the artistry and psychology of gaming

Advertisement

The Walking Dead: The Game, Season One

The Walking Dead: The Game, Season One

Last Week, our webmaster David “DDJ” Jerebko reviewed the critically acclaimed Journeybestowing high praise on a game that essentially came out 9 months prior. DDJ notes that the benefit of reviewing long after the release is the knowledge of potential developments that a product such as Journey has spawned, and that the game has proven to fully legitimize digital distribution as an instrument for game releases.

With that in mind, I was interested in turning a critical eye on another project of 2012; the Telltale Games series The Walking Dead, based on (and set within) Robert Kirkman’s comic series of the same name. Like Journey, the episodic series has been receiving praises since its first episode initially released back in April 2012, increasing its awareness and prowess with each consecutive episode, and concluding its first “season” (a season 2 was confirmed as in development) back in November. Like Journey, the game has since received several top honors for the year, competing as equals to AAA titles carrying hefty budgets and wider retail releases. And like Journey, the series can be seen as somewhat of a game changer that legitimizes another facet of the video games industry for wider success; what Journey does for digital distribution, The Walking Dead does for episodic content.

Now that the full season is available for purchase, we are able to take a look back at the overall series in a way that we were unable to do at its outset. Several speculations about character choice have been proven incorrect (although this is not necessarily a criticism), the game’s reach has grown across several platforms and even to physical release, and we can now understand the depth of just how connected the series has been to both itself and its source material.

There have been several beautiful and artistic releases made in 2012. There have also been several games with zombies in it. This is the only game you’ll find both, and in taking in all that The Walking Dead video game has achieved, we can see that it couldn’t have been made in any other way.

This review will contain mild spoilers for the series involving the results of several player choices and puzzle solutions, but does not reveal anything… overly dramatic, or that has significant bearing on the game’s narrative. Those I greatly encourage you to experience first hand.

Episodic by necessity

The idea of episodic content is certainly nothing new. In fact, with few exceptions, it’s basically all The Walking Dead‘s developer Telltale Games really does. It also goes back much farther to 80’s and early 90’s PC releases like Pharoah’s Tomb and Commander Keen that adopted shareware business models, and has even experienced entries by big companies like Sega and Valve (of course, Valve has since expressed their disinterest in continuing with it).

Despite similarities between release methods, episodic content is not the same as releasing DLC, which requires a larger core product to present itself first before additional content is considered. With episodic content, each release is a key component of your overall product, presenting a larger uniform experience that builds together with no unnecessary “add-ons” coming into the fold, and while others may have danced around that concept, no episodic series has been able to achieve that goal quite like The Walking Dead.

Where other games have episodes connected merely by gameplay mechanics, characters, and overarching stories, The Walking Dead takes a simple concept; that of player choice, and uses it to spin a dramatic tale unlike any other episodic release, linking each episode to the last by way of recalling the player’s actions. Characters will recall events that took place several episodes prior that were a direct result of your action then, and depending on your choice, the dialogue of the story changes. I’d agree that one may be able to play Commander Keen episode 4 without the need for episode 5 (although I would suggest you do play both, they are fantastic games!), but to suggest the same for The Walking Dead is not only a denial of the narrative’s proper closure, but weakening towards the impact of any single episode to be observed. There is no picking and choosing; to enjoy The Walking Dead, one needs to start at episode 1, and proceed in order to episode 5, and you won’t regret that you did. When you see characters referencing seemingly minor choices you made three episodes ago, it’s easy to see how these games are connected on another level as opposed to just another silo of activities your character goes through.

But why then considering that level of connectivity did the game get broken up into episodes at all? Many games have come out that feature player choice woven throughout their narratives with late game details linked to player actions in a similar fashion, even resulting in multiple endings in the process (which Walking Dead doesn’t have). Sure, one may argue that the elongated time between releases has thus far allowed the audience to thoroughly examine each episode to increase their level of anticipation for the next one, but at this point, one may power through the entire season at once (in fact buyers of the physical discs will likely be doing just that).

