We’ll admit, as we booted up Telltale’s Walking Dead tie-in for the first time, we were filled with tension, fear and perhaps even a sense of dread. But it wasn’t because of the zombies. Oh no; it was because of the dinosaurs. After an extended period of consistently achieving excellence with its output, the leading light in adventure games completely jumped the T-Rex with its recent Jurassic Park travesty, and we were beginning to worry that the team had misplaced its usually dependable ability to recapture lightning on cue.
We were fools to lose faith. A New Day is easily one of the strongest efforts the Telltale team has delivered so far, and will stand as a real eye-opener for anyone who believes the point-and-click genre has nowhere left to go.
Beginning handcuffed in the back of a cop car – as all hell speeds past you in the opposite direction, straight towards a citywide zombie holocaust – players take on the role of Lee Everett, a man with a heavy heart who is on his way to prison after supposedly murdering a senator. It’s a subdued start, with little for the player to do except look around from a fixed back-seat position and talk to the cop behind the wheel, but it perfectly captures both the overall tone of the game and Telltale’s gameplay focus throughout this and the ensuing four episodes.
As the cop digs into Lee’s life, so the player is free to give up as much information as they wish to – to play the conversation as cagey as possible, or to be open and honest about the character’s history – and it’s a level of freedom that carries through every interaction undertaken in the game. Even simple chats with strangers are deeply rooted in character, with everyone you meet reacting to each dialogue branch and continually re-evaluating their opinion of Everett. It leads to an unusual level of human interest and pathos, and instils a desire to remain true to the outward character of Everett as defined by you, rather than judge each conversation in isolation. With the player’s previous experience governing every decision made, The Walking Dead doesn’t need to pander to its audience or lose itself in self-absorption in the way that caused Heavy Rain to elicit laughs rather than tears from a portion of its audience.
And, after Everett befriends orphaned girl Clementine and the two set off to find sanctuary, meeting new survivors at every step of their journey, so these decisions become more important and all-encompassing, to the extent that choices relating to the fate of others far outweigh the importance of simply staying alive. When the shit hits the fan, and a group of marauding zombies breaks through the group’s picket-fence safety, choosing who to save in the spur of the moment has consequences either way, leading to character deaths or wildly varying outcomes that will almost certainly still cause ripples in future instalments.
Moments such as these, which punctuate the quiet, sombre silence of The Walking Dead with scenes of sudden, brutal violence, carry a genuine weight and power to them, not just because of the game’s strength of character but also due to Telltale’s gameplay decisions. The developer innovates with first-person sections that see Everett struggling to load a shotgun with shaking hands or peeking over a wall to find a way through a zombie-heavy parking lot, while the few puzzles that are included manage to bridge the gap between mechanical point-and-click solution-wrangling and actions that stem directly from the human needs of the survivors.
Only a few technical issues hold back the proceedings; some sound glitches mean lines of dialogue get stepped on or are delivered with jarringly poor timing, while some signposting and trigger annoyances lead to a couple of possible point-and-click dead ends about halfway through this two-hour episode. However, it’s easy to forgive a game as involving as this, while the Robert Kirkman-faithful art style, worthy voice-acting and extremely expressive cast of characters bring the game’s world to life in a way that sidesteps the Uncanny Valley issues that regularly plague pretty much any attempt to meld videogame characters with honest-to-goodness human emotion.
A return to form with a vengeance, then, Telltale hasn’t just refound its mojo here; it has created an affecting, innovative and tension-filled adventure that finds new ways to blend the point-and-click and interactive movie experience genres, and more than does justice to its source material in the process. Worshippers at the altar of Sam, Max or Strongbad might be turned off by its methodical, languid pace, relatively small number of puzzles and mostly humourless tone, but a season pass is recommended to anyone who enjoys seeing the adventure game’s boundaries pushed, or has even a passing interest in new ways of delivering narrative.
What Telltale has created here is a narratively-driven game that‘s as much about people as events, as much about inaction as it is putting walkers out of their misery, and as much about what cannot be changed as the countless choices the player is forced to make. If the developer can now make good on the game’s initial promise, and deliver a truly branching narrative that adapts to the decisions taken throughout each episode – something, lest we forget, that not even the mighty BioWare could carry through the Mass Effect trilogy with any conviction – then The Walking Dead could be remembered as a genuine classic of the genre.