The Walking Dead
Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Release Date: 12/11/12
I have been exposed to a fairly extensive amount of zombie media over the course of my life, and while I wouldn’t claim the sort of knowledge of zombie media someone like J. Rose or ML Kennedy might, I’ve certainly seen enough to claim myself a fan. I’ve seen the various â€œX of the Deadâ€ films, 28 Days Later, Zombieland and some more oddball works like Zombie Holocaust. I’ve played various zombie games, from the Left for Dead and Resident Evil games to things like Oneechanbara and The Zombie vs. Ambulance. I own The Zombie Survival Guide and The Zen of Zombie, I’ve read through several trade paperbacks of The Walking Dead… you get the point. Further, I am a fairly strong fan of adventure games, and have been for nearly two decades at this point. Those who are frequent followers of my work (should such a person exist) would be aware of this, as games like 9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors and Corpse Party have ended up on my end of the year commentaries before, and I’ve extolled the virtues of Snatcher and the Al Lowe produced Leisure Suit Larry games now and again, for example. With those two assessments in mind, it certainly seems like I’d be the exact demographic Telltale was aiming for with The Walking Dead, as I’m a fairly respectable fan of both the genre and the subject matter. One would posit that someone in my position would feel the experience to be a novel and positive one, especially considering how many others loved the games, as it’s already won awards for its work, after all.
So, then, let us begin the review proper by saying this: the only, and I stress the only, reason I completed The Walking Dead games was because it added five hundred points to my Gamer Score, and even then I had to force myself to do so.
Now, this isn’t to say that The Walking Dead is bad, as it’s quite clearly not. On an artistic level, the game is certainly successful. The character models are interesting, rendered in a fashion that seems cel-shaded, giving them a comic book appearance that brings the comic series to mind almost immediately. While there are some minor clipping issues here and there, for the most part the animations also look very good and feel mostly lifelike in execution. The environments are also very distinct from one another and look quite good, giving the player a real feel for the â€œend of the worldâ€ sort of environment the characters inhabit and the appropriate contrasts required during the plot. Aurally, the game is also very successful, due in large part to an excellent voice cast, as none of the voice work feels at all miscast and everyone delivers their lines convincingly and believably. The music is also quite appropriate, alternating between ambient and sorrowful in quiet moments and tense and frantic when more action packed moments are occurring, which adds to the experience nicely. The various sound effects, from the moans of the shambling dead to the ambient sounds in cities and rural areas, are also well assembled and implemented, and they give the game a life that makes every experience feel more colorful and appropriate than they would without.
Mechanically, the game is generally solid as well. The game alternates between exploration, conversation trees and action sequences frequently enough to keep things well paced, and while some of these elements work better than others, they all work fine enough overall. In all cases, your main character, Lee, can be moved (if applicable) with the left analog stick, while the right stick moves the cursor around the screen. Each of the face buttons is mapped to some type of action or response. When you’re using the cursor you can press a button, which will be highlighted with some icon, to perform an action associated, so one button might have a speech bubble to talk, another might have an item to use, and so on. In conversation, each button is mapped to a response or question, and pressing the button initiates that response or question. Some of these are timed, so you’ll have to generate a response fairly quickly or risk saying nothing at all (though sometimes that’s a fair response), and as many responses will change the opinions of those around you, you’ll have to consider the risk and reward of each response carefully before saying something. In action sequences, the controls are largely unchanged, though you’ll often have to move the cursor over a highlighted area and press the appropriate button to perform some action fairly quickly, lest someone be injured or killed as a result. These sequences fare the worst of the three, as the timing can be awkward without a keyboard and mouse to work with, but for the most part the game starts you right back at these sections so it’s hardly a big problem if you can’t get the timing down. You’ll also have to occasionally collect and use items to solve puzzles, though this is infrequent and the puzzles are often sensible enough to be easily solved.
