The Walking Dead – The Post-Mortem
In an evolving industry such as ours, there come unexpected curve-balls thrown our way that force us to keep on our toes and constantly re-evaluate the world around us. Within a single video Lara Croft went from one of gaming’s most iconically powerful protagonists to the centre of a rape controversy. Agent 47, the bar-coded assassin – who incapacitated the female lead in his feature film in order to stop her trying to have sex with him – was embroiled in a sexism scandal long before his latest title actually hit shelves. By far the most shocking development was that zombies – long considered the go-to whipping boys of gaming (once we got tired of Nazis) – resulted in a release that routinely made players cry and once again proved that videogames can tell compelling stories that no other medium can, thanks to the interactivity it provides.
As someone who had been singing the praises of Telltale Games since they brought back Sam and Max, I was ecstatic that they had finally made the jump to mainstream acceptance and proved that to make a great title you needed well-written and acted narratives. When those who’ve played The Walking Dead wax lyrical, you’d be hard-pressed to find the gameplay mechanics being touted and praised as the highlights, instead it’s the storytelling elements that receive endless praise and reign so memorable.
Let’s get some misconceptions out of the way: this is not a point and click, and neither was it the best game of 2012. What it is, in fact, is proof that games can be used to tell a narrative that can only be told through its own medium. Interactivity is woven into a story that doesn’t change wholly from your decisions, but only emphasises the hopelessness of your situation. Your story will always start at point A and always end at point B, but it’s the context of your every decision that makes The Walking Dead such an intricately compelling narrative.
Throughout your journey, you will be given a litany of choices to make, and to make it even more difficult, most of these are attached to a time-limit, forcing you to think under pressure, and this key constraint helps to innovate the moral-choice system that’s been perpetuated somewhat horrendously in years past. Titles like Mass Effect were riddled with moral choices, but any pressure felt to make decisions was self-imposed; you could easily drop the controller, go make yourself something to eat and decide in the meantime, if you were so inclined. The Walking Dead’s system only gives you a few seconds to decide, and it feels completely natural because if you don’t make a decision in time, the game will make a decision for you. Your indecision forces control to be wrestled away from you, and often the choices you do make don’t feel like they’re a product of consideration, but of impulse, and this simple difference changes everything.
Suddenly, you’re almost totally invested in the actions you’ve been made to take, but you’ll also be constantly second-guessing yourself, wondering if you should have saved one person over another, or tried to defuse another situation differently, but you’ll almost never go back on yourself. The Rewind option is there every single time you continue your save file – offering to take you back to an earlier chapter or episode and erase your mistakes – but you won’t take it; to even consider doing it feels like cheating. Similarly, there’s nothing stopping you from pressing pause whenever you’re forced to ruminate other than your own conscience, yet to do so is just to detract from your own experience; everything you can do to purposefully tailor your experience outside the regular boundaries of the game would be to ruin it for yourself.
It’s almost as if Telltale knew this, as they included one simple addition that doubtless made The Walking Dead the water-cooler conversation du jour – they told you what everyone else did. Throughout each episode, every action you took was recorded, logged and noted through the hint system – which would casually remark that certain characters would remember what you’d said or note what you’d done – and regurgitate them via a screen that collates the choices of every other person and presents them as a simple percentage bar, telling you whether you were part of the majority or minority, and sometimes even opening you up to a realisation that you could have taken another path at that juncture in the story. You should feel like a statistic, but suddenly, your journey has never become more personal.
Yes, you’ll still find yourself desperately eager to find out everything about what your friends had done in the same situation, but you’re doing it for yourself; you’re not curious because you want to know if you made the right choice – though you may think that’s why you’re asking – but you want to know because it’s not your story. The magic of The Walking Dead is that even if someone you knew made every single decision you had, they’d have a completely different reason for doing it. Again, it’s worth stressing that, mechanically, all the players are forced to make decisions at exactly the same times, many of those will amount to nothing and, no matter what happens, you will all reach the same point B from the same point A, but for all that means, everyone you know might as well have played an entirely different game to you.
