Why Telltale's The Walking Dead is a Modern Adventure Masterpiece
Written Friday, November 23, 2012 By Richard WalkerView author's profile
The Walking Dead is over, but it's really only just begun... And nothing has managed to grip us, and keep us so irrevocably compelled in a long, long time. The Walking Dead is an unbridled masterpiece, a lesson in storytelling and one of the finest experiences you'll find on XBLA. It'll make you smile, it'll make you gasp, and it might even make you cry. It'll have you hanging off the edge of your seat, clawing at your eyeballs, sticking a pencil in your ear and prodding your brain (don't try this at home, kids). It really is that good. Scratch that. It's not good; it's transcendent.
Some games treat story as a secondary concern, but in Telltale Games' The Walking Dead, narrative is king. It's the blood that runs through The Walking Dead's veins and the stomach punch that hits you in just the right way, at the right time, pulling the carpet out from beneath your feet when you least expect it.
Before we get into it, let's just say that we've tried to avoid spoilers, but there might be some minor details we refer to, so you may want to come back once you've finished The Walking Dead series (why haven't you finished it yet?! Do you not like games? What's wrong with you!?) And you should. It's not just one of the best games you'll play this year, it's one of the best games you'll ever play. Hyperbole maybe, but it's entirely justified.
The Walking Dead is an episodic point-and-click adventure game, and a prequel story to the comic books. Playing as protagonist Lee Everett, you start out riding in the back of a cop car, a man with a somewhat dubious past who happily shoots the breeze with his police escort. Initially you're not quite sure about Lee, but you get the impression from the off that he's a genuine guy. In reality he is what you make him, your decisions shaping the kind of hero he develops into.
By the end of our game, Lee had come full circle, embroiled in an altogether different, but not entirely dissimilar situation. How the narrative gradually escalates, throwing cliffhangers, twists and shocks your way at every turn is masterful, but it's the decision-making that imbues The Walking Dead with its most heart-wrenching moments, as you march towards the tear-jerking conclusion.
As the protector of the estranged 8-year old girl Clementine, invariably every decision we made was with her best interests at heart, or with the rest of the group in mind. We wonder how a more selfish, aggressive approach would pan out. Would Clementine grow to resent Lee? What impact would that have on the ending? The story arc from the very first episode and the through-line you take to the final, inevitable denouement is almost entirely in your hands, but it's the sense that you can't entirely determine how certain events pan out that lends these occurrences real emotional heft. There's no way you can save some characters when they fall afoul of walkers, and you're powerless to stop the wilfully stubborn Lilly when she makes some rather awful decisions that threaten to splinter the group.
Hope comes and hope goes in The Walking Dead. You're right there with the group throughout each roadblock, wondering how you're going to find your way out of the next sticky situation, whether it's finding a functioning mode of transport to make good your escape, fixing machines, solving puzzles and problems or freeing a stranger from a bear trap in the most inadvisable way possible, your problem-managing nous is tested and stretched to the limit, as the timer inexorably melts away, forcing you to make your decisions quickly, lest you not make them at all.
Would you do the same if this were a real-life scenario? Could you do the same? Through Lee's eyes we live vicariously as the everyman who has to step up as a leader and as Clementine's guardian, putting himself in harm's way. The best way to play The Walking Dead is by making the decisions that you'd more than likely make yourself if you were put into Lee's shoes.
There are moments that will stick with you forever, like discovering the horrifying truth at the dairy farm, becoming Kenny's closest ally and confidante, finding out that Crawford isn't quite what you'd thought it would be, meeting other survivors and pockets of underground existence for the first time, giving Clementine her first shooting lesson, looking for clues with Kenny's son Duck, finding out who was giving supplies to the bandits at the Motor Inn, wrestling the babysitter when you first meet Clementine, picking sides at the pharmacy, deciding what to do with loose cannon Larry... Who would have thought that shovelling soil as an activity could be made quite so palpably melancholy? The list of great moments goes on.
It's the pitch-perfect characterisation and script, punctuated by instances of savage, unflinching violence that gives The Walking Dead its edge, and having to make hair-trigger choices that can shape the game are the very thick, delectable icing on the most gratifying cake you can possibly imagine.
Each and every juncture where escape looks like a viable option, you're left wondering where you're going to ultimately escape to. Is there a happy ending to be had? What's the best possible outcome that you can hope for? It's this creeping sense of constant uncertainty and dread, as well as the marriage of plot, character and story-shifting decisions that make The Walking Dead such a uniquely compelling package, and one of the most memorable gaming experiences you'll play this generation. Is it essential to have read the comic books? Nope. The comic books are fantastic, but Telltale's The Walking Dead stands up on its own merits as a standalone story.
Nothing in recent memory has packed the emotional impact and depth of character that The Walking Dead has, leaving us craving the second season, just like a great television show. Telltale Games' achievement is unparalleled, and although there are plenty of fantastic examples of adventure games out there, we can't think of an instance during our 20-odd year history of video gaming where we've had our heart strings tugged in such a way and our manly tear ducts so relentlessly prodded. The Walking Dead resonates long after the final post-script, and will have you questioning your choices for days, weeks, maybe even months. Truly, Telltale has crafted something genuinely special that we, as gamers should cherish. It's easily the best £20 you're likely to spend on an XBLA title, that's for sure. It's high time to embark upon that second playthrough... The Walking Dead is over, but it's really only just begun.
The Walking Dead episodes 1-5 are available to download on XBLA for 400 Microsoft Points each, or you can wait for the disc-based release on December 4th.