Still, removing the episodic structure simply would not be the same for The Walking Dead, for as much as the five episodes share an overarching storyline and shared character development, they also function individually with their own storytelling devices that are unique to that particular episode and would be lost if not contained by the episode breaks. Similar to Television writing, episodes are subject to their own narratives and settings, complete with their own expository elements that are hinted, revealed, and fulfilled within their respective episodes that hint toward’s each episode’s narrative structure. Much of this can be credited to the game’s writing.

As a quick example, we can look at episode 3; Long Road Ahead. The episode begins at the group’s base; an abandoned motor inn-turned fortress. Here while investigating a situation, Lee (the protagonist) approaches Clementine (the girl you have decided to protect), and sees that she is making chalk rubbings of leaves in her notebook. About an hour later in the episode, Lee is in an abandoned train and the player, calling back to this previous interaction, is able to determine a similar solution for an otherwise unrelated puzzle. The setting has changed, the materials have changed, and the purpose has changed, but these two moments can still be linked together as they exist within the same contained narrative.

Anton Chekhov should be proud

Anton Chekhov should be proud

 Similar contained links can be found throughout each of the episodes (choosing who to save in episode 1, or bear traps in episode 2, for example) where something is introduced, and then called back upon in an alternate way later on. This level of storytelling could easily be overlooked, and potentially even omitted entirely if the game’s narrative was continuously progressing. The episodic breaks offer more than just time for the developers to keep working, after all.

Storytelling through video games

By far the most talked about aspect of The Walking Dead has been its incredible story. It’s been talked about to the extent that I barely feel obligated to discuss it further other than agreeing with the masses. The Walking Dead offers a beautiful (albeit disgusting) tale throughout its five episodes giving a great amount of characterization to not just the leads of Lee and Clementine, but every character they come across throughout their journey. True to the franchise Kirkman created, the zombie threat is ever-present with the real horror not coming from the undead, but from the humans forced to endure them.

The situations Clementine and Lee are placed up against are brilliantly conceived, as much as they are captivating, urgent, believable, and tragic. The game is also well structured in its camera work (short of a few clipping issues) that pushes the narrative right along with the game’s dialogue, with several scenes and locations revealing stories with little to no words at all. I suppose one image that will remain with me is the bedroom of the young couple found in episode 5; in talking with the characters, they seem to act intentionally indirect about the surroundings to let the game’s imagery do the talking for them (or they don’t want to talk about it themselves – it works beautifully either way!).

However, with so much of the discourse focused on the game’s story, one may wonder why a release as a video game may be entirely necessary. Certainly, the story of the game could be told in film; its overall narrative remains more or less unchanged regardless of player choices; and the game’s dramatic conclusion will be reached no matter what. It’s true that being a video game enables player choice to an extent, but the “choose your own adventure” genre has also been done before, most often in books, but even in film releases as well (if you’d like a laugh, check out Scourge of Worlds), and in Visual Novels; like video games but firmly rooted in decision trees; have now been around for quite some time.

So why a video game? Well, to begin, the game is certainly a bit more than just decision trees. Outside of reacting to conversations playing out in cutscenes, Lee will either be mobile, able to walk around within a medium sized area, or immobile in a smaller area, able to click on highlighted items and characters to interact with them. This is most similar to Telltale’s catalogue of point and click adventure games (the most “adventure-like” puzzles taking place in episode 3). Allowing for this places a level of prioritization on part of the player, giving them control outside of an on-rails story.

Maintaining that same control set, Lee is also put through various on-rails QTEs using buttons and his targeting crosshairs to act out what needs to be done to complete and/or survive the challenges in front of him. A personal favorite of mine was within episode 2, opening a particular door to be staring right down the barrel of a shotgun (smartly shot in first-person). There are also several well disguised shooting stages, similar to the adventure controls, but where the “click-able” highlights are removed (although if your unfamiliar with zombies, I may recommend headshots).

