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The Walking Dead: A Telltale Games Series (Xbox 360) artwork

The Walking Dead: A Telltale Games Series (Xbox 360) review

"This is how you write characters. This is how you match tragedy with humor, dread with hope, terror with lightheartedness. This is how you make audiences emotionally exhausted."

The Walking Dead: A Telltale Games Series asset

To say that I dislike point-and-click adventure games is to understate it. In a way, I'm against the very concept. Video games are an interactive medium. That's their defining attribute. Treating interactivity as an obligation defeats the purpose, in my mind. Telling stories and portraying unique worlds is all good and fine, but the adventure games I've played have all felt like the products of people who would rather be writing books or making movies. To name a popular example, I actually thought Heavy Rain had a pretty cool story. Remove the needless button prompts and trim all of the filler and you've got yourself a very solid two-hour film. As it stands, it's an interesting narrative needlessly padded. That's what most adventure games feel like to me: well-intentioned, but ill-suited to the medium.

Having now experienced The Walking Dead, it would be easy to say that I've simply been playing the wrong adventure titles all of this time, but Telltale Games' extraordinary five-part zombie apocalypse saga is guilty of many of the same things its genre brethren are. Its "mechanics," to the extent that they can be called that, come and go at the design's behest; the game generally limits players, functionally, strictly to what they need to do at any given time. The game's action sequences are usually cleared by completing quick-time events or pointing reticles at icons, and you can't even invert the aiming controls, if that's any indication of how much effort Telltale put into this stuff. The Walking Dead is the precise opposite of immersive, constantly reminding me that a controller is my hands.

And the puzzles... eh. They're not bad, in that they're generally logical in design and rarely hamper the game's pacing (with the exception of a rather trite caper mystery at the start of the third episode), but every time The Walking Dead cut me loose to find an item I needed to rub against another item, there was this unwavering sense that it was all beside the point, that Telltale felt obligated to put character development and plot progression on hold every once in a while to remind us that, hey, we're playing a game here. I can't ever see myself being completely okay with that, but I'm open to the idea that if a game exists purely to tell a story, it can get away with that so long as the story is really good.

So, I submit this: The Walking Dead made me cry.

The Walking Dead: A Telltale Games Series asset

No work of fiction has ever done that to me before. Movies, TV shows, books and – yes – even a few games have occasionally made me tear up a bit, but this is the first narrative ever to make me outright sob. Correct me if I'm wrong, but that now makes Telltale's The Walking Dead the new standard across all storytelling fronts. This is how you write characters. This is how you match tragedy with humor, dread with hope, terror with lightheartedness. This is how you make audiences emotionally exhausted.

You've probably heard other critics mention that The Walking Dead made them weep. You've probably also heard that a major component of the story revolves around the protagonist's relationship with an eight-year-old girl he's taken in. I wouldn't juxtapose those two points if I genuinely thought you were at all capable of predicting where The Walking Dead goes, because the thing that makes this story work is that it almost never takes the easy route. Aside from one particular guy that we're very clearly supposed to hate, every character here is three-dimensional, has rational reasons for acting the way he or she does, and is sympathetic to some degree. I found myself engaging these people in conversation at every opportunity that I had for the simple reason that I wanted to connect with them. Rare is the horror story in which the character drama is just as engaging as the scary bits, if not more so.

It's easy to say "the writing is good" and leave it at that without wanting to spoil anything, but we actually have a very convenient point of comparison: the TV series of the same name. You could accurately summarize the defining characteristics of nearly anyone on the show just by looking at them, and the writers seem to have no idea what to do with these people when they're not being attacked by zombies. Like the game, the TV show has a couple of child characters, and they're incompetent deadweight and are frequently creating problems when the writers don't know where else to take the story. In the game, Clementine is one of the few fictional children who's both a great and important character: strong, complex and believable in her own right, and a vital catalyst in forcing the protagonist to confront his own personal demons. They're both sympathetic, and their relationship is sweet, heartbreaking, and a first-class example of how to get character drama absolutely right.

You've seen zombie apocalypses before, and The Walking Dead hits many of the story beats you'll be familiar with. A guy with a troubled past (Lee Everett, a convicted murderer) is involved in a gruesome car accident at the start of the outbreak. He quickly bands with other survivors, who alternate between taking shelter and hitting the road when they're compromised. The group constantly shrinks and expands again as people die and more survivors join up. Some have families to look out for, while others have cloudier motivations, and tensions are constantly on the rise as new threats emerge.

This is where The Walking Dead can really boast its interactivity as a surprisingly vital component, because while the plot itself is always headed in the same general direction (since "nonlinear storytelling" is kind of a silly concept), Telltale makes a big deal out of how your decisions shape the narrative itself. Characters remember your words and actions, and trust or detest you accordingly. Matters of life and death must often be resolved impulsively. The Walking Dead is full of difficult dilemmas, and no one will see the game to the end without making a few choices they're not comfortable with. Like, you know how every zombie movie seems to have at least a few despicable characters whom you secretly hope get eaten? At one point in The Walking Dead, I had the opportunity to condemn one such character to that fate, only to immediately regret it no thanks to the voice actor's tortured screams and a grotesque depiction of the death itself. That's another thing – this is a zombie game, and Telltale certainly didn't pull any punches where gore is concerned. One amputation scene in particular damn near made me bite one of my index fingers off.

The Walking Dead: A Telltale Games Series asset

So while The Walking Dead is story-centric, we're never quite able to simply sit back and allow the narrative to coast to its natural conclusion. For as much as the game feels like it's dragging its feet whenever we're given control of Lee, interactive storytelling has always intrigued me, and The Walking Dead does more than enough to make players feel like they're shaping their own adventure. The game even compares your major decisions to those of other players worldwide at the end of every chapter. Like, at one point, I killed a certain character and was later told that only 12% of the people who played the game did the same thing. Little touches like that go a long way.

It should be said that The Walking Dead runs pretty poorly on Xbox 360; the framerate dips constantly, and the mid-cutscene load times are so frequent that I was regularly fooled into thinking that the game had frozen up on me. And despite an intriguing comic book-inspired visual style, the game's not much of a looker to begin with. But for all of the game's technical failings, Telltale got one absolutely essential thing right: facial expressions. Developers, if you want to make story-intensive games in this day and age, you've got to nail the facial animations. Despite the cartoonish look, the characters of The Walking Dead emote with a stunning fluidity that makes them feel like real people. It's part of what makes them so believable, and plays a massive role in making it so rewarding to interact with them.

I've heard numerous people call The Walking Dead a game-changer. Given that 2012 was also the year that brought us Spec Ops: The Line – which quite literally warped my perception of what video games are capable of doing – I think that's a bit of a stretch. We knew games could present us with difficult moral dilemmas. We knew they could engage us emotionally. We knew they could approach pacing, direction and character development with as much seriousness as a great TV show or film. But we also knew that it takes a considerable amount of talent to pull those things off. I'd love to see Telltale's successes at work in something slightly more involving, but until another game makes me cry, The Walking Dead is my new standard for storytelling, in this industry or elsewhere. What a powerful, powerful piece of interactive fiction.


Suskie's avatar
Freelance review by Mike Suskie (January 03, 2013)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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