February 19, 2013
The Walking Dead – PC/PS3/360
I grew up with adventure games more than any other genre. My first exposure to Monkey Island was a revolutionary experience at the time. The much more thoughtful gameplay combined with the impeccable humour of the old Lucasarts games and the insane “I have to use the rubber chicken with what?” logic appealed to me. As an avid reader, I had finally found a way to take an active part in a story, rather than simply being a passive observer. The recent resurgence in the adventure game genre, with the Kickstarter success of Double Fine Adventure and studios like Wadjet Eye dedicating themselves to the medium, has made me happy in many special places.
Telltale are another developer who have been attempting to revitalise the genre for a while, and at the same time pushing episodic content as a potential form for these types of experiences. The enjoyable but very traditional reboot of the Sam and Max franchise showed some potential, but made no attempts to be anything other than an adventure game for people who like point and click adventure games. This all changed this year with The Walking Dead.
Make no mistakes, there is adventure game DNA throughout The Walking Dead. It’s all about walking through a location scanning for interactive sections, talking to other characters, and working your way through a story. The difference with The Walking Dead is that this is no traditional adventure game story.
The premise is quite standard for zombie based fiction at this point, where a group of survivors fight to stay alive in a world that has crumbled around them. The game sets the tone that it intends to go on with right from the start, with Lee, our lead, in the back of a police car on the way to jail for alleged murder. Very quickly things go from bad to worse, and when your “tutorial” section ends with your character wielding a shotgun and under immediate threat, you realise this is as far from classic Lucasarts as you can get. The zombies in The Walking Dead are almost part of the setting, rather than a permanent adversary to be defeated. They provide a mechanism to create tension and stress, pushing the characters both together and apart over the course of the narrative. What separates Walking Dead from a lot of zombie fiction is how much it commits to showing the dark sides of people forced into this horrifying situation, rather than attempting to paint it with Hollywood gloss. I have no qualms in saying that some of the scenes in this game are some of the darkest that the medium has ever had, while keeping them away from being shocking for shocks sake (see Call of Duty 4’s “No Russian” level). It takes what Heavy Rain was trying to do with its gesture based actions and uses it at key moments to heighten the emotion of a scene.
A lot of the emotion that Walking Dead brings out comes from Lee’s relationship with Clementine, the young girl he takes under his protection when he stumbles upon her in her home, waiting for her parents to come home. Their journey is at the core of the whole story, and how their relationship develops is one of the best pieces of video game characterisation that I have seen.
This is a game about choices, and how those choices will affect not just yourself but those around you. Mass Effect gave gamers a taste of choice with real consequence, though admittedly ballsed it up at the end. In the Walking Dead, you really feel like you have influence over the story. Every major event that happens feels like it came from a chain of events that you started or altered. The accomplishment of the game is that you feel like you have agency over the whole story, when behind the scenes the amount of real direction change you can make is not huge. There is a wonderful amount of smoke and mirrors obscuring just enough to pull you into the experience, without going overboard. If you decide to dive into this game, be prepared to only play through it once. Even just from talking to others who have had their own experiences with the game, the illusion of agency has started to break down, and I feel that playing through the whole game again would completely shatter it. The game treads a fantastically narrow tightrope of allowing choice to let a player leave their mark on the game, while keeping the main thread in such a way where they do not have to create so much content to ensure that they don’t pull a Valve and have months or years between episodes. Again, Mass Effect attempted to create “real” player agency, and at the end of the trilogy you could see Bioware frantically running around attempting to tie up every loose end they have created in a very obvious way.
It is exceptionally difficult to talk about how important and affecting this game is without spoiling massive chunks of what makes it special. Touches like adding a timer to conversation options in important dialogues does more to create stress and tension in Walking Dead than any amount of scripted sequences in its peers have managed. A few times it resulted in me choosing the “silence” option, either because I could not make a decision in time, or because I did not want to choose a side in an argument. I genuinely cannot think of another game since Heavy Rain that has made me stop and think hard about a decision before making it, when Walking Dead allows you time at all.
If you value storytelling in games as an important part of the experience, you owe it to yourself to pick this game up. After finishing the final episode I felt both physically and emotionally drained, which is not something that happens very often to me. This is not just my favourite game of 2012, but I think it is an important game for the medium as a whole. This is something that can be held up as an example of mature storytelling and the ability to provoke real emotion in those who invest in it.