SPOILER FREE! THIS MEANS THIS MIGHT BE SLIGHTLY WISHY-WASHY, BUT HOPEFULLY STILL GIVES A HINT OF FLAVOUR – JUST LIKE 20P NOODLES.
Since today is supposedly the end of the world, what better way to play it out by playing all five episodes of Telltale Games’ glorified point and click (sort of) game of The Walking Dead? Will post a review of it shortly below, making use of an analogy from that other loveable last-days tale, Donnie Darko.
So a quick rundown of the set up: Our hero, history professor turned accidental badass Lee Everett, finds himself in the back of a police car, on his way to serve a life sentence, after doing something a tad naughty. Luckily for him, the dead choose this moment to come back to life and thanks to their intervention, he’s violently released from his imprisonment and set loose into the wilds, free to face the flesh eaters shambling around the Southern States of America. He almost immediately runs into the terrified Clementine: an 8 year old girl hiding away in a treehouse, whose parents are almost certainly not coming back to find her. Lee promises to look after her for now and they set out into the unknown, hoping to find a way to survive.
World ending aside, how does this relate to Donnie Darko? Well, in that movie, Donnie talks with his physics teacher about predetermined destinies. The Teach tells him that they can’t exist if you can see your future – because you’d then be able to change said future. Donnie counters that this would be fine if you travel down God’s chosen channel.
This is what playing The Walking Dead feels like. It’s a game that, from all the hype, prides itself on telling you that each and every decision you take matters.
Dialogue choices, even seemingly minor ones, will affect how people react to you. Do you want to be honest, reassuring or downright fucking scary in your conversations with Clementine? Sometimes you decide who lives and who dies. Want proof of branching outcomes? Go back and replay an episode and watch how seemingly major characters vanish. You are in command of the Good Ship Destiny.
Except you’re not. Not really. The colours may shift, but the picture remains more or less the same. Like Donnie says, you can fiddle with the details but God (or Telltale Games) has got it all the Big Things plotted out, so you’re still going down a channel. The game wraps up the same no matter what you do.
This shouldn’t matter and I totally understand why it needs to be this way for the sake of story cohesion. The Walking Dead is a great experience, illusion of choice or nay, I just wish they hadn’t made a massive deal about something that it doesn’t properly follow through on. In the first episode or two, the game successfully generates a sense of being a-narrative. Loved characters vanish like that, plot strands are dropped in a moment, it feels real, not a tale with a definitive arc or plot points. “How brave!” I thought. The longer you play, however, the arc does indeed present itself when you realise, no matter what choices you make, you’re more or less ending up in the same place and I don’t think it really recovers from that moment.
BUT! As I’ve already mentioned, this does not prevent the game from being utterly engrossing. I should note that calling it a game seems a bit misleading since it’s basically a compelling story that occasionally either asks you what you think about what’s going on or to hammer a few buttons. If you like your Quick Time Events, you’ll love The Walking Dead. There have been comparisons made with this game and the point and clicker of old, but a core part of those games was the intricate puzzlin’. The Walking Dead does have Things That Need Solving, but they are easily done and rarely will you have to leave the immediate environment to do it. Realistic, yes, tricky, no.
For me, what was more fascinating than the choices or the puzzles was how the games makes you complicit in the tough decisions, particularly how your relationship with violence is portrayed. Want to bludgeon someone to death? Gopher it. But it’ll take four swings, your character will strain with the effort, and you’ll more likely feel a bit saddened by the result, instead of experiencing the Grindhouse thrill-giddy you might expect. This ain’t yer daddy’s zombie game.
Thinking on it, I’ve decided the choice architecture is not a gameplay mechanic at all, it’s actually more of an emotional one and this is the game’s greatest strength (aside from the world created – but since it’s based on a comic, I have to give most of the credit to that). The choices you make don’t affect the outcome, but they do affect your emotional responses to the events. The game actually point-blank guilt trips you in the final chapter and sees how you take it. How you feel about where this game takes you depends entirely on how you respond to the central axis between Clementine and Lee. If you don’t give a toss after a couple of episodes, I’d say you might want to stop playing. Lots of games fudge the kid character up, squeezing them for weepy gravitas that’s unearned, but Clementine is..well..she’s just not that annoying, which is brilliant. She doesn’t mewl at you all the time, she’s a tad saccharine, sure, like an eight year old girl can be, but there’s a sadness in her eyes that gradually gives way to an endearing maturity. Just for having a kid you don’t want to murder yourself, The Walking Dead gets massive kudos from me.
Look past the shallow gameplay, minor pacing issues and don’t expect anything too profound to shift because of your choices and you’ll find The Walking Dead to be a heck of a ride. A real character drama* that wrenches, amuses and shocks. It’s testament to the gripping, lasting experience video games can create, even when devoid of a massive budget or an explosion every twelve seconds. You know when they say something is A Motion Picture Event? The Walking Dead is sorta that, but for games. It won’t change the world but, God, you gotta try it because you’ll want to be able to talk about it to your mates.
Oh, and I blubbed like a wittle girly girl at the end and if you don’t too you’re a stone-hearted bastard.
* For me, The Walking Dead also demonstrates why non-talking, personality-void protagonists are crap. I would not trade Lee for all the customisable moustaches in the land. Yes, yes you can bang on about how a blank slate is easier to project yourself into, but you can do that with any protagonist as long as you care for them or understand their goals. It’s called EMPATHY, dickheads.