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Telltale’s The Walking Dead – Excellent Interpersonal Drama (With Zombies)

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It’s not a secret that I’m a big time Telltale Games fan (although not of all of their games), so when I heard they were making a game out of The Walking Dead, I had really high hopes for the end result. To my great joy the first two episodes were simply excellent, but I had the vibe that they were building up to something rather spectacular for the third installment. Hoo boy, it’s great to be right.

A couple of years back I wrote a blog post about the rather sad state of game scriptwriting, and especially how there really wasn’t anything in games that could be considered interpersonal drama, in the adult and boring sense of the word. Yeah, there were games with a single dramatic moment, like the Dom’s wife in Gears of War 2, and so forth, but stuff like that was mostly just the one point of “deepness” in middle of typical action/horror fare. I held up Heavy Rain as an example of a type of game I’d like to see more – believable everyday characters who don’t turn into supersoldiers and nuanced writing that doesn’t resort to ham-handed manipulation or gratuitous shock tactics.

Well, I was more than a little surprised to find that kind of drama in a game that is essentially about zombies chomping through the remains of the humanity.

The settings is pretty familiar from every zombie holocaust scenario ever written. The main character is called Lee, and his story starts in a police car on his way to jail. In the first minutes of the game the car ploughs into a zombie, careens off the road, and then the shit hits the fan. The first episode is mostly about a frantic escape and Lee finding and joining a group of survivors. This is when the game really starts to show it’s teeth: The Walking Dead is mostly about interpersonal relationships instead of puzzles or zombie killing action. Moreover, it’s very well written interpersonal drama. It manages to avoid most tropes and cliches, and makes the characters genuinely believable: totally, annoyingly, infuriatingly difficult human beings who are scared out of their wits, irrational and resentful. You just can’t please everybody, and the characters can remember things you did, said or didn’t do in previous episodes and boy, can they hold a grudge – or, conversely, be grateful. There are several situations where you have to literally decide who lives and who dies. Apparently the story adapts really well to these choices, but I can’t say anything about that, since I’m still on my first playthrough.

As for the episodes, the second episode is largely about knitting the group together, and in the third one… well, let’s just say that things change.

As for the characters dying, that happens. A lot. Nevertheless each death so far has felt meaningful and so far I haven’t once gotten the feeling that I’ve been manipulated with a clumsy and empty shock tactic. That right there is a pretty great feat in a game like this.

Of course, since we are talking about a point-and-click adventure, there are puzzles in The Walking Dead. So far only one of them has been kind of silly, but even that got written into the game pretty well, and gets referenced to later in a nicely snappy and sarcastic way. Most puzzles are more like actions which you decide to do, not to do, or to do in a certain way: I have a few items of food and a whole lot more starving people, so who will get them and who goes hungry? Do I hack someone’s leg off to try and save him or not? How will I handle a person who might or might not be paranoid?

The Walking Dead manages to ace a thing that is usually the bane of the genre – action. For once it doesn’t suck or feel tacked on, and it’s actually pretty damn enjoyable in a shit shit shit aaa help! kind of way. You mostly get to aim attacks or hit the letter ‘q’ like it’s the neighbour’s redheaded kid to keep a zombie away from chomping on your face. It’s worth mentioning that there are no actual quick time events, and thank Bob for that.

There is very little in Telltale’s The Walking Dead that doesn’t work – as a matter of fact, I can’t think of any major faults. The graphical style is expressive and beautiful, the voice actors do a great job, the writing and the puzzle design are excellent, and even the action is satisfying. So far it has been a tremendously solid gaming experience. I’m thinking that unless the writers manage to foul up in a truly massive way, this will be one of the milestones of writing a game for adult consumers.

The Walking Dead: The Game is available for PC, Mac, Xbox 360, PS3 and iOS platforms.

One Comment

  1. I had to reinstall my computer, so I had lost the game save. Had to play through again to see what I did that would make up for 400 days. However, it struck me that I was curious on how I would find out that it’s not the bite that turns you, so I actually left the guy in the bear trap. I had to know how we found out. Then the scene changed as Travis got shot, and he was the one we took with us instead. Someone should make a what if thing where Travis didn’t get shot and didn’t panic. He seemed like someone we could actually use in a group.

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