answer. You feel his shame when he commits an act that would clearly be an atrocity if perpetrated under normal circumstances. You feel his desperation and you feel his hope as you fight to survive and keep some of your humanity in the face of overwhelming odds and a cruel environment that threatens to drag you and your companions down with it at every turn.
Telltale has not re-invented the adventure game genre with The Walking Dead, but it has provided players with an adventure with more depth and emotion than almost any game I’ve ever experienced. And it does all this even when there isn’t a single zombie in sight.
Encounters with the undead are generally brief but terrifying, and are only a small part of the narrative tapestry that is woven by The Walking Dead. The best zombie fiction uses the shuffling hordes not simply as cannon-fodder for gory executions and dazzling displays of heroics, but as a way of forcing characters into situations that simply would not exist in the pre-apocalyptic world. Starvation, dehydration, bandits, transportation, motivation and morale are all huge factors in The Walking Dead. The inherent pointlessness of life, the importance of friends, team-work and trust, the cost of betrayal and the things that we perceive as being of value are all considered throughout the course of the game.
This is not an experience to be rushed through. Players who take the time to explore every facet of the environments and talk to every character at every opportunity will get much more out of the experience than those who rush forward, only trying to complete the next objective or get to the next plot-point. However, players are given the choice to approach the characters and situations of The Walking Dead in a number of ways. Ultimately, none of the choices you make alter the eventual outcome of the game. Characters deaths are essentially unalterable and the game finishes with the same characters alive in the exact same situation no matter what you do. There is only one ending. However, if you think that this means that the game may as well not give you those choices and that none of them matter, then you are entirely missing the point.
The world of The Walking Dead is not one where you have any real control over the direction life takes you in – that control disappeared the moment dead people started getting back up and feasting on the living. However, you do have control over the person Lee is,and by extension the person you are. The only way to play The Walking Dead, at least on your first run through, is to ask yourself what you would do in the situations that crop up. Your Lee could be a surly, uncooperative, violent man who never admits that he’s wrong, or he could be a quiet, thoughtful individual who tries his best to help everybody get along and kills only when it is absolutely necessary. Your actions change the way characters in the game perceive Lee and during the final episode your choices do come back to haunt you.
Without emotional investment and immersion in the game world, much of what makes The Walking Dead so spectacular would leave players bored and frustrated. We are used to games like Fallout where our actions affect the world around us and our avatar serves only as an interface for tinkering with the world around us. The Walking Dead gives us something different, something that few games have dared to do. It has given us a character-driven interactive story that forces us to question our beliefs, morals and values, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Branching story-lines and multiple endings would have ramped up development costs to an astronomical extent and slowed down production of the game to a crawl. It would have altered and diluted the experience to the point where it would have been impossible for every single potential storyline to have the emotional impact necessary to make The Walking Dead an extremely strong contender for game of the year.
There are a couple of downsides that slightly mar and otherwise near-flawless experience, but they ultimately do nothing to take away from what The Walking Dead has achieved. Severe frame-rate hiccups plagued the first couple of episodes of the game at the time of release, jarring you out of the experience momentarily at moments of intense action. In later episodes this problem disappeared entirely, and I don’t know whether or not patches have been released to fix this issue. There were also one or two moments when The Walking Dead tended a little too much toward adventure-game logic, briefly reminding me that I’m playing a game rather than experiencing an organic series of events. However, I believe this issue is almost impossible to avoid considering the format of the game and it wasn’t detrimental to the overall atmosphere or feel of the game.
The Walking Dead is that rare thing – a title that takes everything great about its source material and expands upon it, creating something even greater than the original product. This game excels in every way, providing an experience that will stay with players for a long, long time.