It’s a sign of the times when a leading contender for Game of the Year is an episodic, download-only title, but The Walking Dead Season One has a serious claim on the crown. Adapted by Telltale Games from the Robert Kirkman/Tony Moore/Charlie Adlard comic book rather than the AMC TV Series it inspired, it’s one of the most powerful and emotional gaming experiences I and many other people have had in 2012. It might not have the photorealistic, motion-captured graphics of a Heavy Rain or LA Noire, or even the most innovative or flawless gameplay, but despite this it puts you at the heart of a great story, allows you to influence its direction, and gives you characters and situations you can actually care about. How many other games can you say that about this year?
Episode one begins with Lee Everett – university professor and convicted killer – on the road to prison in the US state of Georgia during the beginning of the zombie outbreak that provides the background to the comic-book and series. The car Lee is travelling in is wrecked, Lee escapes, and finds himself in a world over-run by the titular menace. Before long, Lee hooks up with an eight-year-old girl by the name of Clementine, whose parents were last seen in the coastal city of Savannah. By the end of episode one they’re in Lee’s hometown of Macon, mixed up with a family, a father and daughter and a handful of other survivors, and doing their best to survive.
Narrative and Choice
Plot and character development are central to The Walking Dead. Each of the five episodes has its own locations, its own pace and its own character arcs, and each one is slowly weaving threads together that will pay off later on, or even in the season finale. Most importantly, The Walking Dead is also about player choice. The actions you take, the dialogue options you choose and even the decisions you fail to make will influence how your fellow survivors see you, and the shape the story will take.
There’s a certain amount of sleight of hand here, as the story only branches so far, and even major decisions over which a character lives or dies won’t have a profound effect on the overall plot, but these choices slowly transform the whole tone of the game, and the sort of character Lee turns out to be. You might not be able to change the overall direction of the story, but you will affect the smaller aspects, and the way that your version of Lee performs his role.
Taken in insolation, the gameplay is surprisingly limited. Most of the time The Walking Dead is a simple graphic adventure, where Lee wanders around picks up objects and interacts with the world and the other characters in it. The left-stick, right-stick and face button controls of the console versions are simple and effective, and you can choose whether or not to see interactive elements pointed out by a glowing dot, and whether or not to have button prompts on the screen.
The puzzles are fairly basic and unlikely to tax seasoned adventurers, and it’s easy to see that the real focus is the conversation. Many exchanges in The Walking Dead involve a choice or some kind of declaration, and the lines you choose will influence who becomes and remains your friend, and who begins to store up enmity. Cleverly, there’s very rarely any safe middle ground. You’re always going to upset someone, and it’s really just a question of whom. To make things even tougher, many conversations come with a countdown. The pressure’s on for you to make up your mind.
Pressure also comes into play for the other key gameplay element: the panic event. These are the closest the game gets to action sequences, asking you to put your cursor over a certain spot and pressing an action button to kick back a zombie before they can bite you, or put a bullet in a zombie’s head before they can wrestle down Clementine or another survivor. Some will involve hammering a button repeatedly, others require a cool head and careful timing. These are quick-time-events in another guise, but they’re quick-time-events done right. They make you feel the pressure, and while failure usually results in instant death, generous checkpoints ensure that you never have to repeat too much of the action.
Yet what really impresses me about The Walking Dead is that it’s a game that isn’t billed as an interactive drama or interactive movie, but that shows a real sense for how cinema works, and how games can adapt its vocabulary. The graphic adventure style and the carefully controlled pacing enables The Walking Dead to deliver scenes of suspense and shock, tension and relief, grief and fear for loved ones that few other games can touch.
Some sequences, like a slow creep upstairs in an isolated farmhouse or a tragic walk into the woods, are masterfully handled. Despite the comic-book style characters and some moments of stilted animation, the shots, the design and some excellent characterisation all make The Walking Dead more involving than some more technically impressive games, particularly when it comes to the core relationship between Lee and Clementine. At its best, The Walking Dead is devastating. Like the comic book and the series, it understands that the zombies are only part of the problem: the real danger lies in the people around you, and the way that they handle the needs and strains of survival. The game ruthlessly and effectively brings this home, often with a punch to the gut that you didn’t see coming.
Playing back through it, you can also see how the series improves with time. Episode One is a good introduction, but slightly spoilt by patchy pacing. Episode Two plays meaner, pushing you towards a predictable Grand-Guignol reveal, but then following that in ways that might still surprise you. It’s a very dark and atmospheric few hours. Episode three has its slow points, but also a great balance of high-tension action and quieter character moments, with at least two unforgettable moments. By the time you hit episode four the series has really found its stride, and the only complaints you might make are that some characters leave the tale before you’ve got a chance to really get to know them, and that some interesting angles are abandoned without fully being explored.
The Walking Dead isn’t a flawless gaming masterpiece, but it’s a series that you really ought to play. The gameplay isn’t that sophisticated while there are limits to how far you can take the branching storyline off-course, but in terms of plotting, character development and story-telling power, there’s been nothing else this year to touch it. With a good twelve hours of gameplay and season passes now available at bargain prices, only the most mindless action-obsessed zombie would want to miss it. Do you really want to join those ranks?