Yes, in The Walking Dead, choice is everything, and that’s why I waited until nearly a thousand words in to even start talking about its cast. Your avatar in the zombie-infested universe is one Lee Everitt, a man who is first introduced when he’s being escorted to prison in a police car for a crime that the officer himself believes he’s innocent of. Why? Because until the moment you control him, Lee hasn’t said a single thing during the journey, and at this point every person who’s been guilty has chosen this moment to plead their innocence. At this point, the car comes into contact with a Walker – the series’ name for the living dead – and Lee suddenly wakes up in an overturned car and is forced to repeatedly fend for his life until he’s saved by a small child by the name of Clementine. At the very least, she’s a further factor to consider when justifying your actions, but it’s far more likely that she’ll act as your moral compass, and guaranteeing her safety and future will become your entire raison d’être.
For the cynically minded, this could essentially make The Walking Dead an extensive escort mission, or a way to emotionally manipulate the player, but if it is it never feels that way, thanks to the fact that Clementine is one of the greatest characters ever to step foot into a narrative. Children in stories like this tend to not be worth the effort to save them, thanks to their incredibly abrasive personalities, voices or actions that repeatedly put lives at risk and their tendency to create a hurricane of disaster wherever they walk, but Clementine slowly becomes the most important greatest character in Telltale’s arsenal. Why? Because, like it or not, your actions will impact not only her safety, but what kind of a person she becomes by the end-credits. This feeling is so ubiquitous that the hash-tag Telltale used to promote the finale (#ForClementine) felt more like the perfect catch-all phrase for the series entire, not just its final chapters.
Throughout your adventure, you’ll meet plenty of friends, foes and anybody in-between as you attempt to find salvation and respite at the hands of the shambling hordes, and the genius of Telltale’s effort is that you’re often left worrying more about the living than the living dead. The cast you’ll meet are all voice-acted and written practically perfectly to the point where you’d be hard-pressed to find any instance where they could have been improved. I often equate Telltale with the best voice-acting in the business, but this time I really mean it. It’s almost completely faultless – every character has an awe-inspiring performance, whether they’re in it for the long haul or a one-scene wonder. Despite this, I feel like I can’t talk about any of the other characters in the story beyond that statement, because half of the fun is making up your own mind and acting upon your own bias; if I told you how to feel, it wouldn’t be your experience anymore.
What you will hopefully discover is that every single character – even if they’re nothing more than a walk-on role in your play-through – is full of nuance and personality, and their performances are wholly memorable, even if you end up butting heads with them the entire time you’re together. Entire essays and articles could be conceivably written about even the smallest of characters and what they bring to the foray, but half of the experience is discovering it all for yourself. Once again, this is a factor where anyone I’ve discussed the game with differs entirely – some hate the cast members I love, and some love them as much as me, but for different reasons.
By now, it should be evident that The Walking Dead has a story to die for, and truly it does, it’s easily a contender for one of the best stories you’ve ever played, and in terms of narrative is deserving of any praise it’s given. However, as I mentioned earlier, it’s not the best game of the year by a long shot. Mechanically, there are actually several problems with Telltale’s attempt, and I feel that these are often completely ignored when the series is mentioned. After all, when you look at everything a game did right, it’s only right to look at everything it did wrong as well.
The first of these is the rampant use of the ever-dreaded quick-time event; in the early stages it’s used to actually great effect, driving home the sense of desperation and the sense of panic that would be prevalent in that situation, but as the story progresses, its use slowly becomes slightly abused, and by the point where its greatest use occurs at the end of episode four, the impact is lessened because you’re essentially fatigued by it at this point. This is compounded by the fact that in earlier episodes, these events would also be concluded with hurriedly wrestling with the movement interface to use whatever items you were carrying to help stave off the hordes, but by the final episodes you’ll be glad to see the back of them.
In episode three especially, you’ll also become exposed to some very janky shooting mechanics that you’ll be thankful to see disappear in subsequent episodes. These sections feel rather floaty, absolutely rail-road the player and fail to capture that tense feeling you’ll garner from any other combat situations or moments of peril; any chance of your death is clearly signposted, and it all feels rather by the numbers. You could feasibly argue that the failings of these gameplay elements work in the same way as subversive shooter Spec-Ops: The Line, in that the overuse of one and the odd sensation of distancing yourself from the peril in the other lulls you into a false sense of security in the case of the former and the signs of desensitisation of the violence of the new world in the latter. With an alternative sensibility this idea has a lot of grounding, but poor mechanics, whether performed deliberately or through lack of experience with their groundings, are still poor by definition, and it’s these failings that stall talk of The Walking Dead being the Game of the Year contender it was often prescribed to be.
