I’m about a year late to the Walking Dead party. My expectations were somewhat mixed going into it, since the majority of the press and blogging world considered it a Game of the Year contender, and I had to balance that against my own intimate knowledge of Telltale’s back catalogue. They make good adventure games, and I’ve played and enjoyed many of them over the years, but I had always found them to be slightly limited by their poor graphics, their focus on hit-or-miss PG-rated humour over any real story, and their reluctance to further the traditional adventure game delivery. I was also skeptical that this wasn’t just an overcompensation for the critical shellacking Telltale’s most recent game before The Walking Dead, Jurassic Park: The Game, received after a highly publicized delay in 2011.
Once I finally got around to buying it in a Steam Sale, I could actually see for myself that it was indeed Telltale’s most advanced game to date. A lot of the innovation comes from the “panic events” that require you to perform a certain action before you run out of time and meet a gruesome end, as well as the timed dialogue choices. The graphics were fine, being a surprisingly comfortable cross between Telltale’s signature cartoony style and the source comic’s own barebones character designs. The awkward shift to console-style controls that began with 2010’s Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse remains intact here, rendering the game nigh unplayable without a gamepad (seriously, how do you fuck up point-and-click controls in an adventure game?) but fortunately, there are few gameplay segments that require precision control.
You can almost ignore a lot of The Walking Dead‘s mechanics and solely focus on the interactive story, which is pretty much all people talk about anyway. This is probably Telltale’s greatest achievement to date; previous titles like Sam & Max and Tales of Monkey Island also had dialogue choices, but conversations usually followed the formula of picking all the weird answers to hear all the jokes, then picking the correct option to progress the story. There was no stress, since your choices weren’t timed, and there was no unpredictability, since no matter what you did, the story would be the exact same all the way through every single time. All the characters were completely braindead and wouldn’t remember something you had just asked them moments before. With their Walking Dead system, Telltale achieved what Bioware often struggled with: a continuous story where your choices in one episode have a drastic effect on the next installment. The original Mass Effect featured a very difficult choice where you could only save one of two people, with the other becoming absent for the remainder of the trilogy. It would be the toughest decision you would ever have to face across all three games, as the two sequels featured similar situations where characters’ lives were at stake, but lost a lot of their emotional impact when you could easily save everyone and thereby still achieve a perfect ending. There are no perfect endings in The Walking Dead; it takes that difficult decision from Mass Effect 1 and runs with it. There’s no having your cake and eating it too here.
What I really like about the game is how unpredictable the results of your dialogue choices can often be. I’ve always felt that storytelling (in every medium, not just games) is far too honest sometimes; writers often drop clumsy hints that are rarely red herrings, and it takes a lot of the surprise out of the story. In Bioware games especially, you can easily tell which options are the “good” options and which options will result in your psychotic Jedi/Spectre/Grey Warden gleefully killing everyone in the room. In The Walking Dead, you’re often given the option to lie or offer a partial truth, and if you decide to go down that path, you’d better keep up appearances. In the first episode, you’re given the option to lie to Herschel’s son and tell him you’re Clementine’s “babysitter,” and if you accidentally tell Herschel himself that you’re someone else, you can make him incredibly suspicious of you. What I like even better than that mechanic is the fact that telling the truth isn’t necessarily always the best choice. Lee is a guy with a lot to hide, both before and during the game’s events, and depending on who you spill the beans to, you could have incredibly mixed results. At the beginning of the third episode, Carley pressures Lee to reveal his past as a convicted murder to select members of the group. If you tell innocent little Clementine, she’s visibly disturbed, although she bravely claims to understand your reasons for telling her. She’s mature for her age, but she’s still a little girl; you have to wonder whether she truly understands your motivations or if she’s simply speaking out of fear. If you don’t tell her, she finds out later, and claims she wouldn’t have cared if you had told her yourself, but, again, she’s eight. Telling your BFF Kenny leads to the predictable reaction of him reaffirming his faith in Lee (after first making sure that he’s not a child molester with Duck in his sights), while telling his wife completely horrifies her. You would think telling Lilly would enrage her, since she is already generally pissed at the beginning of the episode and is holding a grudge against Lee for his complicity in her father’s death, but she simply says that Larry already told her Lee’s tale. Telling Ben makes him incredibly nervous, and you later discover it’s because he’s fearful of what might happen if someone in the camp discovers he’s been pilfering supplies. Later, during a heated argument, Lilly drops the bomb on the group to gain leverage, and Kenny completely erodes said leverage by telling her Lee already confessed to him, and he doesn’t care. However, if you hadn’t already told Kenny about your past, he feels quite shocked and betrayed.
