It is difficult to say whether the brand-confusion surrounding Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead is a product of poor marketing, or an act of pure genius. Whether you’re referencing the comic books, the TV series, or the videogame, a conversation about The Walking Dead will always hit upon the same core themes: tenuous unity, a bleak and oppressive setting, desperate hope, self-preservation, sacrifice, and unlikely heroes.
Ignoring the faltering second season of the TV series, each of the entries in the franchise contributes to Kirkman’s central vision for The Walking Dead. This means that even the fans that have only consumed one of the three available mediums can still meaningfully contribute to these conversations about the broader franchise, without feeling limited by their narrow exposure.
This unity is furthered by the fact that each of the franchise’s components tell related, but individual stories. Characters and locations are shared, but only sparingly, only enough to remind the audience that these events are all happening within the same universe, and within the same rough time period.
Let’s go now and look more closely upon Telltale’s episodic adventure game in The Walking Dead universe, and see why it is arguably the best of the three available mediums.
Telltale’s The Walking Dead tells the story of Lee Everett, a man with a dark past trying to make the most of an unexpected and unpleasant opportunity for redemption. The game opens with Lee in the back of a police car, on his way to incarceration for crimes yet unknown to the player. This somewhat bleak opening will eventually seem like a pleasant stroll through a sunlit park in comparison, but works to set expectations for the tone of the series, where oppressive bleakness is the order of the day. Lee soon finds himself responsible for a young girl named Clementine, whose parents are nowhere to be found.
The relationship between Clem and Lee is the emotional heart of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and regularly invokes the natural protection desire that most parents feel toward their children. I’ve heard it said that your emotional response to The Walking Dead is directly related to how close to parenthood you are. This isn’t to say that those without children are unable to enjoy or relate to the game, but I can attest that going from playing The Walking Dead directly into caring for a child constitutes a cognitive dissonance that can be difficult to process.
You’ll note that I have made it four-hundred words into this review without even mentioning the fact that this is a zombie game. This is intentional; zombies are not the focus of The Walking Dead, in any of its forms. Kirkman knows full-well that the zombie genre is close to played-out, that merely finding creative and gory ways of dispatching the undead is no longer enough to sustain the interest of audiences in 2012. Instead, the most interesting aspects of an apocalypse scenario are the reactions of those affected by it, rather than dry, mechanical things like rebuilding and defence. This is an exploration of the duality of human nature under pressure. Self-preservation, mistrust, and violence; protection, hope, and sacrifice.
The player’s involvement in this exploration is interesting. In most adventure games, the player is merely making connections or clicking on the right button or switch in order to progress to the next plot point. In The Walking Dead however, the player is constantly forced to make decisions that can have a significant impact on the state of the events surrounding Lee and his fellow survivors. Many of these decisions occur within timed dialog trees, players can choose to respond with one of three pre-written reactions, or opt to instead say nothing, with the ellipses sometimes proving the most appropriate response to some of the unconscionable decisions being asked of Lee. These decisions have varying degrees of effect, from changing how characters generally react to Lee, all the way down to who lives and who dies. The result is that the player feels truly responsible for their actions.
The Walking Dead is the first game that has left me feeling actual regret over decisions that I had made, leading to second-guessing, indecision, and rash choices. All of this gives the impression that there are some major branches in the plot, based on the actions of the player. I suspect that this is merely a carefully crafted artifice, giving the impression of major plot diversion. I haven’t looked into it too closely. Living with your decisions, good or bad, is at the very core of The Walking Dead. I suspect that peeking behind the curtain by reloading from earlier saves may undermine some of the delightful power that the game has over the player.
The episodic nature of The Walking Dead provided welcome respite between periods of serious emotional battering, and a chance to drag myself free of the Slough of Despond. I would even go so far as to say that it was necessary for my continued enjoyment of the series. I freely admit that I’m not the most fortitudinous when it comes to scary, gory, or “difficult” content, but I found that the month-ish gap between episodes gave me space to recover, as well as adding a real-world component to the suspense written into each episode’s cliffhanger ending.
They are also consistent with the rest of the franchise, as story consultant Gary Whitta noted in an unpublished part our recent spoiler-filled interview, “The Walking Dead IS episodic. Every version of it is episodic, the comic book is episodic, the TV show is episodic, so I think it makes perfect sense that the videogame is episodic as well.” Now that the series is available as a whole, I can’t help but wonder whether players will burn out on it by trying to consume it all at once.
The Walking Dead is a superbly presented title, from the painterly texture work and the voice acting, to the finally-perfected episodic execution. Telltale Games have truly outdone themselves, and have proven that their stewardship of Kirkman’s popular series was well-placed. In my opinion, The Walking Dead is must-play content for fans and newcomers to the franchise alike. I would argue that its ability to use the player against themselves gives the game an edge that the comic books and TV show could never hope to emulate. Those passive mediums are a window into that world, while the videogame opens a door and relentlessly drags the player in, kicking and screaming, like so many clawing zombie hands.
- The player has true agency over the course of the plot, or at least a carefully crafted artifice agency
- Excellent voice acting
- Meticulously written
- Choice and consequence are maintained between episodes
- Bleak, brutal, and punishing. No-one is safe
- Zombies done right
- Discussing the events of each episode with friends
- I cried like a small child
- The limitations of the Telltale engine are obvious in some character animations
- A serious defect exists which can result in the loss of player’s saves, thus undermining the entire reason for playing
- Could be emotionally exhausting for some
- I cried like a small child