Less forgiveable and potentially subversive are the pace-killing and often lazy-feeling moments where the action grinds to a halt in the name of calmly walking around the surroundings, often until you find an easily-discovered item needed to proceed or talk to everyone around you. This is another idea that’s executed well in the earlier episodes, offering a brief respite to the recent action or the chance to prepare for imminent danger, but used in later stages during moments where the stakes are significantly higher to a point where they can often feel like they juxtapose just slightly too much or grind the pacing to an absolute halt.
Another thing to consider is that the final episode – though containing a sensational final twenty minutes that stands as one of the best finales around, otherwise feels shorter and more restrictive than other installments. Many of the decisions you’ve made up throughout the season feel inconsequential compared to what they could have been, and while it doesn’t negatively impact the ending, this linearity can come across as slightly disappointing to those expecting more of their actions to come to a crescendo.
As a final point – and this one is more of a nitpick than anything else – there’s a brilliant sub-plot running through the last three episodes that’s nearly ruined in the final as the twist is explicitly and jarringly stated, rather than allowed to remain implicit where it would have been more powerful and effective. Admittedly, this is a storytelling issue rather than a gameplay one, but it’s possibly the only real flaw in terms of the narrative. It’s also a disappointing moment as one of the things that makes The Walking Dead’s story so effective is the subtlety and nuance expertly interwoven, with frays only emerging at the seams if you choose to deliberately pick at them – you can get through the entire season without ever definitively finding out if Lee ever was actually guilty of the crime he was convicted of.
Yet, when The Walking Dead hits its peak moments, all of these complaints feel like nothing more than distractions from what really matters. You’re willing to forgive the pace-stopping walkabouts if they offer you a brief moment to take stock of everything that’s happened. Before they wear out their welcome, those quick-time events can make you panic in a way they’ve never done before. Even the shooting sections at least offer a moment of variety that dares to feel welcoming when the story has battered you into a withered husk of a human being.
Perhaps the greatest trick this title has up its sleeve is the fact its main goal isn’t to provide “fun”, but to make you emote in a way that games seldom think to do, and rarely pull off to this degree. Hope will become your bane, and you’ll soon realise your greatest foe is yourself. Why? Once again, it comes down to that moral choice system; when you know that you’ve made the decisions, everything that happens becomes your fault, and some of the darkest moments prey on your conscience even more, as, regardless of whether you could have done something to prevent them or not, you’ll still feel like you’re the one to blame. If you can make your way through the season without your eyes getting even slightly damp, then you’re probably undead and need to warn those around you before you make the coming apocalypse worse. I do not say this lightly: no matter how prepared you are, The Walking Dead will break you. To me, that will be its greatest legacy.
Even now as I sit here, Telltale inspire a flurry of emotions in me. This is a company I’ve been recommending to everyone since they bought back Sam and Max, and found myself absolutely squealing about when they took on Monkey Island and Back to the Future, and with The Walking Dead they’ve finally hit the mainstream. A big part of me is elated that they’ve struck gold and are finally receiving massive accolades for their work. Even now there’s so much I want to get off my chest, but can’t for fear of spoilers, or for ruining their impact on others. I can easily imagine myself sitting here and harping on until this article reaches dissertation-length and still not managing to uncover and examine everything that I want to.
Another side of me is irritated that most of the praise I’ve seen wholly ignores any flaws the title conceivably contains in the name of waxing lyrical over the latest indie darling. As I said at the beginning, it’s not the greatest game of 2012; it’s mildly disappointing gameplay-wise, invokes mechanics people normally pour scorn on and restricts your freedom in order to tell a story. However, if you consider The Walking Dead as an interactive story, or are just in it for the narrative, then you’ll come across one of the most powerful and heartbreaking experiences that you’ll ever find in any medium, interactive or not. This is no flash in the pan; in years to come, we’ll still be scrutinising everything this title has to offer and holding it up as the reason why every other medium needs to pull their fingers out and step up, or daring to claim it as a pinnacle of storytelling in games. Regardless of its faults, when it comes to Telltale’s The Walking Dead, everything it achieves, and everything it represents for the future of gaming, there’s only one word that perfectly describes how I feel: proud.
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