The Walking Dead

It comes as a surprise (at least to me) that The Walking Dead has been named “Game of 2012” by so many blogs and publications.  It certainly doesn’t resemble many of the more recent game of the year winners.  It doesn’t carry the sense of scale of Skyrim, the bombast of Call of Duty, the outlandishness of Uncharted, or the action of Red Dead Redemption.  What we got was a small, thoughtful package of a game that resonated with the gaming community, and should give publishers pause to consider what role writing plays in games.

I’ve had the chance to play through it once myself now, and to watch someone else run through it as well.  While I’m still kind of chewing on the game as a whole, there are gripping moments peppered throughout the experience that ensure its place in my mind as one of the more memorable games I’ve had the opportunity to play.

Players begin the game as Lee Everett, who has stumbled across a young girl named Clementine.  After discovering that her parents are most likely dead, he takes it upon himself to try and take the girl some place safe.  But as the list of safe places is very short, it becomes apparent that protecting Clementine will be Lee’s responsibility for the foreseeable future.

The foundation of Walking Dead is an adventure game.  The player navigates Lee Everett through each episode, searching for clues to puzzles, talking with NPCs, and responding to situations that unfold around you in the form of various quick time events ranging from dispatching the undead, traversing the environment, or holding a door closed.  What brings the game to shine however, is the player managing the relationships between Lee and the rest of the group he’s with.  Lee will talk with character’s extensively throughout the game’s five episodes, and the player is responsible for directing the conversation (or refraining from doing so) and making key decisions.

I’ve not spent a great deal of time with adventure games myself, and I wasn’t sure what form a modern game in the genre would look like.  Telltale impressed me though with a fluid interface and intuitive controls.  There’s never a need for a tutorial, since most everything is easy to understand at face value.  There’s rarely a need for the player to think about how they are playing the game rather than about the game itself.  It gets out of your way, allowing you to focus squarely on it’s content.

The game’s space is really the story it’s trying to tell, and how you contribute to it as Lee.  It’s what gives the game’s verbs all their weight.  Taken on their own, completing a QTE to stomp a zombie or telling someone to shut up is pretty boring.  But when they’re done to protect someone you care about or when they result in a particular decision being made, then moments like those are tense and create anticipation.  The Walking Dead’s writing and art direction are thoughtfully crafted and result in characterizations that are believable, engaging, sometimes touching, and other times repulsive.

The conversations will always give you something to turn over in your mind while each scenario is composed of multiple layers founded in the game’s themes or present dilemma’s.  This is used to dramatic effect more than once and highlights the contention between group dynamics and the horrific situation unfolding around them.  Lee is challenged by almost everyone he encounters, be it about his fitness to take care of Clementine, his moral standing (Lee is said to be a convicted murderer), or his role in leading the group and what it will take to survive.  These are all themes that are played out in the TV series, but are given weight through player ownership of the decisions that are made throughout the story.

The Walking Dead is perhaps best known for the impressions that players can make on the game’s story.  With each episode, you’ll be faced with several “big” decisions which have a dramatic impact on the story.  And at the end of each episode, you’ll get to see each of those decisions and where you stand amongst other gamers.  Your decisions can determine who lives and who dies; who trusts you and who will stab you in the back; and whether or not you as a player can come to terms with who Lee is and what you believe he has to do.  Your interpretation of Lee is just as much of an impression made on the game as the decisions you have him carry out, and game does a remarkable job of reading this and reflecting it back at you.  Even being as small in scope as the story is, the writing weaves all of these player options together into the plot, the dialogue, and NPC characterizations.  They all develop in concert and create an experience that can’t be replicated in other formats, or really in other games.

Your decisions don’t necessarily change the plot to a great degree.  The game uses a foldback scheme to manage the plot and guide players back to a linear path.  This mechanic is so well hidden though that you will believe that each decision has the potential to make or break everything.  Subsequent play throughs will make it more apparent that some outcomes cannot be avoided, but how you reach them still provides great incentive to go along for the ride.  In the end, anyone who’s played the game can probably retell the story as their own, explaining why they had Lee do what he did, and how they look back on those decisions.  And no two people will tell the same one.  There’s always an overarching meta-story at play, and Telltale executes it against the player’s interpretation of the story in an incredibly effective manner.

The Walking Dead

Telltale has  found a way to interactively deliver storytelling that can contend with entertainment across mediums.  It’s what has excited the gaming community so much.  This is a game that has the potential for mass appeal that demonstrates the medium’s strengths as we understand them to be.  It may not catch the public’s attention this time around, but the game has paved the way for whichever game does.  It’s taken gaming conventions that have been thought to be obsolete and used them to push the medium forward.  It’s a concise and unassuming piece of entertainment that’s not trying to be the game of the year – just a good game.  You can’t go wrong by at least taking a step into the first episode, but you can count on getting drawn into Lee and Clementine’s journey.

Official Website

Note: For more information on the context that I use the terms “verbs”, “spaces”, and “impressions”, please see the post titled I’m going to take the fun out of games.

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