They would walk 500 miles…
It seems over the last few years I’ve become more and more interested in TV series with high production values. I loved Band of Brothers, devoured most of House, and have recently become enamoured with Game of Thrones. Maybe I’m getting old, or maybe my Literature-studying background is enjoying TV with some depth to it. This fascination with any show with a ridiculous budget led me to ‘The Walking Dead’, I’d never read the comic books, but I love a good zombie story so bought a box set. Now the Telltale game’s released and here’s why it’s important.
The Walking dead (the TV show) is only barely about zombies. There are zombies, but they’re more the backdrop for what’s going on. Like Band of Brothers isn’t about Nazis, and big chairs get surprisingly little screen-time in Game of Thrones, ‘The Walking Dead’ uses them as a plot device to put interesting characters in complex situations. The whole premise is an interesting (if not particularly novel) look at a world where the basic social fabric has torn. People who were once powerful are humbled, people who were once criminals are forgotten, and people who were once uneaten, are now eaten.
The game follows this surpising lack of zombies and it’s all the better for it. Telltale have built the game in a format that’s vaguely familiar to anyone who has played their recent Sam and Max or Back to the Future outings. It’s essentially a point and click adventure in a world heavily stylised so that it fits the source material. In The Walking Dead everything is cell shaded and slightly dirty-looking. As someone who has only glanced at the comics on the shelf of HMV, it really fits with the tone of the comics. As a game, it looks unique and incredibly atmospheric. It’s not quite up to the visual fidelity of something like Rayman: Origins, but the environments themselves are noteworthy and even when you’re just scrounging around in the back room of a shop, you feel like there’s things worth looking at.
I downloaded the game on Steam, where you have to pay £20.99 for the full season, which will be released one episode a month for the new five months. The episode itself is maybe a couple of hours long depending on how good you are at solving puzzles. I have my PC connected to the main TV in our house and generally use a wired 360 controller for anything not MMO or FPS based. The game picked up the 360 controller immediately, and as with many recent games like Skyrim and Saints Row, the button prompts on the screen automatically shifted to the familiar 360 face buttons and analog sticks. It may be a small feature but things like that help enourmously if you’re not a PC fanatic. What turned me off playing PC games for many years was the hours spent messing with settings to get games to work the way I wanted, the significance of games that just let you play cannot be overstated.
As you play you control your character with the left analog or arrow keys, and you interact with the world with the right and face buttons, or your mouse. Everything is contextual, if you hold the cursor over a piece of wood it will let you pick it up or examine it, if you hold it over a man in the corner you can examine him or try to speak. You have an inventory but you can’t do anything with it, the items just appear in the context menu when it’s something worth trying. The meat of the game is dialogue, when you enter into a conversation you have to choose your replies. Each is picked out of two to four options and you sometimes have time limits to choose. This leads to some incredibly tense conversations and escapes the horrible dreariness of plodding through every conversation option on every character that plagues so many adventure games. At times you are given a bit of a breather and can take your time talking to people, this is when you tend to learn more about the backstory, and it is handled well. I didn’t find myself wanting to skip through conversations once, and that is unusual for me.
The game also features action scenes in the form of quick-time events. These are also executed much better than in most games I care to remember. Often you will have to target something, or make a decision during a hectic scene. Do you kick a zombie in the head or reach for the hammer behind you? Sometimes you’re even left in control of your character’s movement so you have to consider your positioning as well. Then the game will throw a curveball at you, when you’re at your most tense, and make you decide something horrific.
The game’s decision are what it will be remembered for. It follows Heavy Rain, and to a lesser extent Mass Effect, in making your decisions really feel like they matter. They aren’t Fable-esque ‘be good or be evil’ choices, but many shades of grey. Often you’ll say something that seems unimportant but a notice will come up (these can be disabled) at the top letting you know the character will remember that lie you just told, or who you sided with, or if you showed you cared. Telltale has promised that over the course of the series these decisions will snowball. They helpfully provide three save slots so replaying is encouraged. I’m personally a little wary of this, as attempts to reply Heavy Rain merely exposed the disgusting skeleton that supported that game. Heavy Rain was a wondrous game for me, true interactive fiction. I was clamouring to try again and play completely differently, but I quickly realised how often my decisions were meaningless. Yes you could change the course of the plot at a few key events, but you always ended up at the same places, you often said the same things, and the end results was very similar until you made significant choices right at the end of the game. The illusion of choice was dispelled and it ruined the game for me.
So with The Walking Dead, at least until the series is complete, I’m not going to replay. I want to live with my decisions, and wonder what might have been. The story contains many zombie-film tropes, but handles them delicately. You make decisions that affect the others visibly, and even in the couple of hours I was playing, I began to care about the characters. I really felt I was moulding who the central character is, much more than I did with Commander Shepherd. The story deals with important moral choices. Ideas about utilitarianism, moral imperatives, the importance of your place within society. It forces you to weigh up the importance of being sensitive with more practical considerations. The story rarely feels contrived, and the puzzles are logical. There’s no chickens and pulleys here. Every puzzle I encountered had an entirely logical conclusion. Fans of Silent Hill or Monkey Island may cry out that the game is too easy, but I’m very much of the Grim Fandango tribe where I like my puzzles to make sense. I like to work out how to do things, and usually I find out the game will let them, and my idea works. There’s an excellent puzzle where you need to grab the attention of some walkers and I couldn’t immediately see what needed to be done. It took me a few minutes of thinking and listening to the dialogue to work it out, and then it worked beautifully. The puzzles are puzzling, but never frustrating.
The length may be an issue for some but I would try to think of it like an interactive TV show. I really hope games like this will spawn more licensed tie-ins, two hours is a perfect amount of time to get absorbed into a game’s story in an evening. Whenever I can I watch two episodes at a time of shows like Game of Thrones, it’s a film length that way and it gives you time to get invested in the story. Any longer and the episode would have dragged on, instead it keeps up the pace and leaves you wanting more. In a good way.
There are flaws, as with all games. At times you feel railroaded, particularly when something predictable is happening. One scene later one I could tell what was going to happen, and just wanted to walk away, but the gam wouldn’t let me. Sometimes this creates a kind of dramatic irony, but it breaks the immersion. There’s also a weird depth issue that I think is caused by the art style. It might just be me, but I found it really hard to discern the distance of objects and getting around a small shop was slightly annoying. I’m a little concerned that this slight annoyance could become a major problem later in the game.
The first episode is tailed with a ‘Next time on The Walking Dead’ and it not only teases us bout the horror we’ll be facing next time, but it builds the scene up with the decisions you’e already made. I can’t wait, and I’m almost considering marking this game down because Telltale are making me hold on till next month. Since the episode is only a few pounds on Xbox Live or the Playstation Network I strongly suggest you give it a go.