When Telltale’s The Walking Dead was released in 2012, I don’t think anyone was ready for how much of an impact it’d make, nor how high it’d set the bar for the company – in many ways, this was the biggest blessing and the most terrible curse for Telltale, now defunct after years of overstretching themselves from trying to reach the same level of commercial and critical success that this game brought them.
I remember playing through it as episodes were released, which is – of course – the way the Telltale games are intended to be played, with their dramatic cliffhangers leaving you thirsting for the next episode. Though it’s great to sit down and play them through in their entirety, there’s something to be said for the excitement of actually having to wait to see what happens, especially with social media discussion being possible in this day and age. Of course, TV shows themselves are mostly unable to use this method nowadays, with even Netflix shows often released as full seasons to binge your way through in a few sessions. Back when I did play it episodically, I was absolutely enthralled by the brilliant writing, the agonising moral choices, the superb voice acting, the stunning soundtrack and the excellent adaptation of the comic book source material’s visual style.
That hasn’t changed, now that I’ve played through the game again without having to wait for the next episode to release after each cliffhanger. What’s really struck me is how strong the narrative still is; how compelling the entire game is, pretty much from beginning to end. It’s an absolutely astonishing piece of work and you can see why it was a struggle for Telltale to once more reach the high bar they set for themselves here.
Though set in the universe of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead comic book (which follows a slightly divergent path from the TV series), barring a few character cameos in the early episodes, everyone that appears in the game is a fresh creation. The story of Lee Everett, who’s been convicted for murder, escapes custody during the early stages of the zombie outbreak and finds an eight-year-old girl, Clementine, who he strives to take care of. Though many other characters are woven into – and written out of – the narrative, at heart the story is about Lee’s attempts to keep Clementine safe from harm.
The game does an incredible job of feeling authentic and real in terms of the characters and their relationships with each other – with some brilliant character development and genuinely emotional, heartfelt scenes. Though the zombies are pretty much ever present, they’re far from the most dangerous threat – it’s a common theme in post-apocalyptic fiction that other people are far more dangerous than any outside menace and, though this can often feel like a cliché at the best of times (and can sometimes be cartoonishly, moustache-twirlingly extreme, which is a problem that afflicted Kirkman’s comic book series on several occasions), the game does a wonderful job of making the situation very nuanced and morally murky. Though bad people do bad things, so too do good people often fall prey to looking out for themselves at the expense of others, often unknowingly causing harm without a second thought. The moral choices you’re presented with at every step of the way really do drive this home.
The zombies themselves are rarely presented as simple cannon fodder either – with a number of scenes that strive to flesh out who these often pitiable creatures once were. The impact of killing a single zombie at one stage of the game – in a house thought deserted, without spoiling anything – is sold in an emotional way which is incredibly effective and done without feeling manipulative. Like the rest of the emotionally affecting scenes in the game – and there’s a lot of them – they feel entirely earned through the writing, acting and direction.
The game itself is less concerned with the object oriented puzzling featured in, say, LucasArts titles that the Telltale games were originally inspired by, though this does form a decent chunk of the game. It’s rarely a hindrance though, with puzzles often being quite straightforward in nature and they rarely slow down the advance of the real crux of the game, which is of course the narrative. A few notable scenes that do feel a little drawn out come to mind even when playing through again; a sequence involving a broken down train and one in a school were where I felt the narrative crashing to a halt a little too much – though in hindsight, the breathers they afford from the more intense scenes are actually quite welcome.
Likewise for the quick time events, which feel like tense action scenes from zombie fiction; though a few of them frustrate due to their sometimes unforgiving nature (and the fact that you’ll see the same cutscene leading up to the button prompts over and over again in a couple of instances), they’re not so numerous as to halt the narrative too much – they’re usually pretty short in any case.
Having played through the game again, an unbelievable eight years after I did so the first time, I can confidently say that it remains one of the best games I’ve ever played. Though I appreciate that many gamers seem to favour longer, more open, sandbox-style gameplay, there’s something to be said for a narrative that’s more tightly controlled and focused – even though that’s the case, there’s a number of points in The Walking Dead which can see choices really affect the way that other characters see and react to you, as well as determine who survives through the story. That feeling of an incredibly emotional story unfolding in a way that’s affected by the choices you make is something that feels almost unique to Telltale’s games – and there’s very few experiences out there even now that come close to Telltale at their height (though companies such as DONTNOD, with games such as Life is Strange and Tell Me Why, certainly come the closest in my opinion). The consequences brought about by actions taken earlier in the story are brilliantly handled, right up until the very end.
After the emotional gut punch of The Walking Dead’s climax, I never went back to the series. I think I was worried that it wouldn’t live up to what I experienced the first time, but now that I’ve played it again and the games as a whole have reached a definitive ending, I do want to play more and reach the end of the journey. I’ll be doing so over the coming weeks, which will of course mean spoilers for the first season (which I’ve stayed away from in this particular article, somehow!). Next up will be the collection of vignettes that followed the first game – The Walking Dead: 400 Days. Though I don’t expect the same level of impact that the first season had, I’m sure – given how much I enjoyed later Telltale games such as the two Batman series they produced, as a few examples – that they’ll still be capable of drawing me in and making me an emotional wreck, even if not quite to the same level that Lee and Clementine’s story continues to.
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