Review: The Walking Dead: Season One

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Whether they have experienced any of it for themselves, just about everyone has heard of The Walking Dead. Between a hit show on HBO-lite and the record breaking sales of the Image-published issue No. 100 of the comic book, it is clear that lots of people are not entirely burned out on zombies. Most post-zombie-apocalypse stories end rather suddenly, either the survivors all get eaten or shambling corpses get their heads blown off and our heroes ride off into the sunset. Presumably to a safe and secure paradise where children can grow up in warm contentment and only hear vague whispers of a distant Time of Troubles.

The comic series, which regularly sells at a pace with the best sellers from Marvel and DC, uses the strength of the format to allow for a story that doesn’t have to end. When the heroes roll off into the sunset after escaping from walker-ridden Atlanta, they find nothing but animated dead in the suburbs or in the rural areas beyond. Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard have created a world in which there is no paradise and the entire world is a place of life and death. They’ve also made serious bank off this funny book, which allows Kirkman to work on passion project bullshit like Super Dinosaur.

While a video game entitled The Walking Dead might seem like a quick cash grab, Telltale has created an interactive story which seems truer to the comics than the TV series, and in some ways surpasses the comic. After all, you can’t control Rick Grimes and company – who only make one brief cameo from what I saw. Anyone that likes great storytelling, in any format, should buy this game.

Lee Everett begins the game in the back of a squad car. Before the outbreak Lee was a history professor at the University of Georgia who came home early and found his wife in bed with a state senator. He is in police custody because he had just been convicted of murdering said local politician, a highly publicized event. On his way to West Central Prison, the car he is in crashes with a man aimlessly walking in the middle of the highway. Lee passes out. What happens after this is largely predetermined in broad strokes throughout the entire game. The episodes play out in a series of scenes and areas that will be encountered, but it is entirely up to the player to determine what kind of man Lee is. Whether he is nice and honest to others, a dangerous person only looking out for number one, or a man who tries to play the neutral diplomat with the people he meets is determined all by the choices players will make in what they say and do. This, in turn, will affect how others respond to Lee.

There are no Light and Dark side dialogue options, only choices on what sort of thing you want Lee to do or say. It never feels like you are having a Good or Bad play through, just one long story where you make hundreds of small decisions and a dozen or so major decisions along the way.  This is a very dark game that seems geared to emotionally harming the player.  Some of the saddest things I have witnessed in a video game happen in this virtual Georgia.  Making things worse from the despair, every decision you make only seems like the best thing to do at the time. Everything is bad or worse, never good or with clear ramifications.  Just like the choices you make in real-life stressful situations. Structuring the game in this way makes it part improv — you never know exactly where your mouth is going to get you and will have to adapt rapidly — and part choose-your-own adventure. The ambiguity surrounding every choice and the fantastic voice acting help to create a very believable experience even though there are zombies all over the place. As with the comic and the show, it is the human interactions that make the game memorable. The baddies just push everyone together in a little closet and poke them with a stick until they work out a common solution or kill each other like rats in a sinking burlap sack.

Attempting to restrain Lee’s inner psychopath – see the whole adultery situation – is a little girl named Clementine. After the first brush with death, Lee will come upon a suburban house where a girl is held up in a tree house to escape the crazy things that look like spoiled people. Lee, and most players, will take a shine to the girl, as she is very cute, and want to help her out. Whether you become a beaming, nurturing father figure who tries to help Clem become a strong individual while shielding her from as much of the surrounding fucked-up reality as possible or a harsh, silent protector who wants her to sink or swim, for her own good, is up to you.

Most of the goals and objectives surround keeping her safe, Lee being an amazingly self-sufficient action bastard of a history professor, so failure will just as often come from her being harmed as Lee. She was a good thing to add to the game. Many are the situation where someone is being difficult and in another game the solution might have just been immediately to kill them and take their stuff. But, here…well, there’s a kid watching. Wholesale murder would probably upset her, which would be difficult to watch with the emotive facial animations that make it hard not to care what she thinks. And since there is no “ice the baby” option, you’re stuck with some forced dadification. A process which helps to immerse players into the world and care about what happens to the people in it beyond the desire to get Ending #5, or some other genre foolishness.