Where the issues come from, rather, are in three simply defined, yet complexly explained, problems that afflict the game across its five episodes almost universally. The single biggest of these issues is that the game seems unable to really express what it wants the player to think of it, or perhaps more accurately, what sort of tale it wants to be. Is it supposed to be horror? Well as a high level horror tale, it doesn’t work especially well, as the titular â€œwalking deadâ€ are often a sidenote of the story, relegated to second tier status unless the plot remembers they’re around, and the main cast are far more likely to be victimized by the environment or other humans than the undead. While the undead are occasionally presented as a threat, this is infrequent at best, and the game seems much more content to discuss interpersonal issues than it does to present the zombies as any sort of real threat to the cast until the fifth act, and even then humanity itself presents the bigger issue to motivate the characters to action. As a B-Movie horror story, while it obeys, as Kennedy would say, the â€œRule of the Drive-Inâ€ where anyone can die at any time, it invests far too much time in fleshing out and identifying the characters, giving them personalities too developed to allow their deaths to be interesting, and death isn’t especially gratuitous. The game seems to want death in the game world to mean something, which is fine, but it doesn’t contribute well to this being a low brow horror experience, either. This is a shame, as many of the unbelievable (as in, â€œnot believable,â€ IE the end of the third episode, the climaxes of the fourth and fifth episodes, and so on) acts that occur would be better suited to a B-Movie experience than whatever this game is trying to do.
So perhaps it’s a drama, then? Well, the presence of the undead around the characters makes this harder to really work with, given that they’re the reason for the end of the world but are presented as only sporadically a concern, but the game certainly does spend a lot of time focused on interpersonal discussions, so that’s possible. For a dramatic work, however, it’s incredibly nihilistic; by the end of the first episode, between four and five characters definitively die on-screen, two more implicitly die by way of the plot simply allowing them to disappear, never to be seen again, and the game leaves the player with the feeling that everyone we’ve met will be dead by the end of the game. This feeling is quite prophetic, as virtually every character the player meets is dead by the end of the game, save for a few characters whose fates are left unspecific, most of whom are either basically terrible as human beings or blander than mayo on white bread. Further, the actual plot experience is demoralizing at the best of times, as there are essentially never any â€œhopeâ€ spots that last for any significant length of time. The game is far more interested in oppressing the player characters, and any hope that may come from the experience is often dashed against the rocks within half an hour or so, if not immediately, and there is never a point where the player feels like their party isn’t completely screwed over and going to die horribly. This would probably be emotionally compelling if the majority of the characters were, in any way, likable, but the majority of the characters are basically assholes at the best of times, either through their actions toward Lee or through their actions toward the group as a whole. By the fifth chapter there were all of two likable characters left, and of those, only one had a hope in hell of surviving beyond the end credits, which is essentially not a good way to build dramatic tension. When the player hates everyone they’re supposed to be helping, that’s not a strong motivation to help them in any capacity, especially when the implication is that people you despise will be given the opportunities your character will not be afforded.
Maybe it’s meant as a character study, then? Perhaps a depressive stomping on of human emotion, a sort of interactive degrading of the human soul, equal parts sociological experiment and schadenfreude? This seems the most likely explanation, given how mirthless and miserable the experience becomes. Every ray of hope turns out to be false, and the characters are frequently beaten down by the environment, to the point that several characters are either responsible for or haunted by the deaths of at least two people by end of the game, assuming they aren’t dead themselves. The player is free from feeling particularly bad for them, since so many of the characters are horrible, mean people who are unsympathetic at best and revolting at worst, allowing the player to watch as they are broken down by the environment until their inevitable end. However, as someone who has spent a not insignificant amount of time researching serial killers, I already know how terrible the world can be. Playing a game that subjects the player to misery and suffering for ten hours is the exact opposite of how I want to spend my time, to be frank, and if you’re that person, bully for you. From my perspective, the Saw series is more hopeful than this game series, and its protagonists are all bone stupid.
One might be able to overlook the morose and, again, nihilistic nature of the plot if the game offered any sense of player agency, but for a game that advocates choice and consequences so heavily, none of the choices you make have any significant impact on the plot, which hurts the experience even further. Characters who are saved in one chapter die in another definitively. Characters who are not meant to be saved die whether you choose to help them or leave them to their fate. Everyone’s fates are pre-determined, and the results of the experience are functionally identical no matter what choices you make. You can save no one with your choices for any significant period of time, as they will die either in the same episode or, at the most, two episodes later. This only contributes to the defeatist feeling of the experience, as nothing you do matters so long as you are successful in the required events the game places before you, and the game ends on exactly the same sour note no matter what your choices were. There are no consequences for your actions, as everyone who is meant to die will die no matter what you do. There are no choices that impact the story in any significant fashion. Everything you do leads to the exact same conclusion, and while this essentially leaves the game only with the replay value inherent in seeing what dialogue differences exist, it also leaves the game in a position of having no reason to see it through again. While the journey’s certainly the thing, the journey is infrequently modified to a level that it matters here, and the destination is always suboptimal.
