Telltale are to the game industry what Mr Kipling is to catering. They don’t exactly do variety. Only instead of bite-sized lumps of diabetes, Telltale make adventure games; conversation-driven, interactive stories where the plot adapts to player choices. Only, instead of lemon slice and Battenberg, they have Law and Order and Homestar Runner. Properties that have ranged from comic books to daytime TV murder mysteries; from flash-based internet videos to Oscar-winning movies.
Their take on Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead begins in a cop car. Your character, Lee Everett, is on his way to prison after being convicted of a violent crime. His incarceration is short-lived, however, when his escort crashes into a zombie (or ‘walker’). This is a prelude of the chaos to come. Soon, Lee finds a little girl named Clementine alone in her treehouse, while a rabid babysitter occupies her home. Her parents are in Savannah, Georgia, which – in the context of the situation – may as well be Mars. Lee takes Clementine under his wing and together they set off to find her parents. But Lee, never daring to tell Clementine this, knows his job is really just to ensure her survival.
The first thing I noticed about the game was that it plunged normal, civilised society, into a Zombie infested wasteland in a matter of minutes. This is understandable as it’s easy to depict real life or a devastated civilisation, but those in-between stages are a lot harder to portray. It’s also why the comics, and 28 Days Later before it, chose to have their characters wake up from comas right after the worst had already happened, making them absent from man’s descent into disorder. There is no such narrative construct present in the game. The almost instantaneous nature of society’s collapse makes the whole premise harder to swallow. It doesn’t inspire confidence that the rest of the game will manage a convincing post-apocalyptic drama.
Thankfully, the folks at Telltale have struck a balance not many studios can maintain with their borrowed intellectual properties. They have managed to create an excellent piece of interactive entertainment, whilst respecting the essence of the source material. I say interactive entertainment because when people say game, there is a certain expectation that phrase (for better or worse) carries with it. The Walking Dead: Season One rarely chooses to indulge in this expectation and when it does attempt a few steps into gaming territory, it quickly steps back, almost in fear of the strains it puts on its engine.
The Telltale Tool is one of the least versatile game tools currently working in the industry. Once anything even resembling a traditional game sequence takes place, you can feel the engine labouring, trying to keep itself together, like a submarine well past its depth. Gunplay barely has any player agency to burden it, resulting in the world’s most forgiving shooting gallery. If you want to miss your targets to see how the game might branch out differently, you have to try harder than you would have to succeed. Even then, the only consequence is a patronizing death/rebirth cycle putting you right back to where you were at the beginning of the sequence. Combined with the brevity of these moments, the game is clearly telling you that it only engages in gunplay because, as a zombie game, it feels the expectations of the genre weighing it down. But it understands its own strengths come not from action but from narrative.
Zombie games have always been playing catch up with Zombie films, because there is one universal truth to the genre that games never properly understood. That in the Zombie apocalypse, the greatest threat to your survival isn’t the zombies, it’s your fellow survivors. Cinema understood this from day one with Night of the Living Dead, but it’s only recently video games such as The Walking Dead and The Last of Us see the medium finally catching up. In The Walking Dead, your main objective, from a gameplay perspective, is to keep the people around you on your side, and everyone on your side safe from outsiders.
Dialogue is the main gameplay mechanic in TWD. Every single interaction you have with another character presents you with multiple options, each with intended and unintended consequences. To make an already anxious situation even more intense you are given a set amount of time to make your decision, after that the computer will make it for you. You might dislike the way the self-proclaimed leader of the group is handling resources, so you make your grievances heard and the next thing you know, you’re the one having to distribute the food. Now you know what it feels like to share five pieces of food between ten hungry people.
Then there are the times where you have to make a life or death decision. Perhaps you can only save one person from a horde of zombies; maybe you want to ease the suffering of a doomed woman but doing so will alert the zombies to your presence. Sometimes the consequences aren’t as tangible as that but they can be just as devastating. Simply using the wrong tone of voice can produce an expression of hurt, disappointment or, at its worst, fear from an NPC that can break your heart. Once I indulged in a rage-filled act of violence on a character who wronged me. I did this forgetting that Clementine was in the room. From then on, I always made sure I checked myself before thoughts of violence took over my compassion.
For these reasons, the story is truly exceptional, especially as your agency amplifies your emotional response a dozen times. By taking control of Lee you are assuming responsibility for him, and all those who rely on him. You want them to do well, you want them to survive and thrive in a world gone mad because, if they don’t, you feel personally accountable. This creates a solemn atmosphere that permeates the game, making you fearful to proceed, not because of Walkers, but because of the sadistic decisions you know the developers will have you make.
The decision making is such a huge part of the game’s impact, it’s a shame when you find out that, like almost all games that rely on such mechanics, its illusion of agency doesn’t hold up to multiple playthroughs. One of the first choices I made in the game had me choose who lived and who died in a zombie attack. Despite mine and Lee’s best efforts, the same person dies no matter who we choose.
Some people might believe that your character’s decisions having such little effect on the world is a brave illustration of Lee’s ultimate powerlessness over his situation. That it creates a living, breathing world, one the player can inhabit but cannot control. Unfortunately, the longer you play TWD, the harder that pill is to swallow. One choice in the last episode, for instance, leads to an injury. It’s a horrific scene to watch; the visceral impact is scarring. Too bad that’s all it is; a momentary shock of blood and gore. Throughout the episode there are multiple chances for this injury to hinder your progress, to make it harder for Lee to escape the coming hordes, but it seems to have no effect on the character’s animation at all.
While this is yet another example of a game that cannot live up to the expectations of its ambitions, it doesn’t break under the weight of them either. While ultimately, the only thing you have complete control over in the game is how Lee is perceived by his fellow survivors, the moral dilemmas you are faced with will teach you things about yourself. Things you may never have wanted to know. The choice in this game is mainly down to illusion, but it is a convincing illusion. The manner in which it forces you to make impossible choices, in the direst of circumstances, with the most horrendous of consequences and gives you less than three seconds to make them, means you will be reduced to a ball of nerves at the end of every episode; horrified by your own compulsion to see it through to the end. And in doing this, The Walking Dead: Season One provides gamers with one of the greatest and most original horror experiences of the generation.