As of the writing of this review, all five episodes of The Walking Dead‘s first video game season are now available via digital download. (This week also marks the launch of a full-season retail edition on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.) The first three tell connected stories but are largely self contained with a beginning, middle and end. Only the last two episodes feel like two parts of the same story because Around Every Corner leads immediately into No Time Left after one hell of a cliffhanger. Since the first Sam & Max episodic game in 2006, Telltale Games has continuously improved its episodic offerings by making each of the episodes more and more distinct, not just five short adventure games in which players will always visit the office, the street outside, Bosco’s store, and the singular new location. Except for the last two episodes, the episodes have unique settings and new characters within them. The core group of survivors largely remains the same, allowing walker-related mishaps, but the people they encounter are different. There are several character arcs that are largely determined by the player’s choices but can only swing so far within the confines of the choices presented. It is possible to rewind each of the episodes and play them again, making different choices, but the ultimate outcome of most decisions is not different enough to make this worthwhile most of the time. The game is a train track going from New York to Los Angeles, the only question is whether you’re going to go through Chicago or Fort Wayne, Indiana. It allows players to tailor their own story, make it their season of Walking Dead, a narrative that will stick with them long after the final decision is made.

Playing the game is like looking at Charlie Alard’s work from the comic rendered in real time and in color. The environments are a cartoonist’s rendering of a setting that shows just as much detail as is required to evoke what the building or object is, along with whether it will have any impact whatsoever on the game. Each one of the survivors is distinctive in a natural way yet exaggerated enough in their facial features to show the complete range of human emotion. Art majors might use phrases like “cartoonish realism”, I would simply say that it looks like an expressive, down-to-earth comic book brought to life.

The zombies are pupilless abominations without distinct identities that shamble forward and only appear to have any expression when they are trying to eat you. The game does not let the camera linger for very long on them, hiding just how few different zombie models there are (if you don’t take a photo of each one, you’ll forget whether you already probably saw his twin). The walking dead look completely out of place with the realistically styled living characters and the settings, as they should. The walkers are only a means of driving the survivors on, a physical manifestation of the harsh entropy of nature that at all times seeks to thwart Lee and his companions and do everything they can to make him fail, slowly erode his will to live and for the group to descend into self-interested anarchy. Like the comic, and to a lesser degree the show, the game is not an effects showpiece, but a story about survivors in a world with zombies in it. The focus is on people, not the dead people.  The art direction, taken whole cloth from the comic, serves the story as a result.

If there was to be any criticism of the game series written by me, it would have to be centered around the parts where it is a game and not a very tense and well done visual novel.  In order to keep the game from being a big set of choose your own adventures, obstacles in the form of action and puzzles are placed at the player’s feet. The game can easily be broken into three parts: environment exploration, talking, and action events. The action consists of Quick Time Events where players will have to jam on a prompted button and then at the last second press another one or click on the right thing at the right time. Some problems cannot be dealt with at the end of a gun or meat cleaver, so at times environmental puzzles need to be solved.

These action events feel well integrated into the world and can increase the sense of danger. When you’re jamming on the A button to pull the ever hungering roamer’s jaws away from someone’s neck and see the looks of panic on the characters on the screen, it is very easy to get lost in the dire situation. To feel that the stress with your arm is likened to the stress on the digital people’s faces. But, should you lose in that simulation of a dire situation, not press the button fast enough and then repeat this section again, looking at the same image and hearing the same sounds of desperation, the moment unravels as a Quick Time Event. And, by the standards of games since the very first God of War, not a cinematically impressive one.

Similarly, there are a few instances where Lee will look down the iron sights of a pistol and start shooting zombies like it was party time in Raccoon City. At no point does this feel like a regular first-person shooter as all of the firing seems removed from what is happening on screen. At times, because a dramatic moment calls for it, a shot will not register because some sort of event or scene just loaded. It is clear that while the game may at times look like it has a first-person shooter element, it is a disguised point and click game. Only here the pointing and clicking must be done quickly, or repeated again and again until the plot advances. The game is generously checkpointed, so numerous button-press segments will not have to be repeated one after the other. Even if only one at a time, going into the same one the third time around is annoying.

