We break down why exactly Telltale’s episodic adventure series is the best story experience to be had all year!
Do you see that title up there? Really that’s all you need to read, go play Telltale’s take on The Walking Dead universe – quickly time is of the essence! Every second that ticks down brings a game shattering spoiler closer and closer to being revealed via Twitter, Facebook, Reddit or any other online avenue. Usually when it comes to games this isn’t a massive problem, but with The Walking Dead story really is everything. Any relevatory morsel you pick up could potentially ruin a plot point which could unravel the entire game and all those devilishly challenging moral choices, so heed our warning go play it now. If you have a story-loving bone in your body, you’ll follow our advice!
Of course some of you out there won’t take our advice, instead you’ll wait until the arrival of Steam’s inevitably bonkers Holiday Sale and then you’ll buy a season pass only to push The Walking Dead back into the darkness where you keep the rest of your impulse buys, never to be played again. So rather than risking that unfortunate fate, we’re going to tell you exactly what makes Telltale’s latest game so important and why only a fool would miss out on playing it. All the while keeping plot spoilers to the minimum – never revealing more than what you’d find out a few minutes into the game’s first episode. It’ll be a challenge but we think our resident Walking Dead expert Andy Griffiths is up for the challenge…
When you boil Telltale’s The Walking Dead down to its core formula, the adventure series is actually quite a straightforward experience. Like the comic book and TV show which share the same name, there isn’t any looming goal on the horizon or magical trinket to save humanity from its weary state at the hands of a mysterious zombie virus. Instead the goal is simply survival with the main element of the game’s appeal hinging on the believability of the starring survivors, their relationships and the fate that awaits them.
For any developer that has to be a scary proposition, as every event in the game not only needs to be believable, but the characters and their behaviour needs to be easy to emphasis with otherwise the whole storytelling illusion comes tumbling down, along with all the drama associated with it. The Walking Dead’s video game translation absolutely thrives on that challenge and ultimately prospers, with the player assuming the role of a likeable escaped convict Lee who has to take care of a young vulnerable eight-year-old girl just as the zombie apocalypse is rearing its green head.
Placing players in the role of a parent is yet another thing few developers would attempt to pull off, but in the context of this universe it works brilliantly as it raises the stakes of survival ten fold. Not only does Lee, meaning you, have to take care of himself but he also has Clementine to worry about.
Constantly the game chucks interesting choices at you when it comes to weighing up survival versus preserving the girl’s youthful innocence. This relationship parallels that of Rick Grimes and Carl in The Walking Dead comics constantly. The lack of a blood connection between Lee and Clementine should make this relationship seem weaker, but thanks to the incredible performances of the two voice-actors involved (Dave Fennoy and Melissa Hutchison) and the constant challenges by other characters to Lee’s guardianship, it comes across as unbreakable. Both of them have been chucked head first into the zombie apocalypse, and the only way they can survive is together.
When you look at this relationship even closer, it’s clear that Clementine represents Lee’s chance for redemption. The former college professor begins the game in police custody with the player not knowing what he’s done or whether he’s wrongly accused. The chaos the world is embroiled in thanks to the dead rising is a second chance for him, with the added bonus of Clementine providing opportunity to pay the world back for his crimes by keeping the most vulnerable of survivors safe and sound.
Most games stay away from issues surrounding parenting, especially adoption, but Telltale’s game embraces them and becomes a much better experience as a result.
The risk-taking doesn’t end there though, as Telltale’s implementation of a branching narrative is also rather different and frankly flawless. So much so that by the end of the five episode arc it’s impossible not to wonder how proceedings would’ve panned out differently if you’d taken a few different decisions. Player allegiances, injuries and which survivors stay alive are all decisions which are made either by discussions the player has or by actions made during key events.
Should you save a lad on a tractor from imminent death or save his more older and stronger brother who’s much more likely to contribute to the group’s survival in the long run? Either choice reveals deep philosophical leanings and all the while those difficult choices are limited by a timer counting down at the bottom of the screen, forcing the player to go for their gut rather than debating internally for minutes on end. Adding that sense of panic and urgency to moral decisions makes these memorable moments even more intense, occasionally making players wonder if they did the right thing or even if there is such a thing as a ‘good’ decision.
Every episode hits you with these kinds of morally ambiguous scenarios regularly, and even inconsequential conversations with Lee and fellow survivors leads to that foreboding alert at the top left of the screen, ‘Character X will remember that you told the truth’. Most actions feel like they contribute to bigger consequences later on down the road, and even though a lot of the time that isn’t true thanks to the critical path itself being fairly narrow it’s often fascinating to speak with other gamers to find out what they did and how they thought that changed the story. Crucially when relationships get strained with other characters, they’ll often call out those times when you’ve led them down the garden path which offers feedback to the player; “Yes, that decision you made really did matter and yes that character won’t forget it any time soon.”
The Walking Dead has been dubbed a point-and-click adventure, but really you’d be hard pressed to pigeon hole it even in that genre. Tropes like scanning rooms for items, logic puzzles, and dialogue trees aren’t really here in any kind of regularity you’d expect from an adventure game. There’s plenty of quick time events, but really you’d almost be hard pressed to call it a game at times. There’s very little opportunity to deviate from the critical path – throughout the five episodes we can only remember a few moments where we were free to explore the scenery at will. That isn’t necessarily a weakness, as it is a survival horror experience after all, but it does make you think that if there wasn’t quick time events to tie into strenuous activities like closing doors as the horde tries to break in, that there would be a lot of time when really players wouldn’t have to be at the controls.
There’s no mistaking that players are fenced in from the off really, but then if you’ve played Telltale’s previous work you kind of know what you’re getting into.
Overall it’s hard to see Telltale’s The Walking Dead as anything other than a big, brave triumph. Every step of the way the studio seems to have gone for the harder more riskier choice than just following the narrative that had already been panned out for them. They could have done an AMC and just followed the well trodden path, but instead they created an all new story with interesting new scenarios, characters and plot further bulking out the Walking Dead universe.
We’ve deliberately tried to keep story spoilers to an absolute minimum in this article as frankly they’re best experienced in the context of the game itself and it isn’t our place to ruin what is undoubtedly the best game plots of the year. Telltale’s take on The Walking Dead is harrowing and bleak and presents players with gut-wrenching decisions time and time again. Decisions which may or may not cause fellow survivors to hate your very being, but then that’s the power of interactive entertainment – players won’t feel as though they’re experiencing someone else’s journey, instead they’re forging their own(warts and all).
Over the course of this blog I’ve had to look up the central character’s name Lee several times, not because my memory is poor, but because the story in The Walking Dead felt personal to me. All of Lee’s mistakes and morally challenging decisions were made by us, so the consequences felt like they were my own. Obviously that isn’t the case as like all adventure games the path is fairly set in stone before you even set foot in the wilderness, but the journey felt real and impactful.
When was the last game you played which made you feel like that? We honestly can’t think of one and that’s why you absolutely need to experience this year’s best story for yourself. Keep away from those spoilers slowly making their way onto Twitter and inevitably those end of year game awards that’ll begin to appear over the next few weeks.
Experience each episode the way it was meant to be played, without the pressures of others or the knowledge of what major decisions will be heading around the corner. Who knows you might find out something new about yourself…
Tags: The Walking Dead
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