Of course, the big twist comes at the end of episode four, where Lee gets bitten. It’s just a tiny nick on his wrist, and you immediately wonder whether he might be all right in the end, despite knowing that a bite of any kind is a death sentence. It was a good direction for the plot to go in, and it certainly jived with the anything-goes tone of the comics and TV series, but people who aren’t familiar with Telltale’s repertoire should understand that this happens in every single one of their games. At the end of the fourth episode, something dark happens that leaves the audience with a huge cliffhanger (spoilers for Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse, Tales of Monkey Island, and Back to the Future: The Game):
- In Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse, Max becomes a mindless eldritch monster, and his best friend realizes he has no choice but to put him down.
- In Tales of Monkey Island, Guybrush Threepwood actually dies. He begins the next episode in hell.
- In Back to the Future: The Game, Doc Brown coldly turns his back on Marty and becomes the active antagonist.
(Spoilers for other Telltale games end)
So Lee getting bitten is pretty much par for the course for Telltale. But that being said, I didn’t feel like Lee’s eventual death was just shock value. No one in the Walking Dead universe has much of a future; they’re just surviving until their luck runs out. All the adults, who have already lived through the peak of their lives and know everything’s gone, don’t have much of a story left to tell, and Lee’s story was never really about redemption for what was a questionable conviction in the first place; his story was always about giving Clementine a chance. Without Lee, she would have starved to death in her treehouse, but Lee taught her how to fend for herself both physically and emotionally. One of the game’s greatest strengths is the sense of pride one gets from shaping Clementine’s mindset and helping her evolve from a helpless little girl to a girl that isn’t necessarily hardened or steely, but still tangibly stronger. The Clementine in the treehouse at the beginning of episode 1 isn’t the same Clementine that shoots Lee in the head at the end of episode 5, and yet she’s still sweet, cute, and ultimately likable. Telltale could’ve easily turned her into a foulmouthed parody of herself by the end of the game, but they fortunately took the much more difficult path of changing her behaviour subtly while retaining her endearing humanity.
In the game’s final decision, Telltale allows you to choose whether Clementine puts Lee out of his misery or not, but I would’ve even taken it a step further and completely taken it out of the player’s hands. Have Lee’s fate (and really, your fate, since it’s hard not to think of yourself as Lee while playing through the game) ultimately decided by the sorts of things he decides to teach Clementine over the course of the series. Offer to shoot Duck for Kenny and Katjaa? The computer tallies a point toward Clementine’s “shoot” total, since she now thinks that mercy-killing someone, as bad as that is, is preferable to allowing them to become a zombie. Refuse to help Kenny kill Larry in the meat locker? That’s a point for “run,” since she witnessed you arguing that there’s a chance Larry might wake up (and at the end of the game, she desperately wants to believe that Lee will shake off his illness). In the actual game, this calculation of totals is exactly what happens when you let the timer run out and refuse to decide your own fate, so it’s nice to see that there’s at least an option where you can allow Clementine to decide for you. The whole game is all about your relationship with this little girl, so I feel it would be entirely fitting for the game’s final event to be something of a culmination of your efforts. Reap what you’ve sown, Lee!