(or: Telltale's The Walking Dead as played by an adventure game veteran)
Zombies -- always fun, always thrilling, and uniquely suited to any horror scenario from a slow and quiet exploration of a creepy house in the dark of night, to a terrifying and action-packed dash through an abandoned shopping mall, to a full-scale apocalypse where civilization has broken down and the monster threat has become just another force of nature. I like zombies.
When The Walking Dead by Telltale Games went 40% off during this year's Steam Summer Sale, I just had to get it for myself. Here's what I thought.
As a purist and as an old hand at adventure gaming, I should have been appalled the moment that The Walking Dead handed me the reins and made me play minute after minute of quick time events and choosing dialogue. The gameplay formula is as simple as it gets, and is split into a handful of distinct tasks:
- Talk to a bunch of people by choosing what to say before a timer runs down
- Do a series of actions by mashing and hitting buttons as the prompts appear on-screen
- Explore a small area by walking around, picking up items, using them on things, and talking some more
- Sneak around a zombie-infested (or otherwise dangerous) area by moving between predetermined hiding places and using items and weapons to eliminate threats
- Choose between two given courses of action as a timer rapidly runs down
That's basically it. The entire game is a linear progression of some of A, and then some of B, a short stint of C and D, more A and B, and then a gut-wrenching serving of E as the episode hits its climax.
Part of me inside is screaming out: where's the freedom in this? Where are the dialogue trees where I can ask people about everything under the sun? Where are the grab bags of items to use in creative ways, and to bang together in a MacGyver-esque display of ingenuity? The exploration? The puzzles? Dear god, where are the puzzles?
No, The Walking Dead isn't an adventure game in the way that my happy, adventure-filled childhood defines it. It might not even be a game as much as it is an interactive animated series with branching paths. All those doubts, however, went flying like a zombie's head at a lumberjack convention the moment I really started playing and getting into the narrative.
The Walking Dead succeeds because it manages to capture the essence of what makes the original comic book series great: the uniquely human-centric view of conflict and survival during a full-scale apocalypse of the walking dead persuasion. As Lee Everett -- a convicted murderer given a new lease on life by the zombie outbreak -- you will find yourself interacting with various groups of other survivors over the course of the two episodes currently available. Not everyone is as agreeable as you'd like them to be, and while it's very possible to play as a nice guy through and through, sometimes you will have to do some nasty things to ensure your survival.
That's about par for the course for a game about survival and the apocalypse, though. Even the fact that you're saddled with a child to protect isn't such an original idea. Fortunately, the little girl named Clementine whom you are tasked to look after is a likeable and resourceful character, not registering so much as a grain-sized blip on the annoying-kid meter. The game also uses an invisible but clever way to illustrate your connection to her: usually, during moments of personal danger, a red border starts to appear on the screen and the scene begins to take a reddish hue. This usually happens during sneaking sequences when you find yourself exposed and in plain sight, or during QTEs when your face is inches away from being peeled off by a set of snapping zombie teeth. Everytime Lee sees Clementine in danger, however, the screen goes red like a warning siren, reminding us that we're not just dicking around and that saving her is not just another branching path option. To Lee, Clementine's safety is as important as his own, and the game communicates that brilliantly.
Talking is a big part of The Walking Dead, even if it's essentially the dialogue system from Alpha Protocol, complete with the timer that makes you choose your response quickly. It seems like a weak attempt at interactivity at the game's outset, but eventually, dialogue becomes less and less of a narrative chore, and more of a respite from the grim realities of life in a dead world. Conversations are short and to the point, and never quite long enough to satisfy the player initiating it. The system does a good job of making things frantic, clipped, and uncomfortable. Lee will never get to know the strangers he's grouped up with as well as he'd like, and likewise, there are things about his past that are better off unsaid -- the aforementioned murder conviction not the least among them all. Often, there's an option for "..." to keep silent, and sometimes it does feel like it's the right thing to do. Impressively, your choices here matter -- people will remember your responses to them, and future interactions will change accordingly. Even the tv-like "Previously on" and "Next time on" segments use your plot and dialogue choices in the recaps and previews.
The choices you make during key points affect the plot in a big way. Characters will live or die depending on your decisions, and those who live will go on to play major roles in the episodes to follow. The branching is enough to drive home the point that your choices do matter, but you can't really derail the plot with them either. The Walking Dead is a linear game, with events happening in a predetermined order and crises playing out when the script calls for them. In a Deus Ex-like manner, it's the way you progress from plot point to major plot point that will differ from player to player. At the end of each episode, the game presents a tally of the choices you made and compares them against its record of all the other players who played through the scenario. It's a nice way of seeing how the rest of the community is playing the game, and also to find out where the major branches in the episode took place. Some of them took me by surprise, because while I was playing the game, I felt like some situations presented me with no choice at all.
There's no doubt, however, that The Walking Dead is light on the puzzles that the genre is known for. At no point will you be tasked with using lateral thinking to overcome an obstacle, like padlocking the vertical gate in Full Throttle to secure it and climb up the chain that served as its pulley. Nor will you ever need to show a character a specific item to get her to help you accomplish a task. The game has some inspired moments -- distracting a group of zombies with some common sense application of a universal tv remote, for instance -- but most of the tasks you will do is of the use the flashlight on the dark hallway variety.
That's fine with me; in a setting like this, there should be no time to spare for clever solutions to inexplicably important puzzles. The Walking Dead constantly communicates to you that if something seems like it can't be manipulated to your liking, it's more efficient to turn around and look for another way to overcome a problem, instead of pecking at it with rubber chickens and dazed monkeys.
I think it's great that the developers at Telltale Games have managed to marry story and gameplay so eloquently in The Walking Dead, although it arguably limits the way that the plot will develop. In the comic book, the survivors have reached the point that they have started forming real communities, making real and major decisions to stay alive, stay fed, and stay safe from wandering zombies and murderous humans alike. The way the game plays, however, I don't see how this can be possible without making the player feel powerless and insignificant. Unlike the protagonists of the comic book, Lee Everett and the player will never make the shift from reactive to proactive as far as interaction with the game world goes. We will have to see how the succeeding episodes will develop, and I still have high hopes that the series will satisfy regardless.
My bottom line is this: The Walking Dead is such an immersive and engrossing experience that there's no way I can not recommend this to anyone, from hardcore gamers to, well, your mom. It was just on sale on Steam, going as low as 40% off, but the trip is well worth it, even at full price. Play it and see for yourself!