“To me, the best zombie movies aren’t the splatter fests of gore and violence with goofy characters and tongue in cheek antics. Good zombie movies show us how messed up we are, they make us question our station in society…and our society’s station in the world. They show us gore and violence and all that cool stuff too…but there’s always an undercurrent of social commentary and thoughtfulness.”
This quote from Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman is found in the first issue of the comic series, and nothing could more adequately describe the experience you’ll have with Telltale’s adventure game of the same franchise. It’s a game all about choice and experience, and few games have ever been able to deliver a narrative with the same brevity as this one does. But how does it go about doing it?
Telltale’s The Walking Dead is a standalone story set in the same universe as the comic series, with some small cameos from the books. In the game, you play as Lee, a man with a dark past and convicted to life imprisonment after committing murder. Much like the television series, the first episode sees Lee blacking out after a car crash and waking up to find himself in a world gone straight to hell.
From there, it’s five episodes of gripping storytelling detailing the exploits of Lee and the other survivors he meets along the way as they try to survive in a world filled with other raiders, thieves, madmen, and hordes of the undead. Each episode is anywhere from 1 1/2 to 3 hours long, with consequences of your choices carrying over across all five episodes in the first series.
But despite the fact that zombies are at the core of the game’s setting, they have almost nothing to do with the story itself outside of being a constant source of danger for our group of survivors. Indeed, the game seeks to make good on the idea that the most interesting part of a zombie apocalypse is not how survivors interact with zombies, but with other survivors. It’s not a zombie killing-fest a la Dead Rising. And that’s why it succeeds.
Choice and branching narrative arcs have been a recurring theme in gaming over the past few years, and it reaches a new high with The Walking Dead. The game manages to take a simple choice and take it to a painful new level that will leave you questioning your own morality and humanity in a situation where social norms and laws no longer apply. Rather than the simplified good guy/bad guy choice options so many video games like to lob at us, you’ll be faced with a choice between bad and worse.
The best part about choice in The Walking Dead is that decisions have weight; each action you take will have a consequence. Some will be small, while others will eventually come back to bite you in a big way. Because of this, you’ll find that choice tends to be the most interesting part of gameplay overall, and certainly plays a big role in the game’s bold narrative.
Gameplay itself in The Walking Dead is minimal and somewhat varied; a majority of it will be spent walking around environments and interacting with other characters in between cutscenes, with the odd shooting or melee combat event and puzzle added in. Most of them are quick time events, with a few of the shooting sequences being made up of aiming with a reticule. Puzzles lack depth and don’t have any real challenge to them, shooting mechanics are slow and frustrating, and hunting around an environment for items can begin to feel a tad tedious.
However, the game uses timed events to successfully translate a fierce sense of urgency that makes dialogue and combat feel dangerous and interesting. And it’s because of the game’s heavy emphasis on choice and interaction with other characters that it becomes more than a game at times, often walking the border between game and interactive story and allowing us to forgive it for its shortcomings.
Presentation in the Walking Dead is interesting in the sense that it hits on so many things and misses on so many others. Voice performances are emotionally fueled and convincing, the game itself is presented in a cel-shaded comic style reminiscent of the comic series, and while it’s used sparingly, music and sound design are well-implemented to help convey the mood and atmosphere of the world.
But for all the game succeeds on in its presentation, there are more than a few bugs that put a damper on the overall experience. Camera issues, save file losses, voice and animation syncs, and graphical issues all tend to pop up throughout the game, possibly due to the rushed development of each individual episode. While some bugs are fairly minor, others will result in the game crashing or dumping all of your progress. They’re an unfortunately significant part of the game that can often threaten to pull you out of the overall experience itself.
As a whole, the game is not perfect; it’s riddled with bugs, has its fair share of wonky and frustrating gameplay mechanics, and isn’t necessarily the most seamless of experiences. But for all of its issues, The Walking Dead succeeds in a big way through the moving story it weaves throughout all five episodes in its first season. Throughout the course of the game, you’ll question the place of morality, humanity, worth, greed, and where exactly man resides in this world gone to the dead. Don’t be fooled by its cartoonish appearance; the game isn’t afraid to go to some very dark and deep places throughout the course of its story, and does so on many occasions. I’ve never been quite as connected to a story as I was with The Walking Dead, and for that, it’s more than a bit revolutionary in its own right.
It’s a master course in storytelling for video games, and one that fans of the Walking Dead franchise or narrative-driven games like Heavy Rain or Mass Effect won’t want to miss.
(Note: This game was reviewed on an Xbox 360. It is also available on PS3, PC, and iOS devices)