Telltale Games finally has a hit. When the adventure game genre was long thought to be dead and buried, some LucasArts alum – a company that made some of the best of those games – got together and formed Telltale. Focusing at first on rebooting their Sam & Max games as a series of episodic adventures using a simple engine and simple gameplay carted over from the late nineties, they got to spend most of their time developing the games, rather than the tools. Recently, they convinced Universal to let them make new adventure games based on their Back to the Future and Jurassic Park franchises, both succeeding to varying degrees. With Walking Dead however, they’ve struck it out of the park with a franchise that’s as powerful as ever and a game that sustains it. For the most part.
As the first of five episodes begins, you play Lee, handcuffed in the back of a cop car being hauled away to prison for murdering your wife’s lover. The police officer chauffering you figures, like so many of the others he’s had to haul along this same route, probably didn’t do it. As you talk about old times and his own guesses to why you committed the crime, he strikes a wandering figure in the road, sending you sailing past the guard rails. When you come to, you encounter the officer again, now splayed out twenty feet from the wreck, as a zombie. You manage to defeat him and find a little girl left behind with a now-turned keeper. Her name is Clementine and she becomes your responsibility. The two end up forming an incredible bond over the next four episodes. As you move out, the cast expands and contracts as you hole up in a motel parking lot, encounter the owners of a farm with a bizarre secret, and make your way to Savannah in hopes of finding Clementine’s parents and salvation at sea.
Beyond you and Clementine are other familial bonds that the game arranges and plucks to incredible emotion. You won’t get far into a Walking Dead review without someone mentioning how this brought them to tears and this will be no different. The game works at its best when it’s developing and changing the dynamic of these relationships. When you’re teaching Clementine how to use a pistol in a moving train car, you feel like something’s changed between the two of you forever. When someone gets bit, you have to play out those terrible last hours before they turn as they become worse. Despite the game’s look, the themes here are very mature. Based on your actions, the story changes ever slightly to reflect what you did, but the end result is mostly the same as far as story beats go. It’s a great trick, though: when characters in a later episode confront you about things you did earlier on, you really feel like your choices made a difference.
The game’s narrative isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, though. The fourth episode, written by series consultant Gary Whitta, drags the most as the characters are simply thrown against a crazy situation and given little room to breathe or develop. None of the episodes are blunders by any means, but you may be offset by how the game switches from individual segments to a more encompassing story arc later on. Some of the characters aren’t great and considering your brief time with some of them, due largely to the horrors of a zombie apocalypse, you don’t really get much time to know or appreciate them before they’re gone.
Those Brittle Bones
I’d waited until a lot of the Game of the Year discussion cooled off from other sites before delving into the game myself. I really have to wonder how much people were able to separate The Walking Dead’s impressive story from the actual game, the latter producing a kind of rickety squeak as you play it. Not a literal squeak mind you, but one that confirms Telltale’s steadfast refusal to step up their gameplay formula in the face of new technology. The game plays largely like an adventure game from the end of that genre’s golden age, right as 3D accelerators were becoming common place and people were more likely to load up Unreal or Quake 2 than Monkey Island. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work well at all. Playing on the PC, you have the option of playing with the keyboard and mouse or with a controller, but in the case of the latter, having a controller plugged in forced a game save wipe. Twice! With no relief in sight! Just be smart if you’re using a controller or just do like I did: use the former.
Keyboard and mouse is an interesting proposal. You move around with WASD, which works fine enough, but in either case, searching out “hot spots” to use or interact with something reminded me of the pixel hunts from years of old. In a particularly gruesome sequence early on in the second episode, you’re given the option to hack off a man’s leg stuck in a bear trap while walkers encroach from all sides. I failed at least once during this tense sequence because I simply couldn’t find the action dot to finish the job. You’ll find a number of these idiosyncrasies throughout The Walking Dead, all tied to the gameplay’s ancient mechanisms. This is largely the same framework that brought Telltale’s other, lesser games to life and, until The Walking Dead released, produced a kind of ‘Telltale fatigue’ when playing their games for extended periods of time.
The Event Of The Year?
I enjoyed my time with The Walking Dead, but all this Game of the Year discussion seems beyond me. The Walking Dead may feature a better story than most of the show’s second season, and definitely better than most other game narratives, but roughly twelve hours of walking around and making explanatory remarks about the various objects you find and having background-building conversations with other characters can be a bit of a drag in comparison to a comparable experience, like a choose-your-own-adventure novel. The game’s action sequences, mostly quick time event stuff, serve a decent role in their sparing usage, but never get particularly involved. Make no mistake though, The Walking Dead is the best adventure game released in years, I just wish Telltale weren’t stuck in 1998.