I’m not sure if I’d be able to survive the zombie apocalypse. If I learned anything from years as an outdoorsman, shooting rifles and shotguns for sport and exploring the sprawl of city life, I have a great deal of faith in my knowledge and skills. But if the zombie apocalypse is anything like the world depicted in The Walking Dead, I don’t know if I could survive the human aspect of it.
Clearly Telltale Games felt the same way. Their adaptation of the acclaimed graphic novel series and subsequent hit AMC television series is as much about surviving hordes of zombies as it is surviving with the stranger next to you.
Seen through the eyes of Lee Everett, a convicted felon who was being sent to prison for murder, you are given glimpses of human emotion and interaction from the first set of friendly young men just looking to get home to a panicked group of survivors holed up in a drugstore. And that’s just the first episode.
Serving as a moral compass is Lee’s companion Clementine, a young girl whom he found surviving alone after her parents never made it back home. Taking her under his protection, it is his interactions with Clementine that primarily dictate the world the player sees. If the zombie apocalypse is humanity crumbling around him, Clementine is Lee’s last glimmer of human positivity. It is this shred of hope that Lee clings to, especially given how desperation manifests itself in his fellow survivors.
In the first episode alone, you are already traveling with Kenny, the fiercely loyal family man looking to keep his wife Katjaa and his son Duck safe, you meet Lilly, a headstrong woman and her father, the brutally stubborn, hot-headed Larry, the cautiously curious Doug, Carley, the surprisingly capable reporter who knows more than she lets on and Glenn (who fans of the series will recognize), an extremely idealistic pizza boy who just wants to help whomever he meets. As the group bands together to attempt to survive in a hopelessly constricting drugstore, tempers flare, factions are formed, all with Lee and Clementine squarely in the middle.
Lee needs to be quick on his feet when conversing with the other survivors, as there is only a brief window for Lee to respond. His responses will be remembered and impact future interactions. Even Clementine will remember the specific tone and advice that Lee gives, building her trust level with him and even impacting her survival ability. But for as much hope having an inspiration like Clementine may provide, Lee’s choices are often extremely grim. Not only is he presented with grey responses, he often has to make a decision between a bad choice and a worse choice. Ultimately, Lee will always be held accountable for the decisions he makes.
Puzzles are also placed throughout the game where Lee will have to explore his surroundings and problem solve for how to get into locked areas, clear obstacles or find ways to eliminate zombies quietly and efficiently. During these free exploration periods, Lee can also look around his surroundings and will often comment on the dire situation and how much he wants things to return to some level of normal.
In addition to the slower puzzle sequences, there are also faster combat segments where Lee will have to fight off zombies, sometimes with a pistol and sometimes via basic quick time elements. These action sequences provide a nice spark to the otherwise slower pace of the game but I do have to point out that action sequences are awkward when using a control pad. The targeting reticule is mapped to the right stick with firing Lee’s pistol mapped to face buttons. This poses a problem because both inputs are typically selected with the right thumb making early fumbles and control related deaths common. To combat this, be prepared to learn how to cross your left hand over to the stick or to learn a basic claw control using the index and middle finger simultaneously. It is not a game breaker by far, but you can clearly see where a mouse was designed as the primary input device.
Technically, Telltale did a fantastic job at creating an aesthetic that pays homage to its comic book inspiration. Characters appear as if they were drawn for the page, but are modeled lovingly in 3D. Vocal performances are well done with a veteran voice cast dedicated to delivering individual personalities to each character.
As much as The Walking Dead is an absolute achievement in interactive storytelling, the more you play the more you feel as if your choices are impactful, but ultimately meaningless. This becomes even more glaringly clear on subsequent playthroughs as dialogue and circumstances will be altered, but the conclusions will often be the same. Try as you may to save a particular support character, Lee will be typically left powerless, victim to the story that Telltale is orchestrating.
I found the lack of meaningful impact on the chain of events to be disappointing at first, but then I wondered whether this was a deliberate move. After all, Telltale was crafting a story about an individual, thrust into impossible circumstances, and given something incredible to protect. In reality, the best anyone can do in that type of situation is to hold on as long as possible. Hold on to your sanity. Hold on to your humanity. Hold on to those who are important to you.
It is an adventure game in interface and execution, but The Walking Dead is such a gripping story that I would recommend it to gamers and non-gamers. It is a careful analysis of the what people do in the most dire of situations, heart-wrenching circumstances and about what types of relationships an individual really values. The Walking Dead might not have much happiness in its world, but it just makes hope that much more important.
An incredible achievement in storytelling, character creation and interaction, The Walking Dead will get gamers to pay attention to the adventure genre again. While less of a game and more of an interactive story, so long as Telltale continues to create compelling stories, their fans will eat up every episode.