On the puzzle side of this adventure game, everything is forced and breaks up the immersion. The world infested with roamers is a realistic one. People who get shot once tend to die, food is a scarce necessity difficult to obtain when commerce shuts down, and people are generally disagreeable. The only fantastical element comes from the zombies themselves. This focus on the conflict does set the stage for suspense, but it does so on one made from scratched wood and irregular nails. What I mean by this is that other than zombies, this is a realistic game. Much to the chagrin of lovers of adventure games, the real world does not have puzzles in it like those found on Monkey Island. Whenever there is an obstacle in front of you such as “open the door” or “get to John’s house” there are dozens of possible solutions, limited only by one’s resources, time and creativity. The handful of times in each episode that require problem solving of a logical, not emotional, nature are obvious – in every sense of that word.

A great example is in the first episode where to progress Lee has to fix an AM/FM radio. Someone says it’s busted and, keeping the realistic setting in mind, I thought, “I guess that’s that: that radio is broken unless someone with an engineering or ham radio background is around with the right tools. Radios, like most modern electronics, are very complicated or sometimes even impossible to fix if the human interface breaks down.” But, since it is an adventure game, there is an option to investigate the radio. If you do so you will find, through several steps and button presses, that the batteries are put in the wrong way and this simple issue needs mending. The lady who found the radio couldn’t do this and get the story to advance, because Telltale wants you to do that for some reason. All of the puzzles are like this, easily solved and mere speed bumps in the game. The riddles could not be more out of place in the world of the post-outbreak American South if a dapper zombie came out of the woods and said, Layton-style, “Yo sheem liik yo haf juicy braaaains, care to try a puzshle?” (Protip: take a dive). Every single problem-solving obstacle in the game should be easy for most players to solve, and the solution immediately clear to any experienced adventurer who knows to click on everything. In short, the classic adventure game element here is poor and poorly on display. It would have been a better series without them or at least fewer of them.

The leaderboards function here is interesting. At several key points in the game binary decisions are presented. Either/or, no middle ground. Some of these are fairly drastic, like deciding who to save from a mass of the undead, and others will seem fairly benign at the time but will have massive story implications later on. Each episode has a number of dialogue decisions available which will impact how certain scenes play out, but only about four or five major choices. These choices will affect how your season of the game plays out and it is the source of data for the leaderboard.

At the end of each episode a screen will pop up showing these decision points as well as how many people choose the same thing. “You and 32% percent of players killed the stranger,” for example, or “You and 59% of other players saved [so and so].” None of this has any impact on the game — there is no bonus I am aware of if you always pick what the community does — but it is interesting to see how other people confronted the dilemma you just solved, one way or the other. It turns out most people are good and completely honest people that don’t like to kill or cheat others. Which is either an encouraging sign of the benevolence of mankind, or a symptom of Telltale doing a great job of showing that antisocial actions in this game are undesirable through how the other characters respond to them with words and facial expressions.

The Walking Dead manages to be a memorable interactive story despite its fairly clunky manner of dealing with action and exploration. The characters feel real enough that it is sad to see some of them go. And, let’s make no mistake, the entire setting of this zombie hellscape is dire. Not everyone is going to make it, even if the player succeeds at vaulting all of the gamey hurdles thrown onto the track. Having read the comic, I can say that the game falls in line with the tone and pacing of the funnypages, and the story has just as much impact. Because it is a game, you think there is something you could have done to prevent something bad – a feeling not present when flipping pages.  The real horror comes from knowing sometimes, there is nothing you can do.  Awful things can just happen for no good reason.

Another season of zombie-based emotional trauma has been confirmed by Telltale. Even if the new episodes are only half as good as the original season, they would still be worth buying. The Walking Dead is one of the best adventure games of 2012.

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Pros:
+ Visuals mirror the source material (IN COLOR!)
+ Powerful storytelling
+ Memorable characters and decisions
+ More substance than flash

Cons:
- Action sequences are tiresome
- Puzzles are painfully easy

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC, also available for PSN, XBLA, iOS, and Mac
Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
Release Date: 4/27/2012 – 11/21/2012
Genre: Adventure
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.