Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Walking Dead: Telltale Games' Masterpiece

I remember back when 2012's video game awards were coming out, The Walking Dead seemed to be dominating. Then, a friend got me an iTunes gift card for the holidays, and he encouraged me to buy all five episodes of the game with the gift card. I bought the game, and from the first time I played it, I was pulled into the story. The best thing about the game was its characters. At first, I wondered how the game was going to make me care about a cliched relationship like the tough guy protecting the little girl. About five minutes later, I was ready to do whatever it took to keep that little girl safe.

The writing was masterfully done, giving the player enough choices to feel in control, while sticking to a general plot to ensure that the narrative is compelling. The writers understand that the game's heart is the relationship between Lee, a former history teacher on his way to jail when the zombie outbreak hits, and Clementine, a little girl separated from her parents, who are probably dead. Lee decides to help Clem, and the two of them form an unlikely duo. This premise could have been dull, but the writing elevates it to something very compelling through drama, humor, excellent pacing, and top-notch voice acting.

Clem and Lee need to find a safe place in the middle of a worldwide zombie outbreak, and along the way they run into a group of survivors. Each survivor has his or her own compelling story that explains his or her behavior. The characters are thrown together by necessity, but different personalities and tense situations ensure that there is a lot of potential for conflict between them. Again, the writing and voice acting take what could have been reality show-level melodrama and craft it instead into something compelling and touching. Even if you don't like a character, you may still feel for him or her, and that's a sign of a skillful touch.

The Walking Dead takes two gameplay elements that I'm not normally a fan of and combines them into something that I absolutely loved. While I get that many people are nostalgic for adventure games, and I like the idea of exploring a world and learning about its background and characters, in practice I often find adventure games to be tedious and contrived. When it comes to quicktime events, I'm even less a fan, since they're usually a cheap trick to get some adrenaline pumping in what is essentially a do-or-die pseudo-interactive cutscene. And yet, through some kind of alchemy, The Walking Dead uses each to overcome the weaknesses of the other. The pulse-pounding quicktime events break up the drudgery of the adventure game tropes, while the adventure game's quiet reflection lends weight to the frantic struggles of the quicktime events.

Like the Mass Effect trilogy, The Walking Dead gives players decisions that may not affect the overall course of the game much, but matter all the more because they let the player choose Lee's intentions and reactions. Since The Walking Dead is trying to tell a compelling story, the writers have to ensure that the characters follow a certain course of events, so things are going to happen no matter what the player chooses. The choice the player is given is more complex than choosing which path to walk: Lee is often the arbiter on what--or who--is write or wrong.

Not everything about The Walking Dead works perfectly. I felt like some of the scenarios had rather obtuse scenarios: at one point you pick up a spark plug for no reason, and later you learn that, while breaking a car window would make too much noise and attract walkers, whatever is inside spark plugs "turns car windows into tissue paper." That's the inherent logic of adventure games, I'm afraid: you sometimes have to gather items on faith, assuming that they'll come in handy later. The other thing to be aware of is that there are some scenarios that might result in a "cheap" death. I died a few times and felt like it wasn't clear enough what I should have done the first time around. Still, these are minor flaws that don't detract much from the overall game.

I can say that the events of The Walking Dead are compelling, gut-wrenching, exciting, and heartbreaking, but the only way to really understand is to play it yourself. The game is now available for both iOS and PC, and I highly recommend checking it out. You have to be prepared for some tough decisions, a lot of zombie-related violence and gore, and several parts that will really take a toll on your emotions.

For me, it was totally worth it.

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