Game Review: Telltale's The Walking Dead

Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Zombie apocalypse? Creepy farm? Yeah, this'll end well...
Zombies are in right now. Really, really in. And I must admit, I've been swept up by the cultural zeitgeist. I'm getting through Max Brooks' World War Z for the first time, I have been increasingly intrigued by DayZ, and I recently finished up Telltale Games' absolutely fantastic Walking Dead game.

I know, I know. "Walking Dead" has become synonymous with poor plotting, wafer-thin characters, and irritating plot inconsistencies. Even the vastly improved third season of the show has its share of problems that other major television series don't have. So, I would understand one's trepidation in approaching an adventure game made by a company with an admittedly checkered track record (Jurassic Park: The Game has a pitiful 3.8 out of 10 user rating on Metacritic), based on a show/comic with admittedly spotty quality. But trust me.

It's good.

Like, really good.

Like, game of the year good.

Yeah, you read that right. In a year that had Borderlands 2, Far Cry 3, Mass Effect 3, Assassin's Creed 3, Dishonored, etc., Walking Dead might beat them all. It is dense, intriguing, supremely well-written, and stands as the most emotionally wrenching game experiences I've ever had. It's also pretty cheap on Steam (I got the whole season for 15 bucks on sale - best 15 bucks I ever spent!), and is available for literally every platform that's ever existed [citation needed].

And what's strange is that it's not necessarily a game, per se. I mean, yeah, there's some quicktime events and some basic puzzle segments and it's certainly interactive, but that's not the reason you play this game. Really, by many accounts, it comes up short in the gameplay department - all five episodes clock in at about 10 hours total, it's structurally linear, and it's not a terribly challenging experience. But where Walking Dead shines is as a pinnacle of interactive fiction. You thought Mass Effect did a good job of responding to your decisions? Just wait.

Almost everything you say, no matter how inconsequential it might seem, can and usually will be remembered by the other characters. Even the smallest choices will come back to haunt you. And what makes it superior to other games that sport this kind of pseudo-emergent, responsive gameplay comes down to two things:

  1. The scope is relatively small, allowing all of your decisions to carry a lot more weight.
  2. There is no clear-cut morality system. Nothing is there to tell you that a decision is "good" or "bad", or "paragon" or "renegade". You make whatever choice seems right to you, and the world responds accordingly.
This last one is great because, while I tried my best to act as ethically as possible over the course of my playthrough, I wound up with a completely different ending than a friend of mine, and we wound up having some pretty interesting conversations about what was "right" and "wrong". And what's crazy? Both of our points were valid. Walking Dead the game attains a level of ethical complexity that Walking Dead the show, or even Walking Dead the comic book don't really come close to. Honestly, it seems like the writers at Telltale have a better grasp of how to write Robert Kirkman's universe than Robert Kirkman.

This all allows you to become highly involved with the characters - another area where the game excels. Your relationships with other characters grow and develop along different paths - again, where I wound up becoming close, if somewhat tense, friends with Kenny, a stressed-out redneck father, my friend wound up hating him. So it is with all of the characters, most heartbreakingly with Clementine, a little girl who you become a father figure to. I'd say you'd have to be a robot to not eventually start caring about Clementine as much as any real person you know, but I'm pretty sure robots couldn't resist, either. The threat of disappointing her, letting her down, or putting her in danger became a palpable factor in every decision I was making by the end. And this is, let me remind you, nothing but a combination of code, character art, polygons, and prerecorded lines. Bravo, Telltale. 

Walking Dead is an emotional roller-coaster of a game - an intense, unyielding, devastating piece of interactive fiction that has stayed with me more than any other experience I've had this year. Every moment, every choice, remains vivid in my mind. It is not often that I can recommend a game completely without pretense, but doesn't matter if you've never picked up a game before, or you've been gaming since birth: Walking Dead is absolutely worth getting.

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