But it’s not simply this variation in input devices that allows The Walking Dead to function as a video game; it’s how these task options are specifically given to emphasize the actions Lee is completing. The game does not merely force you to witness the chilling and grotesque situations; it forces you to act them out… repeatedly! In episode 1, you are tasked with defeating a zombie inside a house. After struggling to push the zombie away from you, you take the upper hand, ready to deal the final blow. With your newfound hammer, you click the zombie’s head to bash its skull in, only you’re not done yet. While other point and click adventures would stop here (as your required “use x item on y location” interaction has been completed), The Walking Dead makes you click the head to bash it again; and again; and again! By forcing the player to initiate every blow instead of reverting to a cutscene, the player no longer is looking down on Lee’s adventure as an observer; they become Lee, and it’s their hand that is holding the hammer!

I swear; I had no choice but to do it!

I swear; I had no choice but to do it!

Nearly every gruesome thing completed in the game, the player is forced to be a part of through sustained interactivity. Players will be tasked with killing zombies, killing humans, cutting off appendages, cutting off… more appendages, and the brutality of these scenes is compounded since the player remains involved instead of impartial.

Morality without punishment

A typical downside for a video game featuring moral choices is that a player’s choices will come with clearly defined benefits and drawbacks. This is not the downside in and of itself, however depending on what the benefits and drawbacks are, a player may often ignore their own morality for one that may prove more beneficial. I happen to think stealing is wrong, but try telling that to the countless people I’ve pickpocketed in Skyrim.

The Walking Dead is a game with morality at its core, however it is also one that doesn’t bother to maintain the typical benefits and drawbacks of choices on any significant level. Outside of one’s personal investment in Lee’s character and his relationship to the overall group, the choices you make in-game will have no bearing towards the overall narrative. In playing the game through a few alternate decisions, the most visible results of your choices are the slightly-postponed deaths of several characters, none of which have any permanent bearing on your actions, or the game’s overall plot. Instead, choices are recalled throughout the game, (and cruelly summarized in episode 5 as well) and people react to you accordingly while continuing on through the story.

The choices you’re forced to make are hard enough while you’re making them; there’s no need to dwell on what may come further down the line.

If you didn't have a heart attack with this shot, you weren't paying attention.

If you didn’t have a heart attack with this shot, you weren’t paying attention.

In guaranteeing a similar narrative for all players regardless of what decisions they make, the game is able to offer a more welcoming invitation to make choices as the player sees fit, devoid of any fear for what may come. With five major decisions and many smaller ones per episode, a player may become overwhelmed with how their game might turn out, to the extent that deciding how best to proceed may prove more a burden than a relief. By adapting to your choices rather than being driven by them, the game gives players the comfort they need to continue on, and in offering no clear negatives, the player is more willing to make choices naturally without any incentive to think otherwise (outside of looking into a few “what if?” scenarios, of course).

There is of course a metric offered to rank one’s morality, and it comes in the form of a communal rating scale. As a sort of ‘herd mentality,’ Telltale shows the results of the 5 major decisions at the end of each chapter; what you chose, and if you were in the majority or minority on this decision. These results are always interesting to see, and in some cases it’s fascinating to find certain decisions so evenly split, or heavily weighted towards one side (Seems like a lot of people like Carly, for example!). For such a small and easy inclusion to have, it really does add a lot to the overall experience, despite that you only recieve the results after each chapter is completed.

Overall

I’m glad I got to experience The Walking Dead. While I already enjoy both the comics and the TV show, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the video game to anyone without any previous involvement towards either. While connections are there (episode 1 contains three characters that also appear in the other media prior to their previous canonical debuts), the game series has its own unique story to tell while maintaining the overall feel and quality of the larger franchise as a strong third media pillar (fourth, if you count the novels as separate).

The Walking Dead offers an incredible story, filled with believable characters and some gruelling hardships. There is an incredible amount of tragedy thrown in the face of the player, coupled with some sincere moments of companionship, and even laughter against all odds. Each character tells a story greater than Lee’s own involvement with them, and contrary to most games on the market, it’s a game where story is shown, and lived, as much as it is told.

Not to spoil the ending, but in the final moments of the game, one can understand without any words being said the rush of emotions going through the character on screen with regards to what is being observed; the possibilities of what may be, the implications they may carry, and the urgency of knowing that among all available actions, inaction is no longer available. We understand, because we’ve experienced the same thing for the entire game.

The figure in the distance stops. Your presence is known.

The figure in the distance stops; will it be friend, or foe?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *