Throughout much of the last year, a small-ish, independent video game studio began releasing chunks of a newly licensed series to play via download on the Playstation Network, XBOX Live, and for PC on its own website. Because the property was based off a excessively popular franchise of comic books and television shows, each installment of Telltale’s The Walking Dead is structured like an episode of television, or a trade paperback collection of a singular comic arc. But like all the best examples of episodic storytelling, these smaller plots build on top of one another until one memorable, nearly epic (and utterly tragic) story has been told.
I played chapter one of The Walking Dead: The Game when it was released in April, and as soon it concluded I knew I would eventually want to write about it. The character and production design drew me in first, echoing the styles of comic artists Charlie Adlard and Tony Moore, but in full color and with cell-shading to boot. Then, almost immediately, the amount of tension created by adding a countdown clock to even the simplest dialogue choices confirmed that I was going to be hooked. Regardless of whether you’re helpless to prevent running over a presumed Walker, what do you say to try to stop it? Or do you bother saying anything at all? Between two different men’s sons, both innocent victims, whose life do you try to save? What do you do when someone is suicidal in the zombie apocalypse? What if they’ve been bit? When there are no good options, when there are no right or wrong answers, what do you do? If the first episode offered that much philosophical debate, and usually within a terrifyingly short amount of time, the remaining four in the series would absolutely be worth playing.
But rather than play each episode as they dropped down like mana from DLC heaven, I chose to bide my time and play the majority of the game(s) in a very small window of time. The most recent chapter arrived late last month, so in the span of about a week (mostly in the last two days), I finished my first journey through this version of the end of the world as we know it. The entire collection is available as a complete retail game today, so before we begin allow me to say, without equivocation, that if you like any of the aforementioned Walking Dead media, or zombies, or horror, or choose-your-own-adventure books, or RPGs (not the missiles), or video games at all, or just damn good storytelling, then you should find a way to play Telltale’s The Walking Dead: The Game. There’s good reason it’s being touted as obvious “Game of the Year” material. So let’s get into why.
With those two sentences displayed as white text on a black screen, The Walking Dead game opens each of its five chapters by issuing a simple promise to the player. Unlike, say, Mass Effect 3, which proffered unique story outcomes based on player choices, Telltale’s game merely states that you will be active in the plot twists to come. That’s the difference between “tailored by” and “tailored to.” Those two lines are also a stern warning: a narrative is about to unfold that the player will be able to manipulate beyond the action sequences, but that much power also means that much responsibility. Your avatar may be Lee Everett, a convicted felon with a mysterious past, but the game is giving you, the player, control over who lives and who dies. You, and only you.
Most of the time those life-altering decisions have to be made in less than 30 seconds, so there’s no room at all for fully considering your options. These moments are fairly obvious, even if the “right” choice isn’t, and the game isn’t trying to hide its purpose from you. But nearly as often it’s the little things that aren’t given immediate impact that make all the difference in what happens down the road. In fact, the overall path and the final outcome of the game is practically unalterable, but depending on how one plays the first four chapters you could go into the season finale with a strong alliance of fellow survivors or totally, completely alone. And possibly also missing a limb.
There are plenty of puzzles to save and zombies to kill or escape from, respectively, but much of that gameplay is reduced to clicking around the screen wherever an icon shows up or whenever a quicktime event prompts rapid and repeated mashing of the X button. For someone like me, who generally sucks at the complicated hand-eye coordination needed for most action-heavy games, the simplicity of these tasks is very welcome. The puzzles are still challenging and it’s still very easy to die if you aren’t paying close enough attention, but the stripped down nature of the action is much easier to deal with than more “immersive” types of gameplay. To be honest, the game is more than stressful without also having to worry about controller mapping. That’s probably the point, considering that the only statistics the game cares about are what choices Lee makes under your control, and not how many headshots you managed to get.
Ultimately, it isn’t the action or even the setting that make Walking Dead such a compelling, and literal, zombie apocalypse simulator. It’s those choices, those moments of actual do or die. After all, when it comes to working out the technical problems the plague would create, or the ability or inability to put down Walkers, it’s mostly a crapshoot. You can prepare for those things ahead of time, but when everything starts to fall apart around you, preparation rarely matters more than your resolve. Facebook quizzes or most zombie-based video games seem to only care about what you think you would do based on the movies you’ve seen or how much fun might be had on an undead killing spree, but Telltale cares about what you would do in specific situations that could only come about with the fall of civilization and the loss of our societal bonds. They are very much the same questions the TV show and the comics try to grapple with, but the game provides an avenue for focusing on surval in the present moment rather than manufacturing drama to raise the stakes for a filler episode.
There were plenty of moments when I had only so many seconds to decide what to do, who to save, who to sacrifice, just enough time to choose what felt like the lesser of two, three, or four evils, and I was surprised by what I did. In the aftermath of those gut punches, I could always justify why I chose what I chose, and no choice ever caused instant regret. But I knew that it was purely instinct and not rational thought that dictated a majority of Lee’s major responses. As melodramatic as it probably is to say this, everything I’d ever done or experienced in my life led up to making those decisions, which is precisely how it would be if any of these situations were real. Based on how I played this game, I know a little more about myself than I did before, and not all of that is pretty. (I am very attached to my arms, it seems.) I also know now, having experienced the most realistic simulation yet, that surviving the zombie apocalypse will depend heavily on luck. And I’ve lost a lot of Texas Hold’em hands on the river over the years.