The most obvious problem here is that this sort of story has been done, and been done better, before. Dawn of the Dead placed its emphasis on the quiet hopefulness of the false security of its protagonists. The living dead were always a threat, and the film made that largely apparent, even when the characters were jokingly dealing with them and mocking them while killing them off. Even when the plot shifts to a point of showing that humanity is, in its own way, as monstrous as the undead towards the end of the film, hope isn’t completely lost in the protagonists. It gives the viewer â€œhope spotsâ€ where they can feel positive towards the protagonists, which makes their downfall later in the story that much more powerful. The Walking Dead, in comparison, starts on a sour note and makes no efforts to dig its way out of that point. The first chapter begins on a down note and consistently reinforces the misery of the situation, and at the point where optimism might be within reach and the player might have some hope for the players, the final shot yanks it away, reinforcing not hope, but despair. When the player is left to nothing but the realization that everything is awful and hope is a lie, it makes the improbabilities of the plot more apparent, which in turn leaves the experience feeling forced and depressive, leaving the player to slog their way through the game or abandon it.
Oh, and there’s also the wonderful problem, and I don’t know if this is exclusive to the disc collection or not, where starting an episode after quitting in the middle has a high probability of deleting your save game and starting you over from the beginning of the chapter. Because that’s a very motivational way to make the player want to keep going, DELETE THEIR PROGRESS. It’s not like it’s that much of an impact since you can complete an episode inside of two hours, but it’s especially frustrating when you really don’t want to play the game to begin with.
As noted, it’s not that The Walking Dead is a bad game, as it certainly is not that. It’s fine, to be certain, as the writing is generally acceptable, the game looks and sounds fantastic for the most part, and the mechanics are certainly functional enough to allow the player the option to make progress. My point is certainly not to be â€œcontroversialâ€ or to â€œgo against the normâ€ or whatever, either, so understand that the game is perfectly fine in most respects and if you’re the sort of person who enjoys watching characters in misery for ten hours you’ll certainly enjoy the game extensively. The game seems unsure of what it wants to do, however, as it lacks the hopeful moments or focus on horror of a Dawn of the Dead, the subtext of a Requiem for a Dream, or likable characters in a general sense. The message seems to be â€œpeople are awfulâ€, which Dawn of the Dead already pointed out, and better, and the game lacks any sort of meaningful player agency, as player choices stave off the inevitable at best and have no affect at all at worst. Fans of The Walking Dead as a comic or a television show may derive joy from the experience of playing through a game based on the property, and those who appreciate a hopeless tale will find interest in the one the game weaves. Everyone else, however, will find a branching path that offers only the illusion of choice, as there are no significant consequences to your actions or significant benefits to good deeds, and all roads lead to an ultimately depressing final destination no matter what you do.
FINAL SCORE: DECENT GAME.
Short Attention Span Summary:
For those who are fans of the franchise, The Walking Dead will prove enjoyable, one supposes, but taken as a final product, the experience is technically proficient, artistically interesting, and narratively hopeless and miserable no matter what you do, making it hard to recommend. It’s not hard to understand why people enjoy it, as it’s by no means a bad game; the visuals and audio are expertly crafted for the most part and are certainly stylish in design, and the gameplay, though not always spot-on, is mostly balanced and solidly implemented. However, the experience is also incredibly confused, as it never feels scary or focused enough on its monsters to be horror, never presents characters as likable or compelling enough to be drama, and feels mostly like a depressing character study over anything else. The plot lacks any significant hope spots to drive the player forward, your decisions are largely meaningless to the overall narrative, and no matter what you do the events will eventually end as they must. Franchise fans and those who love a hopeless tale may derive some enjoyment from the experience, but for everyone else, The Walking Dead represents a depressing experience that offers the illusion of player agency and a mostly depressing tale above all else, and as such, it’s extremely hard to recommend.