Well, it’s finally here. Our Midlife Gamer Game of the Year winner 2012, as voted for by you, the community. It has to be said that this particular title won with a considerable margin, and as such it gives something of an indication of what we, as gamers, now come to expect in our games, and that is to be told an entertaining and engrossing tale.
Of course, I’m talking about Telltale Games The Walking Dead.
Before I continue, it is best to say, that this will contain spoilers, so if you haven’t as yet played or completed the game, I recommend coming back once you have done so.
The Walking Dead, rather than interpreting and elaborating on the exploits of Rick Grimes in the same way the TV series did, instead takes the world in which Grimes inhabits, and tells the story of another group of survivors.
With a cel-shaded graphical veneer, it is clear from the outset that Telltale have drawn inspiration from the original award winning graphic novels, rather than the popular TV series. To this end, and with the creator Robert Kirkman on board as an adviser, Telltale’s The Walking Dead plays out like an isolated but directly linked story to that of comics.
Set in the vicinity of Atlanta, during, and the months following, the outbreak of undead, you play as Lee Everett, a history professor from the University of Georgia who at the time of introduction is being escorted to prison in the back of an Atlanta PD Police car, for the murder of a senator who was sleeping with his wife.
As your journey progresses, you are given choices on dialogue, all the while punctuated by the influx of police cars, SWAT vans and helicopters heading in the opposite direction, emphasizing the point that something untoward is happening in Atlanta. The officer driving, too busy talking with you about criminals he had transported previously, takes his eyes off the road just as “someone” crosses in front of the car. He loses control, and you pass out as the car comes to a rest in a ditch at the side of the road. Awakening in the back seat, still handcuffed, you are finally given control of Lee as you are drawn into his story of surviving the Zombie apocalypse.
Predominantly, the game does not use action to propel the story along, but when it does it employs quick time events, instead this game focuses on using conversation to progress story beats. Every conversation you have with other characters you meet along the way is tracked, and will define their affinity with your character and most of these choices are timed. This may vary from 30 seconds to make a choice, allowing you to weigh up your options or, more often than not, a few seconds in which to make a snap judgement. Trust me when I say that these choices are not black and white, more shades of grey, and each choice you make will undoubtedly put you at odds with someone in your group at one point or another.
So, how has The Walking Dead beaten all of these other titles to be our number one choice?
Firstly, it’s all about the story and how it is presented. It focuses on Lee’s attempts to thrive in a world where civilisation is collapsing around him. The choices he must make to ensure the survival of his group, and foremost Clementine – the little girl you rescue at the start of the game, are overwhelming and at times frustrating. Although some of the voice acting can be a little stilted at times, nine tenths of the time it is rich, compelling and conveying emotion that you can truly believe. These two elements combine to immerse you in the world and empathise with the decisions Lee has to make. Would you do anything to live, or would you strive to be selfless regardless of the outcome? In my eyes, this bond that Telltale establishes between the player and the protagonist has never been so vivid in a game before. This is one of the key reasons this game is held in such high regard.
Secondly, and more importantly, is the illusion of choice. Let me clarify my position here, as my last sentence may cause some discourse. Throughout the game, you are presented with big and small choices, and when these major decisions are unveiled you feel like you are intervening in the lives of these characters, when in reality it is all smoke and mirrors, a conjurers trick.
Having played through the game more than once, I could see the prognostic signs of misdirection, but as some of you may have only played through once lets go into some more detail. Some of the main choices in the game play out the same way regardless of your decision, it is only the attitude of the characters around you that changes. From an external perspective these false choices are clear, but in the heat of the moment the choice is all enveloping. Rescuing Shawn over Duck in the first episode, still results in Shawn being attacked and killed by the Walkers. Choosing between Carley and Doug results in the same situation in Episode three, with Lilly killing them as they defend Ben. Deciding whether to aid Kenny in killing Larry, or aid Lilly in trying to revive him will still end in Larry’s death, but modify your affiliation with the character you aided. Abandoning Lilly or keeping her captive will still result in her leaving the group as, instead of being left on the side of the road, she will steal the motor-home instead. Duck and Katya will die (or become undead) in the forest regardless of what you have done before that point. Regardless of any actions you take preceding the final episode, Kenny will always die, and most poignantly the stranger, the primary (and baffling) antagonist from episode five, will blame you for the death of his family whether you raided his car at the end of episode two or not.
At the end of the day, Telltale achieved what they set out to accomplish. Even though the outcome for the majority of the characters is set in stone, the way in which you act, and how you decide to play will influence those around you and how they treat Lee throughout this adventure. Keep your past to yourself or fail to make decisions or take particular sides, or even refrain from answering at all, in a life or death decision will have negative connotations. The trust in your decisions and ability to lead will be lower among your vagabond group than if you had been open, honest and sided with them at some point in the course of your travels. All of the choices above had a poignant and pervasive effect on me, in particular the sequence with Duck. Being a father myself, this made me question if I would be able to do what Kenny could not, and I have no shame in saying that my choice in this moral dilemma left me numb and dumbfounded for the remainder of that episode. These real feelings brought about through my empathetic link with Lee are the true key to The Walking Dead’s success, not the choices.
Telltale have masterfully crafted a story, and allowed you to shape the main characters personality to reflect your own ethical standpoint, and due to the speed at which some of these decisions are made, at times you could find yourself questioning your own moral disposition. That this gives you the misconception that you are making a choice, when truly the characters fates are sealed, can be forgiven as it simultaneously cajoles emotions from you that make you care about your actions, and debate those decisions you may have come to regret even though they have literally no bearing on the overall outcome.
Most of us as a species, certainly those who lived during the cold war era of the late 50′s through to the mid 80′s, have at least once thought about how we would act and how we would survive should some form of apocalypse occur. Normally we believe that throughout it all, our civility, our humanity would be retained beyond the comforts of the civilized world. What Telltale have tried to do, in quite a basic way is show us that no matter how hard we try, sometimes our base, natural instincts for survival will overwhelm the rational, civilized part of our personality in moments of extreme pressure. And after all, isn’t that precisely the premise that Robert Kirkman has tried to instill at the core of The Walking Dead, that even though the world stands on the precipice of destruction, it is not the undead that are the true destructive force, but mankind itself?
To this all I can say is: Well played Telltale, well played.