The new episodic Walking Dead series by Telltale Games is doing extraordinary well. Having sold over a million episodes across multiple platforms, the studio is finally getting the attention it deserves. Based on the Walking Dead graphic novels by Robert Kirkman, Telltale is stepping out of their familiar gameplay, and thematic mold, to deliver a draining burst of serious decisions, and action.
I could spend the bulk of this review telling you how the game looks, and sounds great (they’ve finally updated the audio quality on voices), or delve into the complicated plot and speak to how I played the game. However, since I’ve been reviewing Telltale games for quite a while I want to break away from this uninteresting formula that I’ve fallen into. Having played every episodic series Telltale has released, I’ve been able to watch their style morph and change over the years. The turning point (as I see it) occurred near the end of Tales of Monkey Island, where in the midst of pirate comedy, there was a fairly tragic scene that helped the player realize how attached to the characters they had become. This was continued in Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse to even greater effect. It became clear that the developers weren’t only interested in making a platform to tell jokes, but a way to tell character driven stories of all kinds.
The Walking Dead (much like it’s comic, and television counterpart) is a story about characters. Lee Everett is very different from Sheriff Rick Grimes from the comics. He begins the story in the back of a cop car, supposedly being taken in for murdering his wife. Lee stumbles upon a young girl Clementine, whose parents were out of town when the world fell apart. They travel together with a group of survivors who don’t all know of Lee’s past, or even his relationship to Clementine. Lee quickly falls into a web of lies and half-truths, that I’m sure will come back to bite him if I, the player, can’t keep it all straight.
Where previous episodic series’ seemed to take established properties, and adapt them into the Telltale gameplay mold; this game seems more willing to throw out those traditions. The story takes center stage, and gameplay elements are introduced mostly in support of that. It wouldn’t make sense to be leisurely performing item-combination puzzles at the beginning of a zombie apocalypse. Instead, the player is faced with difficult choices in almost all interactions. Often, dialogue choices are being monitored, and characters notice if your statements contradict others. You’re given the option at the start of the game to enable notifications of when the game logs one of your choices. Out of curiosity, I turned it on for my second play-through and was legitimately surprised to see how much it was tracking. It adds an additional layer of stress to your actions, in that you know that even small aspects are being monitored.
Stress played a fairly large role in my time with the first episode. I had often approached Telltale episodes in a way similar to how people would go into a newspaper crossword. I would perch myself in a comfortable chair, often with a warm beverage, and would take my time playing through the episode. The first moments in The Walking Dead feature a car accident, and a jump scare that leads into a frantic escape sequence that culminates in a head being torn apart with a shotgun. From the fine folks who brought you Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People! It might be a new experience in a Telltale game, but it totally fits with The Walking Dead’s universe. The game also introduces timed dialogue responses, which give the player a limited window to reply to a conversation (to avoid this kind of thing). Sometimes you’ll only have a few seconds to choose between saving certain characters. The feeling of tension and overall dread stuck with me throughout the entire episode. I’ve read the comics, and seen the show, but having the game force me into making the important decisions at a moments notice ended up being incredibly effective in ways that the other two mediums have not achieved. As the credits rolled I sat back in my chair and let out a built up sigh. The atmosphere of the game, coupled with knowing that the game is remembering all of my actions, in addition to forcing life and death choices upon me really took it’s toll in the best way possible.
The Walking Dead is refreshingly new for zombie games in general, and lays the groundwork for more full on serious, dramatic games from Telltale. The fact that I felt so emotionally drained at the end of the episode is an impressive achievement, and is sure to continue throughout the entire series. The story being told is supported by some great characters, some of which are sure to turn into zombies after I grow attached to them over five episodes. I eagerly await returning to that sense of dread in Episode 2.