Entertainment has a disturbing fascination with the undead. For movies, it usually allows for the director to artificially convey a despairing sense of hopelessness while games mostly bank on them being easy-to-program cannon fodder for those with limited attention spans. Of course, there are exceptions, but generally, these ideals lead zombies down a path of mind-numbingly cliché plot points and gameplay mechanics. For these reasons, I was abstaining from The Walking Dead, Telltale’s point-and-click adventure game set in the popular comic/TV show universe. Even though some of my fears ring true in The Walking Dead, the wordsmiths at Telltale have designed a brilliant and unforgettable game with a story and episodic structure that feel like a step in a bold new direction.
Discussing the narrative in The Walking Dead is minefield ripe with any small detail becoming a risk for spoilers, so I’ll be vague and spoiler-free. Lee Everett is your main character during this zombie apocalypse, a man with a mysterious past trying to find his way in all through all of the walkers. Zombie hunters are never alone, as he quickly joined by Clementine, a lonesome young girl in a desperate search for her family on the coast. Their interests align, so they team up and head towards their goal. Easier said than done given the outbreak.
Each episode brings them closer or further from their goal, introducing new characters along the way as you progress. Zombies are usually just on the periphery as most of the drama comes from these survivors once you come into contact with them, which is a refreshing take. Tension with them is always nearing the breaking point as grisly events happen, forcing you to relinquish the white knight’s helm and make morally gray choices. Sometimes they aren’t even morally gray, just really fucked up.
Choosing fates or paths usually don’t make the game change too much, however. Let’s say Lee was given the choice to shave his mustache. If you chose not to, somehow he’d fall on his razor and be without any facial hair. It disguises most of its choices behind this illusion, which is a little disheartening, but there are a bunch of instances where the outcomes are actually different. Characters remember what you say and do and you can easily get caught in your web of lies, which can lead to higher tensions and less trust from your “allies.”
If all of this didn’t clue you in, The Walking Dead is a dark, depressing game. One victory is matched with at least a half-dozen defeats and tragedies, something that not only takes a toll on the in-game survivors, but to you, the player, as well. Seriously demented shit happens without many breaks, something no other game has really prepared me for. Each episode has at least a couple “Man, I can’t believe this is happening” moments, which make for standouts in each of the five episodes. Doom and gloom lurks around every corner and can easily become delightfully overbearing and morphs into a scary reality check for what monster you might actually devolve into in an apocalyptic situation like this. Fun isn’t the key descriptor, with entertaining being more accurate.
By the time you journey into the final episode, you’ve been through multiple tortuous versions of hell. It’s this episode where the game puts your emotions through the ringer and spits you out as a emotionally unstable person. The four preceding episodes were specifically built to lead up to this kind of climax, one that felt intelligently designed to evoke a whole menagerie of emotions. Spending this much time with these characters means strong emotional ties and the last episode knows that and deviously uses it to create one of the most memorable and emotional endings in gaming. Robots and Nazis might be the only animate objects not worthy of an intense emotional response, one that left me sitting wide-eyed and depressed for at least a half hour.
Healthy characterization fuels these intense emotion-driven responses. Secondary characters are painstakingly thought out in most situations with enough positive and negative quirks to make them stand in some way. You may actually dislike a few, but, like Hitman, this is done on purpose to round out the cast of characters and add more human drama. Strong writing and time to interact with them on your own accord gives each person a memorable performance, which can sometimes only be an hour or so until they meet some sort of grim demise. Regardless of how much time they are actually alive for, you’ll feel something when they die or leave, a sure sign of the quality work the writers have done for each of the damned souls.
Lee and Clementine are the true standouts. Lee is an immediately mysterious man, with a unspoken past that gets carefully doled out to the player as the game progresses. Curiosity creates an immediate intrigue, but Lee’s impeccable writing and malleable character make the player stay around and become immensely invested in this character they’ve poured their soul into. He’s not a hero. He’s just a man trying to make the best out of the situation and that makes him appealing on many different levels.
Clementine, the young girl, might even surpass Lee. Children have never really been much of anything besides a moderate disappointment this medium. Being helpless, whiny, stupid, having poor acting, or just being flat-out annoying, children are usually regulated to secondary characters waiting to be ignored or hated. Clementine bucks all trends and transforms into one of the most successful characters in the entire game and gaming as a whole. She retains her childhood innocence and cute charm, but she doesn’t come across as a waste of skin only to be a hindrance when the walkers come in droves. She’ll save your hide a few times and doesn’t act stupid when it comes down to grave matters, showing her growing ability to grow up far too quickly. Her father-like relationship with Lee is heartwarming and shows off her robbed childhood side, displaying what she could have been like before the accident. A balancing act such as this deserves major props and must be a blueprint for characterizing children in gaming in the years to come.
Interacting with The Walking Dead might not be what some expect. This is a essentially a point-and-click adventure game, so adrenaline fiends desperate for non-stop moment-to-moment action and shooting might be caught off guard. The world has minor puzzles, ones that don’t require much actual input or in-depth puzzle solving. You’ll put a thing to another thing to get the other thing working, but it doesn’t usually require Batman-like skills to decipher. They’re well designed and competent but brain teasers are just pace changers and seem to vanish more as the episodes progress and don’t come off as the best part of the experience. This is mostly due to the quality of the story.
That experience can be muddled a bit by technical issues. While the game looks pretty good thanks to its art style, it, for some reason, runs pretty badly. Stutters and small freezes happen multiple times in nearly every scene, which do a solid job at breaking immersion and chopping the pace up. It’s not broken nor did it ever outright freeze, but it would jitter so frequently that it was hard to keep myself in the engrossing world. Ironing these out would probably take more than a patch and its an odd problem to have especially as the game doesn’t look like a technological showpiece.
Even people opposed to point-and-click titles will have to give The Walking Dead a shot. It becomes less of a game bent on gameplay and more of an interactive form of media that you choose and experience. Living alongside these tragedy-stricken, wonderfully developed people and trudging through their unreal predicaments will prove in the following years as a landmark moment in game storytelling. Finally a game with the gall to have depressing entertainment take precedence over fun.
+Dark, intense narrative with a twisty path and unforgettable ending
+Strong characterization for each person
Shot to the elbow:
-Constant stutters and other technical issues destroy immersion
-The illusion of choice is a little unsettling at times
Final Score: 9/10