There are moments in Telltale’s extraordinary vision of The Walking Dead which are some of the most powerful and resonant in any videogame this generation. Easily. Every single one of its five 2-hour episodes contains gravitas, morality and tension comfortably on a par with its TV show companion, and so far in advance of most other videogames that it’s almost shocking. This combination of point-and-click adventure, dialogue-driven drama and fleeting action game is a heartwrenching, beautifully constructed journey that quite simply has to be played.
Over the course of 10-or-so months, the Bay Area-based Telltale has produced a quintet of episodes based on Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels, telling the new story of Lee, a 30-something Georgian man with an nebulous criminal past, and how he deals with the genesis of the zombie apocalypse. The bravery and intrigue begins with the opening scenes in the back of a police car where Lee is being taken to jail, and subtle cinematic techniques foreshadow what the audience already knows – things are about to go south. And we don’t mean Atlanta.
Quickly, The Walking Dead establishes its flow. The DNA of Telltale is still threaded through the game, with its slow, thoughtful pace, puzzle-based sequences and dialogue trees, but the team has also introduced action elements to maintain a near constant state of threat. After Lee’s police ride crashes, he has to escape the now zombified correctional officer by getting out of his handcuffs and grabbing his issue shotgun. It’s all done through a point-and-click style cursor and keeps true interactivity to a minimum, but it’s no less engaging, and perfectly suited to the form.
Shortly after, Lee meets young girl Clementine in an empty house, and saves her from a zombie attack. This pairing forms the central bond in The Walking Dead’s narrative. Much like the graphic novel and TV show, it’s a story about the living characters far more than the dead, and the way writers Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin (both of Idle Thumbs podcast fame) have crafted this slightly uneasy but warm relationship is a credit to the restraint they both show as writers.
Some would perhaps argue that The Walking Dead isn’t a game in the traditional sense, and it is true that there are long stretches of cut-scene, QTE and less-than-taxing puzzles. To think like this, though, is to miss the point. Labelling Telltale’s The Walking Dead is redundant – experiencing it is what matters. The pure interactions might be limited, but it’s about much more than that. The real meat of the game is found in the decisions you are constantly asked to make, whether it be taking sides in an argument, working out which order to carry out a task, or most memorably, picking who might live or die.
Understanding both the gravity of these moments, and the speed at which the fiction requires them to be decided, is The Walking Dead’s finest achievement. It’s a simple device – a timed bar that quickly depletes and makes a decision for you if you fail to make one yourself – but it cranks up the urgency to almost unbearable levels.
This isn’t a game about right or wrong, either. Telltale isn’t here to quantify your morality with skill points or facial scars. You simple make the choices and live with the consequences. It makes sure you know that the game is playing along, though, by informing you that characters will ‘remember’ your choices, or if they’re ‘offended’ or ‘pleased’. It’s a device that probably caused many an argument in the Telltale offices, but one that’s successfully implemented. Even though you’re enthralled by the drama, it’s important to feel reinforced that you are in control of what’s happening. As much as you can be, anyway.
As the series continues, the drama gains even more weight, and the developers seem to gain in confidence. Early ropey action sequences are replaced by tight, exciting affairs in later episodes, and the writing goes from strength to strength, eliminating clutter and focusing on unrelenting storytelling. The fourth episode, penned by former games journo and current Hollywood screen writer Garry Whitta, is a tour-de-force, borrowing cinematic script writing techniques and upping the pace and action to new levels.
It shows how well the episodic nature of development works, too. While not every game should be made this way, of course, the fact Telltale has the ability to improve the engine, introduce new mechanics and respond to player feedback has only helped enhance the project. Obviously, this is a team that has been working like this for many years, but its experience has never been so crucial.
For all its clear triumphs, it would be remiss to ignore The Walking Dead’s issues. There are moments where the drama does come to a standstill – a few laborious sections which hang on too tightly to developer’s traditional point and click lineage. They’re not too damaging, and are ironed out by the fourth and fifth episodes – another example of the benefits of this development style.
Also, the engine is not the strongest. It looks lovely while static, but is prone to jarring freezes and pops, which occasionally robs scenes of their dramatic potential. Hopefully the game’s success will lead Telltale to investing in some more robust tech for the second season.
And there has to be a second season. The final moments are phenomenally powerful. It would be criminal to spoil any of this stirring and heartwrenching story, but this is a heady combination of artful writing and innate knowledge of the power of videogames to draw players into a character. It achieves things that passive artforms cannot. Jake Rodkin and Sean Vanaman have established themselves as game writers at the height of their powers, and The Walking Dead is unquestionably one of the videogames of the year.