Don’t be mistaken, however, that The Walking Dead is all abstract philosophical quandaries or ponderous moral/ethical reasoning. There is very much a personal and deeply affecting story being told as you play. As previously mentioned, the game’s protagonist, our avatar, is Lee Everett (mostly effectively voiced by Dave Fennoy), who is first glimpsed in the back of a squad car on his way to a prison transfer. Then the undead uprising begins. From the opening moments we glean what we need to know about Lee: he was convicted for murder, he probably did it, it involved his wife’s affair, and he was an educator before any of this. That relative blank slate is helpful in selling the game’s simulation aspect, allowing the player to mold a Lee that is not too dissimilar from themselves, if they so wish. And by the end of the first chapter Lee has dealt with the remainders of his past, so whatever he does from that point on is derived from plot necessities and player choice.
Before then, though, he meets an eight year-old girl named Clementine who saves his life and who has survived on her own for about three days. Eventually the only thing that matters to Lee is Clementine, and it’s their relationship that serves as the emotional fulcrum of the game. She is the only thing that Lee feels passionately about that the player doesn’t actively control, and that’s fine because you’re going to feel pretty passionately about Clementine, too. Quite unlike Carl from the first two years of AMC’s “Walking Dead,” Clementine is the furthest character from insufferable. She’s not a whiny brat who doesn’t appreciate the world ending, she’s simply a lost child who desperately needs your help. It’s hard to describe Clem without getting too nauseatingly sweet or unintentionally creepy, suffice to say she’s impressively written and wonderfully voiced by Melissa Hutchison, and her animations might just be the best realized after Lee’s. She is now my favorite character in all of the Walking Dead universe. Yes, that includes Daryl.
The arc of the season, apparently the first of many from Telltale, follows Lee and Clementine as they travel across Georgia, from the suburbs of Atlanta, to Macon, the forests and countryside, and finally to Savannah. Their plans change based on the events that transpire around them, but like everyone else they come across, they’re main goal is pure survival. Hell doesn’t so much follow them as it’s just everywhere. Along the way they meet characters and places from previous Walking Dead works, like Glenn and Herschel’s farm from both previous media, and a woman named Lilly from the comic’s version of Woodbury. Like in the other media, these people are mainly the series’ red shirts to provide ample fodder for zombies and human enemies. Unlike the other media, the supporting cast is well-rounded and well-developed until their stories are inevitably, and almost universally, cut short. They are the ones on the receiving end of Lee’s and your decisions, and because we care about them — or are forced to at least consider them as people — the impact is almost always heartbreaking, even when your actions are justified.
Then again, the game also allows you to play as a quiet, cold bastard that never considers others but himself and Clementine, and maybe not even her. The outcomes of every life and death choice probably won’t change much, but it would certainly be a more callous way of telling this story. Call it the “Shane Playthrough.” I wonder if the ending is even possible in that version, as you could really make things difficult on Lee before the end. Hence that possible missing limb and no one being on your side. According to the endgame stats, though, it appears that would be the least popular way to play with the lowest completion rate. So, it looks like Shanes are pretty hard to come by these days, which ought to be a bonus for the human race.
Yet, if you make it to the end, regardless of how you play, it seems impossible not to be affected by the game’s last few moments. The final mission itself culminates somewhat anti-climactically, especially if you didn’t make one very big decision, but what the epilogue is a genuinely emotional beatdown. No spoilers, obviously, but few stories in the zombie milieu, including Robert Kirkman’s work, have ever brought this much emotional resonance to bear. The ending is tragic and unavoidable, and tragic because it’s unavoidable. But it’s also pretty close to perfect in the amount of closure it brings while leaving ambiguity on the table. If there were no more seasons planned, The Walking Dead: The Game would be wholly a satisfactory game and tale on its own. But with sequels on the way, it’s a breathtaking, edifying first step for the franchise and a dizzying proof-of-concept for future video games.
There are some technical hiccups, of course, and the writing, the characters, and the performances aren’t totally immune to the real Walking Dead villain, stupidity, but there’s a level of grace achieved here that surpasses both comic and TV predecessors, and most games. Really, it’s a bit of a revelation because I’d grown to expect the utter least out of this franchise. Telltale makes up for any admittedly minor complaints ten times over just for their mostly superb, nearly perfect execution. After this game and their earlier Back to the Future series, unparelleled excellence is now to be fully expected for the studio’s next venture.
I’m not sure when I’ll want to play The Walking Dead: The Game again, but that could be a sign of just how right they got it. And, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the experience is just rough. But I can’t wait to see what happens next season, though I’m filled with equal parts hope and dread, because no one in this world gets a happy ending.
Which is exactly how it should be.
Rob Payne also writes the comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, tumbls on the Tumblr, and his wares can be purchased here. He probably likes Mass Effect 3 even more now than he did before, but that ending really did leave a bruise.